Orlando Magic covered most distance on defense

Mar 31, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) controls the ball as Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) defends during the second half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) controls the ball as Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) defends during the second half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic led the league in distance covered on defense per game this year according to NBA.com. It is unclear what that says about their defense.

The Orlando Magic were not trying to do anything super complex on offense. It was clear early on when the team was buying in well that this was the case.

Stay in front of your man, flood the strong side with help defense, rotate back out to the perimeter and close out shooters, rinse and repeat. It is a defense that requires a lot of poise, physicality and communication.

At times, the Magic had it locked down. They were flying to the ball and making life hard for defenses, rotating crisply and quickly to the open man on the weak side to close out and contest shots.

At other times, yes, the Magic struggled and struggled mightily. They were unable to keep opponents out of the paint off the dribble or recover around screens. Close outs were no longer precise and teams began running roughshod over the defense.

The way the Magic’s defense yo-yoed throughout the season, it is hard to figure out whether this group is good or not. For the season, the Magic ended up with a 104.6 defensive rating, good for 17th in the league. It is not quite the jump up Skiles expected — or has become accustomed to in his other stops around the league.

Orlando just did not take quite to Skiles’ defense as quickly as his other teams. there was still a massive learning curve.

“The characteristics of the good defensive teams in the league are the characteristics we’re trying to teach our guys every single day,” Skiles said. “Some of the teams — Golden State have a guy like Draymond Green, who can switch on anybody, and San Antonio has incorporated a lot more switching — the reason they can do that is because they have established a great foundation. We’re still in the foundational phase.”

The Magic are not going to employ that switching style defense any time soon. That is not Skiles’ style necessarily and they do not have the personnel and length for it anyway in most switching situations.

A good chunk of the latter half of the season was spent trying to get that defense back. And a symbol of that struggle — or rather a symbol of something that is not entirely clear — was the Magic’s rank this season in leading the league in distance traveled on defense.

According to NBA.com’s Player Tracking stats, the Magic led the league in distance traveled on defense, going 8.12 miles per game on defense as a team. It is hard to get a sense of what this number means. When asking players and coaches about it, it could be a very bad thing — the team has had to scramble too much — it could be a good thing — the team is flying to the ball and getting in and out of the lane to shooters quickly.

No one is really quite sure what to make of this.

“I guess we run a lot,” Nikola Vucevic said. “I don’t know. It does say a lot. It can be that we’re really active. It could be bad also that we get beat a lot and we have to scramble. I guess you would have to analyze it in detail to see what really happens.”

There appears to be no correlation between defensive rating and distance traveled.

The team with the second most distance traveled per game on the defensive end is the Atlanta Hawks, a team that boasts the second-best defense in the league. And, for instance, the Spurs and Lakers coverage roughly the same distance on defense per game and finished on opposite ends of the defensive rating spectrum.

Of the teams with the top 10 teams in distance traveled in defensive rating, only three finished in the top half of the league in defense. It would seem somewhat clear that this is not a metric that lends itself to strong defense, although it is certainly not a necessity.

Teams can be successful playing defense many different ways.

The way the Magic played defense though was not successful. The team was not where it wanted to be defensive and extremely inconsistent.

“I think it may be because we’ve broken down too much in 2016 and so help has to come, more help has to come,” Skiles said when asked about this metric. “If we were a top-flight defensive team and you looked at that number, then it would be very good. But since we’re not, there have to be other reasons for it. I don’t really have a really good answer for why that is.”

Skiles said in March when this fact was first brought up to him that it was something he thought about for some time. It was brought up to the players at one point late in the season. Exactly how or what it means is still a bit of a mystery.

There seems to be no connection between these numbers, only that the Magic defense just did not execute no matter how much distance the team was able to cover.

Month (Games)Def. Distance Traveled/Game (Rank)Def. Rtg. (Rank)
Oct. & Nov. (17)8.38 (1)99.3 (8)
Dec. (15)7.87 (12)101.5 (11)
Jan. (13)*7.85 (7)*108.2 (27)
Feb. (12)8.29 (1)106.7 (17)
March & April (24)8.14 (1)107.3 (21)

*The Magic’s game against the Toronto Raptors in London did not provide Player Tracking data.

The table above shows the team’s distance traveled on defense per game and its defensive rating in each month of the season along with its rank in the NBA. It does not really tell much of a story. The Magic were the top team in distance traveled on defense per game for much of the season and it had no effect on the team’s defensive rating and effectiveness.

The player tracking tools are still relatively new and no one seems able to quite put their finger on how best to use these numbers. Even the players. They mean something, just what is not clear.

Just like this means something, it is just not clear what.

“We’re moving around a lot, I guess,” Payton said when told about this ranking. “It’s weird. I think [Skiles] mentioned that to us a couple weeks ago. I just think we’re doing the right things. We’ve just got to make that next step. Sometimes, we’ll have games where we’re playing real well defensively and we’re not rebounding the ball. And that’s killing us. Or one person is helping, but that next person is not there to help and that hurts us late in shot clocks. It can say a lot, but we’ve just got to do a little bit more.”

More than likely that was what the Magic needed — to take that next step and make that extra effort.

Coaches often talk about making second and third efforts on defense. It takes a lot of focus to play defense at a high level. A young team like the Magic was having some trouble and struggles doing this consistently all year.

It was clear the Magic could play at a high level. They just did not have it all the time. They were flying around and covering ground, but were they doing so effectively?

“I don’t know,” Aaron Gordon said. “I guess we are flying around. Other than that, I don’t know.”

Next: Orlando Magic's December let expectations run wild

That might be the only place to leave it.