The Orlando Magic obviously lost Dwight Howard, who is one of the best defensive players in the NBA, in the offseason, and many expected the team's defense to suffer mightily as a result. But early in the season, the Magic have showed promise at times on defense, despite being very young in the frontcourt. It became the bedrock of the team's fast start.
However, lately, the Magic have struggled on defense, and this has led to a five-game losing streak.
While they certainly are not a formidable force on defense, the Magic have struggled with turnovers lately and the defense has helped them stay in games. As Ish Smith described it after a disappointing loss against the Raptors where the defense was completely worked in a 35-point blowout loss, Orlando's defense is vitally important because the margin for error for the team is so small. When the defense slips, paired with an offense struggling, the results can be very ugly.
This might be why when Jacque Vaughn approached this team and approached coaching this roster he made defense the primary emphasis. And for most of the first 30 games, the Magic have responded to this defensive-minded approach with bad results when the defense slipped.
"Defensively, we’ve been top 10. We had to because we didn’t have a huge margin for error," Ish Smith said following the Magic's loss to the Raptors. "When our defense slips and we don’t score as efficient as we need to, that’s when you get beat this bad."
Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon have both improved rapidly since the season began. Entering Saturday's game, Vucevic has a defensive rebound rate of 25.2 percent, which is up from last season’s rate of 21.7 with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Another interesting aspect of the Magic’s defense has been the situational defense. For instance, forward Maurice Harkless plays spot-up defense 49 percent of his defensive possessions, and he is limiting opponents to a mere 38.7 field goal percentage when he plays spot-up defense. Harkless is using his length and athleticism to close out on shooters and that is a habit Jacque Vaughn certainly wants to see continue.
Harkless is even better in isolation defense, limiting opponents to just 29.4 percent from the field.
Likewise, when Arron Afflalo, who is considered one of the better defenders in the NBA, plays isolation defense, he limits his opponents to a field goal percentage of just 26.9 percent.
The fact that the individual defense has been solid has made up for the loss of Howard, and the team defense has improved overall because of this. The solid play of individuals such as Harkless and Afflalo has contributed to the team's overall defensive efficiency rating of 101.0 this season, which is just outside the top 10 in the NBA.
That is just below the league average of 102, so it is quite a solid number. And the team has fallen off during this losing streak — Orlando has given up more than 100.0 defensive rating in each game of this five-game losing skid.
The team's defensive efficiency rating was a staggering 112.8 in the loss to the New Orleans Hornets. Against a lowly Washington Wizards team, the defensive efficiency was 110.5, which is not good at all.
But it was even worse in a 35-point loss toi the Raptors on Saturday. Orlando posted a 132.3 defensive rating in giving up 123 points to Toronto.
The defense has not been in sync the past couple of games, which has resulted in the Magic allowing more easy baskets, especially in transition. And it is raising some alarms among the Magic.
Following Saturday's loss, Arron Afflalo said the team got away from some of its defensive principles and that the team cannot rely solely on its offense to win.
To win for Orlando, the team must rely on its defense.
"Defense is you’ve got to build the habits. Right now, we’re in a bad habit of not executing defensively team-wise," Afflalo said. "And then, you just got to kind of stick with the game plans that we come with. We come with a game plan, just stick with it and live and die by it."
Still through the first 30 games, the Magic have held their own defensively and have filled in that gaping hole Dwight Howard left behind.
That includes finishing defensive possessions with rebounding.
Entering Saturday's game, Orlando was ranked ninth in the league with a rebound rate of 51.0 percent. For reference, the Minnesota Timberwolves are ranked first in the league, and have a rebound rate of 53.3 percent.
Rebounding is an important aspect of playing good defense, because solid rebounders help limit second-shot opportunities, something the Magic have done well early this season. The frontcourt of Nikola Vucevic, Glen Davis, Andrew Nicholson and Gustavo Ayon is not exactly a star-filled frontcourt, but it has been an effective frontcourt for the Magic so far this season, especially on defense.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn said his style includes putting players into position to make plays, and that includes defensive positioning. Guys like Vucevic and Ayon have benefited from his style, as their production on both defense and offense has risen.
But right now, all those numbers seem a distant memory. The lack of solid defensive play has played a key role in all five losses of this current streak.
"There were a few things [breakdowns against Washington on defense]," Vaughn said before Saturday's loss. "The overall thing was our base defense, something that we established from day one, there were lapses. Whether it’s covering for a guy, whether it’s knowing which way to send a guy, just basic lapses that we can definitely take care of."
The Magic have not been efficient on defense, and it starts with the frontcourt. While Vucevic and Ayon have played well at times, they still have room to grow and many things to learn.
Obviously, the Magic miss Howard on the defensive end more than anything, but they have shown they are capable of playing good defense at times. Now, they will just have to figure out how to solve the issues that have plagued them over the past five games and return to their defensive fundamentals to get back on the winning track.
Philip Rossman-Reich contributed to this post.