AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Before this season started, the Magic were a popular pick as one of the league’s worst teams. With the two best players of last year’s 37-29 outfit traded and Jacque Vaughn coming in as a rookie coach, it wasn’t hard to envision a lot of struggles at Amway Center. It is through the prism of these justifiably low expectations that the Magic, currently at 7-11 and competitive on most nights, stand as somewhat of a surprising success.
Even so, there has been an odd trend among the players that have come in for the departed Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson. Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless, the two young assets who arrived in the Howard deal, have both been showing some positive signs regarding their prospective careers. The veteran prizes, however, have mostly underwhelmed. Josh McRoberts has experienced a minor renaissance, but Al Harrington has yet to take the court, while Arron Afflalo and Gustavo Ayon have both seen their games regress.
Afflalo has seen something of a bounce-back week, with a solid performance in Utah coming after two straight games of torching the state of California. But on the whole, he’s struggled to adjust to being a main cog for an NBA offense. His True Shooting percentage is seeing a significant drop for the second straight year -– after a scorching 62 percent in 2010-11, he was at 58.4 percent last year, and is at 53.4 percent so far this year. A lot of this is the result of a re-distribution in his shot locations, as extensively covered by Sean Highkin. But it’s also clear that Afflalo is being asked to do more for himself as less is done for him by others.
Afflalo made an offensive name for himself as a spot-up shooter. And indeed, in 2010-11, his most efficient offensive year, a whopping 41.5 percent of his offensive possessions were spot-ups, per Synergy. This was a wise strategy, as Afflalo averaged 1.19 points per possessions on those plays, which ranked him 30th in the NBA. That wild success powered him through to the point where he averaged 1.1 points per possession overall, which placed him 12th in the league on offense.
Over the last two years, however, he’s been spotting up less and less. Only 33.9 percent of Afflalo’s plays were spot-ups last year and this season, that number is all the way down to 26 percent. Perhaps by coincidence, he’s also converting less: he dropped down to 51st in spot-up plays in 2011-12 and this season, he ranks a mediocre 125th, as the rest of his offense has been dragged down as well. Afflalo is only averaging 0.92 points per possession this season, which ranks him 149th overall offensively.
The thing is, Afflalo isn’t recklessly going towards the basket rather than spotting up from the perimeter. He still isolates on just about one in every 10 plays, consistent with his numbers in Denver. But he has seen big leaps in how much he runs plays as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations (3.8 percent and 3.9 percent in his last two Denver seasons; 10.9 percent this year) and off screens (5.3 percent and 10.5 percent; 13.8 percent respectively).
This doesn’t paint the picture of a player forcing his will on the team. Rather, this is a player who is being given bigger responsibilities from his coach. Drops in efficiency given higher usage is one of the staples of basketball analysis, but it is the coach’s job to decide how much of a drop is allowed before the player hurts his team and losses his confidence. With a roster lacking in creators, Jacque Vaughn might not have that luxury with Afflalo.
Gustavo Ayon has also suffered from a different roster around him than last season, but in the other direction. With Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic cementing themselves as the team’s best front-court options, as well as Andrew Nicholson and Josh McRoberts contributing off the bench, Ayon is only playing 11.6 minutes per game. This compared to last year’s New Orleans squad, where he averaged 20.1 minutes per game, with projected centers Chris Kaman and Emeka Okafor under-performing when they were on the court.
But it’s not as simple as playing time for Goose. He’s also shooting much further away from the basket and it’s hurting his effectiveness. Ayon has a limited offensive game, but he moves well towards the basket and finishes well, shooting 65.4 percent at the rim last year and 68.4 percent this year, per Hoopdata. But while he took 60.4 percent of his shots at the rim last year, he’s down to 44.4 percent in Orlando. As a result, his True Shooting percentage has dropped to 48.8 percent (55.2 percent last season).
Again, this could be explained by the lack of an elite playmaker –- Ayon displayed good chemistry with Greivis Vasquez last season, when he was assisted on 80 percent of his makes. This year, the drop-off from General Greivis and Jarrett Jack to an occasionally healthy Jameer Nelson and E’Twaun Moore has seen that number drop to 71.4 percent.
Unlike Afflalo, it seems like this isn’t a designed change. Ayon excelled last season in plays that got him moving to the rim and indeed, the Magic have kept off-ball cuts and rolls off picks as his two most used play types. He’s still rebounding at a strong rate and he’s still the most mobile defensive big man Orlando has. He just needs to work harder towards getting to the spots of the floor where he’s most comfortable shooting.
It’s still too early to separate how much of Afflalo and Ayon’s struggles are early season flukes, how much is due to building up comfort with new roles and a new system, and how much is just plain regression. But it’s clear that they’re both players who have been at their best historically from certain sports on the court on certain play types, and that they haven’t been going to their strong suits enough early on. It’s something that Jacque Vaughn is going to have to address.