A Mix of Things Helped Magic Record NBA’s No. 1 Offense Over Last 12 Games Before Hiatus

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - How did the Magic go from ranking 26th in offense over the first 3 ½ months of the season to ranking first over the last few weeks before the hiatus?

Rarely do NBA teams make such a dramatic in-season turnaround. Diving a little deeper into the numbers, though, there were a few things the Magic did substantially better as the season went along.

One of them was simply play at a faster pace. And that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with speed. It more so has to do with getting into sets quicker and not being stagnant. From the start of the season until Feb. 9, Orlando ranked 28th in pace of play, averaging 98.1 possessions per 48 minutes. After Feb. 9, it ranked 12th, averaging 101.3 possessions per 48.

Something else significant was better screening. Arguably the most underrated and underappreciated aspect of a good offense is setting hard, meaningful screens – and the Magic rely on doing that often to generate good looks at the basket. The Magic led the NBA before the stoppage in total off-ball screens, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and they led the league in screen assists over their final 12 games.

Terrence Ross, a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year Award, was the league-leader in total off-screen points. But perhaps even more interesting was Nikola Vucevic’s per game screen assists average from before Feb. 10 and after. Prior to Feb. 10, the Magic’s starting center averaged 4.7 screen assists. After, he averaged 6.5, second most in the NBA during that stretch behind Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis’ 7.3.

Over those last 12 games, the Magic averaged 12.8 made 3-pointers per game on 37 percent shooting from beyond the arc. That was a substantial upgrade from their first 53 games when they averaged 10.5 made threes on 33.4 percent.

One of the reasons they shot the ball better from deep was that they were doing a better job breaking down the defense and getting into the paint for open kickout 3-point opportunities. The Magic ranked 20th in made kickout threes before Feb. 10 and 12th after, per tracking data.

The Magic’s offense flowed much better in the few weeks prior to the shutdown. Their passing was much sharper. Before Feb. 10, Orlando averaged 46.3 potential assists, which are amassed when a player passes to a teammate who shoots within one dribble of receiving the ball. After, that average rose to 53.4, second most in the NBA during that period behind Miami’s 54.6.

And then of course there’s the turnover factor, which was excellent all year, not just when they won eight of their final 12 before the break. For the season, Orlando is averaging just 12.6 turnovers per game, second fewest in the league behind San Antonio’s 12.3.

“That’s an important thing for us as a team, keeping our turnovers down, not giving up easy points in transition,” D.J. Augustin said. “That’s the stuff that we are working on in practice. Things that we are talking about every day. Those are going to be things that are going to help us win meaningful games coming forward.”

Through two scrimmages at Walt Disney World, we’ve seen a blend of what the Magic did pre-Feb. 10 and post. In fact, Saturday’s exhibition game against the Lakers was a microcosm of Orlando’s season as a whole. In the first half, the Magic made just 11 of their 50 shot attempts and two of their 22 3-point tries. In the third quarter, when the offense looked crisper, they knocked down 15 of their 25 attempts overall and three of their eight shots from downtown.

The good news is the Magic have several more days to figure out what it’s going to take to be more consistent as they prepare for their seeding games, which start Friday, July 31 against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they are hoping to leapfrog for the seventh seed in the East.

“Offensively, it’s just kind of getting everybody on the same page,” Vucevic said. “Executing our stuff, running our stuff well. Sometimes it just takes time to get that back and get in that rhythm. When we do take our time with executing our stuff, not taking shortcuts, just doing what we are supposed to do, I think we did pretty well in these first two games. Hopefully we can get to that because it’s very important for us on that part of the court. We need to be good on that end.”

Playing against three of the best defensive teams in the league in their scrimmages should be a major benefit as well as they gear up for the games that are going to count toward the regular season standings. The Lakers had the NBA’s third best defense before the stoppage, the Clippers fifth and the Nuggets 12th.

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