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Orlando Magic 2020 takeaways: Long-range woes

The three-point line presented a problem for the Magic all season long

NBA: Orlando Magic at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the second installment in a new series looking back at the (perhaps completed) 2019/20 regular season. I’ll be examining some interesting elements of the team’s play across the 65 games the Magic banked before the hiatus. Join me as we dig into the numbers, identify important trends, consider the eye test, and ultimately try to figure out what it all means. Last time I focused on the free-throw line, but this time I stretch a little further out. Let’s dive in!

There’s a seeming inevitability to any discussion regarding offense in the landscape of the modern NBA. Eventually, that conversation will shift to the action taking place beyond the arc. Is the team shooting the three ball? How frequently? How accurately? From which spots? Assisted or off the dribble? How contested are they? Is every player launching them? Is any position a liability? There are a torrent of broad-stroke factors worthy of consideration with this shot type that have infiltrated the basketball psyche to an astounding degree.

What might not surprise you is that this season Orlando struggled to leverage this high-value offensive opportunity. What might be more illuminating, though, is an exploration of how and why this struggle played out in the manner that it did. Let’s take a look at what happened when the Magic went bombs away in 2019/20.

A wayward radar

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the easiest number to start with when assessing Orlando’s proficiency from deep is that reflective of accuracy. As a team they shot only 34.1% from beyond the three-point line, a mark that placed them just 25th league-wide. The long ball accounted for 36.1% of their total shot diet, a relatively slim figure when measured against both the league norm (they finished 21st in this metric) and their nightly opponent (who launched a three on 38.5% of all shot attempts). Simply put, the Magic didn’t take that many three-pointers and they didn’t hit many of the ones they did.

A rundown of the roster reveals a number of reasons for the inaccurate shooting figures. Outside of his injury-interrupted 2017/18 campaign, Terrence Ross endured his worst three-point shooting season since his rookie year (35.7%). DJ Augustin posted the lowest numbers of his Magic tenure (34.5%). Nikola Vucevic saw his accuracy drop all the way from last year’s impressive 36.4% to 32.9%. Aaron Gordon’s decline was even more precipitous, plummeting from a mark of 34.9% in 2018/19 to just 30.1% this season.

Elsewhere, the new backcourt additions of Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams further damaged the team’s ability to find the bottom of the net when shooting from range. The pair shot 25.4% and 29.4% on three-point attempts, respectively, confirming their shared reputations as non-threats from deep. Worryingly, even Al-Farouq Aminu (25%) and James Ennis (30.3%) — players with some track record of floor-spacing capabilities — failed to fire in pinstripes; both set career-low marks in terms of accuracy from deep in their brief cameos.

In fact, it’s only Evan Fournier who logged what could be considered a successful season with the long ball. The sweet-shooting Frenchman rediscovered his stroke on his way to nailing 40.6% of all long-distance bombs, a figure within a whisker of his career best and compiled on a significantly greater number of attempts than past seasons. Otherwise there were only limited moments of glimmering hope, primarily in the form of the modest gains from beyond the arc made by Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. The truth of it is that without Fournier the Magic this season would have been the worst shooting team in the league by some margin, and one of the most insipid of the last decade by that same figure. It was bad.

A contextual lens

NBA: Miami Heat at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Pinpointing where a team’s long-range shooting went wrong can often feel like an exercise in futility. Three-point field-goal percentage might be the most volatile of all basketball statistics, with both players and teams regularly experiencing wild variations game-to-game, month-to-month, and even season-to-season. Despite this year’s evidence and 21st ranked finish, it isn’t an immutable fact that the Magic are a terrible three-point shooting team. Consider the following: what guesses would you make to fill in the following blanks?

Season 3PT FG% Rank
2019/20 34.1 25th
2018/19 35.6 ?
2017/18 35.1 ?
2016/17 32.8 ?

The accuracy moves around some, but what about the final ranks? And how might this impact winning basketball?

Season 3PT FG% Rank Finish
2019/20 34.1 25th Playoffs
2018/19 35.6 11th Playoffs
2017/18 35.1 28th Lottery
2016/17 32.8 29th Lottery

The vast majority of the current core has been in place across the last four seasons, and there’s enough variance evident in the figures to see how tricky judging a team’s three-point proficiency can be. This year the Magic landed 25th in terms of league-wide accuracy. In 2017/18 they shot a stronger clip but somehow ended up 28th. A modest bump in overall accuracy of 0.5% the next year catapulted them to an eleventh-placed finish. Yes, they were unarguably terrible in 2016/17, so let’s throw that one out. In the three years since it’s been a more difficult proposition. Is the same team that shot so well last season now bad from deep? Is the impact of a 0.5% shift an extreme outlier? Or is the oddity actually the entirety of the league’s performance in 2017/18?

What this tells us is that context matters. As teams continue to shoot more and more three-pointers, the rate and accuracy of such attempts aren’t the sole things informing winning basketball; instead, how they compare with the direct opposition and league-wide trends is just as significant. Important also is what they represent in terms of a team’s offensive gameplan; Houston, for example, were one of this season’s least accurate teams from range (34.8%, 23rd) but used the brute force of sheer volume to win over 60% of their games. One would do well to remember that not all three-point shots are created equal.

Where’s the juice?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Another piece of Orlando’s imprecise three-point jigsaw to ponder is the manner in which such attempts are produced. Broadly speaking, a long distance bomb can come either on the back of an assist from a teammate or on an unassisted pull-up opportunity. The former speaks usually to ball movement, action within the offensive set to spring shooters, and drive-and-dish kickouts, while the latter is largely reserved for uncanny ball handlers with space-creating dribbles and hair triggers. The players on the Magic roster fall almost exclusively into the first category.

