Offense was predictably going to be a problem without a player who could create his own shot consistently unless someone really stepped up. Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis and J.J. Redick have each taken turns carrying the offensive load. But there have been plenty of games where none have had it going and the Magic offense has cratered.
The success of this season was going to center around how well the defense would play. And, as one might expect, the Magic won 12 of their first 25 games when their defense was among the best in the NBA and has struggled mightily in losing 23 of the next 25 games entering Sunday's game against Portland when the defense has cratered.
If Orlando is going to right the ship and get back to winning, it will — as it so often does — start on the defensive end.
That is how Orlando raced out to that 12-13 start — and it certainly feels like "racing out" at this point. In the first 25 games, the Magic posted a 99.5 defensive rating. The Magic allowed more than 100 points in just six of those first 25 games. The Magic were riding a wave of confidence and relied mostly on veterans like J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis for defensive rotations.
They knew where to be and quickly grasped the simple tenets and concepts the coaching staff wanted them to follow.
"If there is anything that has surprised me, it is our level of defense and our defensive competence," J.J. Redick said on December 19 after the win over the Wizards. "We have a lot of guys, we have four guys in our rotation who are rookies or second-year players and we have a new coach and a new staff, and we’re all kind of learning things. It has been really good. That’s been a big surprise for us and it’s a reason we’re winning games. If you look at offensive numbers, they’re not pretty. So it has been our defense."
Redick credited the coaching staff for the team's surprising defensive start and the preparation the coaching staff put in to help the team buy in.
Of course, Dec. 19 is when things changed. Glen Davis walked off the court in pain, holding his shoulder and would miss the next 11 games with that separated shoulder. When he came back, his timing defensively was still a bit off and the Magic defense was unraveled as Andrew Nicholson and the other bigs did not quite have the same instincts and anticipation that Davis had.
And, of course, Davis then went down with a fractured foot just eight games later and was lost for the year. orlando never regained its defensive rhythm after that point.
In the next 25 games (the second half of the season so far), the Magic have a defensive rating of 112.0 and have given up 100 or more points in 14 of the past 25 games. It is quite a stunning defensive turnaround.
So what can the Magic do to correct these defensive shortcomings?
There are still flashes that the team can play solid defense. Against the 76ers and the Clippers this week, the Magic gave up 78 points and 86 points respectively. In those two games, the team's defensive rating was 93.2. Philadelphia is not known as an offensive juggernaut and Los Angeles was without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. And, most importantly, both games ended up in a loss.
Friday night against Cleveland, the key weakness in Orlando's defense was giving up transition points and committing fouls. The Cavaliers turned 16 turnovers into 22 points and got to the line for a 51.3 percent free throw rate thanks to 41 free throw attempts.
On the year, the Magic give up a 24.5 percent free throw rate, good for fifth in the league. That would suggest that Friday's free throw rate given up to the Cavaliers was more an aberration than anything else.
What the defensive struggles tend to suggest though is more of a reliance on young players to play strong defense. Nikola Vucevic is not as good defensively on pick and rolls or on weak side rotations as Davis. He has been asked to be the anchor of the defense. Andrew Nicholson is very much still learning where he needs to be and his reactions are not instinctual on ball rotations and movements.
Add in the inconsistent playing time and you have a recipe for inconsistent defense. Not to mention the fact that Orlando's offense is rarely going to be able to make up for short-term defensive weaknesses.
The Magic were always playing with a thin margin for error in most games. That has not changed. As Orlando goes through its growing pains, those mistakes will be magnified becuase of this.
What is important is the Magic find some consistency again and return to a defensive mentality.