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The 2009 Orlando Magic Are the Forgotten Innovators of the NBA’s 3-Point Revolution

A decade ago, the Magic reached the NBA Finals by deploying a strategy that seemed novel at the time: Surround big man Dwight Howard with four shooters, and devastate the opposition with spacing and shooting

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On January 13, 2009, the Orlando Magic set an NBA record by making 23 3-pointers in a game against the Sacramento Kings. They probably could have made more, but with the game firmly in hand, players like Tony Battie began chucking attempts simply to see whether they could make one. Nine players made at least one 3-pointer in the 139-107 win. Since the league introduced the 3-point line in 1979, no team had made more than 21 in a single game. Only one team had made more than 20. Still, the Magic’s achievement did not register as a legendary night in league lore. It was a sleepy game on the West Coast, and the Magic were considered fringe Eastern Conference contenders at the time, behind star-stacked teams in Boston and Cleveland. More important is what happened afterward: The record has since been broken or equaled 18 times. Ludicrously, it happened 10 times this regular season, including seven this calendar year.

“It seems normal now,” Courtney Lee, a guard on that Magic team, told me.

Ten years ago this month, that Magic team made the NBA Finals. It’s been a dizzying decade of basketball since. The sport has not only entered a new era but seemingly enters a new one each year, with the only constants being more 3-pointers, more spacing, and more points. The lasting testament to the 2009 Magic—which vanquished the Celtics and LeBron James’s Cavaliers before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals—is how much of their style, which seemed quirky at the time, is now commonplace throughout the league.

The story of the modern NBA can be told through a handful of people and teams—Don Nelson’sNellie Ball,” Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns teams, and Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets among them—but to omit the Magic from the league’s evolution during the past decade is to misunderstand their contribution to how basketball is played in 2019. They made 3s and created matchup problems on nearly every possession with a lineup featuring Dwight Howard and towering shooters like the 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu and the 6-foot-10 Rashard Lewis, who stretched defenses beyond their limits. The Magic did not invent the 3-point shot or the strategy of taking a lot of them, and Turkoglu and Lewis were not the first tall players to shoot from 3. They simply invented the best possible style to suit their personnel. The Golden State Warriors have since built an NBA dynasty around the 3-point shot. This season, the Houston Rockets (four) and Atlanta Hawks (two) have accounted for six of the seven games in league history that a team has attempted at least 60 3s.

“It was never a sit-down thing where we all said, ‘I think the way the game should be played is …’” said Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the 2009 Magic. “Now, we all were aware, clearly, even at that time, of the analytics and the efficiency of shots. We knew all of that, but nobody had really shot a lot of 3s. And looking back now, we shot very few 3s compared to what’s going on today, very few.” The Magic attempted 26.2 3-point attempts per game that season; the league average in 2018-19 was 32, while the Rockets averaged 45.4. Van Gundy, now an analyst for ESPN, said the Magic didn’t employ an analytics staffer, but they had a good handle on the value of shots in their offense. Now, of course, teams have robust analytics departments—the vast majority recommending teams play like the Magic did a decade ago—but in 2009, only a handful of teams had invested significantly in analytics.

“It wasn’t some revolutionary thought or some genius idea. It was: These are the players we have and the best way to play,” Van Gundy said.

That style was simple: Because Dwight Howard—then the dominant big man in the sport—needed space to operate down low, the Magic spread shooters out to the 3-point line. Turkoglu, Lewis, and Lee were joined by shooters like JJ Redick and Mickael Pietrus. “We never talked about a certain amount of 3s or even to take a lot of 3s. What we talked about was attacking the basket and attacking the paint, but maintain space, so if people came to help on Dwight, we could throw the ball out for the 3, and certainly from there everyone had the green light,” Van Gundy said. “You either had to give Dwight room to operate in the paint, or we were going to have opportunities for open 3s.”

This was not a team hunting for 3-pointers; they just found them. “To be honest, I don’t think any of us were thinking of 3s. We just wanted the best shot every time and wanted our normal spacing,” Lee said. From there, players made simple reads off the defense: The player near the top of the key, according to Lee, would cut to the basket and the weak-side defender would be forced to choose between taking away an easy layup or an open 3-point attempt. Scared of the Magic’s dominance in the paint, opposing teams always defended the layup.

“If you were open behind the 3 and you don’t take it, that’s you coming out of the game,” said Lee, now on the Dallas Mavericks. “That’s how we ran the offense and how we moved the ball and how we needed to make room for Dwight.”

It should be noted that this team was really good at making the 3s it took. Of the teams that went on to match or surpass the Magic’s record of 23 made 3s, none shot at a better clip than the Magic’s 62 percent (the Rockets have hit at least 23 3s four times when shooting under 40 percent). There are three teams in NBA history that made 10 3-pointers a game while attempting less than 80 field goals—each of them was an Orlando Magic team coached by Stan Van Gundy, starting with the 2009 Finals team.

