Orlando Magic’s close losses a sign of progress

Apr 10, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (center) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (left) and forward Joe Johnson (right) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 10, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (center) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (left) and forward Joe Johnson (right) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2015-2016 Orlando Magic had a penchant for blowing leads, but paradoxically, it might be a sign of good things to come.

If you watch enough sports, one of the clichés you will hear repeatedly from athletes is the importance of being in a “position to win.”

Most of the time, you hear those types of statements from the losing side (if they won, they would talk about actually winning and coming through in the end), but the underlying sentiment is one that makes sense for both sides – you cannot always control the win/loss outcome of a given game, but being in situations conducive to winning is an obvious first step to actually winning.

A common lament this season from Orlando Magic fans is the feeling the team has blown more than its share of winnable games.

That feeling seems to have some statistical backing too.

Take a look at this table summarizing all 10 games this season in which the Magic achieved at least an 80 percent win probability and went on to lose (according to statistical models from Inpredictable):

DATEGAMEPeak win probabilityTime left, lead
10/28/2015vsWAS92.8%1:40, up 5
10/30/2015vsOKC98.4%3:11, up 10
12/5/2015atLAC94.7%5:27, up 10
12/26/2015vsMIA89.7%9:16-3Q, up 14
1/22/2016vsCHA99.3%5:03, up 13
1/25/2016atMEM96.6%0:17, up 4
2/3/2016atOKC85.7%0:57, up 2
2/10/2016vsSA96.3%10:22, up 14
3/20/2016atTOR80.8%7:33, up 6
4/1/2016atMIL86.9%2:39, up 5

Thinking back to all of these blown games is painful and not for the faint of heart.

For context with the league’s performance in these kinds of games,  the Magic ranked fifth in the league by “loss comeback factor” (Inpredictable’s statistic for how “comeback-ish” a team’s losses were), so it does appear the Magic had more trouble than other teams closing out games that they should have won.

However, what these losses say about the Magic can certainly be debated.

Pundits often talk about the inability to hold onto leads as a mark of a team that is just not ready to win, a team not mature enough to be a playoff contender. Maybe the team’s explicitly stated search for a veteran star is, at least in part, an effort to address issues like closing games out.

In 2015, the Magic were also in the top-10 in loss comeback factor when they won 25 games and played in 14 games decided by three points or less, going 6-8. Figuring out how to win more games down the stretch is undoubtedly part of the formula for the Magic taking the next step to relevance.

But many observers miss a crucial piece of context, namely that many of the teams that blow leads are playoff-caliber teams.

Of the top 10 teams in “loss comeback factor,” only the Magic and the Utah Jazz are non-playoff teams, and the Jazz barely missed out on the last day of the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers rank first and third, respectively, in blowing leads!

This trend makes some sense: Good teams put themselves in positions to win games, so on the occasions they lose, it is usually because their opponents had to come back to win. Of course, what usually happens with good teams is they get in position to win, and then pull away for a blowout — the Magic had only five games where they won by 20 or more points. The San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers lead the league in that category (the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Spurs are also all in the bottom 7 in “win comeback factor,” meaning that they are not usually scrambling for their wins at the ends of games).

Somewhat paradoxically, it can be a promising sign the Magic have lost so many games in this fashion because it is a measure of progress.

It goes without saying the team would rather win these games, but it is encouraging they played well enough to get into good position so often in the first place. The leap to winning these games is much smaller than for teams that do not position themselves well for stretch runs at the ends of games.

With this context in mind, the outlook for the Magic is a bit sunnier — these blown leads are not necessarily indicative of a bad team, but of a team that with just some slight improvements could be pretty good.

Moreover blowing leads often leads to close games down the stretch, and one look at teams’ records in close games (decided by three points or less) shows luck plays a large role in the outcomes of those games (i.e., good teams do not necessarily demonstrate a greater ability to win those types of games than bad teams).

Indeed, the Magic played 16 such close games this year and went a somewhat unfortunate 6-10 in those games, playing fewer such games than only the Indiana Pacers (18) and Dallas Mavericks (17). Just a bit of luck and a few of those blown leads still result in close wins anyway.

In general, the path to playoff relevance next year seems a bit clearer with these stats.

ESPN RPI put the Magic’s Pythagorean-expected record at 36-46 this past year, so the team was already slightly unlucky to finish with just 35 wins. If the Magic convert any five of the blown games from the table (e.g., all of the games that reached 94 percent-plus win probability), then just three more wins’ worth of luck, internal improvement and offseason transactions gets the team to 44 wins next year (the Detroit Pistons are in the playoffs this year at 44-38).

Therefore, the Magic might not be as far away from relevance as some might think.

They largely put themselves in position to win many games, and although the results did not meet the playoff expectations this year, the process seems to be in place provided the team continues to grow.

Next: Orlando Magic left wondering when to turn the corner

If the chips fall just a bit differently next year, it is not hard to imagine the playoffs returning to Orlando.