In 2019/20, 85.6% of all three-pointers made by Orlando were generated by a direct assist. That was the ninth-highest figure in the league, and reflective of the fact that the Magic are a team with long-range limits. In addition to shooting the ball comparatively poorly, the roster was also bereft of the type of dynamic point guard or wing who can hunt their own shot beyond the perimeter. Instead, players needed to wait for opportunities generated within the flow of the offense and off the back of the passing game. The Magic were almost totally reliant on swift ball movement and careful positioning for their three-point attempts.

Orlando had seven players make more than 30 three-pointers this season. Of those, only one — Augustin — had an assisted percentage lower than 82.4%. DJ’s came in at 60%, a figure that paced the Magic’s rotation regulars by a mile. And while it’s understandable as a stat that always favors those cast as lead ball handlers, contextually the pinstriped point guard was a long way from his immediate peers. It’s undoubtedly an unfair comparison, but in contrast, noted long-range bomber Damian Lillard had a teammate record an assist on just 28.3% of the triples he nailed. For all of his strengths as a player, Augustin can’t bring that sort of dangerous dynamic to Orlando’s offense.

That the team doesn’t have a player that you can stick in endless pick-and-rolls in a bid to free them up for pull-up triples isn’t a death knell. That the Magic don’t have that luxury and they don’t hunt out more efficient spots on the floor, however, is a cause for some concern.

Squeezing the last drop

NBA: Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Comparatively speaking, the Magic were conservative in their three-point shooting this season, a fact undoubtedly spurred by the team’s general lack of accuracy and absence of a genuine backcourt gunner. Why bomb away from deep if you’re likely to miss? Without wading too far into the statistical weeds of expected points per shot, let’s agree that the sentiment is both fundamentally human and understandable - stick to what you’re good at! However, instead of either ignoring this tenet of the modern game or just recklessly suggesting the strategy of shooting more three-pointers, would it perhaps be more effective to suggest shooting different three-pointers?

It’s no secret that the corner three is one of the most effective shots an offense can launch. Situated just 22 feet from the hoop, it’s been described as “the most valuable 21 inches on an NBA basketball court”. It is also a shot that the often-imprecise Magic should be seeking out. Despite ranking just 25th league-wide in terms of three-point accuracy at the previously mentioned clip of 34.1%, Orlando are entirely competent when it comes to the corners. From here they shot 39.5%, which was both good for 14th and representative of one the league’s biggest discrepancies in terms of difference in accuracy. It’s a significantly smaller sample size, sure, but there’s at least some evidence indicating that Orlando can elevate their standing from ‘bad’ to ‘solid’ based on shot location.

Interestingly, it’s a shot that Orlando has long been allergic to. This season, 18 of the league’s 30 teams attempted more than 20% of their total three-pointers from the corners. Across the last four seasons, almost a full two-thirds of sides have met this threshold. The Magic never have. They came close in 2018/19 when it made up 19.1% of their long-distance diet, but the figure cratered this season when it bottomed out at just 14.0%, dead last in the NBA.

The corner three is something that I’ve previously called for the Magic to explore. I identified it as a key to their upset of the Raptors in Game One of last year’s first round playoff series, as well as a disappointing non-factor in their Game Two loss. When the team surprisingly signed Aminu in free agency, I wondered whether his penchant for the corners would help the team more frequently leverage this shot. I was wrong.

Instead of the team finding a way to more frequently get shooters into this position Orlando seemingly went away from it entirely, with deeper bench players apparently the only ones seeking the spot out. In fact, of the key rotation guys one could envision regularly firing away from this location — Isaac, Gordon, Aminu, Iwundu … even perhaps Fournier — each instead set a career-low rate for frequency of shots attempted from this spot on the floor. Not one of the wings the team leans on for long-range shooting took advantage of the corners!

Attempting three-pointers from the corner isn’t some miracle recipe for instant success. Offense is more complicated than that, and it happens to be a shot that a dialed-in defense can disrupt a little more easily than others. However, it’s obviously valuable and good teams find ways to take advantage of the value available in any game; it’s no real surprise that four of the league’s top five teams by this metric are playoff heavy hitters, while only Boston from the bottom five would qualify as such. Every possession counts.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Magic to make their way to this spot on the floor a little more often. In terms of total three-point attempts from the corner, 14.4% separates the most active team (Detroit - 28.4%) from the least (Orlando - 14.0%). To further put Orlando’s infrequency into perspective, to climb just one single spot they would have to increase their rate by 2.4%.

Although such a leap seems pretty large — and contextually it is! — it would actually require each game shifting just one attempted three-ball from above the break to the corners. This one extra shot that statistically has a better chance of finding the bottom of the net could be the first step towards a mild modernizing of the offense. Considering that the Magic lost four games this season by three points or less (and three more by four), it would be a small change with the potential for a large impact.

Individually, these numbers seem to confirm what has long been the instinctual judgement of this team: the Magic can’t shoot the three-ball. Taken collectively, though, they reveal a side that with a handful of careful adjustments could experience a bounce-back from deep. Surely there couldn’t be a repeat of so many players shooting well below their career percentages. Maybe the league will be a little less accurate. It’s likely that their inexorably steady creep from the midrange to beyond the arc will continue.

But there are also ways that this team can actively help itself. A commitment to the corner and an offseason search for a backcourt bomber are just two suggestions. Rather than blindly trusting in the variance of an inherently variable shot, Orlando should be looking to tilt the odds in their favor when it comes to the three-point numbers game.