This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Ten games is a small sample size. It's a little early to be hitting a panic button. Unfortunately, it might be apt in the case of the Orlando Magic.
Through ten games, the Magic are nearing record incompetence in terms of scoring.
It took them until game eight of the year to top the century mark and score 100 points. They are dead last in 3-point shooting percentage (28.2). Yet, this all comes while Evan Fournier is off to a great start following his triumphant showing during international competition this summer. He is shooting 40 percent from three on five attempts per game and is second on the team in scoring.
According to Synergy Sports Tech, the Magic are dead last on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, making a putrid 30.2 percent. For reference, last year's worst group, the Los Angeles Lakers, made 35.8 percent. The gap between Orlando and the Lakers is akin to the one between the Lakers and eighth place a season ago.
Are the Orlando Magic failing to score because of just poor shooting, or is their structure and framework to blame? How much of their shooting production is likely to change? As always, the answer is a combination of all factors.
What the 3-point incompetence has unmasked is a flawed vision of what this roster is and will be under its current construction. With so many long, wiry slashers and so few floor spacers, the lack of credible threats from downtown are suffocating the Magic's interior capabilities.
Before diving into the relation between their inside and outside games, we have to address this truly putrid shooting start.
Part of the shooting woes is due to an unforeseen and unprecedented collective drop in shooting ability from capable veterans. Through the first ten games of their season, the Magic have experienced a slump from some of their most reliable returners, most notably Terrence Ross and DJ Augustin. If you look at the four-plus-year pros outside of Fournier who have taken the most threes, there's a sharp decline in production.
Those five veterans are actually shooting 10.6 percent worse from three:
For guys like Augustin and Ross, who are used to a high volume and have proven themselves for years, it's hard to consider this little more than a slump. Augustin may be struggling with a relocation to the bench, but he's also finished a season below 34 percent from three just once in the last eight years. Clifford has hunted shots for Ross after timeouts, running a standard package of plays that are designed around getting him looks from three.
Those two climbing out of their funk certainly would help the Magic, but that alone isn't enough to solve Orlando's shot-making woes.
Raise Ross and Augustin to their standard shot-making levels from the last three years and this Magic core is still only at 32.5 percent—a notable dip from last year. Such an onus is then placed on fairly unproven snipers Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu to become shot-makers.
Gordon and Aminu are not victims of the "increase volume, lower percentage" plague that sometimes catches up to frontcourt shooters. Both are attempting fewer threes per minute than their last couple seasons. However, that may be what is ailing Vucevic, the Magic center, who continues to increase his three-point volume each season.
Vucevic is hurt by the overall lack of spacing around him in the pick-and-roll game or from handoffs. With such poor shooting on the wings surrounding him, his two-point effectiveness is suffering. From a percentage standpoint, he remains solid, making 49.6 percent from inside the arc, which slightly below normal for him.
But there are plenty of shots he should be getting from inside the arc that have to be reallocated to others due to how teams defend the Magic.
Take some handoff or ball screens that result in single-side bumps as an example. Single-side bumps are meant to trap the corner help defender in a dilemma: He can either help at the rim and leave his man open for a three, or stay on his man and risk the ball screen resulting in a layup for the roller.
Against the Magic, where so many non-shooters are placed in the single-side bump (known as the Shake position), there is no dilemma. Corner defenders are instructed to sag in the lane and tag down on Vucevic, forcing kick-out threes to younger, less certain options like forward Jonathan Isaac or guard Markelle Fultz:
Vooch isn't the only one that's taken out of his comfort zone.
Teams now focus on top-locking Fournier during any screening action. Top-locking is when the defender jumps high-side on his man whenever he senses a screen is approaching. That forces his man (Fournier, in this instance) to refuse the screen and avoid cutting to the three-point line—a win for opponents.
When the Magic have screeners who aren't high-caliber threats to pop the action and punish defenses, opponents easily hone in on top-locking Fournier and living with the jumper they give up:
Thus, the Magic can't reliably run screening actions for Fournier and they can't dependably get the ball to Vucevic as a roller. Two major tenets of their offense are taken away, simply because the other three players on the floor are less-than-dynamic threats from deep.
Someone else is then forced to step up and create offense.
That leads us into the franchise's building blocks of the future: Vucevic will turn 30 this year, but the overall core is young. Gordon is still somehow only 24. Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz (despite all he's gone through as a pro) are 22 or younger. This is a group that has long-term upside together.
But they need to make shots in order for the collection of talent to be seen as a successful unit.
Bamba is 5-17 from three, struggling from deep for the second consecutive season. The allure of his pre-draft stretch-shooting reputation has worn off. Fultz, battling nerve issues and the microscope of public pressure, is 4-22 and is one for his last nine. If these two are to be the recipients of the torch when it eventually gets passed, the surrounding runners have abundantly clear roles: shoot the ball and shoot it well.
Some of their recent acquisitions don't lend themselves to such a role, however. Playing 17.1 minutes a night, Michael Carter-Williams is another sub-25 percent shooter that eats into space at the rim for Fultz and Co. to finish. He's not the most dynamic playmaker when he's paired with Fultz or Augustin, either, so MCW is often relegated to an off-ball role where he's simply bad.
Teams ignore him and dare him to take the corner three, and get the exact result they hoped for:
Carter-Williams isn't the only ill-fitting role player with this team.
Even this summer's big free agent addition, was a questionable fit! Al-Farouq Aminu has improved greatly as a shooter but still leaves a lot to be desired. Think about this as a conscious choice: Would you rather haveAminu taking threes or Fultz and Vucevic looking to score from twelve feet an in?
It's a no-brainer for defenses, so while Aminu has worked hard to become a respectable shooter, he's only garnering respect when he isn't clearly placed in a position where his defender can chip down and take away the main action. That's exactly what the Dallas Mavericks and Justin Jackson did last week.
Every time Aminu was in the slot while a drive or a screen-and-roll took place, Jackson would leave him and seek to tag down on the roller to force a kick to Aminu:
When Aminu takes his threes, it's not because he's designed to take them, but because he has to based on how the defense plays them. The same goes for Fultz, Carter-Williams or anyone else in the single-side bump.
Sure, the Magic are historically cold from deep and will warm up as the year goes by. But will they heat up to the point where opponents value taking away the three as opposed to anything and everything that happens in the paint?
Signed for an average annual salary of $9.72 million, Aminu's spot could have been taken by numerous others in the 2019 free-agent class who are known for their 3-point prowess. Seth Curry ($8 million/year), Wayne Ellington ($8 million/year), Maxi Kleber ($8.9 million/year) and even Jeremy Lamb ($10.5 million) were all available in Aminu's price ballpark. Whether they would have considered Orlando is a different matter.
That's where the push-pull nature of this ever-intriguing experiment in Orlando comes in.
As far as a collection of talent and athletes are concerned, the Magic have an abundance of young prospects with clear upside. Gordon, Fultz, Isaac and Bamba are all short of their ceilings and have some growing to do. Their length and athleticism across the floor makes them a terror defensively. They guard anyone and any action, have supreme versatility and dissuade more shots than are quantifiable.
None of it matters if they cannot score the ball, however. Basketball is a game with one simple objective: score more than your opponent, no matter how you get there.
Standing 3-7, it's not time to hit the panic button this early. But the shooting struggles have exacerbated a larger issue at play here: the Magic don't have a lot of elite or above-average shooters.
Is that the right way to build a group around the young pieces they have? If their shooting improves to slightly below-average, will that be satisfactory and allow the offense to outscore their opponents?
At some point, you have to stop collecting puzzle pieces and just find the ones that fit.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).