8 games into the season, the Orlando Magic were 6-2. Since, the Magic have lost two out of three, getting spanked by a dreadful Chicago Bulls team, followed by another stinker against a red-hot Boston Celtics squad. In the big scheme of things, a 6-2 stretch followed by a 1-2 hiccup doesn’t tell you much about an NBA team over the course of an 82-game season. The sample sizes are simply too small. But history tells us there’s a high probability that an Orlando team Vegas had pegged for 33 wins might be due for (at least) some regression to the mean following a hot start. Here are 4 reasons the “Theme Park Capital of the World” should approach their NBA team’s early success just like Disney World; fun while it lasts, but a far cry from reality.
1. Key contributors are outperforming their career shooting averages by an unbelievably wide margin.
Namely, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Vucevic who are Orlando’s three leading scorers
|Orlando Magic Outperforming Career Shooting Averages in 2017-18|
|Player||2017-18 3P%||Career 3P%||2017-18 2P%||Career 2P%||PTS/G|
The improvement in 3P%, in particular, is unsustainable. Aaron Gordon is shooting almost 28% better than his career average from beyond the arc on 4.4 attempts per game. Vucevic, who had never averaged more than a single 3PA per game in any season prior, is now shooting 41.7% on 4.4 attempts per game. Even Marreese “Mo’ Buckets” Speights (not seen in the table), is shooting 46.4% from distance compared to a 35.6% career average and chucking it up 4.3 times per game!
Bound to tumble down to earth sooner or later, we’re seeing an “offensive juggernaut” who averaged nearly 115 points per through their first 8 games, post point totals of 83 and 88 in their two losses to the Bulls and Celtics. Fournier, Gordon, Vucevic, and Speights shot a combined 12 for 34 from three in those games, equating to a much more down-to-earth 3P% of 35.3% (the current league average is 35.8%). This is a recipe for disaster when Orlando isn’t exactly good, or even average, in other areas contributing to offensive success, which leads us to reason #2.
2. Turnovers, Rebounding, and Free Throws.
Anyone remember Dean Oliver? Perhaps his 2002 book Basketball on Paper rings a bell? In the book, Oliver promotes what he calls the “Four Factors of Basketball Success,” assigning weights to each factor as follows: shooting (40%), turnovers (25%), rebounding (20%), and free throws (15%). Far from a perfect analysis, the four factors still provide a decent snapshot of a team’s performance.
|Orlando Magic Offensive Four Factors Rankings in 2017-18|
Simply put, Orlando ranks poorly in everything besides shooting. They don’t take care of the ball, hardly rebound their misses, and rarely make it to the free throw line. Meaning when their shooting regresses, the Magic’s offense could get really ugly really fast (see losses to Bulls and Celtics).
And we haven’t even talked about defense.
3. Orlando’s defensive success is predicated more on luck than skill.
Multiple studies have reached the same conclusion: NBA defenders have very little to no control over opponent FG%, unless it’s within 6 feet of the basket. For example, there is no year-to-year correlation in a defender’s opponent 3P%. At the team level, this generally means whether or not the three-point line is being defended “well” is due to a lot of random noise. On the other hand, a defender’s opponent FG% at the rim (i.e., within 6 feet) does show some year-to-year correlation, meaning there might actually be some skill involved in defending shots near the basket.
In the Magic’s case, all of the above information is bad. Yes, they rank 1st in opponent 3P%, but due to the random fluctuations inherent in the stat we would expect their opponent 3P% of 30.6% to begin creeping higher. Meanwhile, Orlando ranks 21st in the shooting stat they have at least some control over (i.e., opponent FG% at the rim). Combine this with the fact that they’re pretty middling in all other defensive metrics and the Magic could have a problem on their hands once lady luck exits stage right.
Case in point, albeit only two games, the Bulls and Celtics shot a combined 25 for 62 from deep (40.3%) in beating Orlando by an average margin of 19 points.
4. Strength of Schedule within context.
On its face, a 6-2 start looks great, but the 6 wins haven’t exactly come against the stiffest of competition. The season opener was a 116-109 victory over a mediocre Miami Heat team currently sitting at 5-6, a team who ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight crew projects to finish the season 36-46, but still with a 34% chance of making the playoffs (further proof of a horrid Eastern Conference). Orlando’s second win came against Cleveland, which looked like a high-quality victory at the time, but now comes off as far less impressive, given LeBron and company’s troubling start, including a recent loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Magic then went on to beat a Nets squad (currently 4-7) in the midst of a rebuild, a Spurs team minus Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, the erratic 6-6 New Orleans Pelicans, and finally notched their 6th win in a 101-99 squeaker over a Memphis Grizzlies team without Mike Conley.
Given their opponents thus far, it’s not like the Magic are steam-rolling the best the league has to offer. In actuality, it appears Orlando is catching their opponents at opportune times.
* * * * *
The life lesson in all this? If it seems too good to be true it probably is. This Orlando team doesn’t fit the bill of a consistent NBA contender and is, by all accounts, too good to be true. Will they make the playoffs? Sure, but that’s only because they reside in the atrocious East. They have not, however, broken through, accessing a higher level of untapped potential like some might lead you to believe. In most ways, they are the same team that went 29-53 last season.
In keeping with the Disney theme park theme, the Magic remind me a lot of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a former Disneyland attraction, which unfortunately closed down in 1998. I remember first going on Mr. Toad’s ride as a 5-year-old boy and at the end, being terrified of an oncoming train scattering me to bits. 7 years later, I rode the ride again, more out of nostalgia than anything else. And would you believe it? That “terrifying” runaway train was just a small, dingy cardboard cutout hanging from the ceiling with a dim, blinking light attached to it; laughably pathetic to say the least.
The point is, a second go around and some additional perspective can make all the difference. If you find yourself overly optimistic about this 2017-18 Orlando Magic team, maybe a second look is in order.
photo via llananba