Orlando Magic weren’t a passing team, but they could be

Markelle Fultz was the Orlando Magic's leading passer in the 2023 season. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz was the Orlando Magic's leading passer in the 2023 season. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are going to bet on their defense to carry them into the postseason next year.

That was the basis of the team last year and one of the things that gave them a big boost to the end of the season. Orlando was a .500 team for the majority of last season because the team had the sixth-best defensive rating after Dec. 7.

That is all good and a place for the team to build on. But even during that time period the Magic were 29-25 (excluding the 5-20 start and the final three games of the season), they had only a slight positive net rating. In that same time period, Orlando had the sixth-worst offense in the league at 113.4 points per 100 possessions.

The Magic spent their offseason solidifying depth around the same team as last year. There were no dramatic changes. And so the team is betting on internal improvement to make the offense better.

That would include expected improvements for Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. That would mean a fully healthy offseason for growth from Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs. A more solid showing form Cole Anthony as the team’s likely sixth man. And the addition of shooting from Joe Ingles and Jett Howard.

The team should be better offensively. But nobody is racing out to bet the Magic are about to change the league offensively.

While shooting has been the biggest focus for the Orlando Magic’s offense, passing is the lifeblood for an effective unit. And an area the Magic could greatly improve.

Shooting has been the biggest focus of the concern as the Magic were a low-volume and low-percentage three-point shooting team. But there are plenty of other areas the team will need to improve. And there is one thing the Magic have to get better at as the lifeblood for everything else the Magic will try to do.

The fact is the Magic were not a heavy-passing team last year.

The team was 22nd in the league with 24.3 assists per game. The Magic were 21st in the league with 43.1 potential assists per game and 26th in the league with 2.6 secondary assists per game, according to data from Second Spectrum.

It is, of course, expected the Magic would have few assists with how little they are able to make shots. But the lack of potential assists and secondary assists suggests the ball does often get stuck and does not move to open shooters. The team is not making passes that would set them up for assists or move to make that extra pass to get an open shot.

Indeed, the Magic were 24th in the league with 269.3 passes per game total. That stat is not necessarily indicative of offensive success or failure — the Orlando Magic averaged more passes per game than the offensively dominant Milwaukee Bucks, for instance.

But for this team, it should be clear moving with the pass should be a big part of their offensive improvement.

The team should be very much focused on getting the ball moving more. And that is going to start, expectedly, with individual players becoming more effective passers.

Some of that comes with youth. Players have to learn how to make the right reads and trust each other to make passes. Some of that comes from the Magic’s pick-and-roll heavy offense and just the nature of the team.

Still, the Magic need to do as the coaches like to say and trust the pass more. They just need to get the ball moving much more effectively. They have players who have shown potential to lead this team in that area.

Markelle Fultz led the team in assists with 5.7 per game and 10.4 potential assists per game on 50.3 passes made per game, according to Second Spectrum. That put Fultz 31st in the league in passes per game. That is something you would expect from a point guard.

With Fultz is as much about making his passes effective as anything. That is what he appeared to do after the All-Star Break when he averaged 6.0 assists per game on the same pass volume.

Fultz is a gifted passer, able to create strange angles with his odd dribbling rhythm. According to data from Basketball Index, Fultz was in the 93rd percentile with 17.0 assist points per 75 possessions and in the 71st percentile with 1.44 assist points per 75 possessions more than expected for a player in his role.

His 6.6 high-value assists per 75 possessions — assists that lead directly to shots at the rim, free throws or 3-pointers — placed him in the 95th percentile in the league.

Fultz may be one of the better passers in the league. It is just about getting him the ball and allowing him to get the offense moving.

Orlando is likely to try to think of ways to let Fultz run the offense more so he can initiate actions and keep the ball moving.

The same might be said for Franz Wagner who was a surprisingly low-volume passer.

He was fourth on the team with 3.5 assists per game but averaged only 34.0 passes per game. His 7.0 potential assists per game suggest that Wagner was only passing it in situations where he was setting others up for scores.

Indeed, according to Basketball Index’s data, Wagner averaged only 9.5 assist points per 75 possessions and 0.29 assist points per 75 possessions fewer than expected for a player in his role. And Wagner created 3.7 high-value assists per 75 possessions. His passes tend to lead directly to scores and most of his assists seem to lead directly to easy baskets.

The story is similar to Paolo Banchero despite his potential as a passer.

Banchero was third on the team averaging 3.7 assists per game. that was actually ninth in assists per game among players 6-foot-10 or taller with only Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant ahead of him among non-centers. He averaged 9.47 assists points per 75 possessions. But that is 4.05 assist points per 75 possessions worse than expected for someone in his role.

Additionally, he averaged 3.51 high-value assists per 75 possessions. Suggesting there are plenty of opportunities to create scoring chances for the Magic.

Banchero has plenty of passing potential. That is one of the things that makes him unique. But he was not exactly a ball mover in his rookie year. It is one of the many ways Banchero can improve heading into his second season.

The final player to examine is Cole Anthony. He finished second on the team in assists with 3.9 per game and was second on the team with 7.1 potential assists per game. He averaged 38.4 passes per game, third on the team behind Banchero.

His 13.3 assist points per 75 possessions put him in the 84th percentile. But that is still 2.05 points per 75 possessions worse than you would expect for a player in his role. He averaged 5.3 high-value assists per 75 possessions.

This is one of the areas where Anthony seemed to make some significant growth last year. But it is obvious he can still improve in this area.

Clearly, everyone on the Magic can stand to improve. And this could be a factor in the team taking another step offensively.

Teams cannot just pass for the sake of passing, of course. There has to be purpose behind them. And Orlando’s offense may not be built for heavy passing.

Still, the Magic’s best offensive games came when they had their most assists. They got their shooters open more when they passed the ball more effectively.

And that is at the heart of the issue for the Magic overall. They need to be a better passing team to unlock all the tools they have at their disposal. That might be one area where Anthony Black (3.9 assists per game at Arkansas last year) and Joe Ingles could help.

dark. Next. Paolo Banchero is blocking shots now

But it is going to take everyone playing better to unlock this team’s passing potential and improve the offense overall.