As we near the quarter-point of the season, those early season trends that are still lingering start to become a little stickier. The sample size may be small, relatively speaking, but when aligned with the eye test there’s a growing level of confidence in the takeaways being meaningful assessments, as opposed to glitchy irregularities. It’s possible to understand the nature of the basketball teams we’re dealing with.
And the Magic? Well, the Orlando Magic are a team that don’t like to run.
Through the opening stretch of the current campaign, the Magic have been unable to get much going in the open court, ranking either at or towards the very bottom of the league in the majority of metrics that measure this aspect of the game. Whether it’s fastbreak or transition points, or the disruptive nature of steals and deflections that fuel such chances, Orlando simply hasn’t been the type of team jumpstarting its offense with pace and the hardwood stretched out before them.
How significant is the scoreboard mismatch that the Magic’s current fastbreak allergy creates? And just how concerned should one be by the imbalance? Let’s look for some answers.
Going nowhere fast
It makes sense to first establish some context by identifying the central numbers. Through 17 games the Magic are averaging just 9.6 fastbreak points per game, last in the league by almost a whole point and a whopping 10.2 points fewer than the first-placed Raptors. It’s also a figure that only a pair of teams have failed to reach in the last four seasons, speaking to the relative paucity of the team’s running game. The Magic’s mark also represents a nightly 5.9 point differential when compared to their opposition, another handicapped scoring pathway that they must navigate in their pursuit of victory.
Additionally, the Magic are just one of three sides across the entire NBA slate so far to finish a game without a single fastbreak point to their name. They laid an egg in the open court in their November win over the Suns, a statistical oddity that has occurred just 41 times league-wide across the last two seasons. Across 48 minutes of game time a team is almost guaranteed to pick up at least one bucket on the break, even if it’s by accident.
(As an aside, the 2019/20 Magic somehow managed to achieve this non-feat three times, tied with the Knicks for the most in the league that season.)
Worth noting is that, while never a team of Wile E. Coyotes, this current outfit is certainly the least opportunistic version of this iteration of the Magic. Last season the team ranked just 24th in terms of fastbreak points per-contest, although the 11.6 points they put up is a significant increase over the current rate. They were also right by league-average in the aftermath of the trade deadline in the previous campaign, averaging 12.2 points each night across the final 15 games. Considering the minimal roster turnover in that time, it’s an interesting observation.
The Magic have also struggled to generate points from general transition opportunities, another outcome reflective of the side’s absent running game. Orlando ranks as one of the league’s most ineffective transition teams, their 16.2 points per-night equating to just 0.99 points per- possession. The cause? A woeful 46.2% finishing rate from the floor during such sequences, 30th league-wide and a factor which is nullifying the slightly above-average rate at which they both protect the ball and draw fouls when out in transition.
These transition chances aren’t the pure numbers advantage that a fastbreak represents, but they are moments of play during which the Magic are attacking a still scattered defense. Unfortunately, they simply haven’t been very successful during these sequences, failing to find the bottom of the basket and perhaps speaking to a collective finishing touch that still requires refinement. It’s also likely that the scarcity of healthy point guard options has been a contributing factor to these numbers.
Why don’t you run from me?
Much of the reason for this lack of running can be found in the team’s defensive numbers. As a unit the Magic simply don’t force the opposition to cough the ball up all that much, with a 27th-ranked defensive turnover rate of just 11.8%. This is further supported by the 5.9 steals per-game that the team averages, the second-smallest figure across the league. As it stands, Jalen Suggs is currently the only Magic player averaging at least one steal each night, and the only player on the roster even in the top-100 league-wide.
Intuitively, this makes some sense. Orlando has prioritized height through the season’s opening stretch, frequently playing jumbo-sized lineups that are strong on the defensive glass and in block totals, but less so when it comes to the pilfering of pockets and burglary of passing lanes. Swatting a shot rarely leads to a leak-out at the other end, so it stands to reason that this sort of defensive skillset isn’t jumpstarting the break.
There’s also the fact that the Magic frequently settle into a relatively conservative defensive scheme, one that again naturally limits the capacity of the team to get out and run. Switches and soft hedges are more likely on the perimeter than an aggressive blitz, and we already know that they’re ceding a significant number of open looks from three – a shot profile that deflates the frequency of opposition passes and dribbles that might result in a fortunate turnover.
Some of the hustle stats that the league tracks further support this assessment. The Magic generate just 12.6 deflections per-contest, while also recovering only 48.1% of the balls that pop loose when they’re defending. Both of those figures rank comfortably in the league’s bottom third, and there’s a notable level of correlation evident between these numbers and the teams that lag when it comes to the fastbreak. However, the deflection totals, in particular, are surprising when it comes to Orlando’s context; despite the roster being a wellspring of wingspan, the team’s long limbs just don’t get disruptive hands to a ball in motion all that frequently.
The question now is whether this aspect of Orlando’s identity will stick, and just how much that ultimately matters. Will the fastbreak and transition elements of the game look any different for the Magic once the wounded cavalry return? If size is slowing the team down, will the injection of a fully healthy and unrestricted Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, and Jalen Suggs add some spice in the open court?
Honestly, probably not, and that might just be the best outcome anyway. The Magic lean heavily on Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero as key playmakers, a fact which isn’t likely to change all that much even if the medical tent empties. It also appears that the team is heavily committed to both the enticing talent of the plus-sized lineups and the nature of the defensive scheme that this sort of deployment lends itself towards.
The team’s conservative approach to the open court is also likely a way of mitigating turnovers and ensuring complete possessions. The Magic are already a team that struggles with ball security, evident in the fact they sport the fourth-worst turnover percentage in the NBA (14.8%). As such, not hunting opportunities to run – sequences which frequently exacerbate inexperienced decision making and poor threat evaluation – may actually be about prioritizing defensive fundamentals and keeping the ball in hand on offense. That, comparatively speaking, they’re currently better at limiting turnovers in transition perhaps suggests that they’re smartly picking their spots to run.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that the Magic aren’t a slow team, really, a fact which the side’s very-close-to-average pace speaks to. They are, however, a methodical outfit in terms of how they approach the halfcourt. While it’s somewhat surprising that the side’s long limbs and generally athletic profile isn’t causing more disruption on defense, it’s actually understandable that Orlando isn’t operating at breakneck speed; jumbo lineups, 6-10 playmakers, a commitment to locking down the paint, and an injury-depleted backcourt is basically a perfect confluence of circumstances that would keep any team from running.
It would certainly be nice to see the Magic get a few more easy baskets each night, particularly in the context of the largely close contests they’ve been competing in. However, because of both roster deployment and in-game stratagem, it’s seemingly unlikely to be the case.
Not every team likes to run. Let’s hope for the Magic that, despite their aversion to the fastbreak, they’re still able to stay in the race.