*resources: ESPN’s RPM and Basketball-Reference’s on/off ratings.
The power of the stretch four has been unleashed on the NBA. Perhaps over-extended when considering the lack of focus on offensive rebounding these days. Channing Frye plays power forward for the Orlando Magic. His main NBA skill is being really tall and being a really good shooter. He is also more mobile than most big men, and defends the pick-and-roll pretty well. Somehow, Frye is currently 13th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranking, right behind the ageless big fundamental and CP3. Among the top 40 in RPM, only Frye (18.1 minutes) and Manu Ginobili (19.9 minutes) are averaging under 20 minutes per game. Ginobili has been known as an offensive dynamo for decades. At age 38, it’s not a surprise to see the Spurs limiting his minutes even further than in previous years. Over the past four years, Manu has averaged about 23 minutes each season. Frye’s 3-point shooting has always been elite for a 6’11” player. What is noteworthy about the ranking is the fact that his impact has been greater on the defensive end (+3.08) than offensively (+1.89). When I look at Frye’s on/off court numbers, Orlando has performed significantly better offensively with Frye in the lineup, with an ORtg of 109.4 on court vs. 102.2 when Frye sits. Defensively, the Magic have been slightly better with Frye on the court, h0lding opponents to a 101.4 ORtg, while opponent efficiency rises to 104.7 when he sits. So if his value in on/off numbers is focused on his offensive impact, why is the RPM weighted so heavily on the defensive side? If I ever find out, I’ll let you know.
Under new coach/known defensive guru Scott Skiles, the Magic started the year 1-4, before sending Victor Oladipo to the bench and inserting Frye into the starting lineup. The ripple effect boosted both the starters and reserve units, with Frye giving the brick-laying Elfrid Payton much-needed spacing, and Oladipo controlling the bench unit’s offense. In early December, Zach Lowe noted the defensive liabilities of playing center Nikola Vucevic and Frye at the same time, and expected the Magic to struggle defensively when facing better competition. After an 18-9 stretch with the new lineup, the Magic climbed up the East ladder. With a 19-13 record, the casual fan might have been very impressed with these young Magic, thinking they’ve clearly turned the corner and are now ready to contend. A closer look showed that they weren’t beating the NBA’s top tier teams, but instead beating the weaker half of the NBA soundly, with solid defense, and more balanced scoring. A recent four-game losing streak (Wizards, Cavs, Pistons, Pacers) shows the Magic are still a work in progress. At 20-17, they’re currently the 8th best team in the East, with the Celtics (19-17), Hornets (17-18, trying to stay afloat without Batum), and Knicks (18-20) crowding their rear view mirrors.
A home-and-home with Boston at the end of January is starting to look like an important test in trying to determine how things might start to shake out in the bunched-up Eastern Conference race. Like Boston, Orlando is thriving thanks to their defense and newly-developing urge to share the ball. After finishing 23rd in assists last season, Orlando has jumped to 10th. The lineup adjustment has allowed Evan Fournier to handle the ball more often. Fournier’s shooting ability and willingness to move the ball helps with the Frye-Vucevic open looks. With Oladipo heading toward restricted free agency in June, 2017, one has to wonder what the plan will be for the young Magic heading into November of 2016. It’s unlikely a player with Oladipo’s potential would settle for a 6th-man role and minutes indefinitely.
The Magic face a daunting pre-All Star break schedule, and will need some kind of cushion in their playoff positioning to give themselves a solid shot at the 8th spot.