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Blowout Loss to Cavaliers a Lesson in Ball Movement

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The Orlando Magic’s colossal 111-76 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was an interesting type of blowout: it felt like Cleveland never really put together any sort of sizzling hot streak. Rather, the Cavs just consistently played better basketball than the Magic, possession by possession, steadily increasing the lead until the entire fourth quarter amounted to garbage time.

Especially discouraging for the Magic: while Iman Shumpert made his season debut for Cleveland in this game, Kyrie Irving remained in a suit, and J.R. Smith was not in uniform, either. The Cavaliers were that much of a better team with Matthew Dellavedova and Jared Cunningham in the starting lineup.

You can’t win an NBA game by 30-plus points without absolutely dominating on both ends of the floor. As excellently as Cleveland played, though, it felt to me like Orlando could have at least stayed in the same longer with more successful ball movement within their offense. The Magic’s per-possession offensive performance against Cleveland is bottom-20 from any team in any game this season, at 0.82 points per possession.

The Magic have assisted each other on 57.1% of their baskets this season, which is just about at league average. However, the Magic are bottom-10 in the league in three-point attempt rate (the percentage of their overall field goal attempts that are three-pointers) and also have rotation players who are shaky at best at converting mid-range two’s, like Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Dewayne Dedmon.

It makes a lot of sense that the team’s offense would lag well behind their defense since they both shoot the ball poorly and only move the ball okay. (The model, as ever, is the San Antonio Spurs: the Spurs have moved into the bottom-five in three-point attempt rate since adding LaMarcus Aldridge, but they’re also top-five in assist percentage.)

It’s not like the Magic are full of ball-stopping volume shooters, though. During the Cavaliers game, it appeared to me that off-ball players were making great moves and cuts to get open—but then the player with the ball did not locate the open man in time. I saw two consecutive early-game possessions—when the Magic were a possession away from the lead — that fell apart due to too-slow passing.

The first such possession came at the end of the first quarter when Victor Oladipo is handling the ball and receives two screens at the top of the key. The screens cause both Shumpert and Tristan Thompson to track Oladipo, leaving Andrew Nicholson wide open at the top of the arc:

…But the pass from Oladipo is too late. Thompson has enough time to recover out to Nicholson, and Nicholson must attempt a contested floater instead of a wide-open three.

The next possession was in many ways worse, especially since it was effectively out of a timeout, at the start of the second quarter. Center Jason Smith, who is 7’0″, is being guarded against Cleveland’s small-ball four, James Jones, who is 6’8″. Oladipo flashes open underneath the basket on a cut, but Smith does not see him and continues holding onto the ball deep into the shot clock.

Not being able to take advantage of Cleveland’s small size here would, I think, be extremely discouraging to the Magic’s coaching staff. Incredibly, this five-man Orlando unit (Smith, Oladipo, Nicholson, Shabazz Napier, Tobias Harris) is the seventh-most-used lineup by Orlando this season, and the group is losing by more than 23 points per 100 possessions.

Diagnosing this passing problem is not nearly as important as solving it—and as far as that goes, I have zero idea how one teaches an NBA player court vision. The Magic roster is already over what is probably the main hurdle when it comes to good passing—being unselfish—so there are lots of possibilities for the team to make plays like these more frequently in their future:

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