Orlando Magic’s shooting quietly improving, but still its biggest need

Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic have shown shooting improvement, but it remains a key weakness for this team. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic have shown shooting improvement, but it remains a key weakness for this team. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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The desperation for the Orlando Magic to hit a three was palpable down the stretch. It was easy to see how the team was pressing and trying to get a shot — any shot — to go down to stay alive and keep up with the Philadelphia 76ers on the road.

Shots were rushed and even the most open basket was no good.

Just look at the quality of looks the Magic got on this play:

This is the kind of shot the Magic are perfectly OK with.

Franz Wagner getting space against a drop defense and firing from deep. Wagner is one of the Magic’s best 3-point shooters and one of their top players. They trust his decision-making and need him aggressively shooting.

Then the Magic dig out the offensive rebound to find Paolo Banchero backing up to the 3-point line for an open shot. That backing-up 3-point shot is a difficult one. But that is more than a shot he is capable of making. Not to mention one they hope he will be able to hit consistently as he continues to develop.

Orlando was down nine at that point and those two misses with about four minutes left may have been the end of a 105-94 loss to Philadelphia. The Sixers went to the other end of the floor and hit a running layup to make it an 11-point lead.

The Orlando Magic had a rare — but not rare enough — bad shooting night in Wednesday’s loss. It showed the Magic’s weakness from deep but hid their progress from the last month.

Those are the breaks. When everyone says it is a make-or-miss league, these are often the plays they refer to.

"“We couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday’s loss. “That’s a team that averages 114 points, I think we did our job defensively. We just couldn’t find a basket. We didn’t make shots. Joel [Embiid] played well, James [Harden] played well, the other guys stepped in and made big timely shots. For us, we didn’t make shots.”"

There is nothing more frustrating than what the Magic went through Wednesday night.

Orlando shot 6 for 38 from beyond the arc for a season-worst 15.8 percent shooting from deep. The Magic have made fewer than six 3-pointers three other times this season. The 38 3-point attempts were fourth most for the team this season.

The Magic certainly settled for three points. But it was hard to say they did not take decent shots.

According to data from NBA.com, the Magic went 1 for 9 when the closest defender was 4-6 feet away and 4 for 23 when the closest defender was more than six feet away. The 76ers made 10 of 23 on such shots with the closest defender six or more feet away.

But the point is the Magic got a lot of shots that at least on paper should be good looks. The Magic are not a volume 3-point shooting team, but they got a lot of good looks. Looks they normally make.

For the season, Orlando makes 39.3 percent of their shots when the closest defender is six-plus feet away on 16.1 attempts per game (more than half of the Magic’s overall 3-point field goal attempts) and makes 30.7 percent of their shots when the closest defender is 4-6 feet away on 11.3 attempts per game.

This just highlights how much of an outlier — although not completely rare — game Wednesday was. The Magic got a lot of 3-point attempts and a lot of open shots and they just missed them.

"“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Markelle Fultz said after Wednesday’s loss. “Of course, we’re going to make shots. That’s something that we work on and believe in. And also create for each other. It’s definitely going to be tough when you are not knocking down shots. We have to continue to shoot the open ones, continue to make the right passes for each other and continue to be aggressive.”"

Orlando is not known as a great shooting team. As the trade deadline approaches everyone recognizes shooting is the team’s biggest need and that will surely be a focus in future acquisitions.

For the season, the Magic are shooting 34.9 percent from beyond the arc which is 22nd in the league. The Magic’s 3-point defense has been pretty good — fifth in 3-point field goal percentage. But the difference is with the volume. Orlando shoots just 31.2 attempts per game compared to the team’s opponents shooting 37.6 per game.

Related Story. Markelle Fultz is more than his stats for Orlando Magic. light

Those 6.5 more attempts per game are the difference in a lot of games. And the Magic as they evolve have to find a way to find volume as 3-point shooters even if the team is not a dominant 3-point shooting team. The Orlando Magic need better efficiency offensively to make this kind of volume in 3-point shooting work — the Denver Nuggets shoot just 30.9 3-point attempts per game but make 39.7 percent of those attempts.

That is the part where Orlando is still carving out its offensive identity.

"“We just didn’t make shots,” Wendell Carter said after Wednesday’s loss. “Philly did a really good job defensively. That’s a positive we can walk away from this game. But at the same time, we do have to look at stepping into shots more confidently, getting better quality shots is a recipe we can move forward on.”"

And that is what made Wednesday’s game feel odd. Because, for the last month, the Magic have been a great 3-point shooting team. Their 7-7 record in January was not really because their defense made any significant leap, it was more because their offense took a huge jump.

Orlando’s 3-point shooting was a big part of this.

In January, the Magic shot 38.1 percent from beyond the arc, the 10th-best percentage in the league for that month. Orlando still shot on a lower volume at 31.7 attempts per game. But those increased makes had the Magic went from 25th in the league for the season at 111.3 points per 100 possessions to 16th in the league at 115.4.

That is. . . progress?

It certainly shows how the Magic making more threes even on their low volume can boost the offense.

The problem for Orlando right now is that defenses are still happy to let them shoot. That might explain why the Magic got so many open looks Wednesday night. Orlando still has games where the team just misses from deep. And teams are willing to make that bet.

Nobody is saying the Magic should not be seeking more shooting or are done roster building. The Magic need to create more space that only respected quality shooting can provide.

They have seven players shooting better than 35 percent from deep this season, but only Gary Harris (45.8 percent) and Franz Wagner (36.6 percent) are the only ones in the rotation (Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Kevon Harris, Terrence Ross and Caleb Houstan are the others).

In January, the Magic added Wendell Carter and Moe Wagner to that same group of players. Paolo Banchero took the most threes on the team at 5.2 per game and 1.7 makes per game.

That is part of the problem. The Magic’s volume 3-point shooters are not good ones (to show how much of an outlier Franz Wagner’s 1-for-7 shooting game Wednesday was, Wagner made 44.6 percent on 5.0 attempts per game in January).

Orlando is still carving its offensive identity some. Their focus has been more on attacking the paint and getting to the foul line. But no doubt 3-point shooting is vital to make even that part work.

The Magic have the outlines of an offensive identity for sure. Their shooting might be the last piece.

Orlando showed how much shooting can boost this team. And the Magic are probably a better shooting team than they have shown — certainly better than Wednesday night — and can certainly still improve.

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Shooting though remains a clear need so that Wednesday’s game is not the floor and becomes a rarer occurrence for the team.