Earlier this season, the Orlando Magic had this starting line-up for a professional basketball game: E’Twaun Moore, DeQuan Jones, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic. It was their second game of the season and they were already short-handed by injuries, but guess what: They won. Sure, it was against the Phoenix Suns, but to get a win with that cast is mighty impressive and it gave Orlando a 2-0 start to the season (they won their season opener against the Nuggets, too). Predictably, Orlando lost their next five games and 10 of their next 13, mostly because this is a team with a bunch of new and not overly talented pieces and a new coach still learning the gig.
But I’ll be darned if this team doesn’t have stretches of some very entertaining and fluid basketball. This year’s Magic squad is one devoid of a star player, and though that shouldn’t be the case considering they just traded the best center of the past decade, it’s created an Orlando team that is unselfish and hard working. Don’t confuse that with good, because the Magic aren’t there yet, but when they’ve been healthy, Orlando has been competitive and fun to watch.
As a whole, Orlando’s offense has been horrible this season, scoring a paltry 97.1 points per 100 possessions, which is the third worst offensive efficiency in the league. Playing guys like DeQuan Jones and putting Josh McRoberts at small forward without a dominant creator on the floor will do that to you. But when Jameer Nelson has been healthy and Jacque Vaughn has put J.J. Redick on the floor with the rest of his starters, the returns have been impressive.
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The Nelson, Redick, Afflalo, Davis and Vucevic line-up has played 79 minutes so far this season, which is the second most amount of minutes for any of the Magic’s line-ups this year. When that unit has been on the floor, the Magic have scored at a ridiculous rate, posting 122.4 points per 100 possessions, which is over 10 points higher than New York’s league leading offensive efficiency of 111.3. And that’s not it. That line-up has also held the opposition to 98.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank eighth in the league right now. The small sample size caveat must be mentioned, but the majority of those minutes have come against the Lakers, Warriors, Hawks and Spurs, all solid defensive teams.
With that bunch on the floor, the Magic have five capable passers, two floor stretching wing players, a shooting guard that can scramble the defense without even touching the ball, and an OK point guard. Orlando’s horns-heavy offense takes advantage of some skilled passing big men like Vucevic and League Pass nerd favorite Gustavo Ayon. Even Josh McRoberts can make a play or two from the high post. Aside from facilitating, the Magic also place their big men at the foulline to act as the focal point of their off screen sets for J.J. Redick, which is the most important element of Orlando’s offense.
You’ve earned the term “basketball on grass before.” Well, when Redick is on the floor, the Magic are playing football on the hardwood. Nelson or even E’Twaun Moore are the quarterbacks, distracting defenses with their dribble while the misdirection occurs down the field. Vucevic, Davis and Ayon act as Orlando’s lineman, blocking defenders with screens and Redick gets to the spots on the floor where he needs to go. And then there’s Redick, the ultimate wide receiver, running every pattern on the route tree on a nightly basis.
Redick has improved so much over the past few seasons. He too looks like a quarterback once he gets the ball off of those screens with how quickly and accurately he makes his reads. Redick does a terrific job of instantaneously deciding whether or not he has enough space to shoot upon catching the ball and teams that switch or double Redick on the catch pay for it when he slips some pretty pocket passes to his big men, who have become adept at rolling after getting Redick free. Redick has the best assist rate amongst shooting guards this year, with his 26.6 mark beating out that of Manu Ginobili (24.4), who is a hell of a playmaker himself. Manu is obviously at creating looks for others with his dribble penetration, but Redick’s way of getting his teammates open shots in special in it’s own right.
According to the NBA’s stats cube, when Redick is on the floor the Magic score 100.8 points per 100 possessions. While that’s not a great rate, it’s significantly better than the 91.5 offensive efficiency that Orlando has when Redick is on the bench. He truly changes the game offensively for Orlando because of the threat he poses to the opposition. The Magic run some very nice looking sets and Redick can discombobulate a defense with the threat of him catching the ball on the move.
