Have the Magic Fallen from the NBA’s Elite?

by Jeeves

Over the weekend the Orlando Magic lost at Boston which marked their 7th straight loss against a team with a winning record. The loss also brought their record down to 32-20 and has inspired fervent discussion whether it’s time to demote the Magic from the East’s top tier to its second tied. It’s certainly a frustrating time in Orlando; their recent stretch of play has them at 3-5 in their last 8 and 7-8 since their 9-game winning streak. Their poor form has dropped them below the Atlanta Hawks in the standings and has seemingly (operative word is seemingly) locked the Magic into either the 4th or 5th seed.

The question at hand is whether or not the Magic, in their current iteration, remain a legitimate title contender. Since the trades that brought over Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Earl Clark, and Gilbert Arenas, the Magic have compiled a 16-10 record which is good for a .615 winning percentage. The Magic, coincidentally began the season 16-10 as well. This clip clearly pales in comparison to the 59-23 (.720 WL%) record the Magic compiled in each of the last two seasons. Clearly, the Magic aren’t playing up to their past standard, you don’t need me to tell you that. Now that we have established that fact, lets take a deeper look into the numbers to see why they are struggling and what we can expect in the future.

The first thing to note (and which greatly simplifies our comparisons) is that Orlando has maintained the same pace (qualitatively, speaking) over the last three years. This year, they average 92.1 possessions a game which nearly matches the 92.0 and 92.3 mark they put up in 09-10 (referred to as 2010 from here on out) and 08-09 (referred to as 2009 from here on out) respectively.  The table below sums up their offensive and defensive outputs over the last three years:

PPG Lg Avg Diff Opp. PPG Lg Avg Diff Score Margin
2011 100.1 99.3 0.8 94.7 99.3 4.6 5.4
2010 102.8 100.4 2.4 95.3 100.4 5.1 7.5
2009 101.0 100 1.0 94.4 100 5.6 5.6
2011 Post Trades 103.54 99.3 4.24 96.55 99.3 2.75 6.99
2011 Pre Trades 96.57 99.3 -2.73 92.85 99.3 6.45 3.72

(Note: I did not recalculate the league average values for before and after Orlando’s trades. I assumed it to be the same, which should only have a marginal effect on the analysis; this isn’t baseball after all)

If you take 2011, 2010, and 2009 all at face value, you would be absolutely lost as to why Orlando is struggling  so mightily this year. In all three instances, Orlando appears to be an elite defensive team with a decent offense. Taking 2011 as a whole, however, masks the two halves that have made up the Magic’s season, so far. Before the trades, the Magic were a defensive juggernaut ranking near the top of the league coupled with a very poor offense. After the trades those two profiles reversed; the Magic would now rate as a top-7 offensive team but only a top 10 defense. That isn’t to say that the Magic aren’t still a good defensive team, they are, but they no longer are elite. That eliteness on defense is what carried them in the past to their gaudy regular season records.

Even with the stark split of the stats between the pre-trade Magic and the post-trade Magic, the results, as mentioned before, are the exact same: 26-10. Removing random chance as a legitimate factor, I believe relative strength of schedule can explain this anomaly. Before the trade, the Magic played 11 teams with (current) winning records and 15 teams with (current) losing records. After their trades, that split is 13 and 13. 2 games doesn’t mark a huge difference, but it does contribute. If you designate the Celtics, Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Thunder, Lakers, Spurs, Mavs, and Hornets (all teams with a winning percent greater than .600) as “elite teams” an analysis of the strength of schedule becomes slightly more significant. In the Magic’s first 26 games, they played one of the “elite teams” 6 times, constituting 23% of their games. In their most recent 26 game stretch, the Magic have played an elite team 10 times (39% of their games). If you do the reverse analysis and look at the number of games played against the bottom of the league (say the worst 10 teams: Nets, Raptors, Cavs, Wizards, T-Wolves, Kings, Pistons, Clippers, and Bucks), you find that the Magic played more poor teams (11) before the trade than after (8). I believe this imbalance in their schedule, when it comes to elite and abysmal teams, is the main factor in why the post-trade Magic have the same record as the pre-trade Magic.

From what we’ve seen, I feel confident in saying that the Magic, before their trade, were a mediocre team compared to their 2010 and 2009 versions. They defended well, and pumped up their record courtesy of an easier schedule. The post-trade Magic are much improved, yet, have been held back by a tougher schedule to date. All this leads me to believe that the Magic are, in fact, no longer an elite team. They are still a good team, and are better than they were earlier this year. It is possible that they improve over the home stretch, but if the playoffs were to start today, I wouldn’t put any money on them advancing to the Conference Finals. At this point, it would be questionable whether they are even able to beat an Atlanta team whom they absolutely massacred in last year’s playoffs. It isn’t time to abandon ship in Orlando, but unless their defense picks things up a bit, it certainly is time to start tempering expectations.

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