Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was ready to write the story for reporters following the team’s 91-84 loss to the New York Knicks. Or he was at least willing to point to the factor that he felt was most important — let’s not kid ourselves, everyone was and rightfully focused on the team’s lack of shooting.
He said the reason they lost was because of their fouling and lack of discipline. The Magic have been one of the best teams at limiting fouls — the second-fewest fouls in the league at 17.7 per game — and giving up free throw attempts — sixth-fewest at 19.6 per game.
Orlando is good at preventing teams from getting to the foul line. That is part of what makes Clifford’s teams so hard to play.
Clifford repeated the line after Monday’s game, the easiest and most efficient place to get points is at the foul line. There is statistically no place better to end a possession. Even if a player misses a free throw on every possession they get to the foul line, that is still 1.00 points per possession. Most players will shoot slightly better.
So it would make sense for a team as offensively challenged as the Magic to try and find a way to the foul line.
Despite early signs the Orlando Magic were getting to the foul line more, the team has settled near the bottom again. And an easy outlet to get point has been locked away from the struggling offense.
Of course, that has not been the story for this team since Dwight Howard left in 2012. Howard’s presence obviously made the Magic one of the best teams at getting to the foul line. But the team has ranked no higher than 20th in free throw rate. They have been in the bottom five in that statistic every year but three in that time.
The Magic are always looking for shortcuts to create some offense.
This is a team that does not have a lot of shooting — the worst 3-point field goal percentage in the league this season at 31.8-percent — or a lot of ways to create dribble penetration. They rely heavily on passing, cutting and moving to create space. Offense is a constant struggle.
Clifford has tried to figure out ways to shortcut this deficiency. But nothing would be easier to figure this out than getting to the foul line more.
The Magic rank 27th in the league in free throw rate, taking 22.1 free throw attempts for every 100 field goal attempts. Orlando once again is struggling to get to the line — averaging 20.2 free throw attempts per game, 24th in the league.
The odd part is the Magic are one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the league so far, making 79.5-percent of their free throws, eighth in the league.
To put that in some perspective, say the Magic got to the line five more times per game to score four points. Increasing their scoring average from 104.0 points per game to 108.0 points per game would shoot them up from 28th in the league in scoring average to 23rd.
The Magic’s offense would still have to figure out how to make 3-pointers, but that is still a sizable leap. It is something the Magic could certainly work with and build upon.
The Magic’s falling free throw rate is one of the many reasons the Magic’s offense went form the revelation of the league in the first week of the season back to an also-ran.
Through the first eight games of the season, Orlando had the 18th-best offensive rating in the league at 108.4 points per 100 possessions. They had a free throw rate during that time of 24.0 free throw attempts per 100 field goals, 18th in the league.
Both of these numbers were trending downward from the team’s first four games when the offense was really humming (114.3 points per 100 possessions, fifth in the league) and they were getting to the foul line (31 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, sixth in the league).
It is fair to say the combination of pace and the ability to get to the line led to the Magic’s surge offensively early in the year. And this is something the team has to get better at doing immediately to create some easy points for the offense.
"“It’s critical,” Clifford said before Wednesday’s game in Minneapolis. “Obviously, guys have to play to their strengths. They have to play to their comfort zones. Yet inside-out, the ball hitting the paint, regardless of how it is — a pick and roll, a dribble handoff, a cut or just playing one on eon — it’s paramount to getting good shots. That’s how you get spot-up 3s, that’s how you get fouls, that’s how you get layups. I think it’s a combination of all those things.”"
For sure, fouling and getting to the foul line is part of the bigger issues facing the Magic offense. Clifford emphasizes paint touches as a way to generate offense.
He measures it differently than the NBA.com Tracking Stats measure it, but it should still give some idea how this has differed.
According to NBA.com’s tracking stats from Second Spectrum, the Magic average 21.1 paint touches per game, 18th in the league. They averaged 24.8 paint touches per game last year, fifth in the league.
Before Markelle Fultz’s injury, the Magic averaged 23.6 paint touches per game (10th in the league). Since then, Orlando is averaging 19.0 paint touches per game, the fourth-fewest in the league.
Adding to this equation, Orlando is averaging 41.0 drives per game according to Second Spectrum, the fourth-fewest in the league. The team averaged 45.9 drives per game before Fultz’s injury and 36.8 drives per game since Fultz’s injury.
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Drives and paint touches are part of what Clifford wants to be the basis of the offense. Both are also key to getting defenses to react and make the mistakes to create both open shots on the perimeter and trips to the foul line.
None of these things — free throw shooting, paint touches or drives — are correlated with winning in general around the league. There are successful teams that do not get to the line or drive to the basket very much.
But together, and for this team, this shift has been a big part of why the team has fallen off offensively so dramatically.
The team is already facing a deficit without solid shooters. Not being able to attack effectively and get to the foul line is only adding to the problem.
In fairness, Clifford is right to say that players still have to play who they are.
Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s highest-usage player, has never been good at getting to the foul line. His game usually relies on fitting into gaps in the defense and hitting short jumpers. He averages only 2.3 free throw attempts per game.
Evan Fournier’s return should help the Magic get to the foul line more. He is averaging 4.5 free throw attempts per game. If this continues for Fournier, it would be the second time he has averaged more than 4.0 free throw attempts per game.
Aaron Gordon being on the ball more as an attacker might also increase some free throw attempts — he is at 4.4 per game. This is the first time Gordon has eclipsed 4.0 free throw attempts per game.
Essentially every other major player on the team averages only one two-free-throw trip to the line every game.
There is no one free throw standout for the team. But undoubtedly this is a key to the team trying to find new ways to score. It is as much a sign of the team’s aggressiveness and efficiency on offense as anything else.
The Magic have to find a way to get to the line consistently. Especially when the offense is struggling. There is still no more efficient shot.
Orlando does not need to be the best team at getting to the line. But being better will go a long way.