But Dude, What About the Orlando Magic?

As NBA All-Star weekend approaches, it seems like some minor surprises are in the air.  The Spurs have kept up their hot streak, Blake Griffin[1] and Kevin Love[2] are having monster first-halves, and the Warriors are above .300.[3] Now if you told me that Hedo would be back in Orlando with the Guard-Forward Formerly Known As Agent Zero before January[4], I would have laughed. And then that very trade happened and it came as quite a surprise.

So what’s the deal?  It’s what I want to write about this week.  I’ll leave the salary cap and contract stuff to Pakastallion and FlyingHaque; this article will attempt to examine why the Magic are playing better after the trade from a personnel and “X’s & O’s” perspective.

I should say from the outset that I was wrong about the trade. I figured that there would be no space for Arenas and Hedo both, and even if there was, Arenas would likely be relegated to the bench, where he would complain vigorously.  I also thought that the Magic traded defense for offense in losing Pietrus, but lauded them getting rid of Vince Carter. By the way, for an extended shit on Vince Carter, check out Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball.

Now that I’ve admitted ignorance – likely where you stop reading – I’ll go through a few reasons why the Magic have gone 14-6 since the trade.[5]

Reason #1: Improved Play of Dwight Howard

Since the trade, Dwight has averaged four more points a game, two more boards a game, and averaged two more shots a game.[6] Most interestingly, Howard is averaging almost one whole foul less per game when compared to December and almost half a foul per game less when compared to November.[7] I think the explanation for the foul discrepancy between November and December is two-fold: (1) the Magic suffered their worst offensive stint in early December, which put even more of an offensive burden on Howard, thereby creating more foul trouble; (2) Howard may have been frustrated by the lack of production and a 3-6 record in the first half of the month.[8] In any event, the numbers seem to indicate that Howard is playing better, and committing less fouls, which keeps him on the court longer.  In fact, Howard is averaging 3 more minutes a game in January when compared to December and November.[9]

I think that the acquisition of Richardson and Arenas directly affects how Howard plays, and is a partial explanation for this improvement.  Richardson’s offensive production is a vast improvement over Rashard Lewis’ (nearly 2 more threes made, 3 points more per game, with a better field goal percentage)[10], which allows Howard to do what he does best: rebound Richardson’s misses and operate in the post alone as defenders guard Richardson around the perimeter.  In this way, Richardson’s presence allows Howard to play better; I think that Arenas helps in much the same fashion, when Howard and Arenas are on the court together.

Reason #2: The Players Are Better

Flat out.  Orlando sent away Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat and Rashard Lewis and in return received Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas, and Jason Richardson.  Let’s compare Lewis and Turkoglu. Lewis did average more points, but Turkoglu averages a higher field goal percentage and almost five more assists per game.[11] Not only can Turkoglu control the offense and set Dwight Howard up, but he can also score if necessary – a much better fit at Forward than Lewis.  What about Vince Carter and J.Rich? The statistics here are actually almost even, with Richardson scoring a few more points a game and making a few more threes, but as a matter of numbers, this is largely a wash.[12] I think Richardson gives them the edge because of his explosiveness, which Carter has lost in his age; Richardson can spark the crowd if he gets hot, and, in my estimation, has been more productive offensively than Carter.[13]

I can’t say enough about Turkoglu’s return to the Magic.  At five assists a game, he can contribute in a way that Rashard Lewis – basically just a scorer and shooter – really could not.  And he’s doing it quite efficiently too; this article from an Orlando Magic blog provides some good insight as to why, but I won’t rehearse the author’s arguments here.

Now Arenas and Pietrus: no doubt the Magic lost a defensive mainstay, but as I alluded to earlier, they were losing games anyway and were willing to sacrifice defense for offense.  Strangely, Arenas’ numbers in January do not differ wildly from Pietrus’ in November – about 7, 2, and 3 for Arenas and 7, 3, and 0.7 for Pietrus.[14] In good faith, I can’t even make an anecdotal observation about this, so I’m just going to put it to one side.  I feel like Arenas is the better offensive player, but the numbers belie my sentiment.

Can the Magic Win it All?

