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Orlando Magic 2020 takeaways: Do the hustle

Some of the NBA’s hustle stats showcased the uneven nature of Orlando’s regular season

Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Welcome to the fourth 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. To this point we’ve knocked over free-throws, three-pointers, and clutch performance, but today we’ll be looking at some less heralded parts of the game. Let’s dive in!

Who doesn’t love hustle? There’s something eminently endearing about a player willing to sacrifice life and limb in the pursuit of glory. Likewise, someone who is able to make up for a talent shortfall through sheer will and determination can frequently lay claim to a sizable chunk of any fanbase’s heart. It’s fun to root for the underdog!

The Magic are a franchise who have been blessed with some particularly memorable players who embody this hustle element. Darrell Armstrong. Bo Outlaw. Matt Barnes. More recently, the bloodied face of Michael Carter-Williams neatly fits this bill. In any given game they’re unlikely to be the best player on the floor, but each and every one demonstrated a knack for making memorable plays that contributed to winning basketball. Effort has the capacity to be the great sports equalizer, a characteristic capable of toppling even natural ability.

But how do you measure something as intangible as effort? In recent years the NBA has formalized much of what many teams have been trying to quantify for years, collecting under the title of hustle stats data that tracks all manner of things long linked to this facet of the game: deflections, contested shots, charges drawn, and loose balls recovered, among others.

It seems fair to characterize these hustle numbers as a combined measure of effort and execution, with a smattering of ambiguity and luck for good measure. Although they’re not figures that can immediately be measured against the boxscore in terms of causality, a seemingly strong case suggests that they do correlate to winning basketball; in 2017/18, for example, winning the battle of hustle stat categories basically guaranteed a win percentage in excess of 50%. Such a takeaway would also confirm what the eye test wants to believe: that effort wins games.

So what do these hustle stats reveal about the Magic’s performance across the 2019/20 regular season? Let’s try to make sense of some of the least traditional statistics the average fan can get their hands on.

The numbers

Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s start by looking at the numbers and how they place Orlando relative to the rest of the league. By any estimation, the Magic were a relatively conservative team when it came to plays falling into the hustle categorization. The side was almost perfectly league average in terms of recovering loose balls, corralling the rock 3.6 times per contest on offense (15th) and 3.9 times while defending (12th), numbers that accounted for 48.1% of such chances on offensive possessions (19th) and 51.9% of such chances during defensive sequences (12th). As a unit they were just 21st in deflections per game, racking up an average of 14.6 any time the team took the court and perhaps causing a little less disruption than one would expect from the bevy of long-limbed defenders on the roster. They were comfortably in the league’s bottom half when it came to charges drawn with just 0.46 per game (20th); a team of budding Ilyasovas this was not.

There’s one final set of hustle stats that make for interesting reading when looked at through a Magic-tinted lens: contested shots. Surprisingly, Orlando ranked as the league’s worst team at contesting shots on a per game basis, finishing a lonely 30th with an average of just 54.4 to be expected on any given night. This number can be further broken down to reveal 33.7 contested two-pointers per game (24th) and 20.7 contested threes (29th). It doesn’t seem like a great idea to allow modern NBA teams to shoot without a hand raised in challenge, but it’s a sin the Magic evidently committed routinely.

There isn’t a single one of these numbers that jumps off the screen and screams unbridled positivity. But is it as simple as saying that the Magic aren’t up to scratch when it comes to the effort and execution based ‘hustle’ elements of basketball? Can we scratch beyond the surface?

Deflecting the point

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In recent years deflections have become perhaps the go-to hustle stat, talked about in some capacity by fans, commentators and team personnel alike. They’re a seemingly obvious indicator of an active and engaged defense, and tangible evidence of the type of effort required to disrupt the opposition. It seems inconceivable that a team could stumble into such a defensive play by accident.

