Playing better basketball means reducing Orlando Magic’s mistakes

Mar 5, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) defends Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) defends Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic like to give directives at the end of their seasons. The team is aiming to get better and grow. So they come up with their pithy catchphrase.

At the end of last season, the directive was to “level up.” The fun of a free season for a young team that needed to re-establish itself was done. Now the team wanted to take that baseline and grow up a little bit more.

Getting the No. 1 pick helps, but going from 22 to 34 wins certainly made it feel like the team leveled up. Indeed, the fact expectations around the Amway Center and AdventHealth Training Center have changed so much after one year.

The Magic might try to downplay that aspect of things. But they did end the 2023 season with another directive for their team. One that is not as pithy as “leveling up” but still gets to the point.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said after the season ended that the goal for the team was to play “better basketball” and play “cleaner basketball.” This was something new general manager Anthony Parker repeated when he spoke to the media after his promotion.

This is an obvious thing of course. The Magic missed the playoffs, of course, they need to play better basketball. That is obviously a good thing.

But it is still on point. It is still the directive for a young team that is learning to win. Simply to play better.

The Orlando Magic’s directive to this season is to play better basketball. While simplistic, this notion starts with reducing mistakes and turnovers. A good place to start.

The trick for the offseason is to figure out the ways they can play better and deciphering exactly what this means.

There is one clear way the Magic must improve, and it is the way you would expect a young team needs to improve: Reducing turnovers.

Last year, the Magic ranked 27th in the league with a 15.1 percent turnover rate. They averaged 15.1 turnovers per game, 24th in the league. This is why you have to look at pace-neutral stats. But no matter how you slice it, the Magic had a lot of turnovers.

And those turnovers turned into points. Opponents scored 18.2 points off turnovers per game, 25th in the league. Tangentially, the Magic gave up 14.4 fast-break points per game, 19th in the league.

Everyone has often pointed out that Orlando finished sixth in defensive rating after Dec. 7. So taking out that 5-20 start, the Magic had a turnover rate of 14.4 percent (24th in the league) and gave up 17.4 points off turnovers (20th in the league) and 13.5 fast-break points per game (13th in the league).

Despite some improvements after the 5-20 start, the Magic still faced a major turnover problem.

This is one of the ways the Magic’s poor offense hampers its improving defense. When Orlando was able to get teams in the half-court, the team’s defense was largely able to hold its own with its pack-the-paint mentality and then by using the team’s length to contest at the 3-point line (that to mixed effect).

But turnovers are a problem many young teams face. The Magic entered the year with the second-youngest roster in the league and played the first quarter of the season without any point guards to boot.

Among the teams with the most turnovers in the league this past year were some of the youngest teams in the league. That includes the Houston Rockets (worst turnover rate, fourth-youngest team entering the season), the Detroit Pistons (26th in turnover rate, fifth-youngest team), the Minnesota Timberwolves (25th in turnover rate, ninth-youngest team), the San Antonio Spurs (24th in turnover rate, fourth-youngest team) and the Portland Trail Blazers (21st in turnover rate, seventh-youngest team).

Turnovers are not mutually exclusive to young teams or even bad teams. Three teams in the bottom 10 in turnover rate made the playoffs. Two of them had some of the most ruthlessly efficient offenses in the league — the Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets, the last two NBA champions.

Orlando does not have a ruthlessly efficient offense — they finished the season 26th in offensive rating and still had a negative net rating despite the sixth-best defensive rating for three-quarters of the NBA season.

And it is not like any one player is turning the ball over excessively. The Magic’s leader in turnovers was Paolo Banchero with 2.8 turnovers per game and a 12.8 percent turnover rate. Jalen Suggs led the team in turnover rate at 15.9 percent (1.8 total per game) and Markelle Fultz had a 15.8 percent turnover rate (2.3 turnovers per game).

The Magic’s issue with turnovers was that all of these just accumulated and added up. Everyone had a medium amount of turnover and they all ultimately cost the team.

For instance, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a team everyone likes to compare the Orlando Magic to. They had a turnover rate of just 12.7 percent (fourth in the league) with veteran Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a turnover rate of 10.8 percent even though he still averaged 2.8 turnovers per game. Josh Giddey had 2.8 turnovers per game with a 15.8 percent turnover rate.

These teams still turn the ball over and the more a player handles the ball, the more likely they are to turn it over. And young players need the latitude to grow.

The Magic also play at a slower pace so their turnovers get amplified by that slower pace — the Thunder played at 101.9 possessions per 48 minutes while the Magic sat at 99.7 possessions per 48 minutes.

What the Magic are aiming for then by saying they want to play better basketball is they want players to be more efficient and effective with their decision-making and movements. They want to keep their focus up longer and be more precise with their movements.

Any review of a Magic game will find moments in games where the team is just lax and loses its focus. That is just what young teams do.

The team should be able to lean on its defense more if it is able to do this and that should lead to more wins.

Orlando, like with everything else, is banking on internal development and improvement to get better in this way. And the players who are not able to mature are the ones who are likely to get shipped out.

So what does it mean to play better basketball? The first thing that has to happen for the Magic to get there is to clean up their mistakes and miscues and clean up their turnovers. Orlando has to do exactly what Parker and Weltman say: Play cleaner, mistake-free basketball.

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And that means reducing turnovers and valuing possessions a whole lot more.