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Orlando Magic 2020 Takeaways: Free throw ascendancy

This season the Magic showed a knack for winning the battle of the free throw line

Orlando Magic v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the first 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. Let’s dive in!

Let’s start this series off with some high-level basketball analysis. Ready? Here goes: the ability to score more points than the opposition is the foundation of any good basketball side.

Okay, while such a statement might be blindingly obvious, what is less clear is the most effective way to go about ensuring such an outcome. Basketball, it turns out, is a complex sport that can be approached in any number of ways. Unfortunately for the Magic, in recent seasons they generally haven’t been very good at outscoring their opponents, regardless of the game plan.

In the world of the modern NBA the raw numbers overwhelmingly suggest that three-pointers and layups are some of the most valuable shots in the game. For the former this is true by virtue of numerical value (3>2), while for the latter it has to do with the significantly greater likelihood of shots at the rim finding the bottom of the net. The contemporary discourse around the game reflects such knowledge, as team decision makers and fans alike consistently zero in on these factors in their analysis of any team’s chances. Can a side space the floor with outside shooting? Can they get into the paint and finish?

There is, however, one other shot type that doesn’t seem to have the same cultural cache in such discussions but is similarly valuable: the humble free throw. It is literally the only unguardable shot in the game, and as such represents an opportunity for teams to either stake a scoreboard advantage over their opposition or otherwise make up a deficit elsewhere. Free throws ease the burden of other offensive sets by offering a boxscore head start.

The average basketball fan undoubtedly understands that free throws are valuable. However, when compared to the excitement of a fast break dunk or a long range bomb, it’s obvious that not as much oxygen is spent discussing the impact of such shots on the outcome of games. So when it comes to the Magic, what exactly is the impact? How effectively are they taking advantage of such freebies?

An aversion to charity

Orlando Magic v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s no secret among those who have watched the team closely, but in recent years the Magic have been a poor free throw shooting team. This isn’t to say that the players are inaccurate on such attempts; as a team, this season Orlando were right by league average in terms of free throw percentage (77.0%, 17th overall), while last season they were even better (78.2%, 12th). Instead, the reason that they’re thought of as an anaemic free throw outfit is because of their inability to get to the line in the first place.

There are three immediately interesting figures to consider when it comes to determining the free throw capacity of any individual team: free throw attempts per game (FTA), free throw rate (FTr), and free throws per field goal attempt (FT/FGA). The first is the obvious measure of how many times a team generates a trip to the line during a game, while the latter two measure the likelihood of a team either being awarded or making a free throw on any given possession, respectively. A closer inspection of these numbers reveals an improved Orlando side when it comes to free throw capacity.

Before 2020, the Magic were routinely among the league’s very worst by these three metrics, with a number of bottom-five finishes in each category since the collapse of the Dwight-era teams. As the table below indicates, it’s been a lean seven years from this spot on the court; it’s a fact that certainly goes some way towards explaining the largely barren results of the current rebuild. Orlando have simply failed to take advantage of a high value shot available to all teams.

Year FTA Rank FTr Rank FT/FGA Rank
2018/19 19.2 30th .216 29th .168 30th
2017/18 20.5 21st .238 21st .180 23rd
2016/17 21.4 27th .246 27th .184 27th
2015/16 20.1 29th .232 30th .175 30th
2014/15 19.1 30th .230 29th .168 30th
2013/14 20.9 26th .253 23rd .193 23rd
2012/13 16.6 30th .197 30th .149 29th

Discovering the stripe

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

When you compare the 2020 figures to last season, the improvement is immediately evident. As a team the Magic nudged their number of attempts per game up to 22.1 per game (22nd league-wide), a gain of almost three free throws per contest. The FTr climbed to .248 (23rd), meaning that on average it took the side approximately four shots from the field to generate a single free throw attempt; this is a rate almost one possession quicker than in 2018/19. Finally, the side pushed the number of made free throws per field goal attempt up to .191 (19th), a drastic improvement over last season’s 30th ranked finish. By no stretch have Orlando emerged as a prolific free-throw shooting team, but they’re at least now within striking distance of average. It’s a welcome change from woeful.

The immediate question then is how? What happened during the games to produce this modest bump across the board? Well, like most on-court action, the answer lies with the players. A comparison of individual FTr numbers across this season to last is telling. A chunk of players on the Magic roster went out and set marks that were, if not career-best figures, at least a huge improvement over the previous campaign. Just look at the data comparing 2019/20 to 2018/19:

  • DJ Augustin: .395, up from .309
  • Wes Iwundu: .392, up from .376
  • Aaron Gordon: .280, up from .242
  • Evan Fournier: .236, up from .159
  • Terrence Ross: .207, up from .140

To that, this season the team’s regular rotation also included Michael Carter-Williams (.360), Al-Farouq Aminu (.337), and Markelle Fultz (.209), all of whom represent upgrades over comparable players from the previous campaign. In fact, of those who played at least 800 minutes in 2019/20, only Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba saw their FTr regress (Jonathan Isaac’s numbers remained steady). Basically, upwards of 80% of the roster were more proficient in generating trips to the charity stripe this season. That’s a good way to get more points in an easier manner.

