With opening night just around the corner, the time has come to start unpacking some of the stories that figure to emerge over the course of the next 82 games. Even with a team ceiling that figures to be tremendously short of the playoff picture, there are still a number of things that Magic fans should be keeping a close eye on as the rebuild gets underway in earnest. Let’s kick start that process today with a look at what life beyond the perimeter projects to be like for Orlando in 2021/22.
The modern reality
The NBA is in the midst of a scoring explosion. Across the 2020/21 season teams combined for all-time highs in offensive rating (112.3) and effective field goal percentage (.538), while also putting up the highest points per game average (112.1) of the modern era. One would have to go back to 1971 — when coherent team defense was largely a hypothetical concept — to find a season when sides scored more points.
Interestingly, the NBA arrived at these historic totals despite some deflated numbers in areas one could reasonably expect to juice scoring. There are 37 seasons on record during which sides attempted more than the 88.4 shots averaged last year, so it wasn’t sheer volume inflating the scoreboard. We can rule out bonus points, as only once before (2017/18) did teams average fewer shots from the charity stripe than the 21.8 accumulated in 2020/21, while the number of free throws per-field goal attempt bested only the 1946/47 and 1947/48 campaigns. As the weakest offensive rebounding season on record (22.2% of all missed attempts) it’s also safe to say that teams weren’t unexpectedly feasting on cheap put-backs.
So how exactly was this achieved? Quite simply, it was on the back of the three-pointer. Outside shooting has emerged as the bedrock of contemporary basketball, more important than any other offensive element. The 2020/21 campaign established NBA records in terms of the average number of triples attempted (34.6) and made (12.7) by teams each night, as well as equaling the single-season record for collective long-range accuracy — 36.7%. Those figures combined to create the most efficient scoring season in league history.
Unsurprisingly, last season’s Magic were wide of the mark when it came to perimeter shooting. They finished 22nd in three-point attempts (31.8) and 26th in makes (10.9), with the resulting 27th ranked long-range accuracy (34.3%) a major contributing factor to the team’s awful 29th placed offensive rating (105.1). Orlando had just four rotation regulars convert triples at a rate above league average, a worrying fact moving forward considering that the entire quartet now play elsewhere.
Collectively the team simply couldn’t shoot, the end result being a huge competitive disadvantage every time they stepped on the court. On average the Magic made 2.8 fewer triples than their opposition in each contest, a nightly swing of 8.4 points that is eerily similar in margin to the -9.4 net rating that the team slumped to over the course of the season. It’s a simplification, sure, but it resonates with what we were seeing; it’s hard to win when the opponent is routinely making more of the most valuable shot on the floor.
Being able to convert from beyond the arc matters. It’s not a shock that 11 of the 12 most long-range accurate teams from last season made the playoffs, with the lone exception being the play-in participating Warriors. Three-point shooting is a reality of the modern NBA that Orlando was ill-prepared for in 2020/21. Unfortunately, those same questions look set to remain unanswered by the Magic in the campaign to come.
The Magic numbers
Before going any further, it feels instructive to look at some of the key figures related to Orlando’s outside shooting last season; the relatively high roster stability means the data should provide a pretty good baseline from which to establish expectations moving forward. This first table lists the returning main roster players in descending order of accuracy, while also highlighting the number of threes averaged both per game and per-100 possessions, as well as the frequency with which they launched an attempt per-100 possessions. Collectively these figures provide a snapshot of both shot volume and proficiency.
Note that for mid-season arrivals what we’re seeing is exclusively their pinstriped performance. It’s a smaller sample size more subject to noise, sure, but it also probably suggests something about deployment and the types of looks seen alongside this particular batch of teammates.
|Wendell Carter Jr
* 2019/20 stats
(+) a figure above career average
(-) a figure below career average
There are a few things that immediately stand out when looking at this collection of data. First and most alarmingly, the Magic are returning just one player, Moe Wagner, who converted from deep at a clip above league average last season; even then, it was from a sample size of only 43 total attempts across 11 games. The drop-off after the second-placed Gary Harris is severe, a worryingly wide gulf from the passable competence he offered to a range of well below-average marksmen.
Undoubtedly a result of this diminished accuracy, Orlando also sports only two players who fire away with any sort of regularity, Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba. However, even that pair is relatively restrained in the context of contemporary basketball; out of all players who racked up at least 500 minutes of court time last season, Ross ranked just 85th in three point attempts per-100 possessions, while Bamba slotted in at 155th. If these patterns of player behavior hold true in 2021/22, the Magic don’t project to make — or even take — many long-range attempts.
Based on the collection of players and recent form there are few, if any, teams that figure to be as impotent when shooting from range next season as the Magic. Sides with similar accuracy and frequency numbers almost uniformly have at least one above-average, high-volume shooter to help prop things up; think SGA in Oklahoma City, Ingram for the Pelicans, or Garland on the Cavs. Instead, Orlando appears destined to duke it out with the likes of the Spurs and Rockets for the dubious honor of being the most three-point anemic team — and we know that Houston will at least fire away!
