There is a lot to be excited about with the Orlando Magic.
Everyone is pointing to the team’s run through the final three-quarters of the season as a reason for optimism beyond just the young talent that seems ready to grow and develop into that potential playoff team.
Their 29-28 run feels like a big enough sample size to believe that with continued internal improvement they can do something special. If that was not enough, the team finished sixth in defensive rating during that stretch. This became one of the best and most consistent defensive teams in the league for a long stretch of the season.
That is all a positive sign. But the Magic still have a big thing to solve. One that will become even more important as they get to the postseason: The team’s offense.
As optimistic as everyone is about this Orlando Magic team, their offense remains a huge problem to solve and an area that needs a lot of improvement. Especially from deep.
The Magic have been unable to figure out how to get their offense going really since Dwight Howard left the team in 2012. Despite the addition of some strong offensive players and a team that seemingly came together, the Magic remain near the bottom in the league in offensive rating.
There is no getting around this. The league trends toward offense and even the best defenses have to have scoring to supplement everything.
So at the core of playing “better basketball” as the directive from management has been is the directive to play better offensively.
How will the Magic do this? That is the bigger question.
The simplest answer is to shoot better. And in some respects, the team accomplished this in acquiring shooting in Joe Ingles and Jett Howard. The team is also plenty hopeful of internal improvement from shooters on the team — whether that be Paolo Banchero or Jalen Suggs or anybody else.
But the answer is always a bit more complicated than that. The Magic need to find a way to get better shooting and it probably ends up being as much about their improved outside shooting as it does about improving their passing and ball movement.
Improving personnel and improving passing is critical to getting the team’s shooting up and thus improving the team’s offense.
Orlando last year finished 26th in the league in offensive rating scoring 111.3 points per 100 possessions. After Dec. 7 (and the team’s 5-20 start), the Magic were still 26th in the league at 112.5 points per 100 possessions. Their -0.5 net rating was still 21st in the league.
As well as the Magic played defensively during that stretch, it still put the team behind the 8-ball because the offense was nowhere near good enough, even as teams got better offensively at the end of the year.
Everyone will easily point to the team’s shooting first and foremost. Orlando had a lot of 3-point match working against it — both offensively and defensively.
The Magic finished 24th in the league shooting 34.6 percent from beyond the arc. They were also 27th with 31.1 attempts per game.
Orlando understood it was not a team that should take a lot of 3-pointers. The team did not have the personnel for it. But it is hard to be a successful offense in the modern NBA if you are a team that takes few 3-pointers and does not make a ton of the ones you make.
It is not that it is impossible to win taking fewer 3-pointers. For instance, the Denver Nuggets took 31.2 3-point attempts per game but made 37.9 percent of those threes. The Los Angeles Lakers made the same percentage on the same attempts. But they both have super efficient megastars anchoring their offense (the Lakers are a weird example because their playoff success was not something their regular season could have predicted beyond LeBron James).
One way to get around this is extremely good passing. And this is an area a team like the Nuggets succeed, but a team like the Magic struggle.
According to data from Second Spectrum, the Magic averaged 268.6 passes per game, 27th in the league. Being a pass-heavy team does not necessarily mean a team is poor at moving the ball. But the Magic ranked low in assists.
Orlando averaged 23.2 assists per game, 26th in the league, and 2.3 secondary assists (or hockey assists) per game, 28th in the league. The Magic’s passing is not generating a lot of points.
But, of course, the Magic miss their fair share of shots. But even then, their passing stats are not encouraging. The team averages 42.4 potential assists per game, 24th in the league.
Considering 85.8 percent of the Magic’s precious few 3-point makes are assisted, the seventh-highest ratio in the league, it is easy to conclude that part of Orlando’s problem creating quality 3-point looks starts with the team’s passing.
Simply adding good shooters or improving shooters is not going to change things entirely. Orlando has to have better passing — on this point too, Ingles is an impressive pull-up 3-point shooter (he made 46.9 percent of his 1.4 pull-up 3-point attempts per game last year and 41.2 percent of 2.7 attempts per game in 2021) and should add something to a team that took only 7.5 pull-up 3-point attempts per game, 25th in the league.
The lack of spot-up 3-point opportunities is a sign again of how critical passing is to getting more 3-point attempts.
This is at the heart of the problem the Magic have to solve. That and having several players whom defenses consider non-shooters (from Markelle Fultz to Jalen Suggs to Anthony Black now). Both Fultz and Suggs took some steps forward with their 3-point shooting. But both will need to continue to step up on that front.
The picture though is not all that bleak.
Fultz and Suggs improved dramatically as shooters later in the year — Fultz shot 32.4 percent and Suggs shot 36.0 percent after the All-Star Break. Cole Anthony had a surprising burst to 41.8 percent after the break, the only player to shoot better than 40 percent from deep after the break (Gary Harris was at 39.4 percent). Paolo Banchero shook off his rough February to shoot 35.3 percent after the All-Star Break.
There certainly feels like there are improving shooters on this roster. And so the Magic need to find a way to cinch those gains and make them permanent.
And there are at least signs the Magic can generate the quality 3-point looks to be more efficient on low volume.
The Magic did a better-than-expected job creating quality 3-pointers. They ranked 14th in the league where the closes defender was six or more feet away according to NBA.com with 16.6 attempts per game. That represents 53.3 percent of all the team’s 3-point attempts and the 6.2 makes per game on “wide-open” 3-pointers represent 57.8 percent of all their makes.
The 37.5 percent shooting on wide-open 3-pointers is still 23rd in the league. So the problem still comes down to the Magic making these good looks even though the team gets them at a decent rate.
Still, the team could do better — the Oklahoma City Thunder generated 21.8 “wide open” 3-point attempts accounting for 64.0 percent of their total attempts and 68.4 percent of their makes.
Further then, the Magic generated only 11.4 3-pointers where the closest defender was 4-6 feet away, the fourth-fewest in the league (the Thunder, the team with the most wide-open threes, had the third-fewest of these “open” looks).
At the end of the day, if a team wants to be a good 3-point shooting team, generating open looks is the way to do it. And Orlando still has to do a better job of that.
That should start with the team’s passing and ability to create open shots with the pass.
The individual improvement the Magic saw from their team and the addition of shooters like Ingles and Howard should help boost the team’s 3-point numbers.