There was maybe one thing the Magic did OK offensively in the first half of Monday night's loss to the Clippers. And if there is one truly demonstrable thing the team has improved on offensively, it was indeed this one thing.
In the first half against the Clippers, the Magic were able to get to the foul line. Making those free throws was and has been another story for the Magic, but getting there was undoubtedly a larger focus for this team entering the year. If only because last season was a complete disaster and a near-worst NBA record for free throw attempts and free throw rate.
The Magic last season posted a free throw rate of 14.9 percent and a league-worst 1,359 free throw attempts. Along with the 76ers, this rate was a historic low. Only six teams since 1999 have shot that many free throws or fewer in a season. The sub-15 percent free throw rate is one of the four worst rates in NBA history (the Sixers set the record last year for worst free throw rate in league history).
Undoubtedly, if the Magic wanted to improve upon their 20-win season, getting to the line more would be critical to getting some free points and easy opportunities to score.
At the beginning of the season, this was indeed a focus for the team.
"I would say, yes, it is a priority for us," Jacque Vaughn said early this season. "I think we were probably bottoms in the league last year. When you can get to the free throw line, it puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team. When you can have guys break down the defense and cause havoc at the rim offensively for you, that's a good thing.
"That's why our perimeter guys needed to work on their ball handling, their decision making and being ability to play the pick and roll. I think that's what Victor adds, his ability to get to the rim for us, break down defense. Yes, it is a priority. I think overall it's a good thing when you can get to the free throw line."
Early on this was more than just lip service. Kyle O'Quinn said coaches were talking more about getting to the foul line and drawing up plays to try to create free throw opportunities.
So how are they doing?
The Magic have shot 707 free throw attempts this season entering Wednesday's game in Portland, good for 25th in the league. That is 20.8 free throw attempts per game. Certainly a much stronger number. The team's free throw rate is up to 18.8 percent, good for 24th in the league.
Orlando is not exactly parading to the foul line on every possession, but the team is getting to the line more, accomplishing at least a small goal the team set out in preseason.
"The fact that we are shooting 20 free throws a game, we'll take that," Vaughn said. "Would I love to get to 30? Yes. Being able to feel the game when the opposing team has four fouls and how that directs the rest of your play, can we be smart enough to to take advantage of that? Yes. Hopefully our guards that are in the game at the same time take advantage of that. I would love to get to the line 30 times a game."
And getting to the line appears to start with how the Magic's guards are playing and attacking the basket. Arron Afflalo leads the team with 160 free throw attempts and 4.8 per game. Victor Oladipo is second with 137 attempts and 4.0 per game. Free throw attempts from anyone else besides these two creators is getting a bit scarce.
Oladipo has the highest free throw rate at 35.6 percent of free throw attempts per field goal attempts. That is something the Magic expected Oladipo to be able to do with his driving ability.
Generally, an attitude of trying to attack the basket and create for others is what is going to get the Magic to the line and make it easier for them to score.
Victor Oladipo's impact here is apparent already as he is 24th in the league in points per game on drives at 4.4, according to NBA.com's Player Tracking statistics. He generates 6.2 points per game for his team on drives — meaning, he likely adds one assist on drives too. It could be even higher if he were shooting better than 44.2 percent on drives.
That of course does not necessarily mean Oladipo is getting fouled or that the Magic are getting to the foul line more. But drives and free throws tend to correlate.
"I just think it's a mindset for our guys," Vaughn said. "The flow of the game created opportunities for us to be aggressive. I think our guys understand that makes the game a little bit easier if you get to the free throw line."
The effect of free throws and even just getting to the line — with all the inherent aggression and tempo that comes with controlling that part of the offense — has had little effect for the Magic so far this season. In Orlando's wins, the team is shooting 20.0 free throw attempts per game compared to 21.1 free throws per game.
Somehow, the Magic have consistently gotten to the line around 20 times and that has no effect on how the team is doing. It is very counterintuitive and Jacque Vaughn is not about to tell his players to stop attack and to stop trying to get to the basket and draw fouls.
Getting to the line does not necessarily equal wins — the Rockets (22-13), Clippers (24-13) and Timberwolves (17-17) lead the league in free throw attempts and the Rockets (27.5%), Thunder (25.5%) and Nets (25.2%) lead the league in free throws made per field goals attempted (what I have called free throw rate throughout this post).
This is one of the many areas this year where the Magic are playing better and showing improvement, but perhaps not showing the results or reaping their rewards as they continue their growth.
"I think [increase in free throws] it is us definitely getting better and us being more confident and playing more aggressive going to the basket," Nikola Vucevic said. "I think mostly it is guys being confident and knowing that they can really play hard and give everything they have. I think it comes from that."
With such little margin for error, the Magic can use every advantage they can get on the offensive end.
The confidence this year has gone in and out for the Magic. That is normal for a young team. And that can be seen in the free throw numbers too.
Of course, the next step is making them. The Magic are below average in free throw percentage and make just 74.8 percent of their foul shots. There are some puzzling anomalies in those numbers too — Maurice Harkless shoots only 56.7 percent from the line and gets there a lot and we know what happened with E'Twaun Moore last week.
The bottom line when it comes to free throws is that the Magic can be a better offensive team when they get there, but it is not the be-all for wins. Knowing how this Orlando offense goes, any opportunity to score is one that they need to get.