The Magic’s current head coach, Steve Clifford, was an assistant on that team and thinks it doesn’t get enough credit for popularizing the four-out, one-in style relying on spacing and shooting that is now so common throughout the league. “It’s the typical combination to see now,” said David Steele, the team’s play-by-play announcer who has been with the team as long as it has existed. “A center who could set screens and finish and a bunch of great shooters surrounding him. Think of a higher-level Clint Capela playing with the Rockets.”

Adonal Foyle, the 2009 Magic’s reserve center, said the team’s reliance on the 3 was a function of running the offense through a big man as dominant as Howard. It was not, he said, as “egregious” as it is now, when teams take 3s for the sake of taking them. “Dwight Howard was so good that there was a need to operate down low, so you gave him space, and if you hit the 3, they had to guard the shooters and Dwight couldn’t be double-teamed,” he said. “The 3-pointer was in service of something bigger and better.”

The 2009 Magic operate in a strange place in basketball history. Mentions of their 4-2 series win over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals focus more on how it prevented a matchup between James and Kobe Bryant in the Finals. The Magic are the only Eastern Conference team James never defeated in the playoffs, excluding teams he played for. (The Magic were incredibly bad during much of James’s peak Eastern Conference years, so this insanely funny fact should be repeated as many times as possible.)

The team remade itself that offseason after the departure of one of their ace playmakers, Hedo Turkoglu, in a sign-and-trade with the Toronto Raptors. The following decade in the Eastern Conference would be dominated by the Boston Celtics and LeBron James, with both the Cavs and Miami Heat. The Magic’s decline was hastened by the rise of superstars who eclipsed Howard, who was traded to the Lakers in 2012.

As the Magic were declining as a franchise and entering basketball’s wilderness, the sharp rise of more prominent shooters spurred a league-wide embrace of the 3-point shot, and the Magic became the NBA’s forgotten innovators.

“A lot of people have forgotten how dominant Dwight was,” said Van Gundy. “He was All-NBA five straight years. He was Defensive Player of the Year, he led the league in rebounding and blocked shots, something that’s really hard to do, and he did it twice.”

If anything seems aggressively outdated about the 2009 Magic, it’s that their best player was an athletic, dominant big man who didn’t have much outside shooting. “If he were doing it today, Dwight wouldn’t get 15 rebounds a game, he’d be shooting 15 3s a game,” Foyle said with a laugh.

When the Magic signed Lewis to a six-year, $110 million contract in 2007, a deal that was ridiculed at the time, they did not have any grand designs for the team they’d eventually become. The coaching staff wanted to start Battie, a traditional big man, and put Turkoglu and Lewis at either shooting guard and small forward, or have one come off the bench. When Battie was ruled out for the 2007-08 season, Van Gundy experimented with Lewis playing the 4, a role at which he excelled. “What was amazing was that Rashard could play on the block, Hedo could play point forward, it was all so interesting and it drove teams crazy,” Foyle said. He compares that Magic team to the Warriors, who play a “small-ball” style with tall players, similar to how the Magic played with Turkoglu, Lewis, and Howard.

Steele remembers the moment during that season when he thought the Magic could be better than a middle-tier Eastern Conference team: On the same January road trip when they set the record for 3s, they faced back-to-back games against the Lakers and Denver Nuggets—a quick travel turnaround that is a nightmare for NBA teams.

“I remember getting off the bus and into the elevator, and you saw Jameer [Nelson] and these guys, and they were just exhausted, and I thought, ‘This is not going to go well in Denver, as usual.’” The Magic won 106-88. “That’s when you started to see all the pieces fit together,” Steele said.

Van Gundy points out some differences between the Magic and, say, the 2018-19 Rockets: Players such as Lewis liked midrange shots, the kind that have largely gone out of style in an era that emphasizes 3s and shots around the rim. They also were not massive fans of pull-up 3s off the dribble. Van Gundy wanted his team to rely on spacing to create inside-out shots and get as many players involved as possible in a possession.

Of course, Turkoglu pulled up sometimes anyway, especially in the second half of playoff games, when he was essentially the team’s primary point guard. “We celebrate Giannis [Antetokounmpo]—and we should celebrate Giannis—and Hedo didn’t have the physical strength or talent of Giannis, but this was a 6-foot-10 guy who handled and passed like a point guard and shot the 3,” Van Gundy said. “Even to this day, he’s on a short list of guys who could do that. There just haven’t been many guys like him in league history.”

Turkoglu’s skill set dovetailed with the uniqueness of Lewis, who, Van Gundy points out, played well as a traditional power forward, despite being such a good perimeter shooter. Many players at the time, Van Gundy said, eschewed such responsibilities because they were afraid of becoming worn down by having to guard stronger players. “Of course, now, no one has to worry about that because no one plays big, strong power forwards. At the time it was a big deal.” Lewis, like Turkoglu, was the type of player who would thrive in 2019 since today’s game features more 3-point green lights, more versatility, and more speed. But the key to the Magic’s success was Howard’s presence on pick-and-rolls on both sides of the ball.

