At the beginning of every season, every team says it wants to play faster. They want to play with pace and get up and down the floor. They want to play with intensity, speed and force — all those cliches.
Very quickly teams start to lay down their identity and figure out who they are. And while everyone looks for fast-break opportunities and easy baskets where they can find them, not every team is looking to play fast, or probably better put with a high tempo or with a lot of possessions.
Typically, young teams like to leverage their youth and athleticism into this high-possession type game. They are usually not disciplined enough defensively to control the pace of the game or attack in the half-court and so they just try to maximize possessions.
There are teams that do that and thrive at that tempo. Some teams need to play this fast.
The Orlando Magic have not been that team. They have plenty of young players and plenty of desire to get up and down the floor. But consistently, the Magic are not a team trying to get out in transition. This is not a team that wants to play with a ton of possessions.
The Orlando Magic have started the season with one of the lower possession counts in the league. They are still trying to play “with pace” but the tempo they play at seems to matter more.
Orlando has slotted as a team that is not going to push the pace excessively. This is a team that thrives playing at a more controlled number of possessions and a tempo that is to their liking.
The Magic are currently playing at a pace of 99.8 possessions per 48 minutes (21st in the league). Orlando scores only 11.3 fast-break points per game (26th in the league) and gives up only 11.0 fast-break points per game (second in the league).
Furthering those stats, the Magic score only 1.03 points per possession on 20.1 transition possessions per game according to Synergy. Orlando’s 13.5 percent turnover rate in transition situations is among the highest in the league.
You can see why Orlando might want to slow things down.
Defensively, the Magic give up 1.05 points per possession in transition on 16.6 transition possessions per game (the third-fewest in the league).
These numbers paint at least some picture of the Magic trying to play a slower game. They are a team that does not get out and run a significant amount (and are not that great at scoring in transition) but also does a really good job preventing transition opportunities — this despite being a heavy offensive rebound team, grabbing an offensive rebound rate of 31.8 percent (fifth in the league) and first in the league in second-chance points per game at 18.4 per game.
It is pretty incredible how Orlando is able to control this tempo and keep the possession counts low.
It is important that pace as described on most stat sites are about the number of possessions in a game — something very clearly measurable. Most coaches when they talk about pace refer more to the speed at which they execute their offense and how quickly the team gets into that offense — Jamahl Mosley has talked at various points about trying to enter the offense by 18 seconds.
The team has also played with this idea some in using token pressure to slow teams down from getting into their own offense.
Cole Anthony is not considered a great defender. But the Magic have often used him to put token pressure on the opposing ballhandler bringing the ball up the court and thus get them into their offense at 16 or 15 seconds rather than 18 seconds. Those extra seconds matter, especially going up against a tough defense like Orlando’s.
With this logic, the Magic limiting possessions helps put pressure on teams to break down their defense. Playing at this slower “pace” is a benefit for the Magic. The Magic are not a team that takes a lot of shots late in the shot clock either. This is just a team that is methodical looking for a good shot and preventing the kind of easy shots that shorten games.
Pace then is probably not the right way to think about this then. Orlando wants to play fast. The team wants to move through its actions quickly. And the team wants to take its 18.1 deflections per game (third-most in the league according to NBA.com’s hustle stats) and turn that into disruption defensively and potentially some transition opportunities.
The better way to think about it is tempo. And that is something that is difficult to measure or understand. You can only watch it.
Orlando wants to be in control of the tempo of the game. The team wants to control how fast or how slow the game is played.
The Magic get in trouble with turnovers when things are going too fast and going back and forth. Orlando simply does not have the shooting or offense to maintain and the team is still prone to youthful mistakes as it battles its penchant for turnovers. So a game that feels like a breakneck pace that is going back and forth with quick shots and transition opportunities is probably not a good thing for the Magic.
This is very much something you know when you see. What makes Markelle Fultz an intriguing point guard for this team is that he is really good at changing this pace and controlling the tempo.
This is perhaps something the Orlando Magic missed in Monday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. They could not seem to find the tempo to make sure they got a good shot and consistently stay calm offensively. Orlando was trying to get to the line and trying to get to the basket and the foul line and could not get there.
The team missed this drumbeat.
This is the best way I can describe the Magic’s desire for the right tempo. They need the right beat to execute offensively. That may mean picking up the pace at the right moment or slowing it down to calm the team down and execute on offense. And this is probably the biggest thing and key.
Pace does play a role in this, of course. And that will be a highlight in Thursday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks (third in the league at 103.5 possessions per 48 minutes).
But it does not seem determinative quite yet. The Orlando Magic hung tough and won in a 107.0 possession game against the Utah Jazz but it was clear to see their discomfort in that game.
What matters right now is the Magic play at their tempo and under their control. That is the key for the team right now.
Orlando may not be getting a ton of fast breaks or getting out and running or playing a ton of possessions. But the team is finding its right tempo and that might just be methodical.