The NBA’s data tracking team identifies a deflection as any intentional touching off the ball while the offense is in possession. There is, however, one exception to this: the blocked shot, which won’t contribute to the hustle figures. However, a ball poked free, a tipped pass, a batted down inbounds play … All are examples of a deflection that might occur on any possession. All would also be held up by analysts as evidence of a switched-on and locked-in defense playing with commitment and focus.

By this measure, the Magic are found to be somewhat lacking. As a team they accumulate just 14.6 deflections per contest, good only for 21st league-wide. It’s a surprising figure for a team with a defense-first identity and a penchant for all things wingspan. With the athleticism and long limbs of players like Isaac, Bamba, Gordon and Fultz, shouldn’t we be seeing more of this type of defensive disruption?

There are a few plausible explanations for the depressed figures. Defensive statistics have always been notoriously difficult to read, with traditional measures like block and steal totals regularly being poor indicators of a player’s defensive impact; the same stands to reason then for deflections. Much like one can hunt steals by jumping passing lanes and gambling away from the immediate assignment, so too might deflections actually be a result of a reaching or slow-to-rotate player engaged in matador-like defense. In contrast, maybe the Magic simply prioritize maintaining formation and individual body positioning. Or, perhaps, it’s just not in the DNA of certain players; it would likely surprise some to discover that Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, for example, average just 1.0 and 0.6 deflections per game, respectively. The surface expectations might simply not match with reality for Orlando.

However, one must consider the fact that not all deflections are created equal. There are basically only two outcomes a deflection can lead to, those being either a continuation of the offensive possession, or a steal and turnover. Invariably it is the latter that is of much greater value, being as it both minimizes the expected points of the opposition while simultaneously boosting Orlando’s own scoring potential.

So what percentage of deflections do the Magic actually convert into steals? It’s not entirely precise because of the few fringe examples that could be unaccounted for in such a calculation, but by looking at the deflection and steal totals alongside each other we can get a pretty good idea of where the team stands. Let’s see how the numbers stack up.

Team Deflections Steals % of deflections converted
Orlando 14.6 8.4 57.53
Chicago 17.4 10.0 57.47
New York 13.3 7.6 57.1
Houston 15.3 8.5 55.6
Cleveland 12.5 6.9 55.2
Philadelphia 15.0 8.2 54.7
Golden State 15.5 8.2 52.9
Washington 15.3 8.1 52.9
San Antonio 13.7 7.2 52.6
Atlanta 14.9 7.8 52.3
LAL 16.5 8.6 52.1
Minnesota 16.7 8.7 52.1

This season there were only twelve teams that converted more than 52% of their deflections into steals, and the Magic topped the list. Out of any team that got their hand to the ball when playing defense Orlando were most likely to end that sequence and take possession the other way. Their deflections regularly came with a tangibly positive outcome.

Up and down the roster the Magic had players who were more likely to turn a deflection into a steal than not. In fact, all bar one contributor in the regular rotation had a conversion rate north of 50%, including players like Aaron Gordon (90), DJ Augustin (75) and Michael Carter-Williams (69) who were basically guaranteed to end the immediate defensive possession whenever they got hand on ball. Astonishingly, the one exception was Jonathan Isaac, but considering his per -game figures for both steals (1.6) and deflections (3.3) were top-ten league-wide, he can be forgiven.

The conversion of deflections into steals appears to be a relatively conditional metric in terms of winning basketball — only three other incumbent playoff teams crack the top dozen — but it’s a pleasing outcome for the Magic nonetheless. Basketball is about winning little battles all over the court, and this is one that Orlando can decisively claim on their resume.

To contest, or not to contest...

Utah Jazz v Orlando Magic Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images

One of the most initially jarring takeaways from the hustle stats is that Orlando are the worst contested shot team in the league. Remember, this is a team that, despite its defense-first resume, contests just 54.4 shots a night. Some of this is a function of pace — any Magic game is almost assuredly slower than league average — but even as a percentage of attempts faced Orlando’s contested shot number is limp: just 62.8% of all opposition shots. Compare this to the Bucks: they give up a league-leading 93.8 field goal attempts each night, but manage to contest 80.2% of them. The Magic aren’t the worst team in the league by this measure but it’s close, and it’s probably not a great thing when the 14-40 Cavaliers are the only side you can beat out.

