Orlando Magic 2017 Season Review: What Went Wrong — Bismack Biyombo and the defense

Mar 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) defends as Philadelphia 76ers guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (20) shoots during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) defends as Philadelphia 76ers guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (20) shoots during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic made a big free agent splash acquiring Bismack Biyombo to help anchor the team’s defense. The big man could not deliver it by himself.

The Orlando Magic had one goal for the 2017 season — to make the Playoffs. They devised their best way to get there was to commit to one end of the floor. An elite level of offense or defense would almost assuredly give them an easier path to the postseason. With the urgency up to take that next step, the decision on where to invest their focus seemed easy.

Orlando was not becoming an offensive juggernaut overnight. And the team showed some signs defensively last year, finishing 16th in the league in defensive rating. If Orlando was going to push its chips in, it had to do it on the defensive end, shoring up some of the team’s weaknesses on that end.

With that backdrop, Orlando’s decision to acquire Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo made some sense. Orlando needed rim protection for the team’s defense to take that next step and become the elite unit it would need to make a Playoff push. Adding to this commitment would help unlock the team’s athletes in transition.

The logic was sound. The pieces did not fit.

Orlando probably only needed one of Serge Ibaka or Bismack Biyombo, not both. The move forced Aaron Gordon to small forward. While Aaron Gordon is the team’s best perimeter defender, he clearly was a misfit at the 3. The pieces for the Magic never fell in line. Even with a defensive-minded coach in Frank Vogel.

Orlando’s plan consisted of building a strong defensive team through any means and using that to propel them into the Playoffs.

It felt like they had all the pieces. This greatest gamble seemed like the safest bet of the many the Magic made.

Early on this season, it appeared the Magic’s plan was working. Orlando had one of the top defenses in the league through the first quarter of the season. The Magic did not give up more than 100 points in 10 games of an 11-game stretch in November and early December. Considering the record-setting offensive numbers put up throughout the NBA, this was not insignificant.

It felt like Orlando’s defense was something the team could rely on. It felt like an identity was forming, despite a 9-12 record.

Things quickly collapsed. The Magic gave up more than 100 points in the next 10 games and would not hold opponents to less than 100 points in consecutive games again until early February. It was a streak that was nearly as long — and nearly coinciding with — the team’s long streak without consecutive wins that lasted from after Christmas until March.

The Magic ended up 24th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 108.0 points per 100 possessions. It was hardly the defense the Magic needed to be successful. There were breakdowns all over the court.

Vogel said during exit interviews some of the struggles were attributed to the changing NBA. The league had gone much smaller, pulling post players away from the basket and spreading them out at the 3-point line.

This put stress in another big weakness for the Magic. Vogel noted his team struggled to corral the ball handler throughout the season. The guards were poor defensively and that only compounded problems on the backline.

Still, Orlando hoped its two rim protectors — and an improved Nikola Vucevic, who put together perhaps his best defensive season — and felt they could clean up their mistakes.

This was the exact reason why the team brought in Biyombo. He was an eraser at the basket. That is what made him seemingly transcendent throughout the Playoffs for the Toronto Raptors.

Quickly this season, Biyombo became the symbol for the Magic’s defensive inconsistency. The Magic’s newest acquisition was all defensive force. He rode a strong Playoff performance to a big contract and appeared to be the kind of defense-only, rim-protecting, screen-setting center modern offenses tend to favor.

And by many accounts, Biyombo had at least a semi-productive defensive season.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

According to Basketball-Reference, Biyombo recorded 2.1 defensive win shares, well in line with his career averages. He also posted a +2.0 defensive box plus-minus. It had him finishing just outside the top-20 and trailed only Nikola Vucevic’s +2.4 on the team.

By these measures, Biyombo made a positive defensive impact.

But many of his defensive numbers were also way down. He posted a career-low 4.1 percent block rate. His rebound rate fell to 17.2 percent after climbing to a career-best 20.8 percent last year.

His field goal percentage allowed at the rim fell from 45.2 percent to 52.7 percent this year. Granted, that 52.7 percent was the best among the Magic’s many bigs this year.

It felt like Biyombo came back to earth after a career year last year in his contract season. It was not that he was bad defensively, but he was not otherworldly like he was last season.

Despite all this, the Magic struggled with Biyombo on the court. The team posted a 108.2 defensive rating with Biyombo on the court, slightly worse than the team’s average. Biyombo did not make the dramatic defensive impact the Magic hoped for.

He became the easy target because he does not provide much of anything offensively. Biyombo’s inability to make an impact defensively was certainly symbolic of the Magic’s struggles defensively overall.

These numbers also suggest the Magic’s defensive struggles were not completely attributable to him. Nor to Serge Ibaka (108.2 defensive rating on the court this year) or Nikola Vucevic (106.1 defensive rating on the court this year).

The defense was an issue for the entire team.

The Magic’s perimeter defense remained a huge issue for the team. It was the crux of the team’s problems. Elfrid Payton (a +0.2 defensive box plus-minus after a poor season last year) and Evan Fournier (a -2.2 defensive box plus-minus) both struggled to contain their man. And there is only so much a player like Biyombo can do.

Then again, the Magic paid Biyombo to make a bigger impact. Just like the team acquired Ibaka to make a bigger impact.

Not everything falls on Biyombo in the end. But the Magic’s defense fell apart. No one was going to hold them up.

Next: What Went Right: Aaron Gordon found a position

And so the team’s seemingly safest gamble, including the $17 million investment in Biyombo, proved to be the team’s greatest failing in 2017.