Orlando Magic built defensive foundation, but saw concerning slips

2 of 4
Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have built their success on defense. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Defensive Rating

2020 NBA Median 2019 NBA Median
Full Season 109.2 110.1 107.6 109.3
Pre-All-Star Break 107.4 110.1 107.8 109.3
Post-All-Star Break 114.6 112.7 107.0 110.2
NBA Campus 113.0 111.2
Playoffs 111.5 110.8 111.5 110.3

If the Orlando Magic’s goal was to be a top-10 defense this year, they achieved that goal. . . barely.

The Magic finished in a tie for 10th in defensive rating and the sudden rise in the team’s defensive rating is actually quite alarming.

It might be easy to point to Jonathan Isaac’s absence as a reason for this sudden decline in defense. Indeed, the Magic’s defensive rating through Jan. 1 was 106.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, but that was still just 11th in the league. The Magic’s defense got worse but ranked higher than when Isaac left with his initial injury.

So, yes, losing Isaac hurt. But something else was certainly at work here too. And that is difficult to map out.

The one thing the Magic had going for them throughout the entire 2019 season was the defense was largely consistent. It was not destroying teams or dictating things, but it was enough to give the team a stable base and a chance to win.

So when the Magic’s offense suddenly whipped into shape after the All-Star Break, the defense was more than enough to make the Magic a force.

That was not the case this year.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This year, Orlando’s offense became an even greater force than the year before but the defense completely disappeared. Before the season went on hiatus for the pandemic, Clifford was already ringing some alarm bells to the defensive slippage. He knew the offense would not last.

There were some positive signs that things were rounding something of a corner — the Magic played a great second half against the Miami Heat to come close to stealing that road game, then three strong defensive quarters in a blowout of the Minnesota Timberwolves and an incredibly inspired second half to come back against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But none of those are complete games. The Magic were missing their defensive ace in Isaac and never really found a complete rhythm on that end.

For sure, Nikola Vucevic was not as locked in defensively as he was in 2019. It took him too long to find his defensive footing. Aaron Gordon too was nowhere near as locked in defensively as he was throughout 2019, with injuries at least playing some role in his slippage.

Terrence Ross was not helping much defensively. Markelle Fultz was a “rookie” making rookie mistakes. Mohamed Bamba was making some impact, but he was clearly still learning better positioning and how to challenge shots.

Al-Farouq Aminu proved to be a defensive maven for the team last year. He just could not hit a shot and then an injury knocked him out in December — the Magic posted a rotation-player-best 100.1 defensive rating with Aminu on the floor and the team had an overall 104.1 defensive rating before his injury on Nov. 29.

So could some of these defensive problems get fixed from mere experience and health? Likely some. But the Magic will need to be more focused defensively and probably improve their overall defensive talent to survive.