Orlando Magic’s defensive potential shown in drive statistics

Apr 1, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the game against the Orlando Magic at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 113-110. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 1, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the game against the Orlando Magic at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 113-110. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic were one of the best teams in preventing points on drives. That is a double-edged sword revealing strength and weakness.

Defense has been an obsession for Scott Skiles since forever. It was the one thing he was brought in to really change and instill in the Orlando Magic as they tried to take a step up and get to the Playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard departed in 2012.

It is hard to say whether he was successful in making the Magic a better defensive team. Or at least a defensive team heading toward the Playoffs.

Obviously the Magic did not make the Playoffs so the team did not achieve its goals. And a big reason for that was the defensive end. It did not improve by the factor it needed to for the Magic to take that step forward — especially considering Skiles’ history with offenses and the team’s limitations offensively as a jump-shooting team.

Still, the Magic made slow progress. They improved from 25th at 105.2 defensive rating to 17th in the league with a 104.6 defensive rating. The Magic improved their standing, but the actual improvement was rather moderate. Especially considering the potential they showed early in the season when they raced out to that hot start.

When Skiles talked about the defense during exit interviews, he noted several times it looked like the team was heading in the right direction and then the team just lost that fire.

There are still good signs. And Nylon Calculus may have revealed one in a recent deep dive on defensive drive statistics.

Nylon Calculus tried to determine how effective defenses were against drives by tracking how teams played against drives in each individual game. There are some notable limitations, but the raw numbers show the Magic gave up the second fewest points per drive this year:

Dashboard 1
Dashboard 1 /

That is somewhat impressive for sure. But like with all these measurements context matters. And there are some important limitations to remember when looking at this chart.

The first is that the chart does not measure points created off of drives. The metrics Nylon Calculus used was not able to keep track of that because it is not entirely publicly available. So there is a hole in this data.

But there are clues to that hole that tell us a little something about the Magic’s defense.

The first is assist rate on drives. The Magic gave up an assist on 8.7 percent of drives. That came in at 21st in the league. This would mean that while the driver was not scoring very often, he was dishing the ball to someone who scored fairly decently. At least among the rest of the teams in the league.

The other clue could come from spot-up shooting. The Magic gave up 0.95 points per possession on spot-up shots, good for 11th in the league. The Magic were actually decent at closing out on shooters and preventing points on spot-up shots.

It is hard to pull together a clear thread on all of this.

Observationally, the Magic did a poor job keeping guys out of the paint and from preventing drives in general. The Magic gave up 26.9 drives per game, the 11th most in the league. It is good then that they stopped the drive initially, however they did it.

What would typically happen is Nikola Vucevic or the center would step up and stop the drive. The statistics show what would typically happen is the player would then make the pass and there would be no help behind him. That is how points would get scored.

But when the ball got kicked back out to the perimeter, it would appear the Magic rotated back out and contested the shots. This was a big part of Skiles’ defense. He wanted players to scramble to stop drives and then get back out to the perimeter and close out — hopefully preventing another drive in the process. This is why the Magic led the league in defensive distance traveled to some extent.

It seems there are some hints this style can be effective or the Magic can execute it. With the defensive talent the Magic have in Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon especially, the Magic should be able to play defense at a high level.

Obviously though, the stats also show that the Magic were not a good enough defensive team. So something was clearly not working. This might be a sign both of what the Magic can do on defense, but also an incomplete measure of what did not work for the team this year.