Commentary

PER Diem: May 8, 2009

Do the Magic shoot too many 3-pointers to be considered a serious contender?

Updated: May 11, 2009, 12:02 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Dwight HowardAP Photo/Elise AmendolaDwight Howard and the Magic continue to face criticism for their style of play.

We've been slow to come around to the Orlando Magic, and there are plenty of reasons for that. They haven't won anything yet, for one, which always is a negative. They also don't have a great playoff pedigree, something that became cemented in the minds of many when they couldn't hold a 16-point lead against a Chauncey Billups-less Detroit team in Game 4 of the second round last year.

But for a lot of people, it's all about the 3s. A conventional wisdom has developed that the Magic can't beat the league's elite teams because they shoot too many 3s. Never mind that they've beaten the league's elite teams repeatedly this season (Orlando went 6-3 against Boston, Cleveland and L.A.); the critique has stuck. Ask almost anyone about the Magic and their reliance on the 3-pointer will be cited as a negative faster than you can say "Anfernee."

Certainly, they're a 3-point-happy team. Orlando took 33.5 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, easily the highest percentage in the league and about 1.5 times the league average of 22.4 percent.

After that, the perception issue takes over. A common refrain is that the Magic's reliance on the 3 is a negative because there will be nights where the 3s aren't falling. Failing that, there's the perception that 3-point-shooting teams are essentially gimmicks that can't possibly beat the league's most powerful teams.

In reality, there are all kinds of reasons why the Magic might not get past the Celtics -- they miss foul shots, get little offense from the backcourt and don't shoot particularly well from inside the arc, for instance. But the focus has remained on the 3-pointers … even though it's the one thing they do well, and the one thing that figures to be a minor factor if they falter.

Don't believe me? Consider these three points:

1. This isn't the NCAA tournament.
If you suppose the Magic might lose a game because of a night where the 3s aren't falling, that's a defensible premise. And if it was a format like the NCAA tournament, in which a team has to win six games in a row, that might actually matter.

What people are essentially doing is making the "variance" argument. The 3-pointer is a high-variance shot, with outcomes set at either 0 points or 3 points, and the 0 being a higher probability than the 3. So makes or misses can skew a team's final point total in a big way, especially when multiplied by all the attempts Orlando takes from long range.

A high-variance team in the NCAA tournament has a real problem (cough, Louisville, cough), because chances are in one of those six games it will swing to the low end and suffer a defeat. But in the NBA playoffs, the only requirement is to win four games out of seven. You don't have to win 100 percent of the time, only 56.7 percent. In other words, there's more than enough time for the high nights to offset the low nights.

2. 3-point attempts correlate with winning.
I've mentioned this before, but teams that take lots of 3s tend to win, and the more 3s they jack up the more successful they are. The idea that "real" teams don't depend on the 3 is based in the old-school mentality that the 3 is a novelty shot, a circus trick that has little to do with real basketball.

The truth is the exact opposite, though. The Celtics and Lakers last season both shot the 3 far more than the league average, as did the Spurs and Suns in 2007, and the Heat in 2006, and nearly every other quality team from the past several years -- the only low-3 teams to break through were Larry Brown's Pistons teams and the 2006 Mavericks.

For a good example, look at the Magic in the playoffs. They have actually shot better in their losses (36.8 percent) than in their wins (34.5 percent) -- but in the wins they tried 23.8 triples, and in the losses they took only 19.0. That's not an accident; it's the NBA's new reality.

3. They can win without making 3s.
Of all the reasons not to knock Orlando for depending on 3s, the biggest is a relatively simple one: The entire premise is flawed. The unspoken assumption behind deriding Orlando for shooting all the 3s is that the Magic will lose if the 3s aren't falling.

Let's test that assumption. There were 27 regular-season games this season in which the Magic made a third of their 3-point attempts or fewer, and it's already happened four times in the playoffs. Want to know what the Magic's record is in those 31 games?

Would you believe 19-12? They're 3-1 in the playoffs when they shoot that badly from distance, including the Game 1 win in Boston; the one loss was by two points.

You'd still prefer them to miss from outside than make, of course. Orlando went 27-3 in the regular season when hitting 40 percent or more. But even that might be less of a factor than people think: Orlando lost both playoff games in which it hit 40 percent, including Game 2.

The fact is, Orlando doesn't necessarily need the 3s to win. They help, obviously, but the Magic also have the league's top-rated defense and an interior force in center Dwight Howard.

And that's why, at the end of the day, the Magic's frequent 3-point attempts are unlikely to prove their postseason undoing. Despite what many seem to think, shooting lots of 3s is a proven formula for success in the NBA. The Magic's dependency on the 3 isn't some gigantic flaw waiting to be exposed by a good team. In fact, the opposite is true: Over the course of seven games, it's almost certain to be a positive.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.