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Orlando Magic 2020 takeaways: Clutch questions

As a team the Magic struggled late in close games, although there was a bright spot...

Oklahoma City Thunder v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the third 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. Previously I’ve looked at free-throws and three-pointers, but today we’re taking a different angle. Let’s dive in!

There’s no more exciting part of a basketball game than when the result hangs in the balance. It’s the time when legends are made and when pretenders crumble, when championships are secured and those that fall short are consigned to the dustbin of history. For what builds a reputation more convincingly than the ability to come through in the clutch?

The NBA stats website defines the clutch as any moment in a game’s final five minutes (or overtime period) when the teams are separated by five points or less. The parameters certainly aren’t perfect — the complexion of a game looks very different with four minutes left on the clock than it does with four seconds — but it’s a solid enough foundation to work with when trying to figure out how a team performs when the intensity gets dialed up. Without further ado, let’s see what the clutch revealed about the Magic in 2019/20.

Clumsy in the clutch

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s hard to spin the story in any way other than this: Orlando just wasn’t very good in the final five minutes of close basketball games. The Magic played in 31 contests that met the clutch criteria this season, going 13-18 and compiling a win percentage of only .419. That’s a noticeably worse rate of success than they achieved in the 65 games played (.462 when play stopped), suggesting that when things got tight the team struggled to maintain their already average standard of play.

Other statistical measures back this assessment up. During these clutch minutes the Magic shot worse from the field (down 2.5% to 42.7), from behind the arc (down 0.8% to 33.3), and from the free throw line (down 2.4% to 74.6), combining for an effective field goal percentage of just 48.7% (compared to 50.3% for the season). On the back of these numbers and a significantly increased turnover rate — the Magic went from the 3rd best regular season turnover percentage (12.7%) to the 5th worst in the clutch (14.8%)! — the team’s offensive rating slipped to 98.4 points per-100 possessions, good only for the 26th ranked mark in the league. During these moments Orlando had both a hard time holding onto the ball and getting it to go into the basket even when they did.

Defensively, the Magic’s limiting of the opposition to 103.6 points per-100 clutch possessions initially seems like an improvement over their season mark of 109. Contextually, however, this represents a slide in league-wide rank from 9th to 11th; as the intensity ratcheted up and teams locked in on defensive possessions other sides emerged as more watertight outfits. It also runs a little deeper than just the points conceded. On the season Orlando were able to force 15.0 turnovers per-100 possessions, but saw this number drop to just 12.7 during the final minutes of close games. This slightly less effective turnover rate didn’t only afflict the Magic (primarily as a result of all teams being more conscious of ball safety), but their dip was one of the sharper ones in the league.

There are some other interesting trends to consider from the data obtained during clutch minutes. On the season Orlando generally played at a glacial pace, finishing as the fifth slowest team in the league. At the end of close games, however, this figure rose all the way to the ninth fastest, suggesting that the Magic were often scrambling in an attempt to catch up. The players in pinstripes were more likely to be the team chasing hard than calmly killing the clock.

It’s also worth considering the percentage of baskets on which the side registered an assist. Across the season the Magic racked one up on 61.1% of all made baskets, a number that saw them place 12th by this metric. However, during moments of clutch play this number rose all the way to 65%, catapulting the team to the top of the league leaderboard. So while much of the rest of the league turned to isolation opportunities when the games got tight, Orlando instead leaned into the passing sequences of choreographed plays. This is almost certainly a function of the team’s lack of a dynamic scorer in the backcourt; team-wide iso-ball wasn’t an option for a Magic side without a player that could reliably generate buckets on their own.

Collectively, the figures paint a picture of a team that often found itself outgunned and outclassed in contests that went down to the wire. It would appear that the extra gear — both offensively and defensively — simply didn’t extend as far for the Magic as it did for some of the league’s top talent. The scoring-by-committee approach of the team sputtered, while the side’s defensive nous seemingly bumped up against a lower than expected ceiling. It all comes, of course, with the caveat of a small sample size — just 111 total minutes — but the fact remains that this represents the totality of Orlando’s clutch performance this season. And they weren’t great.

Out with the old...

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Some of the Magic’s failings as a team in the clutch can be laid, fairly or not, at the feet of one particular player. Evan Fournier was again regularly tasked with the job of closing games for Orlando this season, a responsibility that he didn’t handle particularly well. As his usage rate jumped in these clutch moments — up 4.7% to 28.3% of all possessions — his efficiency tumbled similarly downhill. His field goal percentage slumped to a frigid 27.7% down the stretch of close games, including a positively arctic 6 of 27 from range (22.2%). Even Fournier’s usually reliable free throw shooting fell off a cliff; in the closing minutes of tight contests he made just 9 of 16 attempts, good for only 56.3%. His passing game also stagnated, with the two-guard recording just 14 assists and 10 turnovers as he struggled to generate opportunities for teammates.

