Orlando Magic Campus Checkpoint: Pace is king

Controlling and playing with pace has been one of the most difficult things for the Orlando Magic in the campus. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Controlling and playing with pace has been one of the most difficult things for the Orlando Magic in the campus. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have stressed pace all season long and struggled to find it. Midway through their play in the bubble, the Magic are still searching for it

The number one thing the Orlando Magic talked about all offseason was pace.

They wanted to get out on the break more and run in transition, using some of their youth and defensive length to spur offense. This they figured was their way to get around some of their shooting shortcomings.

Pace was not merely about getting out in transition though. It was also about how quickly the team moved through its offense. It was about the intensity and speed the team got through its sets, allowing them to catch teams off guard and move through more of their offense.

The Magic hammered this point home again and again and again. Everything was about it. It was quite literally the key to making some of their key players work better together.

It took a whole lot longer for that notion to sink in than anyone thought.

Finding the Magic’s pace proved to be a struggle throughout the season. The offense was stuck in the mud. That was at least a part of the team’s overall struggles to find consistency on that end.

When Orlando’s offense finally seemed to find its legs, a big factor and a big change were simply that the team got going up and down the floor more. Their tempo and their intensity changed.

Pace the deciding factor

That has been perhaps the deciding factor midway through the seeding round for the Magic. When they are able to dictate their tempo and play fast, they win. When they do not, the results have not been pretty.

The Magic’s offense had a pace of only 98.3 possessions per 48 minutes (28th in the league) through January 31. Starting in February until the hiatus, the Magic posted a 99.9 pace (18th in the league).

Orlando went from scoring 11.8 fast-break points per game (23rd in the league) through Jan. 31 to 12.1 per game from Feb. 1 until the hiatus.

That is a significant increase. It changed the way the Magic played and their offense took off, posting the best offensive rating in the league after the All-Star Break.

This again has been a buzz word as the Magic entered the campus.

Against the Brooklyn Nets, the Magic posted a pace of 104 possessions per 48 minutes with a 123.1 offensive rating although just seven fast-break points. Against the Sacramento Kings, the Magic bumped up to 104.5 possessions per 48 minutes with a 125.7 offensive rating and 12 fast-break points.

Quick attacks in transition and setting up their plays quicker enabled them to break down the defense and score easily. The team played with energy and aggression.

This is the definition of pace when coaches talk about it.

To drive this point home, things flipped and pace was a big factor in the Magic’s two losses as the team slowed down considerably and could not even meet these metrics of their speed.

Against the Indiana Pacers, the Orlando Magic slowed down to a pace of 98.0 possessions per 48 minutes with 13 fast-break points and a 112.4 offensive rating (defense was the bigger problem in that game). Against the Toronto Raptors saw the team play with a 103.5 pace and just 11 fast-break points.

Those raw numbers may not suggest quite the sudden slowdown. But watching the difference in how the Magic executed revealed a team struggling to initiate and move through sets quickly. They gave themselves fewer opportunities to get good shots.

The Magic love to get Terrence Ross shots off screens. But the effectiveness of those screens decreases when players are standing too still and the ball is not moving quickly. The waiting gives the defense, especially a strong defensive team like the Raptors, time to load up and prepare for the screen.

Pace creates unpredictability. When the Magic do not have it, teams can sit on their actions.

Evan Fournier noted after the game Wednesday the team’s offensive fortunes changed when they started playing faster. Pace is central to the team’s success. That becomes harder against stronger defenses and opponents.

More than a number

The number of transition points and opportunities is not everything contained in pace. It is more about rhythm and a way the team plays. Undoubtedly, the Orlando Magic’s offense peaked with a faster pace.

Some of that had to do with Markelle Fultz and his ability to command the offense — although some metrics suggest Fultz’s impact on pace in terms of possessions per 48 minutes is a bit overstated. The team is moving with more intensity and speed through their sets and that puts a lot more pressure on defenses.

But when the Magic struggled through the scrimmages and even early on against the Brooklyn Nets, it was because they were sluggish running through their sets. It was because they were unable to get into a rhythm and move quickly through their offense.

