Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
As Noam Schiller noted on Tuesday, a big reason for Orlando’s recent losing stretch is because they’ve regressed badly defensively. The Magic went from having a top 10 defense in the first month and a half of the season to having one of the worst defenses in the NBA.
As January bleeds into February, the losses for the Magic are continuing to pile up and grow more indistinguishable. It’s not just that the team is losing — and boy, are they ever losing. They’re sitting at 14-34 on the season and have lost 21 of their last 23 games.
But beyond just the loss column, they’re losing in the same way over and over. They get down big in the first quarter, make a run in the middle two periods, and then collapse down the stretch.
Their quarter-by-quarter splits bear this out. Orlando’s downfall has been in the two bookend periods since this stretch of futility began on December 21. They have been outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions in the first quarters of games and 12.1 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters, per NBA.com. The middle two quarters are not exactly encouraging (net ratings of -6.5 and -8.0, respectively), but they’re still noticeably less the cause of the damage than the first or fourth quarters.
Down the stretch in particular, the Magic’s efficiency has fallen off a cliff in the last 23 games.
This drop is most striking in looking at the three-point splits. The Magic have attempted more threes per game in fourth quarters than in any of the first three periods during this stretch and the drop-off is stunning.
A look at the shot chart on these three-point attempts in the fourth quarter doesn’t do anything to bring clarity to this trend. The left corner is a constant: they hit threes from those areas at a 37 percent clip, which is acceptable if not ideal. Their three-point attempts from the wings and at the top of the key are just as high in volume in the first three quarters as they are in the final period, yet the percentages from those shot locations collapse (excluding the right wing). There’s no easy answer. The Magic’s long ball-heavy offense simply ceases to function in the fourth quarter.
What makes this late-game futility even more perplexing is that the Magic have rebounded better in the fourth quarter than in any other period over this 23-game stretch at both ends of the floor. They simply have not been able to convert.
They also cough the ball up at a higher rate in fourth quarters than at any other point. Even when a steady hand like Jameer Nelson or J.J. Redick is running the offense, they tend to get rushed late and make costly errors.
While it’s admittedly difficult for Jacque Vaughn to juggle all of the young talent on the roster, a look at the lineup data shows almost nothing in the way of rotational consistency. Over the last 23 games, only four lineups have played at least 50 minutes together.
The most-used unit logging 84 minutes. And Josh McRoberts is involved, which makes that lineup’s effectiveness even more inexplicable. That lineup, consisting of Nelson, Redick, Arron Afflalo, McRoberts, and Nikola Vucevic, outscores opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions. Before his season-ending foot injury, the same lineup with Glen Davis instead of McRoberts logged nearly as many minutes (76) and was outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions.
This stability isn’t improving anytime soon, either. Between Davis’ injury and nagging, short-term injuries to Redick, Nelson, and Afflalo, it’s always anyone’s guess who will start and who will play on any given night.
Kyle O’Quinn, Moe Harkless, and DeQuan Jones are taking advantage of their increased minutes, but Andrew Nicholson is still perplexingly underutilized. It is to the detriment of all four rookies’ development that Orlando’s veterans are falling prey to injuries left and right, as it forces the inexperienced players to be run out all at once in what amounts at times to a glorified Summer League squad.
The wins and losses are beside the point, although a couple of wins would be a welcome sight, just to prove that the Magic still know what that is.
Struggles were expected when Dwight Howard left town, but not much more could go wrong for the Magic than already has. All they have left to play for now is a favorable return on Redick at the trade deadline and even if they get a good pick for their best player, that doesn’t do anything to ease the slog that is this doomed season.
The end of the season, which is 36 games from now, can’t get here soon enough.