Was the NBA Revolution Just Televised?

. Tuesday, June 2, 2009
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Saturday night in Orlando, my assumptive basketball world was seriously shaken.

Not because Nike’s million dollar puppet show had convinced me that Kobe and LeBron were supposed to face off in this year’s NBA finals – those puppets were merely a humorous way to reinforce the seeming inevitability of a Kobe-LeBron showdown.

I had already partaken of the LeBron James Kool-Aid long before those commercials were first aired.

Orlando’s presence in the NBA Finals challenges conventional wisdom about how to build a successful basketball team. We are conditioned (perhaps by NBA marketing, perhaps by paying attention to recent history) that star power is the key to success in the NBA. In fact, it is one of the things that bothers many non-NBA fans most – that individuals so often seem to overshadow the team.

And so that’s really what makes the Magic particularly significant at this point in NBA history – this is not a star-powered team in the way we’ve come to think of it. The Magic have put together a very unlikely cast of characters to lead them to the Finals.

FreeDarko’s Bethlehem Shoals
presents a particularly interesting characterization of the Magic:

The Magic offer a far more interesting case. They have this big man who is both more and less than the past. There's a chance they stumbled into it, and that the tandem of Lewis and Turkoglu are both essential and came as a surprise. And when healthy, they have an All-Star point guard. This is old worship of height, plus the age of the point guard, plus a kind of post-Euro Sudoku puzzle that only master coach SVG could make sense of in such a non-obvious fashion (and, as Kevin Pelton has pointed out, this team would suck if deployed in obvious fashion). I also pick up a distinctly Pistons-meets-Suns vine int he way Lee, Pietrus, and even Reddick are used, though maybe now I'm just laying it on thick. In short, this team has everything but a Kobe or LeBron, which is a really fortuitous spot to be in. And chances are, any other squad with this roster would screw it up. So we might be looking at an utter singularity here that both bridges and invalidates the entire ferment of conventional basketball wisdom, past and present. In the end, it comes down to the twist you put on it. Traditions and trends, new and old, can tell you some basics, but past that, you're on your own. The question is, what does it take for a team like the Magic to be absorbed, as the Suns were? The Warriors certainly weren't . .
The logic behind the Magic, as pointed out by Charles Barkley prior to the series, is that they are a match-up nightmare. But even that doesn’t seem to justify them managing to make it past LeBron.

However, what the Magic do is reinforce my belief that there are some fundamental elements of basketball – Four Factors, perhaps? – that can be used to analyze and understand almost any basketball team. And with the WNBA season starting and rosters taking their final shape, it got me thinking again about what makes great basketball teams tick.

Cramming the Magic into the NBA narrative

I vividly remember Kenny Smith responding to Charles Barkley’s suggestion that the Magic would win by saying something to the effect of, when LeBron James is on the court you can just tear up the matchups on paper.

And I not only agreed but thought Barkley was clearly off his rocker.

Sure the Magic were easily one of the top five teams in the league this year, even after all-star point guard Jameer Nelson went down with an injury mid-season. But they got a lucky break drawing the Celtics in the second round with both Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe injured. They were down in their first two playoff series.

At first I wanted to say that this is just a matter of James overcoming an arch-nemesis, just as the Isaiah Thomas-led Pistons had to overcome the Celtics or the Michael Jordan-led Bulls had to overcome the Pistons. This is nothing like that.

In those past cases significant shifts in power occurred. But the Magic were never an established power to begin with which is what makes them being a roadblock to James’ “inevitable” ascent to immortality so weird.

However, they simultaneously demonstrate the value of adhering to some fundamental elements of basketball and that’s what I find interesting.

Dean Oliver’s Four Factors

Last season, I spent quite a bit of time analyzing teams through the lens of what I called “team synergy” but what is essentially Dean Oliver’s Four Factors. And I think the Magic demonstrate the efficacy to such an approach to understanding basketball. I haven’t gone through and crunched the numbers on this just yet, but just from observation of the Magic’s wins against the Cavs, the Four Factors are what led them to victory.

Everybody seems to focus on Dwight Howard as the force that drives the Magic, and while I do think he’s a force down low, I don’t think he’s the primary reason the Magic win.

To me, the key element of basketball is ball movement and nobody has done that better this year than the Magic. And while it’s hard to truly measure ball movement, I’ve found that adding the a/fg statistic to Oliver’s Four Factors is an extremely effective way to estimate a team’s ability to move the ball.

Bruchu from the X’s and O’s of Basketball blog posted recently about how similar Cleveland and Orlando’s spread offenses are. And when you look at the film, they definitely do run similar offenses.

The big difference though is that the Magic move the ball extremely well, have a number of three point shooters around the perimeter, and do a very good job of getting penetration into the lane which draws defenders.

The “collapse” effect on Howard is important, but even when teams choose not to collapse, it’s the ability to move the ball and get penetration that makes this team work.

The Magic are by no means driven by one player. It’s the way that the individual parts come together as a whole that I find interesting both in the way that it helped them defeat LeBron and as a way to think about building a team.

What I find interesting about this is that the Magic did it without having the pieces you’d traditionally think of putting together – neither of their forwards plays very “big”. Rafer Alston is a solid point guard in spurts, but never mistaken for an all-star. Dwight Howard, despite his greatness, does not have a single consistent post move (watch his game carefully…he doesn’t). Courtney Lee, though vastly underrated, is a solid rookie who just does everything well, but nothing spectacular.

A Sudoku puzzle indeed.

The Magic do some fundamental things so well that they are able to maximize their talent, even when up against a superstar like LeBron. Taking down a deep squad like the Lakers is another matter entirely... but it's becoming harder and harder to count the Magic out.

Even when a team builds around a player or two, having a supporting cast that both complements the stars and can keep the opponents off balance is absolutely essential. I think we can support these observations statistically and look forward to seeing how different WNBA teams attempt to balance those fundamentals of basketball as they put together rosters in preparation for the season.