Orlando Magic hope to re-establish defensive mentality

The Orlando Magic's defense took a step back last year and it is something they want to reel back in. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic's defense took a step back last year and it is something they want to reel back in. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s defense slipped considerably at various points last year. Coach Steve Clifford is trying to get the team’s defense back on track.

In the aftermath of Jonathan Isaac’s injury on Jan. 1, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was worried about his team’s defense.

Isaac was on track to make a bid for the all-defensive team. The group had already lost a superb defender in Al-Farouq Aminu. The team was starting to see its defense lag a bit. But losing such an important defensive playmaker had raised some alarms.

But in the immediate aftermath of Isaac’s injury, the Magic stayed relatively stable defensively. Orlando was still able to get stops and build up some wins in that immediate aftermath.

The problem for the Magic was still clearly the offense. And so Orlando spent a lot of its practice time trying to crack the offense. A unit that struggled to break 100 points for the first few weeks of the season. The Magic just could not consistently put the ball in the basket.

Clifford said he went back to his practice plans for the latter part of the season, and much of the time was spent drilling offense. Predictably, the team’s defense slipped.

What the Magic thought would be their calling card turned out to be not as reliable. The Magic had lost their defensive edge.

"“As a coach, you have to take responsibility,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “Looking at the practice plans, I went all-in on offense. Anytime we practiced, all we did was offense. I think I took the defense for granted. . . . But frankly, we lost our habits and lost our defensive mentality more than something we were doing schematically.”"

The Magic finished just outside the top-10 in defensive rating last year.

Their 109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions tied them for 10th in the league with the Chicago Bulls. The team posted 14.4 deflections per game (21st in the league), according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics and 8.2 steals per game (eighth in the league)

But things were trending in the wrong direction for sure after starting on such a high.

Through the first 45 games of the season last year, the Magic were seventh in the league giving up 106.0 points per 100 possessions, 15.1 deflections per game (15th in the league) and 8.6 steals per game (third in the league).

This was a sign of how active and strong the Magic’s defense was. The team was still struggling offensively. That was the thing the team needed to focus on. But the defense was near an elite level of activity and strength.

Even after Isaac’s injury, the Magic were still strong defensively.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

In the first 20 games after Isaac’s injury, the Magic posted a 109.4 defensive rating (eighth in the league), 13.4 deflections per game (23rd in the league) and 8.4 steals per game (seventh in the league).

The Magic clearly took an expected step back during this time after losing Isaac. They missed a big defensive playmaker, but the team was largely still able to hold things steady.

There were slips. But nothing the team could not recover. The offense was rightly still more of a concern. Clifford had every reason to keep his focus offensively to get it to catch up to its defensive prowess.

Things fell apart though as the offense started to soar.

In the month before the season went on hiatus, the Magic’s defense slipped to 115.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (28th in the league), 13.4 deflections per game (23rd in the league) and 8.0 steals per game (17th in the league).

Orlando had the top offense in the league for that time period (118.2 points per 100 possessions). The team had a positive net rating for the first time all year. But it was largely fool’s gold. The Magic were simply outscoring opponents.

That is not ultimately how the Magic want to play. And Clifford said the biggest challenge facing the team coming off the 2020 season is getting the offense and defense to work in tandem. They were never playing well at the same time.

During that playoff run in the 2019 season, the Magic posted the top defensive rating in the league — 104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, 11.8 deflections per game (the sixth fewest in the league) and 6.8 steals per game (22nd in the league).

The Magic rode that strong defense — although not as seemingly aggressive as the team wanted it to be in 2020 — to that playoff berth. That is not the tide the Magic were riding into the 2020 playoffs.

Some of that might very well be where Clifford puts his focus in practice. He knows he has to get the team’s defensive mentality back. And he put the responsibility on him to drill that. So that is what much of practice — especially this coming week heading into the preseason — will be focused on.

That indeed starts with having strong defenders. Something Clifford still feels he has plenty of.

In Sunday’s media session he extolled Khem Birch’s defensive ability while hinting he may try to play Birch alongside Nikola Vucevic in some lineups, having learned to put Vucevic at the 4 in those lineups during the time in the bubble. Clifford certainly feels like he has plenty of tools to use if this is something he is considering again.

Khem Birch took time during his media session to praise rookie Chuma Okeke and his defensive abilities. He said he was impressed with how quickly Okeke was taking to his defensive assignments and absorbing the defensive concepts.

Defense has remained a focus for several players too.

Aaron Gordon said he was disappointed with his defensive performance last season. And Evan Fournier said he focused some of his offseason on refining his defensive technique. He said he wanted to get back to his defensive levels from the 2019 season.

As much as the Magic know that offense is going to remain a struggle and something the team has to improve on, part of camp is about making sure this strength remains a strength.

Next. Training camp will be a challenge for Magic's rookies. dark

Orlando has to get back to being an elite defensive team. That is still the team’s most likely path to the playoffs and to success.