Where we last left the Orlando Magic: Offense finally comes around

Aaron Gordon has struggled offensively this year for the Orlando Magic. Without Jonathan Isaac, Gordon has to snap out of his funk. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon has struggled offensively this year for the Orlando Magic. Without Jonathan Isaac, Gordon has to snap out of his funk. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic struggled to shoot and score for much of the season. Then suddenly the offense surged ahead and became the team’s greatest strength.

There is one undeniable weakness when it comes to the Orlando Magic. It is one even the team is likely to admit they had to overcome throughout the season. It is one even coach Steve Clifford had to concede before the season.

His conceptualization for the team’s success had them finishing in the top-10 in defensive rating but only the top half of the league in offensive rating. That is all the Magic would need to have a “successful” season, making the Playoffs and perhaps taking the next step in their development.

The Magic understood they would have to fight to score and rely on their defense to get there.

But they probably did not think they would struggle this much. Or that their ideas for maximizing their somewhat mismatched roster would take so long to figure out.

The story of the 2020 season is about injuries and the Magic’s inability to create consistency. But it is also about a team that could not do the simplest act in the game.

For much of the season, the Magic ranked last or near-last in most offensive categories.

As things stand for the season, the Magic are 24th in the league in offensive rating, scoring 107.5 points per 100 possessions. Orlando is 28th in effective field goal percentage at 50.3 percent and 25th in 3-point field goal percentage at 35.1 percent.

The offensive numbers are all not good.

Orlando lost a lot of games early in the season because the offense was simply not good enough to boost what was then one of the strongest defenses in the league. At a rudimentary level, the Magic did not score 100 points in a game until the eighth game of the season.

Clearing even that basic hurdle proved to be extremely difficult. And as we begin to eye the offseason, it is clear that Orlando’s biggest need remains to find shooting.

Collecting versatile, defensive-minded wings like Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke (for next year) and Al-Farouq Aminu has been valuable in establishing the team’s defensive mindset. But Orlando clearly needs this shooting piece to get to its next level.

But things were turning the corner for the Magic just as the season was entering its hiatus.

Actually, things dramatically turned a corner in completely unexpected ways. And much like how last March saw the team make a huge leap offensively to make the incredible push into the Playoffs. This year saw a similar turn in the offense.

Whether it was consistency in the lineup, finding the right combination of players and rotations (like last year) or just using players in a more effective way, the Magic offense was suddenly the envy of the league and a dangerous weapon.

It was actually covering up for the team’s recent defensive shortcomings.

An All-Star Break surge for the Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic had the top offense in the league after the All-Star Break, going from a paltry 105.5 points per 100 possessions (27th in the league) before the break to 117.8 points per 100 possessions.

The Magic did not do a whole lot of fundamental changes. They made shots and placed key players like Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon closer to the basket. After dealing with ankle injuries suffered in November, they both hit their stride at the same time.

Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are two of Orlando’s most important players. Last year, they were the team’s top two scorers. Along with Evan Fournier, who has just been consistently good offensively all year, keeping the team afloat most notably in November with both Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic out, those three really take the team’s temperature offensively.

Vucevic went from averaging 19.0 points per game on 45.8-percent shooting before the All-Star Break to 21.8 points per game on 52.0-percent shooting.

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Gordon went from averaging 14.2 points on 42.4-percent shooting to 15.4 points per game on 47.7-percent shooting. He added 9.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, significant increases from his pre-All-Star Break averages.

Neither shot the ball particularly well from deep after the break either. Orlando put a greater focus on getting them working closer to the basket and in areas where they could score. And the two converted at a much higher rate.

Orlando also put the ball in Markelle Fultz’s hands a lot more. That enabled the team to run a lot more in transition and create more movement off the ball. Markelle Fultz puts incredible pressure on defenses with his driving and finishing ability. And he is a strong passer that could set up shooters on the outside.

But more than that, the increased pace and transition put a lot more pressure on defenses. It got Orlando a lot more in the paint — their points in the paint increased from 44.7 points per game (26th) before the All-Star Break to 51.8 per game (7th in the league).

Orlando Magic still have 3-point question

What was really surprising was that the Orlando Magic did all this without adding much 3-point shooting.

Sure, Michael Carter-Williams started hitting threes at a strong rate — 36.4 percent shooting — and Terrence Ross started becoming a flamethrower shooting at 50.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Terrence Ross’ surge really changes a lot for the Magic because of how quickly he can catch fire and hit a bunch of threes. And that warps the defense especially with how the Magic focus their offense on his cutting.

But three of the Magic’s key offensive players did not do much from beyond the arc. Aaron Gordon made just 25.8 percent from deep and Nikola Vucevic made only 23.5 percent. Evan Fournier continued his consistent shooting after the break, making 39.6 percent of his 3-pointers.

But he missed the final three games before the season went on hiatus. And the Magic still averaged 126.0 points per game.

Something was very different about the team. It is a lot more complex than the Magic just started hitting shots. But maybe it really was that simple. Orlando did a better job getting open shots.

After the All-Star Break, the Magic were fourth in the league with 22.9 “wide-open” field goal attempts per game, measured as the closest defender being more than six feet away. The team was eighth in the league in effective field goal percentage on “open” shots, when the defender is 4-6 feet away, at 56.0 percent.

The team was at 48.9 percent effective field goal percentage on open shots before the All-Star Break (29th in the league) and took just 19.2 “wide-open” field goal attempts per game.

Orlando got better shots and made them. The difference in the results is that simple.

Orlando Magic find lineup consistency

Consistency was important too, especially in a year full of injuries.

The Orlando Magic found some lineup stability inserting James Ennis into the starting lineup after acquiring him at the trade deadline, moving Aaron Gordon to power forward full time.

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  • Gordon had picked up his playmaking and became a far more dangerous passing and playmaking weapon working closer to the basket, even as he continued to struggle to shoot.

    Orlando hit on something offensively that it had been missing throughout the year. The Magic found a rhythm and kept on the attack as they gained confidence and trust in each other. Playing without any major injuries to key players was certainly big.

    It is unclear whether this was sustainable. But it was a sign something had clicked and worked. The Magic beat up on a softer schedule for sure, but that still does not explain how suddenly the offense turned around — or how the Orlando Magic completely worked the Houston Rockets on the road in a 126-106 rout.

    The team’s final win over the Memphis Grizzlies really hleped the team put everything together. The team got its offense going int he second half, but also had its defense playing at a high level to erase a sizable deficit.

    The post-break10-game sample size is not too small to ignore. But it is still fairly small. And the majority of the season was spent offensively anemic. The team just could not score consistently.

    That is at the heart of the problem of defeating good teams. The Magic could never rely on their offense.

    But they found something that worked. And the Magic are eager to see if they can jump right back in and do it again. But that is not entirely clear.

    It feels like the Magic will have to start completely over. They will have to find their rhythm again.

    Next. Where the Magic Left Off: A softer schedule ahead. dark

    Unlike the start of the season, perhaps part of that formula is solved.