Where we last left the Orlando Magic: Searching for defensive consistency

The Orlando Magic want to build a strong defensive team and have that as their identity. But the season was full of defensive inconsistency.

The Orlando Magic were rolling after the All-Star Break.

Shots were going in and the team had some new life. The schedule was breaking their way and they could see a clear goal in sight. There was something to play for beyond simply making the Playoffs, something that had been virtually assured even at 30-35.

The Magic had every reason to be confident. Fans were embracing the team’s newfound offensive surge. Orlando was finally becoming the team everyone imagined it could be.

Coach Steve Clifford was restless though.

The best coaches are unhappiest when the team is playing well. That is when the ease of victory can let bad habits creep in. Coaches are used to having to tinker and solve problems. Good times make them uneasy and suspicious.

Clifford had good reason to be a little uneasy. He knows in the big picture what his team has to do to be successful. The map was laid out last year and early in the season.

Be top-10 in defense, if not top-5, and in the top half of the league in offense.

Both were lofty but achievable goals. And ultimately necessary for the team to take its next step as a team. This was central to the growth process.

By the time the league went on hiatus, the lofty goals were put aside. The Magic were merely trying to survive their injuries and make their way through the playoffs.

And even that moment of success in the 10 games before the All-Star Break led to some unease. But Clifford saw some signs of hope. Small as they might be.

If one thing could derail the Magic’s hopes for advancing to the 7th-seed and getting the most of a second straight Playoffs berth, it might have been the one thing they felt like they could count on the most.

The Magic’s defense had been extremely inconsistent.

The team was strong offensively after the break, but the defense faltered. The team had a 115.9 defensive rating after the All-Star Break, 26th in the league. The team’s 1.9 net rating is 12th in the league. So the Magic’s offense has carried them to a plus-.500 record, statistically at least.

But that is not the most reliable thing to do. And that is the one thing the Magic have not been able to rely on fully.

Orlando Magic’s defense wild ride

The Orlando Magic’s defense struggled to find its footing, ranking 10th for the season at 108.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. The team was down to 111.3 points allowed per 100 possessions since Jonathan Isaac’s injury in January.

It was a wild ride for sure. The Magic started the season as one of the best defensive teams in the league. They gave up fewer than 100 points in five of their first 11 games, a crude measure for sure but a sign of the team’s defensive chops.

Through Nov. 20 (when the Magic faced their first batch of injuries), the Magic were 11th in the league in defensive rating giving up 104.2 points per 100 possessions. Orlando was building up its defense. But the team struggled to make up for an offense that could not score enough at that point.

Jonathan Isaac was in line to become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with his defensive playmaking. The Magic had solid defenders in Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams. Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz showed promise as defenders at various times.

But the pieces were still coming together. Consistency remained a huge issue, especially after the All-Star Break when the defense took a nosedive.

Small signs of hope for Orlando Magic’s defense

The Orlando Magic are built to count more on their defense than their offense. And there were a few signs the defense was starting to make some gains. It looked like the Magic were starting to reel some things back.

Look at how the Orlando Magic played in the first three quarters against both the Minnesota Timberwolves — a 109.2 defensive rating through the first three quarters, a solid but not great number.

Or look at how the Magic played in the first three quarters against the Houston Rockets. The Magic gave just 96.2 points per 100 possessions in dominating the smaller Rockets through three quarters. That game was a blowout early and the Magic put the screws on them.

And then the Orlando Magic could not possibly erase a 16-point deficit on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies without defense.

They posted a 112.7 defensive rating and just 102.0 points per 100 possessions. Orlando scored 137 points per 100 possessions to complete the comeback and net the big win.

Everything was set up for the Magic to put all the pieces finally together.

Even without Isaac, the Magic were finding more defensive playmaking.

Orlando Magic’s defensive playmakers

For sure, the Magic started seeing guys make more defensive plays. A lot of it came from the bench.

Mohamed Bamba started blocking shots at a higher rate and understanding his defensive positioning better. Bamba’s block rate rose to 8.9 percent (even better than Isaac’s 7.4 percent). And that was even greater after the All-Star Break — 61.9 percent! Fewer minutes helps boost that. He averaged 1.3 blocks per game and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes after the All-Star Break.

The Magic could trust him on the floor a bit more to hold his ground. The Magic were squeezing his minutes some as they tightened their rotation — Nikola Vucevic is still more consistent with his positioning even if he is not as strong at blocking shots — but Bamba’s progress was undeniable.

The Magic have their best defensive rating for the season with Bamba on the floor at 103.0 points allowed per 100 possessions. The team’s 111.8 defensive rating with Mohamed Bamba on the floor after the All-Star Break trails only Wesley Iwundu.

Michael Carter-Williams not only saw his offensive and shooting stats jump up, but he was also as good defensively by almost every measure. He is second on the team in defensive box plus-minus for the entire season, tied with Bamba and behind only Isaac.

Carter-Williams trails Bamba at 112.7 on-court defensive rating after the All-Star Break. His on-court defensive rating is at 107.3 for the season.

Aaron Gordon has made defensive strides as he has gotten healthier too. But these are all signs pointing in the right direction.

Very clearly though, the defense had fallen off just on that dramatic shift in numbers alone. The Magic’s bench though was full of strong defenders.

Orlando Magic’s defensive concerns

The numbers still do not lie. The Orlando Magic’s defense was not all together. It was not good. And in the 10 games after the All-Star Break, the Magic were outscoring opponents more than anything else.

When the Magic return, they undoubtedly need to rely on their defense. That is what most good teams count on. Shots rely on rhythm, defense relies on effort. Most coaches will tell you defense is something a team can control far more than offense.

And the Magic will need to get back to their identity. If the start of the season is any indication, a training camp will do well to refocus them on this end.

It will be more than three months since everyone last took the floor. This is the length of some offseasons for teams. It is a little bit of a strange time for the NBA and its players. And now everyone is going to have to ramp back up to get ready for the regular season to conclude followed by the all-important playoffs.

The Magic are not going to be able to pick up right where they left off. They will not have the advantage they had been waiting for in March to solidify their playoff spot. They will have to be a little uncomfortable and take on the very teams they have struggled most against.

And that will require doing something the Magic have struggled with all year — perhaps a sign of the changes necessary in the offseason.

They have to defend at the high level that made them a Playoff darling last year.