Anatomy of Efficiency | Magic Basketball



May 06

Anatomy of Efficiency


Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Immediately after the Orlando Magic put the finishing touches on a beat down of epic proportions against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, people — unsurprisingly — went goo goo ga ga when the final score read 114-71. Amidst the blowout victory, the Magic put on a basketball clinic that certainly made NBA enthusiasts smile. However, there was another group of people, whether they were aware of it or not, that would have been (or were) equally impressed.

Statistical analysts.

It’s no secret that the statistical revolution in the league is gaining momentum year after year and certain basketball philosophies, which were mostly taboo five or ten years ago, have become accepted practices. One of those strategies has been executed by Orlando to near perfection for several years now and it was showcased yet again on Tuesday.

It is, simply, the way in which the Magic execute offensively. Casual fans and mainstream media call it “living by the three and dying by the three” but that is an insult to the grand design of Orlando’s offense.

It’s no secret, to those that follow the Magic closely, that head coach Stan Van Gundy is an analytical and forward-thinking individual. Van Gundy is a person that is all about the numbers and that’s a reason, among other factors, why Orlando has been so successful these past few years. One of the things that Van Gundy has embraced on offense is not only the three-point shot but also the layup and the free-throw. What are the significance of these types of shots? Well, it has been discovered thanks in large part to the work of statisticians, that the three-pointer (specifically, in the corner), the layup, and the free-throw are the three most efficient shots on the court. In contrast, and this is a major reason why the mid-range game is “dying” precipitously, a long two-point jumper is the least efficient and worst shot to attempt.

Game 1 was a perfect mini case study to exemplify the contrasts of these two philosophies going head-to-head. Orlando made two runs in the second and third quarters that blew the game wide open. And they did it by shooting threes, layups (dunks, too), and free-throws. For the Magic, this is nothing new. The Hawks, on the other hand, dug themselves further into a hole by taking long two’s. When taking a step back, it really is fascinating how two teams showed a new school and old school approach to scoring.

SECOND QUARTER (17-0 run by Orlando)
[9:55] Redick makes driving layup
[9:06] Redick, 25-foot three-point jumpshot (Pietrus assist)
[8:23] Howard makes free throw 2 of 2
[7:54] Howard dunk
[7:16] Pietrus, 24-foot three-point jumpshot (Redick assist)
[6:52] Pietrus dunk
[6:26] Howard makes layup
[5:01] Anderson makes layup

THIRD QUARTER (18-1 run by Orlando)
[5:47] Nelson makes driving layup
[5:13] Nelson, 23-foot three-point jumpshot (Carter assist)
[4:30] Nelson makes two-point shot
[4:03] Carter, 13-foot jumpshot
[2:25] Carter makes layup
[2:25] Carter makes free throw 1 of 1
[1:38] Lewis dunk
[1:15] Carter, 20-foot jumpshot
[0:03] Barnes makes free throw 1 of 2
[0:03] Barnes makes free throw 2 of 2

In the span of those two runs, Atlanta attempted six shots from 16-23 feet compared to one for Orlando. For the entire game, the Hawks attempted 26 shots from 16-23 feet compared to 11 for the Magic. Looking back at Game 1, it starts to make sense why Orlando was able to win by such a wide margin. The Magic, as has been the case for several years now, took the best shots and their counterpart didn’t.

Simple as that.

Eddy Rivera
Eddy Rivera


Excellent point. That's why the Magic are at their best when they play inside-out, like they did last night. Howard dominated in the first half and that opened things up on the perimeter in the second half for the shooters to get open looks from beyond the arc.


When people say "live by the three, die by the three," the implicit assumption is that the NEED to do this - the team doesn't have a good big man. The Magic are completely different in that regard. Howard draws so much attention that even if he doesn't have the ball, the opponents have to sink back (even if it's just slightly) to be ready to double him. That's why the Magic take efficient shots - a three is a lot easier to make when there isn't a man in front of you, and you have D12 ready to gather in a miss.

Eddy Rivera
Eddy Rivera


I'll give Carter a pass since that's his game. Plus, the good thing is that Carter's attempts from 16-23 feet have gone down this year (3 shots per game) compared to last year (5 shots per game).

@NC Magic Fan

What's interesting, and I omitted this in my write-up, is that the Hawks were 2nd in offensive efficiency this year. Despite all the long two's, Atlanta was able to construct an efficient scoring machine. Unfortunately, their style of play -- as John Hollinger pointed out today in an excellent article -- isn't conducive to the playoffs. And it definitely isn't conducive against the Magic, as we saw in Game 1 and in previous meetings.


Heh. It also helps that McHale is a good listen.


A major reason why the "live by the three, die by the three" mantra doesn't make sense for the Magic is because if the threes aren't falling, they can still win with defense. To me, that's the biggest oversight I see when people talk about Orlando. They ignore the fact that the Magic are, and have been, an excellent defensive team the last few years.


As a Magic fan, it always annoys me when the "live and die by the 3" accusation is made against the team.

The saying itself isnt completely irrelevant but its certainly LESS relevant then it used to be, and even more so with Orlando's roster. 20 years ago (a time when players were a lot less capable at perimeter shooting, especially those not from Europe), employing an offensive scheme like Stan does would be near suicide in the long run. But the game has changed (and will continue to do so) yet the "live and die by the 3" 'sages' are behind the curve. Yet they claim kudos for saying it after every Orlando loss (even though EVERY team loses games regardless of what schemes they use.)

In response to the NC fan comment above, I dont actually blame Larry Brown for utilising a different approach entirely GIVEN their current roster. However, the commenter is correct - Larry Brown (and the teams he coaches) will increasingly become less and less successful in the future.

This crucial aspect of Orlando's approach is constantly overlooked in other areas as well. Take mock drafts as an example. Im constantly seeing "experts" having Orlando draft point guards or wing players that are obviously no good at shooting from the perimeter. Sure, the player they have us taking might be slightly better then another guy, but the fit would be terrible. Terrible enough for the call to be no longer at or near a 50/50 shot.


I'm not superstitious and I do agree with all the statistical/philosophy arguments made above BUT I think as long as Kevin McHale announces all our games, we'll win. He's my new good luck charm.

NC Magic Fan
NC Magic Fan

Woodson is a Larry Brown/Bobby Knight coach. While both were great coaches, the game has changed and Brown and Woodson have not changed with it. The Charlotte series showed that Larry Browns hatred of the 3-point shot virtually eliminates the Bobcats chance of improving. The first Atlanta game showed in glorious excess that a jump shooting team with a mediocre defensive strategy is no match for a highly efficient basketball machine. The Magic's ability to stick to the plan and continue taking high percentage shots will be the key to eventual success this year.


Great analysis. I'd always freeze for a little bit every time Vince takes those long two perimeter jumpers :). But he makes 'em most of the time though.