There is one play in particular that Orlando likes to run that I am fond of. It starts with Nelson walking the ball up the middle of the floor while Afflalo and Redick run down to the corners and await pindown screens from Vucevic and Davis. Afflalo will curl off of his down screen, flashing at the free throw line before cutting to the corner that Redick vacated. Meanwhile, Redick uses his downscreen as a bluff and instead runs the baseline and uses the same downscreen that Afflalo did to pop to the left wing. Nelson delivers the ball to Redick, and there are several options from here depending on how the defense plays him. He can hit Vucevic on the roll, he can shoot the three or, if the point guard cheats too far towards him, he can hit Nelson at the top of the key for a three. Even if the Magic don’t get a shot off of this action, it leaves them with 10 seconds or so to run secondary action, usually a pick-and-roll, and the floor is spaced well against a defense that may have switched or over rotated to cover the primary play.
Afflalo is off to a rough start to the season shooting the ball, but his performance against the Lakers (30 points, 11-of-18 shooting, 4-of-8 from three) and the Warriors (24 points, 9-of-16 shooting, 2-of-5 from three) have been promising. If Afflalo can get his shot on track, then he should be one of the more efficient offensive players in the league, which is what he was for the Nuggets. He’s not a primary option, but I really like him as a second or third guy and he’s becoming more than just a spot-up shooter. The Nuggets post him up a couple of times a game and he’s shown a pretty effective turnaround jumper. Orlando is also using Afflalo in pick-and-rolls more often than he did with the Nuggets. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Afflalo has finished 32 plays as the ball-handler this season. He finished 34 such plays in 62 games last season. He hasn’t been particularly effective, but subtle expansions to one’s game like that can make them more able to carry a heavier offensive load in the long run.
Davis is the closest thing the Magic have to a star, not because he produces like one, but because he has no qualms having the same usage percentage as one (as of now, he’s used the same amount of Orlando’s possessions as Dwight Howard did last season). Davis is a gunner, but he tends to take a lot of shots out of function, too. By all means, he should stop taking so many mid-range jumpers (he’s averaging seven a game right now on 35% shooting, per NBA.com), but a lot of those looks are wide open off of pick-and-pops. It’d be easier to crush Davis for his shot selection if he didn’t have a career high in assist and rebound rates right now, which have led to Davis’ first above average PER of his career (16.33). Davis isn’t a pure passer, but he’s improved, and he’s even made some nice dishes on the move. If Davis can ever improve his mid-range stroke, or significantly cut down on his attempts, his career would change for the better. For now, he’s doing an OK job for the Magic as their defacto number one option, but him being the de facto number one option is why the Magic aren’t very good.
Vucevic and Ayon are two of my favorite players in the league. They have their limitations, but they are both good as passers from the elbows and fit well with this team.
Ayon, who the Hornets brought over last season at an incredibly low price, has a 19.4 assist rate in limited minutes, which ranks fifth amongst power forwards (for reference: Pau Gasol’s assist rate is 19.0; McRoberts is second amongst PFs with a 22.7 assist rate, albeit in a small sample size). Ayon is so skilled and is very underrated. He’s a smart defensive player that makes good reads on offense and has a decent 15-foot jumper. Ayon is not exactly at prospect since he entered the league at a late age (he’s 27 right now), so I’m hoping he gets a chance to play more than 12 minutes per game this season.
Nelson is the one odd fit here. I can’t think of a single reason why the Magic handed him a three-year, $25 million extension this off-season. He was terrible last season when operating the pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard, so keeping him around with this cast made absolutely no sense. Sure, starting Ish Smith or E’Twaun Moore at point guard all season long would have been torture, but in the long run, losing games with those guys is better for the team than winning a few extra games with Nelson at the helm. Nelson, who is 30 years old by the way, can be effective on some nights (he had 19 points and 13 dimes against the Lakers), but he hasn’t shot well in a couple of seasons and his contract will be a burden on this team over the next couple of years.
Orlando got screwed in the Dwight Howard deal, failing to receive a single true foundational piece in return (though I do really like Afflalo). But I can’t help but not like this team. The combination of fluid basketball, at least when their best players are on the floor, and some interesting young pieces (Moe Harkless already looks like one of the better perimeter defenders in the league), makes this team fun to watch.
Here is a look at some of Orlando’s better offensive sets.