Of the starters, Fournier posted the worst clutch net rating, accumulating a mark of -8.6 across his 95 crunchtime minutes. This was almost exclusively a result of his poor offensive rating, which dropped more than 12 points from his regular season mark to just 94.7. It’s probably fair to assume that many of the shots that Fournier missed during this time were ones he created for himself attacking either out of isolation or a high pick-and-roll set-up; the data reveals that during these clutch-defined moments his percentage of baskets made unassisted rose from 40.4% across the entirety of the season to 46.4%. As such, it stands to reason that this number is a function of a shifting shot diet, with basket-hunting and iso-heavy sequences all the more frequent down the stretch of the tight games he was tasked with closing. Unfortunately for the Magic, Fournier’s crunch-time diet was mostly inaccurate.

None of this is to say that Fournier is a player not to be trusted when the result is on the line. Nor am I suggesting that the Magic need to abandon their shooting guard at the end of close games for other options. Instead, what the numbers demonstrate irrevocably is that ‘Never Google’ simply had a tough season coming through for a team that was offensively outgunned most nights. When the opposition zeroed in on defensive possessions things got tougher and, this year at least, Fournier’s misses outweighed the makes.

In with the new…

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

There was one player that shone for the Magic late in tight games, and it’s a name that is both surprising and understandable at the same time: Markelle Fultz. It’s initially surprising because he was often a peripheral consideration for the team during such moments of play, third or even fourth in the pecking order of players to be called on to deliver. It becomes more understandable, however, when one starts to recall the flashes of individual brilliance of which he is capable.

By almost any metric that measures individual efficiency and effectiveness, Orlando’s young point guard was noticeably improved during clutch moments. With the game on the line Fultz upped his field goal percentage to 52.8%, a sizable increase on the 47.3% he logged across the season. He assisted on a greater percentage of his teammates’ baskets — Fultz logged an assist rate of 31.8% in the clutch compared to his average of 27.0% — and, importantly, minimized turnovers, coughing the ball up slightly less frequently than he normally would. He also managed to nudge his per-100 possessions rebounding and steal rates up a little, finding ways to contribute at the defensive end during close contests.

The broad stroke numbers are a bit more of a mixed bag, although still largely positive takeaways. Both Fultz’s true shooting (57.5%) and effective field goal (52.8%) percentages were stronger during clutch moments, reflective of his improved finishing and solid free throw rate. His Player Impact Estimate (PIE, the NBA’s attempt at a PER like figure) jumped considerably, from 9.5 across the regular season (a touch below what is considered average) to 14.3 in the clutch, a figure that would have placed him in the top 30 league-wide on the season. It’s true that his offensive and defensive ratings both fell below his season averages, but this is more a function of the team’s collective clutch failings than an indictment of his individual contributions; all rotation regulars saw their numbers plummet, and Fultz actually remained one of the team’s better offensive contributor’s by this metric. It should, however, be mentioned that he was a complete non-threat from deep during these stretches, registering just one solitary (missed) attempt that qualified. It’s an already obvious flaw that was further magnified when the game was on the line.

There are also other intriguing takeaways to be gleaned from the available information. Fultz played more down the stretch than any other player on Orlando’s roster, figuring in 105 of the team’s 111 total clutch minutes (Fournier was next closest with 95). He was the player most likely to score points directly off a turnover and, even more impressively, he piled up more clutch points in the paint than any other teammate. Fultz finished with 28 points on close finishes, 6 more than even Nikola Vucevic, the team’s 7-foot, recent All-Star. You can watch every one of these baskets, and it’s remarkable just how impressive they are: scintillating handles, decisive drives, controlled bursts, phenomenal finishes, disruptive defense, game winners.

All things considered, the numbers point to a player that made the most of the opportunities presented to him during these sequences, with Fultz sneakily establishing himself as the team’s best clutch option. This conclusion also seems to confirm what the eye test was telling us. Who could forget his sublime performance in the closing minutes of the tilt in Los Angeles? Fultz dominated the game’s final possessions, putting on an offensive clinic as he roasted LeBron and the Lakers in delivering a Magic victory. He’s not yet at a stage when he can be counted on to do the same every single night, but an examination of the data suggests he might actually be closer than many would think.

The successful closing of games was at times a tough endeavor in 2019/20 for the team in pinstripes. Across an admittedly very small sample size the trusted veterans had difficulty delivering in the clutch, and while one prominent member of the side’s youth flashed promise he wasn’t always handed the keys when the rubber met the road.

Orlando are a team desperately hoping to take the step from playoff hopeful to conference contender. If such a leap is ever going to happen with the current roster, it’s going to require improved play down the stretch of tight games. Basketball pundits often talk about the ‘clutch gene’; now it’s time for the Magic to figure out which player’s DNA best fits that mold.