The Orlando Magic’s fall has been hard to stomach, but easy to spot. The team is not passing as effectively and the team is struggling to get it back.
Coach Frank Vogel had clearly had enough of the Orlando Magic’s lackadaisical play. He had given his regular lineup enough time to figure things out on their own as their losing streak ballooned to seven games. Vogel was going to force his team back into strong play through quick substitutions for mistakes and poor effort.
He could not hold every mistake accountable of course. That is part of the game. It is rather doing the simple things he emphasized and playing without the energy that would draw his ire.
Early hooks for Elfrid Payton for a poor box out and Aaron Gordon for quick shots were the most notable early changes. And they largely worked during a first quarter that saw the Orlando Magic keeping pace with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Orlando had good energy in this quarter. The team was flying to the ball and trying to rotate to cover for each other. Terrence Ross made a couple of steals and the team got out in transition. In brief glimpses, the Magic looked like the devastating team from earlier in the season.
That quickly dissipated. The rotations became too much and the team over-rotated. Orlando would send two guys to the shooter instead of fanning out to the reversals. Or they would both go to the next man, leaving a shooter open. J.J. Redick caught two defenders with a ball fake before draining an open 3-pointer.
Those are mistakes that happen in the course of the game. The team has to play through them and learn from them. They are mistakes that come from a team not on the same page.
But it is clear energy is not enough. Playing with pace and energy without execution is just running around without focus. That is not going to defeat the teams the Magic need to defeat to get themselves back on track. Orlando has to have renewed focus and intensity to get out of this rut.
Defense is all about trust. The Magic have lost the trust to cover for each other and the reliability that players will be there for each other. It is a big reason why teams are able to break them down so easily.
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Vogel has tried several strategies to jumpstart the defense — from over-emphasizing switching to keeping to a base set — and nothing seems to work. Indeed, it feels the Magic’s problems on both ends are intangible.
The 76ers, a heavy passing team that rarely uses one-on-one or isolation play, passed the Magic silly with 35 assists on 48 field goal makes. For the year, the 76ers are second in the league with 26.4 assists per game — assisting on 64.2 percent of their field goal makes per game. They have a 7.5 percent assist-to-pass ratio. Hardly the most in the league.
Philadelphia’s strong offense has been based on ball movement. Not necessarily ball movement that leads to assists on every pass, but one that keeps the defense guessing. And guessing is what leads to the mistakes the 76ers thrive on.
Statistically, the Magic are still one of the better passing and assist teams in the league. They average 24.0 assists per game, fourth-most in the league, and their 8.5 percent assist-to-pass ratio is third in the league. That is behind only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Those teams are known plenty for their ball movement.
Orlando has 24.0 assists per game on 40.0 field goal makes — 60 percent of their makes. It is clear the Magic thrive on assists field goals. The pass is incredibly important for this team and its ultimate success.
And that ultimately comes down to trust. Can the team trust the next man to make the right play? To take the best shot? To keep the ball moving?
Where things are different between the Magic and the 76ers is the ball movement. The 76ers average 3.8 secondary assists per game, the third most in the league. The Magic average only 2.3 secondary assists per game, the ninth-fewest in the league.
It is hard to know exactly how much to trust or use NBA.com’s passing statistics. Being able to complete passes does not speak to the effectiveness of those passes. Passing without purpose is just as negative as playing isolation basketball.
But Saturday saw the Magic playing without the pass. They did not accomplish the baseline trust Vogel needs of his team.
Orlando had 22 assists on 39 field goal makes — 56.4 percent of their makes. Orlando is clearly more successful when they move the ball. And a lack of effective passing is certainly part of the reason the Magic shot just 45.3 percent from the floor.
The team made 281 passes in Saturday’s loss to the 76ers. Orlando averages 283.1 per game. Again, raw passing numbers do not speak to the effectiveness of these passes. The reference point is the Warriors set 300 passes per game as their baseline goal when passing statistics first became widely available.
In any case, Orlando could use a little more ball movement.
And that all comes down to trust again. Do players trust each other to make the right play? Do they trust each other to make the right shot? To keep the ball moving?
Stagnation has characterized the Magic’s offense for some time now. The team’s field goal percentage has dropped precipitously in the last 12 games. Things are as simple as that.
The Magic passed less when they were winning according to passing statistics — even averaging the fewest secondary assists in the league during that stretch. It is clear passing is not so much the problem as effective passing.
Orlando is trying to go at things alone and are passing out of necessity rather than out of effectiveness to get the next best shot.
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When the Magic are playing at their best they are looking for that next shot and whipping the ball around. It is the plays like the one Terrence Ross made when he took a pass on the weak side and stared down Joel Embiid coming at him as the defense collapsed. He passed the ball back out to the perimeter for an open 3-pointer.
These are the plays the Magic have missed more and more lately. The kind of ball movement that comes from a team trusting each other and keeping the ball moving in an effective way.
Trust is a tough thing to quantify. It is easy to see when it happens — the Magic had plenty of trust in the first eight games. And it is easy to see when it does not — see losses in 10 of the last 12 games.
This is the trust the Magic have to get back. They need to pass more effectively, making the plays at the right time. They need to stop trying to force action or isolations — the team still has the third-fewest isolations in the league at 4.7 percent of plays. This is not who this team is.
This team is a passing team. And to be successful the team needs to be efficient with its passing — leading to shots and assists.
That is the identity the Magic need to return to.