Watching the games suggests a team a little more likely to obtain a whistle than versions of the Magic from recent seasons past. Both Fournier and Gordon have been noticeably more aggressive at getting into the lane this year. Players like MCW and Iwundu are seemingly always headed downhill at speed and with intent. Augustin has only gotten craftier with age. Ross has almost perfected the knack of drawing contact on a three-point bomb. Fultz and Aminu are both more proficient at this basketball skill than the players they replaced. It’s been improvement by committee.

(A side note: one might look at Fultz’s numbers and wonder how his replacing DJ Augustin — the team’s most effective foul-drawer — from the starting lineup could be considered a positive impact on Orlando’s free-throw rate. Well, this season Augustin played only a few minutes less per game than last year (25.4 compared to 28.0), which means it wasn’t his playing time that Fultz was eating up. Instead, Orlando’s young point guard actually consumed time in the rotation vacated by players like Jerian Grant and Isaiah Briscoe. That pair had a FTr of .182 and .188, respectively. Just another way in which Fultz proved to be an obvious upgrade.)

Do the numbers lie?

Portland Trail Blazers v Orlando Magic Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

I know I said before that they didn’t emerge this season as a prolific free throw shooting team, but I actually believe that the Magic are more effective at controlling this aspect of the game than it might appear at first blush. If one is going to make the argument that free throws contribute to winning basketball games, then it stands to reason that shooting them yourself is only half the battle. It’s actually a war waged at both ends of the floor.

In terms of restricting opposition free throw opportunities, Orlando are among the league’s elite. They gifted the other side a mere 19.1 trips to the line per game, seeing them connect on just 14.8 of such attempts. Both of those numbers are good for third-best league-wide. The points they represent for their opponents are also largely stable, given that teams shot perfectly averagely on free throws when playing the Magic (77.2%, 15th). Crunching the data also reveals that the FTr of Orlando’s opposition was just .220 across the 65 games played, a figure that would rank 29th league-wide and ahead of only Indiana’s frigid .217. Getting to the charity stripe was a difficult proposition at best when facing this roster.

How is it that the Magic managed to achieve this? Well, as close viewers of the team would know, they just don’t foul that often - only 17.6 per game, first by a wide margin (Cleveland are the only other team within a single foul of that mark at 18.3). It might be assumed that a team that doesn’t foul isn’t presenting much resistance at the rim, therefore giving up high-value shots of a different type in the form of layups and dunks. However, that’s not the case: Orlando allowed just 25.6% of all opponent shot attempts to come from within three feet of the rim, the fifth-best mark in the league. They were more middling in terms of the percentage they gave up from this range — 68.0%, 18th league-wide — but the fact that they worked to keep teams away from this spot on the floor at all suggests that they recognized the shot-blocking weakness of their interior players and adjusted accordingly. That’s good coaching!

Again, the eye test gives some hints as to how this is possible. Fultz as the on-ball point of defense is better able to contain dribble penetration. Issac and Gordon are both long-limbed and active wing defenders, with JI in particular having a penchant for aggressively stifling help defense. And although Vucevic will never be mistaken for Dikembe Mutombo, he’s shown surprising improvement in the way he uses his lower body to establish defensive position; he’s learned to do enough to often push opponents away from the most dangerous zones on the court.

So how might the fact that the Magic don’t give up many free throws allow one to then make the case that they are, in fact, actually a good free throw shooting team? The answer undoubtedly lies in measuring the discrepancy in volume from the line: free throws attempted by Orlando minus those hoisted up by the opposition. Again, remember that this is a two-way battle. In 2019/20 there were fifteen teams that accrued a positive margin in this regard, which we’ll calculate per-100 possessions to account for pace and other factors that may otherwise skew the numbers.

Team FTA Opposition FTA Margin
Thunder 25.0 18.7 6.3
Hornets 22.4 19.0 3.4
Bucks 22.8 19.6 3.2
Magic 22.4 19.4 3.0
Rockets 25.0 22.5 2.5
Mavericks 23.2 20.7 2.5
Nets 23.6 21.6 2.0
Jazz 23.1 21.2 1.9
Heat 25.2 23.4 1.8
Pistons 22.7 21.2 1.5
Warriors 23.0 21.6 1.4
Clippers 25.6 24.3 1.3
Lakers 23.5 22.6 0.9
Cavaliers 20.0 19.3 0.7
Spurs 22.5 22.4 0.1

As you can see, Orlando stacked up incredibly well by this metric. They ranked fourth in the league, establishing themselves as an elite team in terms of controlling the free throw battle. Based on the team’s free throw shooting percentage, that advantage of 3 additional free throw attempts per game equated to a 2.26 point headstart over the opposition each night. When you consider that the Magic won five games this season by a margin slimmer than that (two or fewer points) — and that when the hiatus hit they held a 5.5 game lead over the Wizards for the eighth and final playoff spot — one can see just how valuable their dominance of the free throw line has been this season.

It would be easy to look only at the total number of attempts when trying to determine whether or not a side is a ‘good’ free throw shooting team. However, such analysis would be an oversight that fails to account for the work a team puts into denying the opposition similar opportunities. Instead, a better measure of effectiveness is undoubtedly the gap between the number of attempts secured and those given up. It’s only then that a talent for drawing fouls can be counted on as a reliable contribution to winning basketball.

In what might be a surprising outcome to many, the 2019/20 Magic have proven themselves to be among the league’s elite by this standard.