Channing Frye quietly playing leading role in Magic turnaround

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – When Channing Frye signed a four-year, $32 million contract the Magic in 2014 – the team’s most expensive free agent signing in years – he spoke with his cousin, Orlando forward Tobias Harris.

“He says, ‘We need what you do,'” Frye said. “I was like, ‘Well, I need you to do what you do for me to do what I do.'”

After arguably the worst season of Frye’s career, an offseason of the Magic reportedly trying to dump him and five DNP-CDs in this season’s first seven games… Frye and Orlando are finally giving each other exactly what they need.

Despite his modest per-game numbers – 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds – Frye has made a remarkably positive impact on the Magic. In fact, one key statistic shows very few players have boosted their teams more.

The top 15 in Real-Plus Minus, which attempts to improve upon standard plus-minus by accounting for the other nine players on the floor:

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1. Russell Westbrook, 11.04

2. Stephen Curry, 10.3

3. Kawhi Leonard, 9.9

4. Draymond Green, 8.5

5. LeBron James, 8.43

6. Kyle Lowry, 7.44

7. Paul Millsap, 6.45

8. Kevin Durant, 6.39

9. DeAndre Jordan, 6

10. Chris Bosh, 5.49

11. Kevin Love, 5.41

12. Tim Duncan, 5.38

13. Channing Frye, 4.97

14. Chris Paul, 4.9

15. DeMarcus Cousins, 4.72

In other words, 14 potential All-Stars and Frye.

Nobody could credibly argue Frye is one of the NBA’s 15 best players, and that’s not what the stat claims. Rather, the point is that Frye fills his role better than nearly all players fill theirs. Bolstering the idea that this isn’t just noise in the numbers, Frye ranked 11th in Real Plus-Minus in 2013-14, his final season with the Suns.

So why did he dip to 245th last season?

I’d argue his team transformed around him more than he changed.

Two years ago, Phoenix was a talented squad led by two point guards who pushed the tempo and shared the ball. The Magic, dealing with a midseason coaching change from Jacque Vaughn to James Borrego, were a poor passing team last season. But this year’s edition moves the ball much better under Scott Skiles.

Plus, Frye’s young Orlando teammates have steadily developed. Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton all look better than a season ago.

That has allowed Frye to become more selective than ever. His shots per 36 minutes (8.8) are a career low, and his effective field-goal percentage (61.2) is a career high.

Though still dangerous on the pick-and-roll, Frye often just spots up at the top of the key. He takes 71.6% from his shots from beyond the arc and makes them at 43.8% clip.

The effect? His teammates get 31.6% of their shots at the rim when he sits. That jumps to 37.9% when he plays.

“I like that a role a lot,” Frye said. “…I know what I’m doing is helping our team. My teammates, I know when they’re scoring, when they’re getting to the rack or they’re getting easy shots and not getting double-teamed, I know I’m doing my job.

“I’ve accepted who I am as a player.”

Asked who that is, Frye provides a scouting report:

  • “Skill player who’s going to space the floor”
  • “Positional defensive player”
  • “Average rebounder”

How many 6-foot-11 players would admit to being merely average rebounders? But that’s Frye. The most underrated trait in basketball is understanding your strengths and weaknesses and playing to them. Frye does that.

He’s also willing to improve at age 32.

Even when he wasn’t playing early this season, Frye said he didn’t resent Skiles, because the coach communicated well. So, when Skiles told Frye to become more aggressive defensively, Frye responded.

Never the most physical player – though underrated in that regard – Frye is using his long arms to steal the ball at a career-high rate. Also healthier than last season, when he sprained his MCL before the year even began, Frye is moving more fluidly. That allows him to better contest shots.

He seems to be helping Orlando on both ends of the floor.

The Magic were 6-8 when Skiles inserted Frye into the starting lineup for shooting guard Victor Oladipo, shifting a small lineup into a standard-sized one.

“With the way the team’s been the last few years, I can’t let two-, three-game losing streaks turn into five-, six-, seven-game losing streaks,” Skiles said. “I have to take action. It might not work, but I’ve got to do something.”

It worked.

Orlando has gone 13-8 since. Here’s the effect of moving Frye off the court to on this season (with league-wide equivalents in parentheses):

  • Offensive rating: 98.7 (28th) to 108.3 (3rd)
  • Defensive rating: 102.7 (17th) to 99.2 (8th)
  • Net rating: -4.0 (24th) to +9.1 (3rd)

Frye plays just 20.2 minutes per start. Only five players have started as much and averaged fewer minutes in those games.* That probably contributes to his sterling numbers in per-possession stats, like Real Plus-Minus. I’m not sure Frye could sustain this production, especially defensively, while handling significantly more playing time.

*Kevin Garnett (15.4), Noah Vonleh (16.3), Raul Neto (17.8), P.J. Hairston (18.4) and Timofey Mozgov (18.8)

But this is where the other reason the Magic signed him comes into play.

Though he calls “veteran leader” a “weird kind of term,” Frye is Orlando’s oldest and most-experienced player. And he acts like it.

“We’re supposed to be that new up-and-coming team,” said Frye, whose Magic (19-16) are tied for eighth in the East but just three games behind second place. “Teams are going to scout you. They’re going to make you do things you don’t want to do. They’re going to switch my screen-and-rolls. They’re not going to let Vuc go left all the time. So, for us, we have to adjust and accept this responsibility.”

Orlando has lost three straight, a stretch of three games in four days, entering tonight’s matchup with the sixth-place Pacers. Suggested the team might be fatigued, Frye scoffed.

“I’m not tired,” Frye said. “These young fellas better not be tired. We ain’t done nothing. We’ve played 34 games. Goodness gracious.”

If Frye sounds harsh publicly, he underlines it with encouragement behind the scenes.

“He’s always positive,” said Pistons forward Marcus Morris, who played with Frye in Phoenix said. “Channing’s a great dude.

“He’s an A1 guy in my book.”

Sounds like the perfect fit for the Magic, who were still rebuilding when they signed him.

“He’s good for any team,” Morris said. “He’s just a positive role model.”

That might be true off the court. But not every team would position Frye so well to succeed on it. The Magic have, and he’s trying to live up to their hopes for him as a “veteran leader,” even if he finds the term strange.

Of all the lessons he gives his younger teammates, Frye lists one above the rest:

“Embrace your role,” Frye said. “Embrace who  you are and then build off that.”