Fundamentals are strong as Orlando Magic try to get defense right

The Orlando Magic saw considerable slippage defensively as they lost some of their discipline on that end. But the fundamentals were strong to recover.

Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman laid down the core belief and core tenet of Steve Clifford-coached teams when he announced Clifford as the team’s next head coach now two years ago.

Clifford teams do not beat themselves. They are notoriously tough to play with a conservative and hardened defensive style. They make teams work for everything and they give up the kind of shots they want.

When Clifford took over there was a fair amount of skepticism whether he could turn this team into the kind of defensive team he helped build with the Charlotte Hornets.

It took some time for everything to click, but the Magic turned that corner. They finished last season ranked eighth in defensive rating at 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. During that stirring playoff run, the Magic finished first in the league with 104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions in the final 31 games.

That was the foundation the Magic hoped to build upon this year.

But the results in the 2020 season then have been a mixed bag. And the defense was getting considerably worse as the season went on hiatus.

The biggest concern for the Magic when they resume play this month is their defense, the thing that was meant to be their biggest strength.

If Orlando is going to find any success in the final eight seeding games and give itself a chance in the playoffs, the team’s defense needs to be the team’s priority.

Fortunately for them, the fundamentals of their defense are strong. And there is reason to believe they can turn that corner.

Defense solid, not spectacular

The Orlando Magic know they are capable. It is not just last year’s stirring run. This year, Orlando has played some stellar defense at times.

The Magic currently rank 10th in the league, giving up 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Through Jan. 1, when potential all-defensive team player Jonathan Isaac got hurt, the Magic ranked 11th at 106.3 points per 100 possessions. Before the All-Star Break, the Magic were seventh in the league at 107.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Things fell off the cliff after the All-Star Break, just as the Magic were figuring out the offense. Orlando gave up 115.9 points per 100 possessions, 26th in the league. Orlando was seemingly dropping like a rock down the rankings.

The offense only hid the bigger problems. Even as the Magic believed they were turning a corner, the defense was a concern and will be a concern when the team gets back together.

“For the most part, our habits weren’t as good and our mentality wasn’t as good,” Clifford said in a call with media Tuesday. “I think as we scored, which happens a lot of times, we didn’t put as much into the defense. We have a way that we can play where we have been effectively offensively and for the majority of the year, we were really good defensively. We are going to have to find a way to get both ends of the floor at a high level at the same time.”

Clifford said there is one tweak he plans to make to the defense once they are allowed to get back to work as a group. But like everything else, how much work the team will be able to put in is uncertain as players work out on their own.

Game shape and practice shape are different than the individual workout shape most players are in. Nobody really knows how players will respond.

Still, the Magic have work to do to get their defense back to the high level the team needs it to be. And that will take getting back to the core principles.

Clifford’s defenses have always laid a careful foundation:

They limit points in the paint, defend the 3-point line well and defend without fouling. By doing those three things, they force teams into the most difficult and least-efficient shots on the floor while keeping a strong defensive shape that can rotate and challenge.

It is in these three principles that the secret to the Magic finding their defense again will be revealed.

Protecting the Paint

It starts with protecting the paint.

This year, Orlando is giving up 45.3 points in the paint per game, seventh in the league. They were eighth last year, giving up 47.2 points in the paint per game. After the All-Star Break, the Magic gave up 50.0 points in the paint per game, 22nd in the league.

That drop-off is a big reason why the Magic’s defense changed.

As expected, Nikola Vucevic came down from his career-best defensive numbers in 2019. He is giving up 60.2 percent shooting at the rim. That was never his strength. Orlando’s defensive scheme is more about creating solid defensive positioning and keeping players out of the paint.

That is also part of protecting the paint. Orlando tries to limit shots in the paint to begin with.

This season, the Magic give up just 41.6 field goal attempts per game in the paint according to NBA.com’s tracking data. Opponents shoot 54.5 percent in the paint and restricted area this season. A pretty strong number considering these are the most efficient shots.

Orlando gives up the third-fewest field goal attempts in the restricted area (25.8 attempts per game). But Orlando is giving up a fair amount more in the paint than before. The Magic average 15.8 field goal attempts in the paint outside the restricted area, the seventh-most in the league. They give up 39.7 percent shooting in that area, 17th in the league.

Last year, the Magic were seventh in the league, giving up 27.4 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area, and fifth in the league, giving up 16.2 field goal attempts per game in the paint. Orlando was a lot better at restricting these shots last year than they were this year.

The marks did not get significantly worse though after the All-Star Break.

