After a sluggish start, the Magic are starting to gather some momentum. An even record on their current home-stand has been punctuated with impressive victories over a cadre of Western Conference contenders in Phoenix, Dallas and Golden State, evidence of the increased competitiveness of this outfit when compared to last season. Is this the sort of stretch that speaks of a changed team?
While this recent spike in optimism is certainly valid, a somewhat worrying observation remains evident when dissecting the team’s play. Through 14 games, the Magic have successfully nailed more three-pointers than their opponent only twice – a 15 to 13 advantage in the win over the Suns and a 14 to 7 margin in the last start against the Hornets. In the modern NBA, where offense is defined seemingly more and more each season by the deep ball, this is a cause for some concern. Put simply, Orlando is being significantly outclassed in the battle beyond the arc.
The free-throw line represents another spot on the floor where efficient offenses often claim the upper hand. It’s long been a facet of the game that the Magic have struggled with, the rosters of recent years sharing a collective inability to generate these types of chances. And while it’s been great to witness Orlando’s newfound love for drawing contact and earning free-throws this season, the team hasn’t been able to build the sort of ascendancy they might like out of this because of the fouls they commit themselves.
Orlando is a young team working to overcome both inexperience and some notable talent deficits. An advantageous shot profile – on offense and defense! – would be a sure-fire way to increase the team’s odds of consistently winning basketball games. Let’s unpack the impact of both the three-point and free-throw lines on the Magic through the season’s opening stretch.
The Magic are currently conceding 39.1 three-point attempts per contest, the third-most league-wide and a whopping 10.3 looks ahead of the NBA’s stingiest (Dallas, 28.8). In addition to giving up these shots the Magic are also seeing the opposition cash them in at a slightly above-average rate, with Orlando’s opponents shooting 35.6% from deep and piling up 41.7 points on 13.9 makes per game. As it stands there is only one team currently giving up more baskets from beyond the arc on a nightly basis. It’s a lot of shots to allow from deep, particularly when one factors in the average pace at which the team’s games are played.
The most worrying aspect of the shot profile being given up is that an outsized chunk of these long-range looks are coming with scant defensive attention. Per-game the Magic’s opponents are currently getting up 17.5 three-point attempts with the closest defender tracked as between four to six feet away, the highest number across the league. In addition, they also cede 19.0 attempts each night that are considered to be wide open (6+ feet from defender), a figure only eclipsed by three other teams. Add these together and it becomes apparent just how clean the average look is against Orlando.
Digging further into these shooting numbers is a mixed bag. It’s worth noting that of the wide-open attempts across the league, only one team has seen a higher percentage of these drop for their opponents than the Magic, with 42.5% finding the bottom of the basket. There’s cause for optimism, certainly, that this number will experience some positive regression – that’s good! However, it’s a hope that is tempered by the contrasting fact that Orlando’s opposition is currently only converting 29.5% of their open three-pointers (4-6 feet), the second most fortunate figure league-wide – that’s bad! Let’s call it the duality of the frozen yogurt.
It’s one thing to recognize that the Magic are seeing opponents bomb away from deep with relative impunity and another to understand why this is happening. Although not a complete answer, some of the blame can likely be laid at the gargantuan feet of the team’s plus-sized line-ups. Rolling out a unit that features four players 6-10 or taller is a great way to control the paint and lock down the defensive glass, but it’s going to inherently leave you vulnerable on the wings. Conceding more triples is an understandable result of asking these guys to match the footwork and perimeter pace of smaller matchups.
Another contributing factor has to be the team’s 3-2 zone that they rolled out with some regularity in the early stages of the season. A zone is always a bit of a limited gimmick at the professional level, valuable in junking up a game for a short stretch or targeting a specific opposition line-up with a shot-making and creation deficiency. But patient and precise offenses can usually figure out how to pick it apart, which in the modern basketball landscape means open jumpers once the ball movement outstrips the player rotations. This was definitely the case in the recent collapse against the Kings and the clunker against the Rockets, and provides some additional context regarding the team’s ‘wide-open’ numbers.
The other relevant element in an evaluation of this facet of shot profile is Orlando’s own three-point shooting. The Magic are currently getting up just 29.5 attempts from deep each night, the fourth-fewest league-wide and a rate which doesn’t necessarily align with the side’s average pace. A deflated accuracy from behind the arc – 33.9%, 21st league-wide – means that the team is collecting just 30.0 points each night from three, a points differential that balloons out to almost a dozen when considered relative to their opposition. That’s a lot of ground to make up over 48 minutes.
At this stage it goes without saying, but the three-point line is one of, if not the most important feature of the modern game. With the season inching towards being a quarter done, it’s evident that Orlando’s construction and schemes are combining to ensure an uphill battle in the pursuit of victory.
