Defense is not easy to learn when you are young.
Players can have all the physical tools, but it is rare to see a young player come in and be a great defender. Individually or as a team. The speed and strength of the players are more than just a single step above college. It takes some time to adjust even for the really good players. The toughness to play defense does not spring overnight.
Orlando, as Matt Moore of CBS Sports writes in his offseason recap, is banking on the opposite of NBA logic. Their draft strategy seems to suggest they want to get those defenders and bring in players with large defensive growth potential.
The strategy seems to build a solid defensive team and let the offense come through development. That is not an easy thing to do. Teams squalor in their inability to score.
Defense is the toughest to teach though, so you might as well get going early.
“Part of it is the intensity,” Arron Afflalo said at one point in the season. “A lot of what defense is effort and intensity. Every individual guy is responsible for that. It kind of just collectively makes you a better defensive team. The game plan changes from game to game. So you can’t say you have to do this thing this game. Really it’s just the effort and intensity.”
Those are intangible things. That is difficult to quantify or put your finger on and say, this is where the team has shown improvement or this is what the team is doing right.
It is easy to say Victor Oladipo is a good defender — 2.8 defensive win shares makes that even easier — but it is much more difficult to reflect how he fits into the larger scheme of things.
Nikola Vucevic went from 2.6 defensive win shares last year to 2.0 defensive win shares this year. Whatever defensive metric we have, Vucevic stayed largely flat. Still, some might argue Vucevic had a better defensive season this year than last.
Thus, you see the problem. Perception and numbers do not quite meet reality.
Defense is more of an amorphous blob of five players working really well together. After all, Vince Carter was part of the best defensive team in the league with the Magic in 2010. Crazy, unexplainable things can happen.
Still, for a team the Magic’s age last year, it was a pretty good defensive team.
If you look at last year's defensive rating compared to age you can see that teams hit their defensive peak between 25 and 30. Most of the teams with the best defensive ratings are older. There is a clear delineating line when you look at the chart.
The Magic were at an average age of 25.0 years old, right on that dividing line. Their defensive rating was 107.4, just below the league average. For a team with just 23 wins and a relatively young team on the back end of the chart above, they are clearly part of that group that is poised for defensive improvement.
Maybe this is a testament to Jacque Vaughn's defensive acumen. He got a team with this poor of a record to look that good statistically on defense. Maybe Rob Hennigan looked at these numbers and noticed this trend too. And so they doubled down on defense.
In comes Aaron Gordon, a players who defensive versatility and ability with his athleticism far outweigh his offensive capabilities. The same goes for Elfrid Payton. His shot is a work in progress, but his defense and his athleticism should fit right in with the team and the ethos they want to build.
Being a point guard, my coach always told me the defense starts with me," Payton said. "Just by trying to pressure the ball and trying to cause havoc and trying to cause teams to get into their offense later in the shot clock, just anticipating trying to get into passing lanes and using my hands, I feel like I have quick hands, getting my hands in to deflect the ball."
The Magic's current average age is 23.9 years old. The team got significantly younger. So even if the team has better individual defenders and a team that has the seeds of a great defensive team, there is still a lot of room for growth to come.
This year is about learning what these players can do. And if defense is going to be what this team is centered around, it will be about learning what they can be defensively as much as anything. That is how this team is built and its clear focus entering 2015.