The Magic haven’t arrived at this level of long-range bereftness by accident; it’s more of an unfortunate side effect of the latest rebuild. In choosing to largely strip the roster of dependable veterans, it just so happens that Orlando also jettisoned almost every three-point threat on a side already lagging by this metric. In trading away Vooch, Fournier and AG, and in choosing not to re-sign James Ennis, the Magic have bid farewell to their four most accurate perimeter shooters of 2020/21, as well as three of their most voluminous. The fallout for any team would be just as disastrous.
(+) a figure above career average
This isn’t a hole that the new arrivals should be expected to fill either. The recently returned E’Twaun Moore has been a reliable shooter throughout his career, but he’s coming off his worst long-range campaign ever and figures to see limited minutes as one of the team’s many, many guards. Robin Lopez, the side’s other major free agency addition, has been a negligible shooter for the vast majority of his career, including last year. Jalen Suggs is exciting and hopefully the future of the franchise, but outside shooting is not what he built his college reputation on. Franz Wagner certainly has a smooth stroke, but we’re first going to need to see how his perimeter game translates at the professional ranks. There’s no immediate savior to be found amongst this group.
(-) a figure below career average
Invested fans already intrinsically know to temper expectations regarding the 2021/22 Magic. This is a bad basketball team by design, with the aim of the season being nought but ping pong balls and the steady development of as-yet largely untapped potential. Still, in the context of the contemporary NBA landscape — a three-point slinging style of SprawlBall that only seems to stretch further with each passing year — Orlando is a side that figures to be ill-equipped like few before.
So the pertinent question now is whether the Magic can fix this obvious deficiency. Or are they fated to once again be unfashionably adverse to the trends of modern basketball?
With a little concerted effort Orlando should at least be able to generate more attempts from the perimeter this coming season. A look at the percentage of made three pointers powered by an assist reveals the Magic to be pretty close to league average (18th), with 82.7% of their long range bombs last season being set up by a helper from a teammate. By comparison, players in Detroit required the most assistance in this regard (90.1%), while the iso-bombing duo of Dame and CJ ensured that the Trailblazers could be found comfortably at the other end of the spectrum (69.3%).
The Magic have actually retained many of the players able to generate their own long-distance attempts, with Anthony (62.1%), Harris (70.8%) and Ross (77.5%) all coming in well under the team’s assisted average thanks to their penchant for off-the-dribble triples. All three are willing shooters able to create the space and separation needed to fire away, and in an offense devoid of other options they’ll likely be asked to increase the regularity with which they do just such. If they can start to do so with greater accuracy — a real chance considering the Human Torch’s down year and the strides Anthony made with his own accuracy in the back half of the season — it will significantly boost the team’s perimeter proficiency.
Another untapped vein of three point shooting the Magic could leverage is that of the corner three. Last season Orlando was dead last in terms of the percentage of triples they attempted from the corners, with just 15.0% of their perimeter shots coming from this area. As the shortest possible distance on the most valuable shot type it’s a severely under-utilized resource available to the Magic, with the only team within relative shouting distance at the bottom of these rankings being the aforementioned Blazers, whose three point attack is defined by isolation bombs from above the break. The math reveals that every single team in the league hoisted at least one extra attempt each night from the corners than the Magic.
Corner threes require a handful of specific factors, which when considered probably speaks to the paucity of attempts the team generated from those spots last season (and in recent memory). Precise dribble penetration can serve to open up the corners, as can rapid ball movement in response to an automatic double team. A predetermined play such as a hammer screen set or side flare screen action — neither of which was a regular in Orlando’s bag of tricks last season — can also create the necessary time and space for a player to launch a corner three. If the Magic can leverage more of these opportunities there’s a chance they can somewhat buoy their generally wonky numbers from deep.
The simplest solution to the three-point woes, of course, would be that the Magic simply start to shoot better. The roster is smattered with players who are either confident shooters or possessed of a stroke that looks the part, or even both, but they need it to coalesce in a way that drags the team somewhere closer to average. That might seem a tall order after five returning players posted career-best averages from long range (and are therefore candidates for negative regression), but it’s perhaps balanced by the fact that a pair of players with some of the most willing shot profiles, Ross and Bamba, are hopefully due for an accuracy nudge in the other direction.
The three-pointer has arrived as one of the most indisputably important components of any team’s offensive makeup in the contemporary NBA. The Magic are likely to struggle from deep this coming season, but the need to make some improvement in this regard is very real. For a side stacked with intriguing backcourt talent, the space that the threat of outside shooting can create — the type of space that opens up driving lanes, that facilitates the pick-and-roll, that positions help defenders a half-step further away — is pretty invaluable.
Let’s hope it’s space that eventually materializes for the Magic.