“This was,” Foyle said, “Dwight at the apex of his career and the construction of the team was so much more free. He was doing spectacular things on a daily basis. He’d shoot 60-something [percent] from the field, have 15 dunks, be running all over the place, have 16 rebounds, and you’d think it was a boring night.”

Howard played 79 games that season and played in all 82 games in five of his first six seasons in Orlando. Van Gundy thinks Howard’s recent injury problems have overshadowed what a dependable force he was. “This was way before ‘load management,’” Van Gundy said of the now-common method of resting players. “You had to deal with Dwight every night. He was going to play big minutes. And so, it was just a difficult offense to play against. You had to make a lot of choices. The switch wasn’t really an option because no guard was going to be able to handle him—too big, too strong. If you blitzed the pick-and-roll, the 3-point shooters were open.”

A strategy was born.

The Magic’s journey through the playoffs in 2009 is kind of a Forrest Gumpian adventure through the next decade in the NBA. In the first round, they beat the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Andre Iguodala, who is currently trying to help the Warriors to their third straight championship. In the second round, the Magic overcome a 3-2 series deficit to beat Boston. The Celtics were missing Kevin Garnett—a fact often brought up by my boss, Bill Simmons—but the Magic were without Nelson, their starting point guard, and Lee, the team’s starting shooting guard, was coming off the bench in limited minutes after a face injury. (“Everyone talks about Garnett, which was obviously huge for them, but we had two starters out, and no one talks about them because you have to celebrate Boston,” Van Gundy said.)

In the conference finals, of course, they faced LeBron, who averaged 38.5 points a game, eight rebounds, and eight assists. This was all part of the plan. At the time, the Magic had, counting an exhibition trip to China, played James nine times over two seasons and had success by not overreacting to him. “If you look into the rest of my coaching career, I clearly didn’t have any formula to beat LeBron,” Van Gundy said. “Our theory defensively, we wanted him to be more of a scorer and less of a guy to help those guys play well. Those other guys needed LeBron to play well. He put up absolutely huge numbers, but we had more overall talent.”

“We didn’t ever change our principles, whether it was Hedo or Pietrus guarding him. We were coming to help, we weren’t leaving people on an island, but we weren’t going to double-team LeBron, we weren’t blitzing his pick-and-rolls, we were not double-teaming him in the post or in his back-ins. That’s tough on the guys guarding him, and I’m sure they wanted a few more double-teams, but that’s the way we’d played him for two years and had success.” The Magic won the series 4-2, but Van Gundy said it probably would have been a sweep if they had double-teamed James on one shot: his famous buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 2. Van Gundy regrets not drawing up a defense in which the defender of the inbounds pass ran to James.

The Magic ran out of matchup problems against the Lakers in the Finals, Van Gundy said, because of Lamar Odom. “Against Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum, one of those guys was going to go to Rashard on the perimeter. When Odom came in, Lamar could get to Rashard, and Trevor Ariza was a good, long defender on Hedo.” The series was closer than the five games it took for Bryant to win his fourth title made it seem: Lee missed a potential game-winning layup in Game 2. “If you give me that shot 10 times, I make it nine. It was just a miss,” Lee said, adding that it helped him learn how to bounce back as a professional. The now famous miss, he said, was the combination of a lot of little mistakes: “I may have jumped too early, probably should have jumped off two feet, I probably had too much momentum. I might have laid it off the backboard too fast.”

The team was dismantled after the season ended, starting with Turkoglu’s signing of a five-year, $53 million deal with the Raptors (that this was considered a pricey deal at the time is another outdated piece of basketball nostalgia). The team responded by trading for Vince Carter in a deal in which the Magic gave up Lee. “You wonder what would have happened if you just stayed with that group,” Steele said. “I know there are a lot of people who think, ‘Maybe you just leave that group alone and see what happens,’ and I would have liked to see that.” Lee told me that if the team had kept its core together, “I think we would have gotten right back to that level, how we performed.”

In the 10 years since the Magic’s Finals appearance, basketball has seemingly become a different sport. There’s no serious way to claim that it’s all, or even mostly, due to the team that made the Finals by making 3s—the revolution was probably coming regardless. In one more twist, ESPN reported that Van Gundy was the Warriors’ top target after Mark Jackson’s firing in 2014. (Van Gundy chose the Pistons, and the Warriors chose Steve Kerr.) Eleven days after the Lakers closed the Magic out, James Harden and Steph Curry were picked in the 2009 NBA draft, and there was little doubt, looking back on it, that the league would change—it changes every year now. The Magic just changed it in their own way.

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