AP Photo/Eric Gay
When I covered high school sports and had to interview a coach of a young team that just got blown out of the water, there was one phrase that I heard more than any other.
“The guys are learning. They are getting better.”
As obnoxious and coach-speaky as it may seem, there’s a lot we can glean from those stock comments. And actually, Magic fans, coaches, and players ought to adopt some similar thinking this season. Because if you’re any one of these people and you’re gauging success by what you see in the win-loss column, it’s going to be a long season.
Success, in some cases, simply means improvement, and there are a few specific ways that the young talent in Orlando can start improving on the offensive side of the ball in the 2013-14 season.
Use the pick-and-roll to your strengths, not your weaknesses
Jacque Vaughn hasn’t stood the test of time yet, but he’s clearly not the wrong guy for this assignment in Orlando, at least right now. Vaughn appears to possess a keen understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his roster.
An example of this understanding is found in his use of the pick-and-roll. The eye test suggests that the Magic ran the pick-and-roll last season a bit less than they did during the Dwight Howard era. That’s true to some extent, but a closer look using Synergy gives a far clearer picture.
Last season, 20.9 percent of the Magic’s possessions were in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. In 2011-12, that figure was 23.1 percent. But that difference largely stems from the fact that they didn’t run it for the ballhandler. Instead, they ran it for the roll man. In 2012-13, Orlando ran the pick-and-roll for the roll man 7.1 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports. That percentage was the same in the 2011-12 season, but less in 2009-10 and 2010-11 (4.5 percent in both of those seasons).
A few things contributed to the steady use of the pick-and-roll to set up the roll man, not the least of which is the fact that players like Andrew Nicholson and Tobias Harris (to name a few) were simply efficient when they were involved in that play type.
To be more specific, Harris shot 45.7 percent from the field last season when he operated as the roll man, per Synergy Sports. That number is higher than his field goal percentages in any other play type, barring transition and offensive rebounding, which are basically percentage boosters for anyone. Nicholson, who is already an efficient shooter from just about everywhere, got 18.9 percent of his offense as the roll man and shot 50 percent from the field.
On the flipside, the Magic have basically one guy (Jameer Nelson) who is an effective scorer as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. In 2012-13, Maurice Harkless shot 32.5 percent when he handled the ball, per Synergy Sports. E’Twaun Moore shot 38.5 percent from the field (5-for-15 from deep). And Arron Afflalo was just a touch worse (36.6 percent from the field and 1-for-11 from deep).
A big key for Orlando will be if they can find a secondary ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. My money is on Oladipo, who appears comfortable pulling up from midrange or driving all the way to the basket.
Don’t post up as much
Clearly Jacque Vaughn has moved the Magic away from playing in the post, mostly because they don’t have any good post players outside of Andrew Nicholson. Nikola Vucevic shot 39.2 percent from the field out of the post-up last season, per Synergy Sports. That’s a pretty large departure from what Magic fans got used to seeing from the center position when D12 was in the house.
You really don’t want Glen Davis posting up either. Last season, he proved that he’s more effective cutting to the basket — he shot 60.9 percent! — than he is out of the post. His field goal percentage in the post (43.0 percent) is evidence to that. And let’s be honest, Glen Davis is not the guy you want to see backing guys down on the low block, unless he’s backing down Nick Young or something.
Get better in transition
This ought to be a no-brainer. Jacque Vaughn preaches defense, and he’s blessed with a young roster that is littered with defensive potential. Maurice Harkless and Victor Oladipo are guys who can hound you on the perimeter, force turnovers, and get out and run.
Last season, the Magic got 11.5 percent of their offense in transition but averaged just 1.01 points per possession (dead last in the NBA), per Synergy Sports. That’s a higher percentage of plays on the break than in 2012 (9.4 percent, 1.21 PPP), 2011 (10.5 percent, 1.05 PPP), and 2010 (10.6 percent, 1.12 PPP).
This year they added athleticism, speed, and more defense. We’ll see if that number rises.
Hit open shots, please
Shooting woes plagued the Magic last year, a problem that Orlando fans are not used to seeing. The spot-up shooting will absolutely need to improve if the Magic are going to get better as a team.
Orlando gets less offense from spot-up shooting than they traditionally have, and are relying more on isolation plays than they used to. That’s problematic, but it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they were simply more efficient shooting the ball. Harkless’ shot is a work in progress, Afflalo and Nelson have declined, and we have yet to see what Oladipo will do in a large sample size.
For me, that’s going to be the biggest trouble spot for the Magic this season. You can’t run the pick-and-roll every time down the floor, and at some point they will need to spread the floor and get strong spot-up shooting. It doesn’t seem to be in the cards at this point.
As for the isolation game, perimeter players will benefit most from dribble penetration. Plays going to the basket should lead to much more success than fadeaway jump shots and forced midrange jumpers. The fact of the matter is that shooting is not a huge strong point in Orlando, so the focus will need to be in attacking the basket.
Time to get to work
These points of emphasis aren’t glamorous, which means Jacque Vaughn will have to get peak focus and understanding of the idea of growth from his young players if he is going to see this roster prosper. Since we started this piece with some classic coach speak, we ought to end it with some as well.
“These kids just need to buy into the system and work on aspects of the game that work for them.”
Or something like that.