Doubtful.  First, I don’t think the personnel are capable of playing great, playoff-style defense, and I say that with full knowledge of Howard’s defensive capability.  The departure of Pietrus means Arenas, Richardson, or Jameer Nelson will have to guard on the perimeter – none of those three are quite as tenacious.  I can’t seem to locate how many points the Magic allowed per game in various months, which is strange; however, if anyone can find that, please do comment.  Facing Paul Pierce and Ray Allen or Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, as they likely will, the Magic will need strong perimeter defense, and no doubt losing Pietrus hurts.  The loss of Gortat doesn’t hurt the Magic much, if Ryan Anderson continues to come on strong.  He averages one more block every three games (compared to Gortat), and he grabs one more defensive board per game.[15]

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, their style of offense is not sustainable.  Yes, Hedo is a vast improvement, and yes role players like Redick are shooting better from 3-pt – the numbers do show that.[16] But, to quote Charles Barkley, they’re just Dwight Howard and a bunch of three-point shooters,[17] which I largely agree with.  It’s difficult to sustain an offense if the 3-point shooting cools down, which it will.  This is especially true if Howard starts to get in early foul trouble, which will happen more than a few times in a seven-game series. Not to mention, field goal percentages, like most things in life, regress to the mean – and nowhere is this truer than 3-point percentage.  I think it’s unfair to say that the Magic live-and-die by the three, but they certainly rely on it – they attempt four more threes than even the Golden State Warriors.[18]

To conclude, I think that the Magic’s trade has improved their roster both as a virtue of Dwight Howard’s plan and as an upgrade to their personnel.  I don’t think it’s quite enough to get them over the edge though, because of their lack of quality defenders and the style of offense they play.

Your thoughts?


[3] Surprising, right?

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 6

[9] Id.  at 7. This may mean, however, that I have the causality inverted and that the explanation for increased production is the extended playing time. Nevertheless my hypothesis is equally valid.

[13] Purely an anecdotal observation.

[16] Redick had a 3-point percentage of 30% with 1 made three-pointer before the trade, which improved to 40% with 2 made threes after the trade. http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/players/splits?playerId=3024

[18] Compare http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/gs/golden-state-warriors with, http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/orl/split/40/orlando-magic. As a Warriors fan, I can tell you: the Warriors shoot a lot of threes. A lot.

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4 Responses to But Dude, What About the Orlando Magic?

  1. SwagFlu says:

    Good article, but I have some comments regarding your comparison of player pre and post trade.

    re: vince and j-rich.
    I’ve always thought these players both entered the league in the same manner. Both were explosive athletes that gained popularity through their high-energy, spine-tingling, mind-boggling dunks and ultimately winning the futile slam dunk title. In order to stay in the league, they both developed consistent 3 point shots to give their careers some longevity. This is where we have a split. In my opinion, J-rich didn’t develop into anything more than a reliable 3point shooter, where as Air Canada aka Vince-anity became a legitimate offensive threat.

    While the statistics are currently even and j-rich is more explosive, vince > j-rich, for the magic. for a large part of his career in toronto and jersey, he was the number 1 option. Having this kind of maturity, leadership, and experience on your team is huge, especially if your team is the largely inexperience orlando magic. vince has the capability of taking over a game in a way that j-rich cannot. I’ve seen him do this several times in orlando where he scores 10 points in the last 6 minutes of the 4th quarter of important games for the magic.

    You could maybe contend that J-rich was a number 1 option in Golden State, which would nullify my point, but I’m pretty sure that any fan of the NBA or Pacific Division basketball would disagree with that assertion.

    I would agree if you made the argument that the magic don’t need vince with hedo’s ability to take over games in crunch-time. But again, it’s important to note vince’s experience and composure in big-game settings, which cannot be quantified. Also, not to slight jameer nelson in any way, vince legitimized the backcourt, which is something j-rich and hedo cannot do.

    re: gortat and anderson.
    You briefly mentioned this, but i don’t’ think you explored it enough. According to your article, anderson is averaging more rebounds and blocks (a game-changing .33 blocks, in fact) than gortat, which is noteworthy, but gortat is a significantly better post defender. Having seen anderson play in the pac-10 and in orlando and having watched gortat in suns and magic jersey’s, i will agree that anderson is a better rebounder, but gortat can bang in the paint with the archetypal big man. These figures are not reflected in the stat line, but having this ability to defend on the block is huge for a magic squad that has a paucity of front count size and talent. Moreover, as the magic enter the playoffs, they’ll need gortat’s post defense to battle boozer/noah/kurt thomas of chicago, kg/perkins/big baby of boston, and the other eastern conference front courts.