If you’ve come to assume that anemic free-throw rates are an inherent part of the basketball experience in Central Florida, you would be neither mistaken nor alone. For the longest time the Magic have been among the league’s worst at creating contact and getting themselves to the charity stripe, failing to generate a free-throw rate at any level above the league average since Dwight left town. It’s literally been a decade of freebie futility.
As such, the current squad’s enthusiasm for decisive drives and physicality at the hoop has been a genuine revelation. So much of the team’s reinvention can be ascribed to the arrival of Paolo Banchero, whose .472 free-throw rate positively dwarfs any individual contribution that the Magic have received over the last ten years. Despite his status as a rookie he’s already demonstrated a real knack for first getting downhill and then generating and absorbing contact on his way to the hoop. His 8.3 attempts each night feels like just the scratching of his surface.
In addition to the impressive freshman, a handful of other players have also contributed to the team’s free-throw revival. Wendell Carter Jr. is currently on pace for the best free-throw rate of his pinstriped career, his .393 frequency more in line with the increased opportunities he once produced in Chicago. The physicality of the Jalen Suggs experience has continued in year two, the aggressive guard escalating his free-throw rate to .306 as a sophomore. Chuma Okeke and RJ Hampton are both more likely now than at any other point in their career to draw a whistle while in the act of shooting. Even Cole Anthony (remember him?) nudged his free-throw frequency up a smidgen before being taken by injury.
In fact, if these gains could be largely maintained, there’s still some reason to believe that it could get even better for Orlando. As it currently stands, Franz Wagner is only generating one free-throw attempt for roughly every five shots from the field, a frequency below the already slim rate he posted as a rookie. This is despite being one of the league’s most prolific drivers from the forward slot. The German wing is so good at slicing through the nooks and crannies of opposing defenses that he often contorts his body clear of the level of contact that draws a whistle. Expect the second-year star to improve this as he further acclimates to the professional game.
Despite the rosy optimism of a side seemingly transformed, the free-throw line hasn’t been an unmitigated success for the Magic so far this season. The team is currently sending opponents to the charity stripe for 22.2 attempts per night, only the 20th most across the league but the highest total for the franchise in seven years. The frequency isn’t exactly egregious, but it is a rate which undoes a decent chunk of the team’s good work to beef up their own free-throw rate. Instead of enjoying a solid advantage from the line, their proclivity for committing fouls themselves means they’re generating just a nightly 3.1 point nudge in the race for scoreboard ascendancy.
Now, it has to be noted that the Magic are currently benefiting from one entirely unsustainable factor in the battle for this area of the court. Through 13 games, Orlando’s opponents are making just 74.0% of their free-throw attempts, the most favorable mark among all teams and more than four percentage points less punishing than the league-wide average. It would be nice to think that Stuff’s antics are having this sort of impact on the accuracy of opposing shooters, but it simply isn’t true; the Magic shouldn’t bank on being this fortunate moving forward.
With wins already over well-regarded names like the Warriors, Mavericks and Suns, Orlando has demonstrated that this roster is one with enough juice to mix it with any team on any given night. But to do that with consistency they really need to work on tilting floor control in their favor.
For starters, finding a way to squeeze out a handful more three-point attempts each night would go some way towards leveling the playing field. The Magic are hardly a team filled to the brim with deadly marksmen, but there are enough competent shooters, at least in theory, that they would benefit from turning some of their long-twos – where they shoot from with the fourth-greatest frequency – into long-range looks. Leveraging the corners, from where their accuracy has been above average but their attempts in the league’s bottom third, would certainly seem a possibility.
Orlando will also need to decide how willing they are as a team to concede an elevated rate of three-point looks. It might be that it’s an unavoidable reality of any jumbo-sized line-ups, a consequence that one can live with because of the advantages it generates elsewhere. However, a move away from the zone configuration – which really did appear to bleed such chances at an alarming rate – would help in this regard, and it’s likely not a coincidence that this particular defensive deployment hasn’t been sighted in the team’s most recent contests.
In regards to the free-throw line, the answer for the Magic is to simply keep doing what they’ve been doing on offense while tightening the execution just a little at the other end of the court. The team needs to maintain its aggression in attacking the hoop and getting into the lane, whether that’s via drives from the ballhandlers or incisive cuts from the weakside. Defensively, it’s again likely that the plus-sized line-up is impacting the increase in shooting fouls committed, the result of more leaks on the perimeter at the point-of-attack and the confluence of bodies frequently found in the painted area. If Orlando wants to maintain the benefits that come with playing big they’ll need to demonstrate a little more discipline in the contesting of shots.
The Magic have proven themselves a team capable of playing winning basketball. However, if they’re serious about chasing victories right now they need to pursue the type of shot profile on both sides of the ball that can best facilitate that. Greater control of the three-point and free-throw lines is a necessary evolution for this side as they seek to take the next step.
All stats accurate through thirteen games, per NBA Stats and Basketball Reference