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Orlando Magic 2020 takeaways: A late surge

The Magic unleashed a supercharged offense during a stunning closing stretch

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Welcome to the fifth and final 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, clutch performance, and hustle stats, but today we’ll be zeroing in on the season’s closing stretch. Let’s dive in!

It was happening again. For a worryingly long stretch it looked like it wasn’t going to, but eventually a comfortingly familiar sense of deja vu returned and worries in Central Florida started to abate some. For, much like they did last season, the Magic began putting it all together around the All-Star break, going 8-4 down the stretch, cementing their playoff spot, and getting back within shouting distance of a .500 record. The pinstriped pendulum was beginning to swing back somewhere closer to original expectations.

After last season’s drought-bursting playoff appearance the Magic were an organization keen to consolidate their gains and build on the solid foundation established. They counted on continuity by re-signing both Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross to sizable contracts, while simultaneously gambling on the acquisition of Markelle Fultz to provide a new and dynamic dimension to the team. Add these elements to expected strides from young pieces like Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba and, at a minimum, modest improvement seemed inevitable.

However, through the season’s first three months it just didn’t happen. Players regressed. Injuries struck. Fluidity and familiarity were worryingly absent. Orlando sputtered out of the gates, losing some early clunkers and tumbling to a 2-6 record after two weeks of play. Although they briefly righted the ship, a mid-December stretch of six losses in seven games pushed the team wildly off course once again. This was later exacerbated by the fact that the Magic went almost four full weeks without registering a win against any team other than the Hornets. It was brutal.

And yet, things eventually shifted. Channeling the spirit of last season, Orlando were able to again go on a run that all but locked up their place in the postseason. Surprisingly — shockingly, in fact — they built this momentum on the back of an entirely unexpected offensive explosion. Let’s dive into the details and unpack the Magic’s scintillating stretch run.

The numbers

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

Make no mistake about it, the Magic put together a thoroughly scorching 12-game burst before the hiatus hit. It was after a dispiriting loss in New York that was followed by a double-digit blowout to the Bucks that things began to turn around, and it did so almost instantaneously. Orlando suddenly morphed into the league’s most dangerous scoring outfit, launching their moribund pre-February 10 offensive rating of 105.5 (26th) to a gold standard 118.2 (1st). Incredibly, the team went from near-worst to first in the space of a single month.

It was a transformation born of a handful of important statistics, most notably shooting percentages. Before Feb. 10, the Magic converted only 43.3% of all field goal attempts, a mark good for just 29th league-wide. At 33.7% the three-point accuracy was similarly woeful (28th), while even their free throw conversion rate of 76.3% placed them comfortably in the league’s bottom half (20th). Additionally, the team was as slow as a quarantined Wednesday, crawling their way to an average of 98.1 possessions per game (28th). Put simply, Orlando didn’t take many shots and then didn’t hit the ones they did. It’s a tough combination to overcome, and undoubtedly explains why they had slipped nine games below .500 at that point of the season.

Then … it just changed. After months of offensive futility the Magic started finding the bottom of the net like a team possessed. Across the last dozen games their field goal percentage rocketed up to 48.6% (2nd), the long ball started dropping at 37.0% (13th), and the team converted free throws at a rate of 80.1% (8th). They generated more than three extra possessions a game by pushing the pace (101.3 possessions per game, 13th overall), generally starting to look like something that resembled a modern NBA offense.

Orlando were also improved in other offensive facets. They evolved into one of the league’s most prolific passing teams, pushing their assists from a pedestrian 23.0 per game (24th) all the way to 29.1 (2nd). This wasn’t just a function of a quicker pace and more possessions either, as the side’s assist percentage climbed from 60.4% (13th) to 64.5% (7th), while the already good collective assist-to-turnover rate rate rocketed all the way to the top of the leaderboard (2.39 assists for every turnover, up from 1.81). Hell, the Magic even started grabbing more offensive rebounds, snagging an extra possession on 28.8% of their own misses (8th), a meaningfully improved number when compared to their previous rank of 17th by this metric.

Perhaps the easiest and most impressive measure of their offensive improvement is in the simple statistic of points per game. In 53 games before the switch flipped, the Magic put up an average of just 103.1 points each night (29th league wide), an almost unbelievable and forlornly limp number in the context of the 2019/20 season. Over their final 12 games that exploded into a figure of 120.8 points (1st), a remarkable leap for a team that had previously shown little aptitude for the skill of scoring the ball.

The conductors

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Orlando Magic Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Any consideration of improved team performance inevitably winds its way back to the players on the court, as it’s the individual contributions that create the collective cocktail. For the Magic, the regular season’s closing stretch highlighted a couple of key straws that were stirring the drink.

Last year, Ross enjoyed his first uninterrupted campaign in pinstripes and immediately established himself as an indispensable part of the team’s offensive identity. He was a flamethrower off the bench, launching from deep with impunity and near career-best accuracy. He pulled more than a handful of games out of the fire for the Magic with his shooting heroics, and was ultimately rewarded with both a fifth-placed finish in the Sixth Man of the Year voting and a new contract to stay in Orlando.

Ross is one of the few players on the roster that stretches opposing defenses simply by virtue of his presence on the perimeter, and the Magic would have been banking on him going some way towards replicating his 2019 form. As a result, his ice-cold shooting percentages of 38.9% from the field and 32.2% from deep across the season’s first 53 games (of which he played 51) were immediately noticeable within the context of the team’s sputtering offense. ‘The Human Torch’ had seemingly been snuffed out as a result of closer attention from the opposition and the fickleness of long-range shooting.

