Of course, it is entirely too early to make any long-term conclusions concerning the Magic. It has been only five regular season games after all — and a variety of injuries have kept Orlando from seeing its full roster on display.
The truth is, there is still a ton of mystery about who this Magic team, what they are capable of and who they will become later as the season goes on.
Even in these five games that made up the first week of the season, we have seen clearly what this team has to do to succeed and the potential pitfalls this team still faces.
The offense will flow… until it sputters
The Magic's offense at times looked incredibly strong through portions of the preseason and in the first week of the season.
Orlando worked hard and worked together, using backdoor cuts and off-ball cutting to create scoring opportunities. It was a thing of beauty for someone like me who grew up running a motion and Princeton offense in high school. The team also got out on the break much more than it has in the recent past and it was noticeable how much more energy the team had offensively and how much more willing it was to get up and down the floor.
Orlando does not have a great one-on-one player and so they will rely on playing and working together to generate points and keep defenses on edge. Tha is what we saw on offense throughout the preseason. The team featured a lot more off-ball movement and a lot more dribble handoffs from the high post to initiate pick and rolls. There were fewer isolation sets and more quick inside-out ball movement.
This offense is built on the pass and Orlando's assist numbers were significantly better in the preseason. The Magic posted 24.0 assists per game in the preseason after averaging only 20.0 last year. Through six games, Orlando is posting 21.8 assists per game, a more modest increase that has certainly been affected by the struggles offensively in the last three games.
There is a problem however when you are so reliant on a team-oriented approach. What happens when defenses lock down the movement and cut off the passing lanes? Orlando really does not have many, if any, guys the team can give the ball to and trust to make points or make a play. Glen Davis wants to be that guy, but he often forces up wild shots and his scoring is inconsistent at best.
The difficulties of a motion offense are the notoriously difficulties late in the shot clock if the offense breaks down.
This seems to be where the offense will really struggle. And we saw that come to fruition in the Minnesota and Brooklyn blowout losses.
There were plenty of times during the preseason that Orlando's offense went cold and stagnant. The team struggled to get consistently good looks from beyond the arc. The remnants of the Stan Van Gundy fire-away offense are still there when the Magic hoist threes early in the shot clock without working through the offense, but the team is not getting the same looks and chances from long range. Orlando has taken only 80 3-pointers this season, an average of 13.3 per game. The raw number of attempts is 29th in the league.
In the last four games, defenses have been able to shut down Orlando's offense and forced it into turnovers and poor shots. Orlando's scoring is way down — 87.8 points per game is last in the league and the team's 96.2 offensive rating is 28th in the league. Orlando's offense has bogged down and points are not coming easy. It is no coincidence that the Magic have failed to break 80 in the least three games. This obviously must change.
The Magic showed positive signs at the end of the game at Brooklyn and it seems like the team is figuring things out. Injuries have also taken away two of Orlando's bigger offensive weapons and this has undoubtedly affected the Magic's offensive consistency.
Pack the Paint and Rebound
On the defensive end, it is apparent that the Magic's defensive strategy is to pack the paint and crowd any drivers, forcing the ball back out to the perimeter. This is very different from the Dwight Howard-era where the team tried to funnel drivers into the paint for Dwight Howard to clean up and rotated quickly back out to the 3-point line to run players off the line. It seems at times because the team has to choke people out of the paint with defensive pressure.
So far, the Magic are giving up 118 3-point attempts and 31.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Those are solid numbers and suggest that what the Magic are basically trying to do is working. Of course, if a team or a player gets hot from beyond the arc — like Jerry Stackhouse did in the second quarter Friday or the Nets did in the first quarter of Sunday's game — things could get very dangerous, particularly if the Magic are struggling on offense.
The biggest issue for the Magic on defense is finishing possessions with rebounds. Orlando is giving up 13.5 offensive rebounds per game and are being outrebounded 47.0 to 42.0 rebounds per game so far this season.
The Magic do not have the strongest front line and so rebounding will always be a team effort. It has led to a fair measure of success on the offensive glass. But the Magic are not good enough individually as defenders to survive second-chance opportunities, particularly since Nikola Vucevic and Glen Davis are not great rim protectors and deterrents in the paint.
The defense is where the Magic's effort really gets measured. In several of the more recent games, Orlando's defense has waned some as the shots stopped falling. This is a bad, but expected habit for a young team. The offense feeds the defense in a lot of ways. Jacque Vaughn has to continue to find a way to get his team to commit defensively as this is always the best way to keep his team in games even when the offense remains inconsistent.
Everyone wants to compare this team to the Heart & Hustle team of 2000. The best way to live up to that comparison is to play solid defense like that team did. A good defense covers up a lot of faults.
Through one week, the defense has been OK and has helped keep the Magic in games against the Bulls and Timberwolves and, eventually, against the Nets on Sunday. Is it something the Magic can rest on though? Not yet.
If Orlando wants to win and be that team, defense is where it must start for Orlando.