Team % of opp. shots contested Rank
Cleveland 62.6 30th
Orlando 62.8 29th
Houston 63.6 28th
Philadelphia 63.8 27th
LAL 65.2 26th
Denver 65.7 25th

(A brief, if expected, detour: a significant portion of Orlando’s shot-contesting deficiency stems from the center position. Nikola Vucevic, although now a dependable and much-improved defender, has simply never been a shot blocker, so it stands to reason that he also probably won’t rack up huge contested shot numbers. Predictably, he ranks just 25th among centers by the per-game figures with 10.4 each night; condemningly, 15 of the big men who average more do so in fewer minutes (sometimes significantly so: in contrast, Brook Lopez contests an obscene 19.4 shots per contest despite seeing 6 fewer minutes of court time). He’s not the only Magic player idling behind his peers, but his status as a 7-foot recent All-Star makes him the most apparent.)

Before making any definitive judgement about the team’s collective performance it would be instructive to also consider where the Magic actually give up shots to the opposition. In terms of the distance from the hoop, Orlando is among the league’s likeliest to surrender shots in the 10-to-16 feet range (10% of all opponent shot attempts, 5th league-wide) and then also extending from there to the arc (8.3%, 7th). They’re closer to average in terms of three pointers and from a range of 3-to-10 feet (13th and 10th, respectively), but then positively excellent at restricting chances at the hoop; the Magic rank 26th overall by allowing team’s just 26.5% of their total shot diet from this area of the court. They keep teams away from the rim, deny triples at a decent rate, and cede the mid to long range inside the arc. It’s a solid plan!

General basketball sense would suggest that the shot type most likely to be contested is one at the rim. When players get into the paint they’re invariably jostling with both their own man and any number of help defenders. That the Magic would be good at denying this often heavily contested shot in the first place, and therefore a lower ranking contested shot team makes sense. This interpretation of the data is further strengthened when one also considers the maligned long-two, which many modern defenses are increasingly likely to concede if it means taking away a more dangerous attempt elsewhere. Maybe Orlando is the league’s worst at contesting shots by design.

Although such an explanation is potentially placating and certainly convenient, it doesn’t perfectly align with the eye test. The Magic obviously funnel opposition attempts into certain spots on the floor, specifically the mid-range. However, rather than being a cause for unanimous celebration, how many times does it lead to exasperation as the closest defender fails to even raise an arm and trouble the now unimpeded shooter? Vucevic is a common offender when it comes to this, as is his preferred pick-and-roll partner, Fournier. There are others, but this pair stands out.

Consider also the field goal percentage that the Magic give up from these distances. Between 10 and 16 feet opponents finished at 44.6%, which was the fourth-strongest rate of conversion. Beyond 16 feet and to the three point line the accuracy remains identical, although it does jump to the third-highest percentage. The Magic surrender the mid-range, don’t seem to contest the shots all that much when they do, and then see their opposition nail them at almost a league-best clip. So although the team is theoretically giving up shots they should be able to live with, they’re also allowing the opposition to score with heightened efficiency from those spots. It’s a leveling effect where the negative undermines the positive.

The ability to contest a shot is not the only indicator of good defense, either individual or team. But as with all hustle stats, there seems to be some correlation between these numbers and winning basketball. The Magic already do a lot well defensively; maybe hard rotations and a raised hand a few more times a game is all they need to put the final feather in their cap.

An examination of hustle stats makes for a stimulating exercise, in part because of the traditional difficulty in both measuring and understanding such numbers. For the Magic it’s a mixed bag; good alongside bad, and equal parts elite with miserable. Such variance is actually a pretty neat symbol of an uneven season from Orlando, one in which they showed the capacity to beat the best but also to lose to the worst. Let’s hope that when the games return we see some consistent hustle out of Central Florida.