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January 22, 2010
Recapturing the Magic
What's Wrong with Orlando

by Kevin Pelton

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Lately, I've been getting a little credit for my spreadsheet's work. TrueHoop's Henry Abbott noted in his interview on Tuesday with Memphis Grizzlies statistical analyst Aaron Barzilai that the SCHOENE Projection System was essentially all alone in predicting the level of success the 22-19 Grizzlies have achieved at the midway point of the season. In truth, however, even I didn't really entirely believe the optimistic prediction for the Grizzlies.

What I'd like to talk about today, then, is a SCHOENE prediction that received my whole-hearted subjective endorsement: That the Orlando Magic would be as good as any team in the NBA. Based on that projection and the matchup advantages that helped the Magic upset Cleveland in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, I picked Orlando to not only repeat in the East but win its first NBA championship.

It's much too early to write off that prediction, since the Magic hasn't exactly been terrible. However, at 27-15 Orlando is nearly seven wins off the pace of SCHOENE's projection of 59.4 wins and is fourth in the Eastern Conference. More than that, there seems to be a pervasive sense that something isn't quite right with the Magic that my colleague Bradford Doolittle has mentioned recently.

If we use SCHOENE as a starting point, Orlando's issues really seem to be primarily at the defensive end of the floor. Based on a regression to the mean from Dwight Howard after his Defensive Player of the Year season as well as the Magic's offseason moves, SCHOENE projected Orlando to drop from first to fifth in the league in Defensive Rating. Lo and behold, the Magic is sixth. That part of the projection is looking pretty accurate. Where SCHOENE was off, then, is on offense. The addition of Vince Carter, added depth up front and a full season for Jameer Nelson were projected to make Orlando the best offensive team in the league. The Magic offense has been good but not great, sitting eighth in the league so far--the same ranking as last season. So why hasn't Orlando scored as well as projected? I see three main reasons.

1. A Banged-Up Jameer Nelson
If you're looking for the biggest reason the Magic is struggling, in my opinion this is it. While Orlando succeeded in the 2009 Playoffs without Nelson, the team was at its best during the regular season with him at the helm. Nelson's efficient play leading up to his shoulder injury helped power the Magic offense and translated into an All-Star berth. Because 2008-09 was much more impressive than the rest of Nelson's career, it was natural to assume Nelson would give back some of that improvement this season. What was difficult to predict was that Nelson would play as poorly as he has after missing just over a month following arthroscopic knee surgery. Nelson's per-minute winning percentage of .451 is the worst of his career.

Nelson's assist and usage rates are essentially the same at 2008-09. He's turning the ball over a bit more than he did last season, but fundamentally the difference has essentially boiled down to shooting. Using his performance the last three seasons, SCHOENE projected Nelson to shoot .501 on two-point attempts and .427 beyond the arc. Instead, he's at .448 and .364, respectively. To get a sense of the scale, had Nelson shot as well as projected, he would have scored 37 more points, adding 1.4 points per game to his total.

Presumably, Nelson will return to form at some point. If not, Stan Van Gundy must consider cutting his minutes from the 25 or so a night he has been playing lately. After all, when Nelson was sidelined, Orlando demonstrated it could win without him, getting strong play from both Jason Williams and Anthony Johnson. Adjusted for schedule, the Magic had a +7.0 point differential in the games Nelson missed. Orlando has been just +2.7 when Nelson plays.

2. The Trigger-Happy Vince Carter
In 2008-09 in New Jersey, playing with Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and a cast of role players, Carter used 27.0 percent of the Nets' possessions. Having traded in those teammates for three players who were All-Stars a year ago, the seemingly safe assumption was Carter would step into a smaller role. Instead, he's actually using possessions at a higher rate--27.5 percent. It's not as if Carter is shooting so well the Magic feels compelled to go to him time and again. His 49.8 True Shooting Percentage is the worst of his career and also the lowest among Orlando regulars.

Oddly, what is happening with Carter seems to be along the lines of what I feared with the other NBA Finalist. While Ron Artest has sacrificed scoring opportunities to fit in with the L.A. Lakers, Carter is forcing things. He's playing a much bigger role than predecessor Hedo Turkoglu, who used 23.1 percent of the Magic's possessions while on the floor, and Rashard Lewis has complained recently about his lost shot attempts. Other more efficient options, most notably Howard, are also suffering because of Carter's shoot-first mentality.

Take a look at the breakdown of usage and efficiency for Orlando's key players.

Player       Usg   SORtg
------------------------
Carter      .275    90.6
Anderson    .239   103.4
Howard      .229   100.5
Nelson      .222    89.4
Lewis       .203   100.9
Barnes      .180    93.3
Pietrus     .176    98.5
Redick      .173   108.7
Williams    .150    94.9
Gortat      .133    90.9

That last number is what I call "Simple" Offensive Rating--points scored divided by possessions used. Basically, it's like True Shooting Percentage with turnovers. By this measure, Carter comes out slightly better than Nelson, but it's still clear that something is fundamentally wrong with how Orlando is distributing its possessions. Both Carter and Nelson are getting way too many looks.

Advocating more shots and touches for Howard and Lewis is not exactly like expecting a role player to remain equally efficient when having to create for himself. These players are All-Stars, and both had higher usage rates a year ago. Howard used 26.2 percent of Orlando's possessions in 2008-09, while Lewis was at 22.1 percent. They've proven they can handle a bigger load.

If Carter remains steadfastly unwilling to adjust, at some point Van Gundy may have to consider a lineup change. Carter's high usage would fit in better with the reserves, among whom only the sensational Ryan Anderson uses possessions at an above-average rate. Meanwhile, either J.J. Redick or a bigger wing duo of Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus would play complementary roles with the starters. Getting Carter to buy in to such a move might be impossible, but pulling it off could be critical to the Magic's success.

3. I Underrated Hedo Turkoglu
When Orlando let Turkoglu walk as a free agent, replacing him with Carter, I thought it was the right move. Now I'm not so sure, and not just because of the preceding paragraphs. Turkoglu has never rated particularly well by my numbers or most others. Both his per-minute win percentage and PER evaluated him as essentially an average player this season. But the success the Toronto offense has enjoyed since adding Turkoglu, ranking fourth in the league, has made me rethink his value.

In paying tribute to Steve Nash earlier this season, I referenced hoopnumbers.com's breakdown of adjusted plus-minus into the Four Factors at both ends of the floor. Of the top 13 players in adjusted impact on their team's effective field-goal percentage, 11 were All-Stars last year. The 12th is Deron Williams, and I think it's safe to say he belongs in the All-Star category despite the fact that a logjam of point guards in the West has kept him from actually making the team. The last player? Turkoglu, who ranked seventh by increasing his team's eFG% by 1.34 percent while on the floor over the last three seasons when accounting for the quality of his teammates.

What I'm starting to suspect is there is something about how Turkoglu helps an offense that is not picked up by his individual stats. Whether it is because of his versatility, or his ability to run the pick-and-roll, he makes his teammates more efficient without generating a ton of assists or scoring all that efficiently (or that often) himself.

Now, that still doesn't mean letting Turkoglu go was a terrible move. The five-year contract he got from the Toronto Raptors will take him through age 35 and could get ugly on the back end. Also, Carter ranks 16th on the same list of adjusted eFG%, so Orlando should be deriving a similar benefit from his presence. Still, there is some statistical evidence to explain why the Magic would miss Turkoglu.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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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