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The Magic's defense was a mess last year.
After years of relying on Dwight Howard to anchor one of the league's top defenses, the young Magic squad predictably did not do as well. According to Basketball-Reference, the Magic posted a defensive rating of 109.1, good for 25th in the league. Again, this was expected with a young squad still learning the ropes of the NBA.
Breaking down the defense even more, the Magic really struggled in the pick and roll. That is the bread and butter of almost every NBA offense. And there was no doubting the Magic struggled with it.
Jameer Nelson was already pretty well known as an average defender at best. Glen Davis, the team's best pick and roll and post defender was injured in mid-December. Nikola Vucevic struggled throughout the year containing ball handlers or sticking with his man on the roll. It pulled the defense apart and put the Magic behind the 8-ball.
Then comes the inexperience from the Magic in guarding this pet play against NBA competition. That was highlighted most vividly in Ian Levy's post for Bleacher Report where he argues Victor Oladipo's strength as a defender should make the Magic a significantly better defensive team. Everyone expects Oladipo to be a solid defender just on effort alone. His impact defensively probably will come further down the road.
Levy's research found the Magic allowed 0.84 points per possession to the ball handler in pick and rolls, 27th in the league, and 0.95 points per possession to shooters coming off screens, 26th in the league. Those are not encouraging numbers.
Levy's post focuses on the poor angles and strategies the Magic used coming around screens. There are certainly a bit of a learning curve that these players have to go through. College offenses do not operate the same way as NBA offenses, or at the level of precision and efficiency as professional. The struggles from Vucevic and from the perimeter set off a chain reaction that makes the entire team struggle defensively.
If the Magic are to improve defensively, both the centers and the perimeter players will have to improve their play against the pick and roll. From Levy:
"These problems are diverse and all require breakdowns in several places. The Magic's bigs could be doing a lot more to provide help on the back line, but the issues are almost always initiated or exacerbated by the way their wings struggle with screens.Whether it's their passive approach, not knowing the situation and personnel, or simply losing track of your man, these are all simple problems with theoretically simple solutions."
More attention to detail and some experience will make the defense better. So too will the increase in talent.
That is where Victor Oladipo comes in and could help. The defensive analysis starts at about 5:20.
If you watch the DraftExpress video above (defensive analysis starts at about 5:20), you can see that Oladipo has a high defensive motor. That is what he was advertised as in the draft and what the Magic likely expect from him. You might also notice in those highlights that Oladipo too struggles off of screens, but he is so athletic that at the college level, at least, he is able to recover and make a play.
That kind of effort will make the Magic's pick and roll defense better. It is like a house of cards. If one level fails, the rest of them will fail too. Oladipo's quick recovery skills will help the defense get reset and rotate smother to the weakside on threes once the initial penetration is cut off.
Of course, that was Oladipo doing it at the college level. The NBA is a very different game.
Assumedly too, Vucevic and Harkless have also gotten better at their pick and roll defense. For Vucevic, defending the screen and roll was a focus for his offseason. An improvement there will help the guards out tremendously as they try to recover. There were countless times that the Magic opted to switch Vucevic at the top of the perimeter on screen and rolls. It did not help get stops at the end of games.
If the Magic want to improve and get a few more wins, pick and roll defense will be very key. Defense wins championships and that will be a major foundational part of the Magic's rebuilding.