There was some shock when the Magic elected to take the offensively raw Aaron Gordon with the fourth overall pick in the Draft. There was a little bit more shock when the Magic pulled the trigger on a deal that sent two picks to Philadelphia to move up two spots and take Eflrid Payton.
Both players were not particularly known for their offense in college and both players have a lot of promise but were in need of a lot of work on the offensive end.
Neither player though needs much work on the defensive side of the ball. And in making these selections, the Magic made clear what path and what identity they want the team to have — hard working, humble and defensive-minded. The first two are things you want in any NBA player, the last is becoming the true identity of the Magic.
If the 2014 NBA Draft was going to be the basis for this rebuild for the Magic — the foundational players around which they would build — one common thread ties Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton — and even Victor Oladipo — together. That is defense.
“Those three individuals [Oladipo, Gordon and Payton] enjoy playing defense,” Rob Hennigan said. “We believing in all three of those guys on both ends of the floor. We’re excited to see them develop and grow into what we believe to be quality two-way players.”
Gordon and Payton are clearly more advanced on the defensive end than the offensive end at this point. They are very good at using their length and athleticism to stay in front of their man. Payton was solid defending opposing guards in Summer League (minus one incredible Marcus Smart play) and, even playing out of position, Gordon was very tough to score on.
Oladipo’s defensive reputation proceeded him into the league. He posted 2.8 defensive win shares last year, which ranked him first in the league among rookies in the category. It was the eighth best rookie season in that category in the last 10 years. Even more impressive since he was on a 23-win team.
As he gets stronger, Oladipo’s speed and defensive instincts will make him better.
As noted time and time again, the Magic are turning the keys of the franchise over to young players like Oladipo. It makes sense then that the skills of these key players are the central identity of the organization.
“Championships are won by defense,” Aaron Gordon said. “Obviously I would love to be a lock-down defensive player and be a defensive player of the year at some point in my career. That is one of my aspirations. I love to win. I have won all my life pretty much. I want to continue winning and even if I am not winning I want to continue the traits of a winner.”
Gordon, especially, came across as someone who is not concerned with his offensive numbers in the least. He understood his role early on in his career might be to provide strong perimeter defense and be a hound on the defensive end — using that to create offensive opportunities for himself in transition.
Hennigan said Gordon’s defensive potential and ability were one of the factors that appealed to him and the organization. Hennigan said it is a positive to have someone who “wants to defend and gets excited about defending.”
The same could be said for Payton. Hennigan mentioned his desire to want to play defense along with his toughness and competitiveness.
In Summer League this year, Orlando made defense a primary focus from the start.
“We really focus on defense,” Seth Curry said. “I think our first practice was 90 percent defense, and that kind of set the tone. That’s why we played well for the most part throughout this time. We have done a good job on the defensive end. We have a good defensive team. Especially in Summer League that helps you win and makes it a lot easier for you to go out there and have fun.”
The Magic posted an estimated defensive rating of 93.7 points per 100 possessions. Put Summer League stats with a grain of salt. But the numbers are still impressive nonetheless. Wes Unseld, Jr., called defense his team’s number one priority during Summer League, saying the team had the tools to do it. Defense was clearly his number one priority for his team.
So take a look at last year’s regular season. The Magic posted a 107.4 defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference, good for 17th in the league. The year before, they posted a 109.1 defensive rating, good for 25th in the league. There was improvement there even as the offense remained relatively flat. Considering the talent level on the team, no one expected the Magic to dominate on either side of the ball.
Now, that seems like it is about to change. And the offseason draft strategy and Summer League play are more than enough clues that the Magic were going to make defense their identity and the basis from which everything else will build once the regular season kicks in.
Undoubtedly, all the players the Magic brought in through the Draft have the defensive mindset, and they know that is the expectation put on them.
“That’s why I’m here is to play defense,” Devyn Marble said. “I have the ability to score the basketball, but I was brought here to play d. They preach that in practice and I think we bought in as a team. Like I said, we’re just trying to make strides and put in a good 40-minute game of defensive basketball.”
With players being brought in specifically to anchor the defense — young players at that — it becomes even clearer what the Magic are trying to do and trying to build.
If, as many expect, this will be the year the Magic try to make a turn toward the Playoffs (not necessarily in the Playoffs), the question is whether that defensive mentality is enough to overcome several roster shortcomings or if other players are ready to step in and make that next step.