Like the collective fortunes of the team, the shift for Ross was swift and striking. Across the final 12 games he started making baskets like his life depended on it; he attempted a pair of extra three-point attempts each game (8.8), converting them at a blistering 47.2%. He made 5 of 10 in a win over Atlanta, 4 of 8 when the team handled Brooklyn, 7 of 15 in a victory claimed over Minnesota, and 5 of 11 when the Magic toppled Memphis in the final game before play was paused. Ross also hit a ludicrous 8 of 10 attempts from beyond the arc in a tight loss against the Heat, a game that he almost stole for Orlando with his fourth quarter shooting heroics. He shot 50% or better from deep seven times during the stretch, a mark he met just 11 times in the season’s first 53 games.

When the dust of the dozen-game spurt settled, he had racked up an average of 20.7 points per contest on 46.4% shooting from the field, with 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.3 steals for good measure. His torrid shooting basically forced Steve Clifford to find more minutes for him in the rotation, and he was every part the offensive force Magic fans envisioned when he re-upped during the offseason. The complexion of the team looks entirely different when Ross is able to come in off the bench swinging like a wrecking ball.

Another key contributor to the team’s improved fortunes down the stretch was Aaron Gordon. Like Ross he too saw an uptick in his scoring efficiency — his field goal percentage was up 6.7% to 48.6 and his three-point accuracy jumped 4.9% to 34.2 — but it was another facet of his offensive game that really juiced the scoring potential of the Magic: playmaking.

Across the season’s final 12 games Gordon emerged as a passing maestro, more than doubling his raw number of assists per game from 3.0 to 6.7. The team’s improved shooting numbers certainly helped with this, but also evident was a shift in his own personal focus and deployment; despite a decrease in his overall usage rate (down to 19.3% from 20.6), AG found himself recording an assist on 28.0% of all possessions, a whopping jump when compared to his modest 18.2% figure from across the season’s first 53 games. His team rank by this metric leaped from sixth to third, behind only the two point guards in Fultz and DJ Augustin.

Across Gordon’s final 11 games (he missed one due to injury) he put up assist totals of 4, 9, 7, 4, 6, 12, 6, 9, 4, 4, and 9. To put this into context, his previous season high was just 7 and he topped 4 assists in a game only eight times total prior to this - that’s a mark he achieved seven times in this stretch alone! AG went from being a slightly under-qualified offensive cog being asked to do too much, to an indispensable playmaking wing with a trustworthy scoring touch of his own. A close look at his and Ross’ exploits reveals much about why the Magic were able to supercharge their offense.

The winds of winning change

Phoenix Suns v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Accurate shooting is a universal cure for whatever may be ailing a basketball team, so it’s not a surprise at all that once the hoop started looking like an ocean Orlando was able to go on a tear. But is it just as simple as saying they started making shots that previously they were missing? And, most importantly, will this success be in any way replicable when play resumes?

Rotational changes undoubtedly played a part in the Magic’s late surge. The deadline trade for James Ennis (combined with the unfortunate injury to Isaac) added the threat of an improved shooting touch to various units, stretching the floor and providing a little more space for shooters to fire away. This mid-season arrival also signaled the end of the Khem-Birch-at-four experiment, allowing Gordon to reclaim his natural position to great effect. Both Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams returned from injury to shore up the backcourt, and Clifford largely jettisoned Birch and Wes Iwundu from the rotation as he settled on a nine-man model for minutes distribution. In short, the team was both more settled and more balanced, with no one forced to play out of position or in a role that taxed their talents. For one of the first times all season things looked right.

However, it would be remiss not to note the role that fortune played in this turnaround. During their stretch of relative dominance the Magic benefited from a hugely favorable schedule, facing only three playoff incumbents and just two opponents with a winning record. The wins they recorded were over victims with, as of the suspension of play, an average of 26.8 wins on the season. They were gifted two matchups apiece against punching bags Atlanta and Minnesota. The only top ten defense they met were the Nets, a side crippled offensively by injury. Even the signature victory — a 20-point beatdown of the Rockets — was built on the back of a wild (and largely unsustainable) variance in three-point accuracy. Banking on being almost 20% more accurate from deep than your direct opponent isn’t the most reliable way to ensure you’re regularly stuffing the win column.

That being said, maybe the Magic actually could have kept this up. Even with some inevitable offensive regression, there was a good chance the W’s would have continued to pile up. Before pause was pressed on the season they were actually entering an even more favorable stretch, with nine of ten against opponents below .500 and seven of those contests scheduled for their own homecourt. Considering the record that Orlando compiled this season against bad teams — 22-9 when matched up against sides with losing records, including just two defeats at home in such contests — one could be forgiven for thinking that they could have matched last year’s final record should the regular season have continued as per the program.

Predictive models at both ESPN and FiveThirtyEight had the Magic finishing seventh in the East should they have gotten to the end of game 82, which feels pretty spot on. It’s hard to believe that Brooklyn could have kept pace with Orlando, even if the pinstripes cooled some from their torrid pace. It would have made for an almost identical finish to that which the team achieved last season, albeit one surprisingly achieved more by their ability to put the ball through the hoop than keep it out.

And with that, our 2020 Orlando Magic Takeaways series comes to a close. Thanks for reading across the last five weeks, and for helping to create an outlet to talk and think about basketball during what has been a tough time for many. Hopefully the series provided some interesting observations about the team’s play through 65 games this season. Next, I’ll be turning my attention to some talking points generated by the efforts of individuals. I hope to see you in the comments when it launches next week!