    You also touched on the fact that the magic are simply a team w/ dwight + 3pt shooters. Not having gortat exacerbates this glaring weakness even more. Again, gortat is a traditional big man that can play on the block, where as anderson is a modern, hybrid forward that can spread the floor with his 3-point shooting. At uc berkeley, he was in the top 5 for 3pm and 3pa in the pac-10 during his sophomore campaign when he was a 2nd team all-american selection. This shows that at his core, he is a shooter. It’s great to have a big man on your team that can stretch the defense, but with jj reddick, jason richardson, hedo, jameer nelson, and arenas, his 3 point shooting is useless and an untapped resource.

    The Orlando magic would be better off trading in anderson’s offensive abilities for a back-to-the-basket big man that can play defense in the post.

    re: arenas and pietrus.
    It’s a fact that pietrus is a better defender. Nobody will ever argue that. But what I will argue is that you do not understand the magnitude of having arenas on the magic. He gives their second unit a legitimate scoring threat that can spazz at any moment for 40. In his heyday, 2 years ago, arenas was the most dynamic scorer in the league. At times he can be an abyss of missed shots, but his ability to go off offsets this liability. I am pleasantly surprised with how well-composed he has been playing within the scope of the Orlando offense.

    I only see arenas helping magic out more. For you to even compare pietrus’ and arenas’ offensive abilities is irresponsible on your part. You cannot simply look at statistics and say the two players are equal.

    Overall, the magic came out of the trade in a better position. i also agree that the magic need some help if they want to win. they need a more well-rounded roster and some serious upgrades on defense. Offense may win games, but defense wins championships. Ask Mike D’Antoni!

    • Flying Haque says:

      about vince vs. j-rich, i think you might be comparing vince carter from a few years ago. i’ve watched j-rich extensively in the last two years (being a suns fan) and i can tell you that he is an offensive nightmare to guard. he’s one of the leaders in 3 pt field goal percentage over the last few years (in charlotte, before he was traded to the suns, he led the league in 3 pt percentage, so this wasn’t just steve nash’s doing) and an amazing shooter. he also has an explosiveness that vince has lost. and while it isn’t the same, j-rich was the number one scoring option in phoenix this year before he got traded.
      also, in regards to vince’s maturity, leadership, and intangibles, i don’t think he has much of that. i’ve watched vince throughout his career, and there were countless times i remember him just shooting jump shots instead of taking the ball to the hole. j-rich also plays well in the playoffs (warriors vs. mavs 2007, suns vs. spurs 2009), something vince has NEVER been able to do well

      • SwagFlu says:

        All valid points. In my initial comment, I said J-rich is a reliable shooter and explosive, so I agree with you there. However, I didn’t really factor in his role in Phoenix this year, so you are right, J-rich was a number option there, even if it was only for 20 games.

        re: vince’s maturity, I feel that the past 2 seasons he has stepped up and taken more leadership in crunch time. i’ve watched vince play since he was at UNC, so i definitely see a different player now than i have in the past. one can easily and justifiably say otherwise, but the way i’ve seen him take over games in the 4th quarter for the magic is reminiscent of great, clutch players, which is why i think you want him in crunch time. you are right that he settles on jumpshots, but i think he can create for himself more than j-rich can.

        also, regarding the playoffs, vince led the raptors and the nets the playoffs through the 2000’s. in fact, i think he averaged ~30 pts/game through ~10 games in the playoffs in 2005 or 2006. on the other side, j-rich never led a team to the playoffs (he was behind baron and steph jackson when the warriors schooled the mavs), he was simply an integral role player. also, j-rich has probably played in half has many playoff games as vince. this is the experience i was referring to in my response.

        i will give you +1 for saying that vince hasn’t really shown up in “big” playoff games, but it’s not like j-rich has been in enough playoff games to have even had the opportunity “show up.”

        thanks for forcing me to view the j-rich/vince comparison in a different light.

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