2021 NBA Playoffs: Orlando Magic can learn limits of the mid-range from San Antonio Spurs

Defense have successfully stifled Terrence Ross as the Orlando Magic's offense continues to struggle. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Defense have successfully stifled Terrence Ross as the Orlando Magic's offense continues to struggle. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

In the early part of the season, observers were raising alarms about the Orlando Magic.

Not, “They are going to be one of the worst teams alarms,” but alarms about the way the Magic were eking out wins in their 6-2 sprint to start the season.

In other words, no one was believing the 4-0 start the Magic got off to. And indeed, even before Markelle Fultz’s injury, there were plenty of signs they were starting to come back down to earth.

That is not to say the Magic were going to finish where they ended up finishing even if they had stayed healthy. They were still a likely playoff team if they even had a modicum of health this season. But they were not exactly breaking the bank either.

The biggest sign the Magic were in some trouble early in the season was that their offense seemed completely unsustainable. Like the San Antonio Spurs, they seemed to be relying wholly on their mid-range jumpers to score. And that simply was not sustainable.

Like the San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic relied heavily on mid-range jump shooting offensively. The Spurs were elite at mid-range shooting and still fell short of the playoffs.

The San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time in 45 years thanks to a 100-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA Play-In Tournament. The Spurs shot just 35.1-percent from the floor overall and 8 for 22 from beyond the arc in that game.

Down by seven points with 3:14 to go, the Spurs hit two of those 3-pointers to climb within three points — both by Rudy Gay — before Ja Morant hit a free throw to give the Grizzlies just enough cushion to win.

Both the Grizzlies and Spurs are not heavy 3-point shooting teams. But as San Antonio constantly tried to climb uphill and erase the deficit, they were playing seemingly with one hand tied behind their back.

The Spurs’ inability to hit threes was ultimately an impediment keeping this young team from reaching their potential. Even if San Antonio has some of the best mid-range jump shooters in the league.

High-volume, high-efficiency

The San Antonio Spurs are a test of just how far mid-range jump shooting can go. It seems like it can only get a team to the Play-In Tournament at this point. Even with a promising young group anchored by a solid veteran playing the best in his career.

The going thought in the NBA world is that 3-pointers, layups and free throws are the most efficient shots in the game. The people driven solely by analytics would probably say any other shot is a waste of time. But the math is still hard to argue against.

San Antonio has long bucked that trend. With elite mid-range jump shooters in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs were consistently among the teams with the lowest free throw rate and led the league in mid-range jumpers.

They defied the odds for a long time by being even remotely successful with this style.

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs /

San Antonio Spurs

This year, the Spurs led the league with 18.1 mid-range field goal attempts, according to NBA.com. That was 1.5 more field goal attempts per game than the second-place Washington Wizards.

More impressively, the Spurs were fourth in the league with a 44.2-percent field goal percentage on these shots.

Typically being high-volume and having a high percentage is a good thing. Teams that are elite at both maximize their chances of success.

That is how teams carve an identity. They find what they are good at and they press that advantage.

But being the best at something in a hyper-efficient offensive league and shooting only 44.2-percent at it is not going to get the job done. There are just too many offenses able to overpower teams.

A team that shoots 44.2-percent on 100 mid-range jumpers needs only to shoot 29.5-percent from beyond the arc to get the same scoring output. Even the Orlando Magic could do that.

Thus the power of the 3-pointer.

San Antonio might be able to get away with that if the team were a good 3-point shooting team. The Spurs made the fewest 3-pointers per game in the league — 9.9 per game — and seventh-worst 3-point field goal percentage (24th in the league).

The Spurs’ mid-range shooting is likely what is keeping the team at least functional offensively — although still 19th in the league with a 110.5 offensive rating. But it is not enough. The Spurs missed the playoffs again. Even with career seasons from several key players.

That should make it fairly clear at this point that 3-point shooting is important. Elite mid-range shooting can only get you so far. And shot selection matters, even if a team is elite at making mid-range shots.

Un-elite, high volume

The Orlando Magic are decidedly not elite at this and their offense shows it.

Orlando ranked third this year with 16.3 mid-range field goal attempts per game this year. The team made only 40.3-percent of those shots, 18th in the league. A below-average percentage with a high volume is not a recipe for success, especially with the most inefficient shot in the game.

After the trade deadline, the Magic remained fifth in mid-range field goal attempts per game, dropping to 14.4 attempts per game. But their percentage dropped below 40-percent. Again, a high volume and a low efficiency.

Not helping matters, is the Magic are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league. They were 27th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (34.3-percent) and 26th in 3-point field goals (10.9 attempts per game).

After the trade deadline, the team was even worse at 29th in 3-point field goals (9.1 per game) and last in 3-point field goal percentage (31.7-percent).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The only team that made fewer 3-pointers per game than the Magic after the trade deadline? The Spurs.

If there is one thing that being elite at probably does not mean so much at, it is mid-range jump shooting. Not anymore at least.

Proper Balance

This is an important tool though. When the playoffs come around, the ability to hit mid-range jumpers becomes paramount. When teams can pin down and hone in on what a team does, what is often left is mid-range jumpers.

The players who dominate the mid-range are the best players in the league — of the 10 players who shoot the most mid-range jumpers per game this year, all 10 are All-Stars or former All-Stars (like Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Ingram). That group includes Nikola Vucevic.

This is the provenance of stars. Non-stars shooting too many mid-range jumpers is usually inefficient. The top players shoot mid-range jumpers efficiently enough to take them.

Teams that take too many as a group though are usually not efficient enough offensively to win at the highest levels.

If the San Antonio Spurs, the best mid-range jump-shooting team in the league (and a top-five team in mid-range attempts and field goal percentage in four of the last six seasons), cannot do much more than be first-round fodder, what hope does a team like the Orlando Magic have relying on mid-range jumpers?

It is no secret Orlando has been a poor offensive team for nearly a decade — since Dwight Howard left. The Magic have been one of the worst 3-point shooting teams since revolutionizing the league with the 3-point shot a decade ago.

None of this is completely new. Orlando needs better shooting to spread the floor and make everything work. The team needs better shooting just to get defenses to respect them.

Players like Terrence Ross and Cole Anthony (both shooting at 46.1-percent on mid-range shots this year) showed they can hit from mid-range. And that could free up others. And obviously having a downhill point guard like Markelle Fultz who can get to the basket will cause the defense to collapse.

There is a place for mid-range jumpers in the game. Analytics should not root it completely out. A team like the Spurs proved elite mid-range jump shooting can create an offense effective enough to compete and sneak into the playoffs.

Next. Charlotte Hornets can teach Orlando Magic clutch importance. dark

To do more? It takes an offense for a modern game. More than anything else, the Magic need that.