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Remember back in 2009 when the Magic knocked off the seemingly unbeatable Cavs in the Conference Finals by shooting 41 percent from deep for the entire series? Sometimes I wonder if this year’s squad is the same type of team as that NBA Finals team. That is, I wonder if this team lives and dies by the three-point shot like they did in the days of Lewis and Pietrus. Jeff Van Gundy seems to think so. He never fails to point that out when the Magic go on a big run. The reliance on the three-ball was evident this year when the Magic shot over 50 percent from deep en route to a 20 point win over the Spurs. So I gave it a look. I checked out some season splits from Orlando against the best teams in the East and West to find out if three-point shooting was really the key for this Orlando team. The results pointed to just that, and even taking into account the ever-important role of Dwight Howard in the post, the bottom line is that the Magic will need to shoot the ball, and shoot the ball well from the outside if they are going to be a factor in the playoffs this year.
It is important to understand that the East flat out plays better defense than the West based on defensive efficiency. Five of the top six defensive teams in the league are East Coast teams and the first contending West Coast team that appears on that list is San Antonio in the seventh slot. It should be no wonder that Orlando is able to dominate against the West, but struggles against the East (and they do, as we will see).
Defensive efficiency is a result of several variables, and it isn’t groundbreaking news that an East Coast team plays tougher games against other East Coast teams. Familiarity and predictability certainly come into play. The simple fact that Orlando gets more exposure to the East means that teams come more readily equipped (and fired up) to handle Dwight and company, even if that means hammering Dwight in the post. But more importantly, the Stan Van Gundy/Dwight centered offense is by now extremely familiar. There just aren’t a lot of ways to mask what you’re trying to do if you’re SVG.
The Magic, more so than most other teams, have a particular brand of basketball, making them even more predictable than others.
Just look at the figures. Against the top four teams in the East, the Magic are 5-7 and as a team, shoot the ball at a lower percentage than their season average. Against the top four teams in the West it’s a totally different story. Dwight shoots close 70 percent from the field, and three-point shooters are knocking down well over 40 percent, which, as we’ve seen before, are championship-run numbers. So there is obviously something at work here.
The compelling factor in all of this is not that the Magic struggle against defenses that are more familiar or competitive with them. What is intriguing is that a closer look at the numbers shows that there is one stat that takes a considerable hit when Orlando loses to Eastern Conference teams — three-point shooting.
The best example of the outside plummet is in the season splits against Atlanta (which might worry Orlando fans coming into the postseason). The Magic are 12 for 61 from outside against the Hawks, and have suffered through two losses in the three games against Atlanta, who is 13th in defensive efficiency . That could be because Joe Johnson is a beast on the perimeter, but it is probably more of a case of the Magic being this back-and-forth, dare I say inconsistent team that we have seen all year long.
You could make the mistake of calling that three game sample size an anomaly, but the Magic only shoot 27 percent from the outside in losses against all of the top four teams in the East, including a 3-24 effort against Boston earlier this season. That might not be a problem if this was a team that didn’t shoot three-pointers on a third of their possessions, but this is a team that lives and dies by the long ball.
Conversely, in the five times that Orlando has knocked off a top four team in the East, the team shot 39 percent from deep, an above-average clip for the team notorious for living and dying by the triple. So in effect we are talking about at least a 10 percent increase in production from the outside when the Magic are winning games.
At first sight, it seems obvious that the key for the Magic come playoff time will be, well, knocking down triples. After all, you get time and a half when you bury one from outside. But if you stop there, you are forgetting about that big guy in the paint. That MVP candidate that is oh so crucial to Orlando success. That guy who makes Orlando a marginal team when he is not in the game. You just cannot talk about the Magic and the playoffs without talking about Dwight Howard.
The deal on Dwight is that he absolutely wrecks the Western Conference, and gets marginalized by the gruff, heavy hitters in the East. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who watches the Magic on a regular basis, and could easily be chalked up to the issues of familiarity and predictability in the East, but it totally reinforces this idea that the Magic need to be lights out from deep to beat good Eastern Conference teams.
In games when the Magic beat the top four in the East, Dwight is scoring 11 percent below his average, shooting 49 percent from the field. When they lose games to the same teams, Dwight shoots closer to 60 percent while the three point shooting goes down the tubes. The point is, the Magic are actually getting more from Dwight when they are losing games, and less when they are winning (at least in the East, which is all we’re concerned with at the moment). Dwight had good reason to call his team out a few weeks ago. Whether or not the rest of the guys weren’t hustling or playing to win seems far less significant than the fact that their shooting was flat out abysmal in those games.
So it looks like this. Come playoff time, Dwight is going to get about 15 to 20 looks per game, and will likely hit about half of them. Orlando needs to shoot between 20 and 30 three pointers a game, and if they can shoot the ball close to 40 percent then it really does not matter if Dwight is dominating statistically in the post. The Magic are going to win games. The seemingly bad news is the other end of that spectrum. If Dwight puts up a 30-point game with 15 rebounds while the three-point shooters are bricking then it might be a short postseason for Orlando.
The crucial thing that Dwight brings to the offense, even when he’s not dominating statistically, is obviously his presence. When he misses 8-10 shots a game he is still drawing defenders, spreading out the floor, and taking attention away from the perimeter players who are going to kill you. So try not to misinterpret my argument. It is not that Dwight is a non-factor against the best teams in the East. It is that he needs to do what he does. He needs to get the ball on the block, run the pick-and-roll, attract double-teams, get fouled, get his looks inside, and then look back outside when it is available.
With that in mind, take a look at the breakdown of where the three-point success is coming from. The Magic shoot around 40 percent from deep when it comes out of the pick-and-roll or in transition. Averages tank when the isolation is being used, and isn’t much better (unfortunately) when they are spotting up. So again, you can see how this whole thing revolves around Dwight. It is one reason (of many) that this team is so marginal without him, and is going to be one main reason why Orlando is successful (or not) in the postseason.
The inflated value of the three-point shot is a curious stat. There is no inherent value to shooting a ton of three’s, or even in shooting for a super high percentage all the time. The Magic are fortunate to have the best post player in the game sitting on their low block, and if they are able to execute their offense running through Dwight Howard, and above all, ice their triples, this is going to be a tough team to beat.