The NBA is seeing offense score at historic levels right now.
The Sacramento Kings were the most efficient offense in NBA history at 118.6 points per 100 possessions. And the Boston Celtics were not too far behind at 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Every team in the top 10 scored at least 115 points per 100 possessions.
Defenses in the modern NBA are less about dictating tempo or setting a physical tone (the playoffs still demand physicality though as we have already seen scores start to drop through the first set of Game 2s) and more about slowing down offenses just enough so teams can outscore them on their own.
Whether that is a style of basketball that is good or entertaining is up to each individual. But the plain fact is that even teams that want to hang their hat on the defensive end — the top defensive team in the league this year in the Cleveland Cavaliers sat at 109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions — are struggling to keep up with the spaced-out play of the modern NBA.
Until some coach comes up with a brilliant defensive strategy besides hoping teams miss open shots (sometimes that is all a team can do), offenses are going to rule the day. And that means the 3-point shot is going to matter so much more.
This is, as every Orlando Magic fan knows, the team’s biggest weakness. It is likely the reason is still near the bottom of the rankings in offensive rating despite having offensive dynamos and solid scorers throughout the roster — that and the team’s penchant for turnovers as such a young team.
The Orlando Magic made a lot of improvement this season. But their poor 3-point shooting and 3-point defense continue to hold them back in a major way.
The Magic’s defense is improving — they ranked sixth in the league from Dec. 7 to April 5 at 112.7 points per 100 possessions. But even the magic’s defense was susceptible to wild swings from beyond the arc.
For Orlando to take a major step forward, the team will need to layer new levels to both its offense and defense. And it is all about the 3-pointer.
The plain fact is that throughout this season, the 3-point math was constantly working against the Magic. They were a poor-shooting, low-volume 3-point shooting team that gave up a lot of attempts to opponents.
That led to some combustible games where the poor-shooting Houston Rockets made 24 3-pointers in a November loss at the Amway Center, or the poor-shooting San Antonio Spurs hit a Spurs franchise-record 22 in a crucial late-season loss, or the Milwaukee Bucks just feasted on the Orlando Magic’s defense for 26 in a March loss or the Sacramento Kings set their franchise record with 23 3-pointers in a January win at Golden1 Center.
These kinds of games are happening to everyone in the league. Sometimes there is just bad 3-point luck on both sides of the court. Teams get hot or teams get cold. It is a make-or-miss league as everyone rationalizes.
But the Magic have a real problem when you look a bit deeper into the numbers defensively as much as offensively.
The Magic were decent defensively against 3-pointers in some respects. They were sixth in the league giving up 35.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Teams did not shoot particularly well against the Magic.
But they got up a lot of 3-pointers against them. Orlando gave up 37.0 3-point attempts per game, the third-most in the league. Thus, opponents hit 13.0 3-pointers per game against them, the sixth-most in the league.
The Magic’s defensive strategy focused a lot on blocking off the paint and congesting passing lanes back out to the perimeter. The team hoped that it could limit scoring on the interior — they ranked sixth in opponents’ points in the paint per game at 47.6 — and then use length to contest and stretch out to the 3-point line.
That was a strategy that did not quite work out fully either.
According to data from NBA.com, opponents took the fifth-most 3-pointers where the closest defender was six or more feet away with 18.4 attempts per game. They only made 38.8 percent of these attempts, a good stroke of luck for the Magic.
Further, opponents took the fourth-most 3-point attempts where the closest defender 4-6 feet away with 15.2 per game. Opponents only made 32.3 percent of these attempts.
It would seem then the Magic’s 3-point defense was actually not good. They gave up a low percentage but they gave up a lot of 3-pointers and quality 3-point looks at that. That is how you give up your share of historic games. And that put the Magic behind the 8-ball.
It may not have mattered as much and this might have been the thing the Magic were OK giving up — every defense has to give up something — if the team was at least an average 3-point shooting team.
But Orlando this year had the bad combination of giving up a lot of 3-point looks and not taking enough themselves.
For the season, the Magic made 34.6 percent of their 3-pointers, ranking 24th in the league. They also took the fourth-fewest 3-pointers in the league at 31.1 attempts per game.
To some extent, that was the right strategy with a team that is not taking a lot of threes.
The Magic went 4-16 in games where they shot more than 35 3-point attempts this season. This was a team that struggled when they took a lot of 3-pointers — often a sign the team was settling from deep and not moving the ball effectively.
Orlando found other ways to try to keep up. But it was still impossible when teams started raining in 3-pointers for this team to keep up.
The Magic need to add more shooting not just because it will make their offense better, but because it will also give the team some important leeway defensively to absorb some of these mega games that happen now in the NBA.
It is not like the Magic did not have great shooting games either. Like their opponents, the Magic had nights where everything just clicked. But they topped off this season at 17 3-pointers though — in a loss to the Miami Heat — so they never overwhelmed opponents with their shooting acumen in the same way as their defense gave up.
That is where the Magic’s offense has to grow next year. The 3-pointer has to be enough of a threat and weapon to make up for the shortcomings or choices their defense is clearly making.
Maybe that means there is a defensive shift or an extra layer added in training camp or something gets tweaked defensively to defend the 3-point line better. Maybe that means the Magic focus more on defending the 3-point line and make up for whatever they lose defensively by taking and making more 3-pointers.
But the solution is abundantly clear Orlando has to be better at the 3-point line — on both sides of the ball.
The Magic did a lot of good things and made a lot of progress on both ends this year to take the step they took. But there is clearly more the team can and needs to do from deep.
For the Magic to take the step up to the postseason, figuring out their 3-point shooting and 3-point defense will be essential to their overall growth.