Orlando Magic still hunting for their pace

Markelle Fultz is learning to play point guard while also trying to figure out a way to increase the Orlando Magic's pace. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz is learning to play point guard while also trying to figure out a way to increase the Orlando Magic's pace. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic promised they would play with pace this season. But the team has found itself stuck again and again and unable to build the speed it needs.

The buzz word throughout training camp for the Orlando Magic was pace.

Coach Steve Clifford said the team had to play with more pace wherever he went. It was about getting more transition opportunities and flowing into the offense quicker. The team wanted to use its length and athleticism to move the defense and free up shooters on the perimeter.

There would still be a healthy diet of pick and rolls and a few post-ups for Nikola Vucevic. But the team was going to try to incorporate more movement. They could play through Nikola Vucevic in the high post, leveraging his passing and the threat of his outside shooting and look to create space for slashers like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac with Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross able to space the floor.

It all sounded so good. The team may not have had a perfect fit for everyone — everyone recognized the lack of shooting on the team — but there was the potential to unlock a fast and exciting team.

The unfortunate thing for the Magic is almost the exact opposite has occurred.

Orlando is near the bottom of the league in terms of pace (possessions per 48 minutes). But beyond those numbers, this is a slow, methodical team offensively.

There is not free movement and easy passing to try to loosen the defense. It becomes a series of pick and rolls and a team trying to set up individual plays rather than reading and reacting.

The pace the Magic were supposed to play at has not come to pass. And the team’s offense has cratered even more than perhaps expected for it.

"“I think sometimes when other teams score, we get out of our pace,” Markelle Fultz said after practice Sunday. “It’s us learning no matter what the score is, we should always play the same way. I think it’s more so us learning and getting the reps in. I think it’s a team thing. We know this, so we’re going to try to work on it and get better.”"

The Magic are 28th in the league in pace, defined as possessions per 48 minutes, with 98.1 possessions per 48 minutes. Last year, the team was 24th at 98.7 possessions per 48 minutes. The team had a noticeable uptick in pace in terms of number of possessions during their playoff run with 99.4 possessions per 48 minutes.

This year, Orlando ranks 24th in fast-break points with 11.6 per game. They are not getting out in transition very much.

By these metrics, at least, the Magic remain a plodding team. Even though the Magic get their fair share of blocks and steals, they are not converting those into easy transition points.

That is obviously an easy way to get the pace up. And players will point to this as the first thing they have to do to increase their pace.

Real Pace

But the number of possessions a team has is not really how coaches describe pace. When they talk about pace, they are talking about how quickly their team gets into and runs their offense.

This is also part of the equation for the Magic. They are not running through their offense effectively.

That is shown in the numbers, of course. The Magic’s offense is 26th in the league at 105.0 points per 100 possessions. Orlando’s offense is not working and not moving effectively. And breaking things down further only shows that more.

According to Inpredictable, the Magic average the fourth-longest possessions in the league with 14.8 seconds per possession. Orlando takes the longest on possessions after made shots, averaging 18.1 seconds per possession. The team is also last in points per possession with 0.99 points per possession.

Orlando struggles more than any other team against set defenses, in other words.

This shows how the Magic’s struggles compound when the team does not defend well. The team is not much “quicker” with getting good shots in any other fashion Inpredictable records. But the team scores a lot more often, significantly so, when opponents miss shots. That is true across the league, but perhaps not to this degree.

These numbers merely show the Magic work methodically through their offense. That is not necessarily bad.

It becomes bad when the team struggles to move the ball. Without a high assist rate, the Magic are really spinning their wheels taking up all this time.

This combination of things shows an offense that is stuck.

"“I do think at the same time, that’s where moving is even more critical,” Clifford said after Sunday’s practice. “Even if it is just a couple of steps. If you are stationary, say you come down and play high pick and roll, and they are not guarding you then there is nowhere for the ball handler to go or even the roller. The more you can move them, even if it is one or two steps, it makes a difference.”"

A variation of this is something Clifford has preached throughout the season. At certain points, Clifford has openly said the team needs to move the ball just to move the ball sometimes to get the defense to move.

Moving the ball

The Magic have a 59.3 percent assist rate (17th in the league), suggesting the team does not move the ball that effectively. Orlando is still at its best when it works the ball for assists. The team is not going to be a team that can win in isolation.

The Magic have the lowest frequency of isolation plays in the league, according to Synergy data. Their 0.77 points per possession on isolation possessions is ahead of only the Charlotte Hornets.

The Magic run the eighth-most pick and rolls where the ball handler makes a play, according to Synergy. They are 11th in this stat category with 0.88 points per possession.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

These are probably the two most consistent areas where ball handling leads to scoring. These are also two relatively inefficient ways to score. And the Magic tend to run a lot of pick and rolls — 21.6 percent of their possessions involve the ball handler and 6.8 percent involve the roll man.

What the Magic do not get a lot of is spot-up shots. The Magic have the fourth-fewest possession in the league that end in spot-up shots. Orlando still only has a 44.9 percent effective field goal percentage.

These are shots that typically end in assists. The Magic’s pace is down at least in part because the ball is not moving. That much is clear just from watching the game.

"“It’s about getting the defense on the move,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “We have to move the defense with a team like ours. It’s five-man basketball and we’ve got to move the defense and have different ways to put pressure on the defense and then make the right play. When we do, we’re good. But pace is a big part of that.”"

Clifford surmised that the injuries and lack of continuity have hurt the team’s pace in some respects. Players do not quite know how to work together or where everyone is going to be.

But it definitely does not explain everything. Neither does the lack of transition opportunities.

Setting the pace

The poor ball movement and pace is at least partly because of the team’s poor shooting and poor spacing. Teams are able to collapse the lane and cut off drivers or not give any driving lanes to begin with. Orlando does not have a way to get the defense to move and react consistently.

This is one reason why fans want to see Markelle Fultz on the ball move. He can at least beat his man off the dribble and create the collapse. And it is a reason why fans want to see Khem Birch out of the starting lineup — teams do not bother with him defensively and he does not space the floor at all, leaving Vucevic on the perimeter primarily.

This lack of pace and the Magic’s struggles to find a way to loosen everything up is putting a cap on everyone. Orlando is not playing its optimal style.

"“Make or miss, getting us into our offense quicker on a make and then on a miss always trying to get the ball up the court fast and having these guys run with me is a key,” Fultz said after practice Sunday. “I think that’s the quickest way to help with the pace of things. There are also times where we might have a bad possession and we need to get a good shot. It’s about making sure our guys get into the right spot, but also a little bit quicker. I’m learning a lot and I’m trying to adjust as fast as I can.”"

The Magic are still adjusting and still trying to find their way this season. Yes, even nearly 50 games in.

They have not found their pace and how to make themselves most effective. Making shots would help. So too would getting stops to feed their transition.

Next. Joanthan Isaac's absence present in recent slide. dark

Everything is connected in that way. And the Magic’s poor play is connected to their slow pace offensively.