Orlando Magic’s rebounding weakness hurting growth

Aaron Gordon is the most well-known player on the Orlando Magic. But more for his dunks than his actual play. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon is the most well-known player on the Orlando Magic. But more for his dunks than his actual play. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic already have a small margin for error. But poor or even mediocre rebounding can make that worse and is a sign of their struggles.

The Orlando Magic were trying to make a dent in the Denver Nuggets’ growing lead in the fourth quarter. They were fairly game throughout but the deficit was slipping away as they struggled more and more to find any kind of consistent offense.

The final straw though was seemingly both a question of effort and positioning.

The Magic’s guards struggled to keep players in front forcing center Mohamed Bamba out on the perimeter. That led Evan Fournier the unenviable task of helping the helper and bodying up the 7-foot Mason Plumlee.

Evan Fournier had good position on Mason Plumlee and did his best to box him out. But Plumlee was too big. He grabbed the board with only his right hand and then flipped the ball over his head to Trey Lyles cutting down the middle of the lane for a jam. That was the effort part, the Magic did not adjust or stick with their man here. They did not box out.

Rebounding was at the heart of the Magic’s 112-87 loss to the Nuggets on Friday night.

The Magic did a lot of things acceptably throughout the game. Denver shot just 47.3 percent from the floor (44.8 percent through three quarters) and 9 for 28 from three. The Nuggets even took just 17 free throws, two fewer than the Magic.

Denver instead gained a huge advantage over Orlando on the glass. The Nuggets grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, totaling 23 second-chance points. That is almost a 100 percent conversion rate on offensive rebounds — indeed they were 9 for 13 on second-chance opportunities.

That the Nuggets were strong on the glass is no surprise. They are third in the league with a 31.8 percent offensive rebound rate for the season. Their 32.0 percent offensive rebound rate during this game was normal.

For the Magic, it was a major blow. Especially in a game where the team was not particularly sharp offensively. This was a crucial weakness that coach Steve Clifford has pointed to for some time. It finally came to roost in an effort the Magic certainly were frustrated with.

This year, Orlando ranks 18th in defensive rebound rate, grabbing 72.0 percent of available defensive rebounds. This rebounding has been a point of emphasis for Clifford throughout the year. He said with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon and the team’s overall size, rebounding should be a strength for this team.

It is then frustrating to see the team struggling on this end or for this issue to come up repeatedly.

While Orlando’s rebounding numbers seem fine, it has remained a critical issue for the Magic’s defense to resolve. Without better rebounding, the team’s improved defensive efforts are a bit irrelevant.

Nikola Vucevic, for his part, has been as good as he has ever been on the glass. His raw 11.1 rebounds per game are the most since his first year with the Magic. His 9.3 offensive rebound rate and 30.2 defensive rebound rate are among the best of his career too.

But there is a little bit more to those numbers.

Vucevic is grabbing only 2.2 contested defensive rebounds per game and 73.5 percent of all defensive rebound opportunities, according to NBA.com’s player tracking statistics. Last year, Vucevic had 2.8 contested defensive rebounds per game and grabbed 68.1 percent of all defensive rebound chances.

For reference, the best players in the league in contested rebound rate are 40 percent and Jonathan Isaac leads the team at 33.3 percent.

Aaron Gordon is another player who has taken a big step up with his rebounding. He is averaging 7.7 rebounds per game, just shy of the career-high mark he set last year. And his 19.6 percent defensive rebound rate is among the best of his career. Gordon has put together some big rebounding games and that has been a good sign of his activity and attention to detail.

But even those numbers seem mixed. Gordon has grabbed 79.4 percent of all defensive rebound opportunities, per NBA.com’s player tracking stats. But he is involved in fewer contested rebounds. Most of Gordon’s rebounds are uncontested with no one around.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

As a team, the Magic rank in the middle of the pack at 15th in defensive rebound chance percentage, grabbing 69.6 percent of all defensive rebound chances. They are 10th in overall contested defensive rebounds, grabbing 6.9 per game.

This is all to say the Magic are not a bad rebounding team. They are good at getting rebounds in traffic and for the most part secure the glass.

The poor rebounding the team saw in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets and the difficulties in previous games only highlight the small margin for error for this defense. When the Magic are shaky in this area, much of the rest of their attack on both ends can collapse.

Orlando could stand to be better at rebounding. While Jonathan Isaac, for example, is good grabbing contested rebounds, his 5.3 rebounds per game and 20.6 percent defensive rebound rate are solid but not spectacular numbers.

The real issue for the Magic is that they rely heavily on Vucevic to get most of their rebounds on the defensive glass. Vucevic averages 8.3 defensive rebounds per game. Only Gordon averages more than five. And Isaac, playing mostly bench minutes now, is third on the team with 3.9 per game.

Mohamed Babma is notably not as strong a rebounder yet. That has a lot to do with his lack of strength and size. The Magic anticipate that improving. He grabs 3.3 defensive rebounds per game.

This is all to say, the Magic need to do a better job gang rebounding on the glass. They need more guys to consistently get rebounds and attack the glass to secure possessions. Orlando is already not playing at a fast pace and their transition opportunities are still somewhat limited. Rebounding and finishing possessions is still far more important.

Clifford is absolutely right that this should be a better rebounding team with their size. It is vital that the Magic become a better rebounding team because the margin for error remains so small.

If for anything, rebounding better will show a better engagement with the gameplan. It means the team is defending at a high level and not scrambling, leaving holes for players to collect these extra opportunities.

Nikola Vucevic getting the respect he has earned. dark. Next

It is something the Magic need to watch and improve as the season continues.