That was the biggest problem in the losses to the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors too. That is how the Magic got caught in traps and got caught taking tougher shots.

Here the Magic a bit slow to get into their set. The Raptors are able to load up and block off the paint, preventing any penetration. Orlando settles for the first shot they can get as the Raptors sink into the paint.

This is part of Toronto’s strategy. The Raptors give up 3-pointers, betting that those spot-up or pull-up shots are better than kickouts. To beat Toronto, teams have to be able to hit from the outside — and Orlando missed a lot of open threes.

To get those shots, the Magic have to be able to get out in transition and create paint touches before the defense gets set and before they can wall up the paint or trap ball handlers.

Ball movement

Pace is everything to this team’s success, especially as they still work to build consistency.

Going hand in hand with pace, and probably a deciding factor in how quickly a team gets through its offense, is moving the ball. The Magic’s success as a team is directly correlated to its ability to rack up assists and move the ball effectively and crisply.

This is how a narrow lead turns into a blowout. The deciding factor in games is how well a team executes and that is really determined by how strong a team’s passing is and can be.

The Magic are not a team that has a lot of offensive options. They are not asking any player to break a defense down in isolation. The Magic’s game bogs down when players try to do that — as well-intentioned as it might be.

Orlando has to rely and count on each other to be successful. The majority of its offense comes from passing and moving the ball. Any possession that starts and ends on the same side of the floor or with few passes is a bad possession.

The Magic are at their best when they attack the basket quickly or when they get inside the paint and kick out for open shots or the next action or attack to the paint.

Orlando is not a particularly high assist team — 24.2 assists per game is 16th in the league and 61.5-percent assist rate is 10th in the league. Since Feb. 1, the Magic have posted a 66.1-percent assist rate, climbing to fifth in the league.

For the season, the Magic average 48.0 potential assists per game according to Second Spectrum. That ranks fifth in the entire league. Orlando has an 8.9-percent assist to pass ratio, again fifth in the league.

The Magic rely very heavily on passing to get open shots.

These numbers have continued through the bubble.

Orlando is averaging 27.3 assists per game, 54.5 potential assists per game in their four games inside the Disney campus, the top mark in the league. They have a 9.5-percent assist-to-pass ratio. Their passes are creating shot opportunities. It is kind of the only way they create shot opportunities.

Plays like this are exactly what the team’s passing and pace is about. The ball starts in the paint, moves out of the paint and then quickly back in to Nikola Vucevic. He is a solid passer out of the post and he quickly moves it out to D.J. Augustin who makes another quick decision to set up an open jumper.

Everything happens quickly before the defense realizes what is happening. The Brooklyn Nets are scrambling to catch up. And the Magic are attacking them just as quickly.

This is the very idea of passing and pace Orlando is looking for.

The in-campus numbers are obviously part of a smaller sample size. The strong offensive performances in the first two games outweigh the weaker performances in the last two — the Orlando Magic’s offensive numbers actually turned out OK in the team’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Against the Pacers, the Magic had a 53.8-percent assist rate, the lowest of the four games in the bubble. This merely means the ratio of assists to field goals. The Orlando Magic had a 74.3-percent assist rate against the Toronto Raptors and that was by far the worst offensive performance of the four games.

Assist numbers are not the end-all, be-all. They correlate with good ball movement but do not accurately reflect it.

In the last two games, the Magic have averaged 53.5 potential assists per game with a 7.9-percent assist-to-pass ratio. It is easy to see from the way these numbers decreased just how much shot-making and ball movement have changed.

When the offense gets stuck it is because they are not passing effectively. It is that simple. The ball is not moving and flowing and the team is trying to play to its weakness. Whether it is through pick and rolls or in transition.

It is vital the team makes this kind of inside-out action. It is vital they get in the paint. And it is vital they attack quickly.

dark. Next. Orlando Magic down a position without Jonathan Isaac

The Magic’s key to success has always been that buzz word from the start. Executing at a high level and battling the best teams will require the team to focus on its speed and efficiency.