Orlando Magic’s offense is changing because of the pass

Franz Wagner and the Orlando Magic have looked impressive offensively in the preseason. Their passing is a big reason why. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner and the Orlando Magic have looked impressive offensively in the preseason. Their passing is a big reason why. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports /

Everyone had a play that stood out from the Orlando Magic’s preseason win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It could have been a cross-court pass from Franz Wagner to the corner for a three. It could have been Paolo Banchero dropping off a pass to a cutting Franz Wagner for a layup.

There have been a number of impressive passes for the Magic this preseason. Even with as much as the Magic struggled offensively and with turnovers in Tuesday’s preseason loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, there were some strong moments offensively where the ball zipped around the horn to the corner for a three or through the interior for an easy basket.

The Orlando Magic have struggled offensively for a while. But the preseason has shown the team playing with a new philosophy toward its offense, one that has shown promise in the preseason.

The Magic have changed their offense in a significant way this preseason. It is noticeably more spread out. There is an emphasis on getting more threes up — the team is averaging 18.0 3-point attempts per game in the first half of their preseason games (and shooting 40.7 percent!) — and trying to find ways to work around their perceived lack of shooting and spacing.

The key to it all is the team’s increased passing and ball movement. It is not just about moments, it has become a consistent thing.

"“I think execution is super important for us, especially when you struggle to score a little bit,” Moe Wagner said after Tuesday’s game. “Locking in on that, playing off of each other, executing, being focused. Obviously, everybody works really hard here. Passing the ball is showing trust in your teammates. I think you can see that in this group. It’s just more fun to play that way. I’m really grateful to be part of that group.”"

Orlando has had at least 27 assists in all three of their preseason games, a feat the team achieved only 16 times in all of last season. Perhaps this will change when defenses start to tighten and gameplan specifically for the Magic. Orlando will still have to prove it can hit shots consistently.

But this was an Orlando team that was 26th in the league in offensive rating last year at 111.3 points per 100 possessions. The team averaged only 23.2 assists per game and struggled with passing all of last season.

The Magic ranked 26th in the league with 268.6 passes per game. That is not always indicative of a poor offensive team, but for a team that professes to want to work together and be a bit more by committee, it certainly held the Magic’s offense back.

An emphasis on passing will help the offense move more and should help unlock more players. There is obviously still a lot of work to do.

"“We all trust in each other’s work,” Jalen Suggs said after practice Saturday. “We understand anybody can go get a bucket whenever. But how do we get the best shot for our offense? You have to be really selfless to play like that. That’s what makes our group special. Don’t really care who has the hot night, who is getting the shots up, who’s cooking. As long as we are getting good continuity, good flow, we’re getting really good shots on offense, nobody really cares. It’s a thing of beauty.”"

The results speak for themselves as much as preseason stats can.

Orlando has a 105.6 offensive rating in the preseason, a poor mark that ranks 22nd in the league for the preseason (the team is giving up 103.3 points per 100 possessions, so the overall picture is not bad). The team has assisted on 71.6 percent of its field goals. The Magic are moving the ball.

That is the case too when we cut out the fat.

In the first half of the Magic’s preseason games (when the Magic’s rotation players are guaranteed to play… the fourth quarters have been rough), they have an offensive rating of 116.4 points per 100 possessions. That is eighth in the league in offensive rating.

Orlando has an assist rate of 70.6 percent, suggesting how critical passing has been to the team’s offensive success in the preseason. The Magic also have a 55.6 percent effective field goal percentage, a solid but not spectacular number.

These numbers merely suggest there is something percolating and something to build on as the team ramps up its minutes — Tuesday’s loss was the first time this preseason the Magic’s starters had a negative plus-minus.

There is a lot for the team still to improve on.

"“I think you can definitely see that we try to execute what the coaches give us,” Franz Wagner said after Tuesday’s game. “We try to make the right play. I think today was a day where sometimes there were a couple of open shots or solid shots from three that we didn’t take and went back into the paint where everyone was. But I think as we get a rhythm and as we play together, we’ll clean that up. it’s awesome to see that we want to share the ball and play together.”"

The Orlando Magic’s players admitted the New Orleans Pelicans did a good job speeding them up leading to 19 turnovers for 24 points (including 10 turnovers for 17 points in the first half). There is still a lot of work for this team to improve and cement whatever changes they have made.

Individually, Markelle Fultz is averaging 4.3 assists per game, Cole Anthony is averaging 4.0 assists per game and Paolo Banchero has 3.0 assists per game. Four other players are averaging at least 2.0 assists per game. And these are all in limited minutes.

Orlando has put an emphasis on finding players with high basketball IQs who will lean toward making the right reads and the right pass based on what the defense is doing. The Magic should expect to have a lot of players racking up assists throughout the season.

Perhaps the sample is still too small. The numbers are certainly still noise because it is three games and three preseason games at that. It gets noisier when you try to pin down to just the first half and what actually might matter for when the games count next week.

But something does feel different. Everyone has admitted that. There is a different focus. And Orlando’s offense is moving the ball well as a start to show what they are capable of becoming. There is still a lot of work to do to improve.

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Orlando’s core philosophy is still about getting in the paint. The Magic want to attack the rim as the start of their offense. Their hope is that this can collapse the defense and give them space to cut and room to kick out for open threes — particularly now in the corners.

Passing is essential to this team finding some offensive life.

"“Just playing the right way, finding the open guy, making simple reads. That is always half the problem. We’ve been doing a good job of that,” Suggs said after Tuesday’s game. “At the end of the day, we might not be executing perfectly but as long as that’s there, by the time we get the season rolling, we have one more game to clean up and a couple of days. I think our minds are in the right spot. We’re playing good hoop and it’s exactly what we want to be doing.”"

Time will tell whether the Magic do find some offensive life. The team has not been outside the bottom 10 of the league in offensive rating since Dwight Howard left in 2012.

This season will likely represent baby steps rather than a giant leap forward.

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Passing will be at the center of what changes about the team. It will be something to watch as the Magic begin their season.