Daniel Shirley/USA TODAY
The Magic were lacking something next to Nikola Vucevic.
Jason Maxiell provided some grit on defense, but little in the way of offense. Andrew Nicholson has the offense and improved defensive play, but still struggles as the full-time guy as he has gone in and out of the rotation so far in the early season.
As poor of an answer it might be, the best option next to Nikola Vucevic on this roster is Glen Davis. And his absence because of a broken foot last year changed the Magic's season — they won just eight games after his initial shoulder injury in mid-December — and his absence at the beginning of this season left Orlando scrambling.
When he finally returned a few weeks ago against the Heat, it was a welcome sight for just about everyone. His veteran leadership and particularly his defensive instincts were things the Magic needed to return.
"Glen is an experienced defender," Jacque Vaughn said. "A lot of time just being in the right place in rotations, being in the right place in pick an roll coverage and then the physicality of helping Nik rebound the basketball. Those things add up over the course of a game."
The problem is they have not quite added up yet as Davis works his way back into playing shape and into the rhythm of the season.
According to NBA.com, the Magic have a horrid defensive rate of 107.6 with Glen Davis on the floor and a 98.2 offensive rate. With Davis off the floor, it is a slightly better 99.9 offensive rating and a still-not-great 102.5 defensive rating. It appears nine games is not enough for Davis to get his timing back, especially since Nikola Vucevic has missed three of those nine games.
With Davis and Nikola Vucevic on the floor together, the Magic's defensive rating drops to 114.9 and the team is -19.1 comparing the offensive rating to the defensive rating. Opponents have made 21 of 44 3-pointers with those two on the floor and posted a 58.6 percent effective field goal percentage.
The good news, at least, is the duo has given up a 17.9 offensive rebound rate while the two are on the floor together. Not great, but considering these other awful numbers, your level of positivity gets decreased a bit.
This is a clear case of the numbers not coming out how you would expect. Vucevic and Davis playing together has been a complete disaster after the two were decent last year — 100.1 offensive rating and 103.4 defensive rating in 34 games playing together. For whatever reason, Davis has not improved the team's defense in relation to Vucevic (who it is hard to argue did not make his own improvements this year particularly on the defensive end).
Some of Davis' defensive struggles — both perceived and real as shown in these statistics — are attributable to rust. Davis has been unhappy with his inconsistency and has had to get used to the physicality of the NBA once again. He has to regain that trust defensively that the team once had in him.
"I just know that when I'm out there, my main concern is the fact that, not playing so long, they trust me to be in the right spot, to know what's coming and to make sure I have their back, haven't played in so long," Davis said. "That's what I try to make sure everybody does out there. The fact that you give yourself up for the next person. That's what it's about when you want to win and do something greater than yourself.
"In spite of what you want yourself, you got to make sure it's within the team defensively, making the extra pass, not forcing things and playing within the team. Veteran savvy. Hopefully we can rub off and we can teach these young guys to play the right way and make sure they get better every day so they can add to what we're trying to accomplish."
Davis has done that in spurts. Vaughn noted that Davis' attention to detail and ability to cover for his teammates were a boost for the team shortly after his return. He has helped fill in for Vucevic on defensive rotations when he tries to go for blocks — his blocks per 36 minutes have held steady this year and his defensive rating this year has dropped from 105 to 103 according to Basketball-Reference.
Davis admitted he has felt rusty and that he did not really feel like himself until the second half of the game against the Spurs two weeks ago. Unfortunately that defensive rhythm was disrupted when Vucevic went down and Davis has had to play the role of main interior defender, which is just something he is not capable of doing for long spurts against teams that want to attack the paint.
The game Sunday against the Rockets showed the kind of feast-or-famine interior defense that has marked the Magic since Davis' return. The first quarter was an abject disaster with drives setting up 3-pointers. The fourth quarter was defensive brilliance with the interior clogging up driving lanes and the defense rotating out quick enough to defend the 3-point shot.
Opponents are still shooting 51.8 percent at the rim against Davis, according to NBA's SportVU statistics, which is not horrible, but not great — opponents shoot 50.7 percent at the rim against Vucevic. Where Davis really appears to be hurting the Magic's defense is on rebounds where he is grabbing only 53.8 percent of all rebound chances and 40.0 percent of his contested rebound chances, with contested rebound meaning a rebound grabbed with a player within three feet.
There are still a lot of areas Davis needs to improve upon to get back to his normal numbers and get back to his former self. When that happens, his defense and the Magic's defense should improve and go back to what we would expect from Glen Davis.