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February 3, 2009
Embracing the Weakness
The Magic Can Win It All

by Kevin Pelton

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Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, has argued that every strength is also a form of weakness, and vice versa. I've been thinking about this idea lately in regards to the Orlando Magic.

Recently, my colleague Anthony Macri noted in his breakdown of the Magic's title chances that the chink in the team's armor is subpar rebounding. Orlando ranks 20th in the league in total rebounding percentage, ahead of just two other likely playoff teams. This led The Painted Area blog to revisit research showing that over the last two and a half decades, every NBA champion save the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Houston Rockets had outrebounded its opponents by at least a rebound per game.

There's a certain inevitable implication here, one that was offered on a more regular basis a year ago when the Magic was a division champion but not a legitimate contender to win it all--Orlando should make a trade to acquire a better rebounder and potentially move Rashard Lewis to his more natural small-forward position. True Hoop's Henry Abbott followed up The Painted Area's post by musing, "Could there be improvement on the way?" I hope not, and I don't think it's necessary or would be helpful.

Our lead NCAA columnist, John Gasaway, has spent more time dealing with teams like the Magic and has even classified them as what he terms a POT--perimeter-oriented team. Gasaway notes that a POT is defined by distinct trademarks that show up in each of the offensive Four Factors:

  • A high effective field-goal percentage (strength).
  • A low offensive rebound percentage (weakness).
  • A low turnover percentage (strength).
  • A low rate of free-throws per field-goal attempt (weakness).

Perimeter-oriented teams have distinct strengths and weaknesses. However, it makes little sense to address one without the other, because they all flow from the overarching philosophy of the offense. The strengths are the weaknesses, and they simply represent the tradeoffs perimeter-oriented teams are willing to make. Free throws and offensive rebounds are sacrificed in the name of better shooting and fewer turnovers.

It should be noted here that not every team that shoots a lot of threes qualifies as a POT. For example, Nate McMillan's best teams--a group which includes this year's Portland Trail Blazers--have somewhat paradoxically been good at both offensive rebounding and making threes. In fact, relative to league average, no team in NBA history has been better at both making threes and offensive rebounding than the 2008-09 Blazers are.

Returning to our original focus, the Magic does not exactly fit into Gasaway's definition of a perimeter-oriented team. Thanks to Dwight Howard's presence, Orlando is ninth in the league in free-throw rate. At the same time, the Magic is merely average at avoiding turnovers. Still, the classic POT tradeoff is obvious in the fact that Orlando is second in effective field-goal percentage (the Magic also leads the league in both threes made and three-point percentage) and 27th in offensive rebound percentage.

Part of the reason we know Orlando's lack of offensive rebounds is a product of the team's style comes from a comparison with the defensive end of the floor. The Magic is above average at defensive rebounding--eighth in the league, in fact. I originally suspected that The Painted Area's research suffered from conflating rebounding at the two different ends, which as the Magic indicates can often differ wildly. The results of my mini-study surprised me. When I looked at the same group of 25 champions and split rebounding into its two components, I found the league's recent titlists were actually better as a whole on the offensive glass (3.0 percent better than league average) than the defensive glass (2.0 percent better).

At the same time, NBA champions generally being good at offensive rebounding should not be taken to mean that it is impossible to win a championship without offensive rebounding, and the Magic has a couple of role models of recent or semi-recent vintage. One is the Clutch City Rockets, but the other might surprise you--the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs. Those Spurs were even more imbalanced in rebounding than the Magic are, ranking third in the league in defensive rebounding but 27th on the offensive glass. While we don't think of San Antonio as a perimeter-oriented offensive team, in 2006-07 the Spurs were tenth in the NBA in threes while shooting them at the league's second-best clip.

In his column, Macri concluded that part of the reason Orlando has been slow to win acceptance as a contender is because of a comparison with past champions. "Ultimately, this Magic team is hard to trust," he wrote. "They don't do the things we normally associate with championship-caliber teams." I agree that this plays into the public's perception, but when you dig deeper I'm not sure it makes sense.

Like the Tim Duncan Spurs or the Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets, Orlando surrounds a talented post player with lights-out shooters who make opponents pay for double-teaming down low. True, Lewis is a much less traditional post player than San Antonio has employed alongside Duncan (until turning to Matt Bonner this season) and hardly a dirty worker in the mold of Houston's Otis Thorpe. He's a better match for the player those two teams shared, Robert Horry, but even Horry was unique in his ability to capably defend power forwards while stretching the floor on offense. Yet playing small hasn't stopped Stan Van Gundy from building an elite defense around Howard and a supporting cast of mostly lightly-regarded defenders. The Magic certainly won't fall short in the postseason for a lack of defense.

That all said, there's a funny thing about these comparisons. If Orlando is to somehow emerge from the trio of elite teams in the Eastern Conference and win it all, I hope everyone forgets them and considers the Magic an atypical champion. That's because it would be so painful for a certain group of analysts, particularly the type that inhabit your television screen before and after games, that loves to reduce success to a simple formula: "Defense wins championships" or "Rebounds mean rings." I rail against that mentality, and not just because I don't think it's backed up by the data. I hate it because it is boring.

I have nothing in particular against the Spurs' style, and I can enjoy an 86-82 defensive struggle as much as a 117-113 barnburner. However, as a fan and an analyst I don't want to see every team try to copy it. That's what made the Seven Seconds or Less Suns so popular--the fact that they represented a strike for heterogeneity and creativity (or chaos, as Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm so delightfully put it not long ago) and multiple ways to reach the same goal.

By contrast, the Terry Porter/Steve Kerr Suns of modern vintage epitomize the worst in "weakness" philosophy--the inability to accept a shortcoming in order to reap benefits elsewhere, as the Magic does on offense. The logic Kerr employed, as suggested for years by the single-minded analysts, was that Phoenix needed to become better on defense and in the half-court settings of the postseason (as Kerr attempted to do by adding Shaquille O'Neal and replacing Mike D'Antoni with Terry Porter), offsetting any drop-off in scoring potency and remaking the Suns in the mold of past champions.

Setting aside the questions about Kerr's specific choices (trying to improve a defense by dealing for a player noted for his inability to defend the pick-and-roll and hiring a coach whose Milwaukee teams finished 23rd and 28th in the league in Defensive Rating), this theory almost never works out. Teams that try to be great at everything end up great at nothing. So it is with the Suns. Maybe it's true the Seven Seconds or Less style would never produce a championship--an axiom we might have had to rethink had Horry (it all comes back to him) not chosen an ideal time to hip-check Steve Nash into the scorer's table--but we can be sure this year's underwhelming Phoenix team isn't going to reach those lofty heights.

There's another quote that has stuck with me while I've been thinking about the Magic and rebounding and the nature of weakness. It's an exchange from the movie "The Breakfast Club" between Anthony Michael Hall's stereotypical brain and Judd Nelson's outlaw regarding Hall's inability to complete a seemingly easy class project requiring him to build a lamp. "I'm a ----ing idiot because I can't make a lamp?" asks Hall. "No," replies Nelson. "You're a genius because you can't make a lamp."

Orlando can't offensive rebound, and that's precisely why the Magic is a championship contender.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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