The Magic gave up the third-fewest field goal attempts in the restricted area after the break at 25.8 per game. They still gave up the seventh-most field goal attempts in the paint outside of the restricted area at 15.8 per game. Opponents still shot 39.7 percent.

The Magic then still could improve in the number of shots they give up in the paint. Orlando largely does a good job locking down attempts in the paint.

Defending the 3-point line

In the modern NBA, the 3-point line carries a lot of weight. And one thing a good defense has to do is be able to defend the 3-point line.

Most good defenses are about running shooters off the 3-point line. 3-point field goal percentages are largely considered fairly random. Teams will generally shoot a similar mark. Three-point shooting when it comes to defense is really about volume.

And a key to the Orlando Magic’s defense is limiting the number of 3-point shots their opponents take.

Last year, Orlando ranked seventh, giving up 30.2 3-point field goal attempts per game. This year, the Magic are ranked 13th, giving up 33.4 3-point field goal attempts.

After the All-Star Break, that number ballooned to 36.1, 20th in the league.

Those differences might seem small. But if teams shoot on average 35 percent — roughly one of every three — increasing attempts by three 3-pointers per game equals another three points. And that can be the difference in a game over the long run.

The Magic’s 3-point shooting woes on offense are well-documented. But the Magic’s ability to challenge 3-point shots and scramble shooters off the line is just as vital to their success.

In a league where 3-point shooting is so vital the key to any good defense is defending that line.

This is an area where the Magic have struggled. Giving up 3-point attempts is typically a product of a breakdown somewhere else. If a defense is unable to keep a player from dribble penetration and hitting the second level of defense, the team has to scramble and attack to get the stop.

The more telling sign of the Magic’s defensive struggles then is the number of open 3-pointer they give up now.

Last year, the Magic gave up 25.0 “open” 3-point field goal attempts per game and the fourth-fewest attempts with the closest defender 4-6 feet away and more than six feet away, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. To display the randomness of 3-point shooting, opponents shot 35.7 percent on these “open” attempts.

This year, the Magic are giving up 28.7 of these same open 3-point field goal attempts per game. They give up the seventh-fewest 3-point field goal attempts with the closest defender 4-6 feet away but just the 14th fewest “wide open” attempts (when the closest defender is more than six feet away).

Opponents shoot 37.8 percent on these “open” attempts this year. More open attempts equal better shot attempts and a better chance those shots go in.

This all tracks with the thought that Orlando has had some defensive deficiencies in containing ball handlers. That usually trickles down to 3-point shooting eventually. And the lack of discipline to lock down the paint and then get back out to shooters is certainly playing out here.

If there is one area where the Magic need to make sure they improve it is in defending the initial point of attack and scrambling out to the 3-point line.

Defending without fouling

Nowhere can defensive discipline be seen more than in being able to defend without fouling. This is one of the biggest tenets Steve Clifford has for his team — be able to contest shots without gifting the other team free points at the line. It is a critical element of any good defensive game plan.

Loads of good defensive work can be ruined by one tiny error.

Clifford teams have historically been near the bottom of the league, committing few fouls. The Magic’s defensive scheme is about containment and challenge. They try to keep opponents out of the paint and in between the 3-point line.

So the last element of the Magic’s defense is a good shot challenge. Committing a foul or sending players to the free-throw line undoes all that work and breaks the scheme.

The Magic have done a good job here again. They commit the fewest fouls per game in the league at 17.6 per game. And opponents take the third-fewest free throw attempts per game against the Magic.

Orlando ranked fifth (20.9 per game) in opponent free throw attempts last year and second in fouls per game (18.6 per game). This is one area the Magic appear to have improved defensively.

They largely kept this discipline after the break, committing 17.9 fouls per game (second in the league) and giving up 19.1 free throw attempts per game (third in the league).

Teams do not get to the foul line against the Magic.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword.

Clifford complained even in training camp about how his team was not displaying enough physicality. And there is a fine line between avoiding bad fouls and playing with a physical intensity to control the pace of the game.

Observationally then, while the Magic reach this tenet of keeping teams off the foul line, the Magic do struggle to control the tempo of games physically. They are not a bruising defensive team. They are sound fundamentally.

Orlando has also held true to another tenet of Clifford’s defenses — limiting fast-break opportunities. Opponents score just 11.7 fast-break points against the Magic, the third-fewest in the league.

Orlando has all the basic fundamentals to be a strong defense again. There has been considerable slipping, but the fundamentals that make them such a great defensive team are still abundantly present.

But like with the offense, the Magic need someone who can make a play — that is another deficiency with the team, especially since Jonathan Isaac went out.

And the priority as the season gets set to resume is hardening that foundation and executing it at a higher level. That is ultimately the Magic’s best chance to win.