The Orlando Magic, as the rest of the league is well aware, is a defensive-minded organization. And the surest way to bolster a defense is through limiting easy opportunities for opponents in transition.
Through 10 games the Magic have done this masterfully. They hold the league’s 12th-best defensive efficiency in transition because they allow the second-fewest attempts in the open court, according to Cleaning the Glass. On a raw statistical measure, the Magic are giving up only 11.5 fast-break points per game, the eighth-best mark in the league.
This has been a hallmark of Clifford and his teams. Last year, the Magic gave up 11.9 fast-break points per game last year, fourth in the league.
Some of this success is due to the Magic’s personnel. Their roster is comprised of defensively capable players on the perimeter who snuff out semi-transition opportunities.
In particular, Khem Birch has shown a determination to protect the paint in transition. In Friday’s loss in Houston, Khem Birch deterred attacks from both Christian Wood and John Wall in a span of fewer than three minutes of gameplay:
The charge and contest on the layup show Birch’s cerebral understanding of defensive angles, and how to position his body to make an opponent’s drive slightly more difficult.
But the limited number of opponent transition attempts is largely due to something more intentional: the Magic’s elected shot selection.
Orlando has employed the opposite offensive strategy of the modern NBA — they take the most mid-range shots in the league and are near the bottom in both attempts at the rim and from beyond the arc. While the impact of this election is likely net-negative for their overall offensive efficiency, it does bolsters their transition defense.
The most obvious advantage comes from limiting long rebounds — the fewer 3-pointers attempted and the less long live rebounds for their opponent to feast off of.
And fewer shots at the rim mean fewer occurrences where the Magic are “behind the play”, with a trailing finisher trying to mitigate the impact of the opponent’s five-on-four advantage.
On its face, it is easier for the casual fan to argue for a more “modern” shot profile. Why take a long 2-pointer when you can move back a couple of feet and potentially earn an additional point?
Indeed, the second-order effects of gameplans are rarely considered in impassioned Twitter debates.
Little consideration is given to the Magic’s dearth of perimeter shooting. It sounds intelligent to prescribe more 3-pointers, but it can be folly to do so without first considering if personnel on the roster can make those shots efficiently. Only Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are shooting above league average from outside through 10 games.
It would appear the decision to limit outside attempts in favor of decreasing opponent transition opportunities is the beneficial trade-off for this team.