Orlando Magic’s effort stats show the path to success

Mohamed Bamba and the Orlando Magic are trying to increase their activity defensively. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Mohamed Bamba and the Orlando Magic are trying to increase their activity defensively. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Effort and energy are notoriously difficult to measure. It is the sort of thing you know when you see it. And any attempts to measure energy and effort do not necessarily correlate with winning effectively.

Coaches have their own ways to try to track their team’s effort and activity. They have their own things that indicate to the team that their energy is up.

For a team with the talent deficit the Orlando Magic have right now, playing with high energy and effort is required for the team to have any measure of success. It was the key to their surprise playoff run in 2019. It was the piece that was consistently lacking throughout the 2020 and 2021 seasons as the Magic struggled to take their next step.

Things go stale with a roster at some point. And the team played like it with a rote way they were trying to play. It has happened before in Magic history and was happening again.

The Magic needed a mix-up for sure. The team’s decision to break down the entire roster and start seemingly from the beginning and reset the table was a necessary one. Any reset then has to start with the fundamental principle: effort and directed effort are the way for a team to overcome its talent and surprise some people.

The Orlando Magic are still picking up the pieces after their trade deadline sell-off. But hints of what they can be lie in their hustle stats and the energy and effort they display.

Orlando opened its run with this new roster with incredibly spirited efforts. Things were simple and the Magic were trying to see what they had. Orlando nearly beat the Los Angeles Lakers and then upset the LA Clippers on the road with a stirring comeback and scored a second victory against the New Orleans Pelicans.

That has dissipated. The NBA schedule is unforgiving and it can be difficult to keep up the energy. As Orlando has tried to implement more principles, the team’s energy has waned as it had to think about thing.

Orlando’s record since the trade deadline has not been good despite the promise some of the team’s players have shown. The Magic have the second-worst offensive rating in the league (104.3 points per 100 possessions) and fifth-worst defensive rating in the league (115.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) since the trade deadline.

Orlando -11.6 net rating is the second-worst in the league since the deadline. Despite the promising signs, the Magic are a young team making a lot of mistakes. That much is clear.

The Magic are not confused about who they are. They knew winning and winning consistently was going to be a challenge. The goal is to get better and to improve, setting the baseline for next season and beyond.

The team is going to hold onto the good signs.

In the Magic’s three wins, they have posted a 110.3 offensive rating (still the worst of any team in wins after the trade deadline) but posted a 103.7 defensive rating. That wild swing defensively is at least a hint of what this Magic team can be when they are reaching their peak.

And this is where the team has to display the most energy. Even though the NBA’s rudimentary Hustle Stats metrics are imperfect, they at least show what energy can bring to the team and how activity does change the Magic’s fortunes.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Start with deflections — an imperfect measure in the NBA’s stats, but one the coaching staff tracks meticulously using their own formula and standards.

This season, the Magic average 13.1 deflections per game according to NBA.com. They are averaging 13.0 deflections per game after the trade deadline. But in the team’s three wins, that number jumps to 15.0 deflections per game.

These are small sample sizes. But the team’s ability to get their hands on the ball defensively and get into players on that end is a sure sign of their success.

Orlando has been downright destructive defensively when they are winning and they play well. Everyone can see the team’s defensive potential with Wendell Carter able to step out and blow up pick and rolls, Chuma Okeke’s discipline on the perimeter for a young player and the potential of Jonathan Isaac returning next year as a rim protector behind them all.

The Magic are still going to be a team built on their defense. And their defensive activity is promising in this arena.

It is clear Orlando has to make up points on the margins — getting to the foul line more, grabbing second-chance opportunities and getting first to loose balls.

This is another area the Magic still have to improve upon. Being first to the ball is going to be critical and this may be an area the Magic are still looking to improve at when the opportunity arises.

For the season, the Magic average 5.9 loose balls recovered per game, according to NBA.com’s hustle stats. Since the trade deadline, they are at 4.8 loose balls recovered per game. and in the three wins since the deadline, they are at 5.3 per game.

Even though the Magic’s overall numbers are down since the deadline, it is clear the Magic play better when they are able to get first to the ball.

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This goes with general logic. Eking out possessions through recovering loose balls and disrupting offensive rhythm through deflections feel like easy ways to signal both effort and successful defense.

Not every team is built this way. The NBA’s hustle stats should not be viewed as some indicator of defensive success. The ranking of these is a mismatch of good and bad defensive teams. There is not a direct correlation between these numbers and defensive success, at least in how the NBA measures it.

But within the context of this team, it is clear how much a higher activity level and energy and effort can change the team. The difference between the Magic in wins and losses and the way both these hustle stats increase dramatically with the team’s defensive rating suggests how much this matters for this team.

Even something as simple as contesting shots matters.

In wins since the trade deadline, the Magic are contesting 32.3 2-point shots per game and 20.3 3-point shots per game compared to 28.8 2-point shots per game and 20.4 3-point shot attempts per game overall after the deadline. Orlando contests 27.3 2-point shots contested per game and 20.6 3-point shots contested per game for the entire season.

This does not necessarily mean the Magic are playing better defense — the way NBA.com tracks contested shots is notably flawed. But it merely indicates that more activity can help the Magic play better defense. The two seem to track together. More contested shots equals better defense.

That is the part that matters here. All this is merely saying how much the Magic’s increased activity seems to correlate with the team’s improved defense. Many of these factors appear to benefit the team greatly.

It is all a start of course. Effort alone is not going to win games. That much is clear.

Clifford has never questioned his team’s effort. He said it directly after Friday’s game: All NBA teams generally play hard. So that is not enough on its own.

It takes effort directed and within the team context that leads to ultimate success. The Magic are still getting those details down. That much is abundantly clear.

dark. Next. What the Heart & Hustle Magic can teach the 2021 team

But the potential this team has shown just when it ratches up its effort and hustle? That is what the Magic are likely going to hang their hat on as they play out this season and plan for next year.