Orlando Magic trying to get their defense back under control

The Orlando Magic are struggling to get their defense back to the levels they need to succeed. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are struggling to get their defense back to the levels they need to succeed. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are a defense-first team.

Everything this team has done under Jeff Weltman has been geared toward improving the team’s defense, seeing that as the best path toward legitimacy. They invested heavily in defense — drafting Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, hiring Steve Clifford and even doubling down on that with free-agent signings in Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Al-Farouq Aminu.

There is plenty to say about the Magic’s team-building. But they are consistent with what they want to do at their bones and in their foundation.

They rode their defense to a playoff spot in 2019, finishing eighth in the defensive rating. That was the first time the team had finished in the top-10 in either offensive or defensive rating since Dwight Howard left. The Magic were making progress.

There was some slipping in 2020, but the Magic were still a strong defensive team. Orlando finished 11th in defensive rating. It was part of the disappointment of the team’s 2019 season.

Still, this was the central pinning of the Magic’s playoff chances. Orlando is not going to be a strong offensive team, they do not have the personnel. Every improvement to the team’s offense has largely been done through the context of its defense.

Everything has to spring from that.

The Orlando Magic are built as a defensive team. But they have struggled to find defensive consistency this year and it is the biggest thing holding the team back.

Seeking the biggest source of disappointment so far this season is from the defense. Even before Markelle Fultz’s injury the Magic have struggled defensively. They have been anything but consistent on that end.

And the only way out from the team’s 8-11 start — the same record as last year, by the way — is to improve defensively.

"“I feel like the team has been flat,” Ennis said after practice Thursday. “No communication and stuff like that. I feel like once we get it back to communicating early, being there early on the help side, just scrambling and moving around and having that energy, I think we will get back on the right page.”"

The Magic rank 20th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 110.7 points per 100 possessions. Since Fultz’s injury, the Magic are 28th in the league with an 115.4 points per 100 possessions.

Things are moving in the wrong direction. And the Magic’s backbone is struggling to get going.

Major slippage

Why that is the case is not overly complicated. It is part of the simple things the Orlando Magic have done and that Steve Clifford has taught throughout his head coaching tenure.

Clifford pointed out that that the team has struggled in two areas specifically — transition defense and defense at the rim. These are two areas the team has typically been very good at.

This year, the Magic are giving up 13.0 fast-break points per game, 18th in the league. Last year, Orlando gave up 11.9 fast-break points per game (fourth in the league). And in 2019, the Magic gave up 12.7 fast-break points per game (ninth in the league).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic are pointing to their increased focus on offensive rebounding as part of the reason why their transition defense has suffered. The team said they have to get points wherever they can find them and this is one way they are trying to steal points.

They have not quite found the balance very clearly even if they have scored more second-chance points this season — 14.6 per game this year (sixth in the league) compared to 12.7 per game last year (19th in the league).

Clifford said his teams have always been good at stopping transition points. It is something that requires no talent, just effort and his teams have done one drill every training camp to pick up and enforce these habits. It is as much about effort and philosophy as anything else.

The defense in the paint has been the more alarming development.

The Magic are giving up 48.1 points in the paint, 22nd in the NBA. This after giving up 46.3 per game last year (ninth in the league) and 47.2 per game (eighth in the league). The ranking within the league is probably more important than the raw number given up. But it suggests how much more the Magic are allowing paint penetration.

This year, Orlando is giving up 66.0-percent shooting within five feet, second-worst in the league, on 29.7 field goal attempts per game. Last year, the Magic gave up 61.7-percent shooting within five feet on just 28.8 field goal attempts per game, the fourth-fewest in the league. Orlando gave up 60.6-percent shooting within five feet in 2019 on 29.8 attempts per game (ranked in the top-10).

The difference in these may not seem great, but they have major implications.

"“It’s targeting it, but it is much more definitive than the offense,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “By fixing those two things, we can go from where we are right now from 18th to 10th in like five good games. The other two areas are deflections and steals. We have been good at deflections and steals. We were also good with deflections and steals after J.I. That shows ball pressure, hand activity and it shows basically a commitment to individual and pick and roll defense.”"

Jonathan Isaac’s absence is often cited as the main reason the defense has slipped some. And certainly, that is the case. But it is not the only reason and the Magic are still fairly capable of defending at a high level even without him.

Like the transition points and shooting near the basket, the Magic have seen slippage here too.

According to NBA.com’s hustle stats, the Magic are recording 14.1 deflections per game, the 12th-fewest in the league. Last year, Orlando had the 10th-fewest with 14.4 deflections per game, and in 2019, the team had the fourth-fewest at 11.7 deflections per game. Of course, Clifford and his coaching staff track deflections a bit differently than the NBA’s stats service does.

Orlando, for its part, is averaging 7.4 steals per game (18th in the league) after averaging 8.2 (8th) last year and 6.6 (26th) in 2019.

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Both deflections and steals are probably not as correlative, at least outside how the coaching staff tracks them, than the other factors that have slowed the Magic’s defense.

Simple solutions

In either case, the pandemic season has hurt the team in being able to get the reps and organization on both ends to play beyond raw talent. The Orlando Magic are certainly short on that.

But the team just has to be better. The solution is not overly complex.

"“I think it’s just not 100-percent being locked into the gameplan,” Terrence Ross said after practice Thursday. “I think a lot of that has helped them start runs that could have been avoided if we paid attention to detail. That is something we have to be more mentally prepared for.”"

James Ennis said the team has to be better about getting to their spots and being tied together defensively. Everyone has to hold themselves and their teammates accountable. In general, the team has to pay more attention and execute the details of their gameplan better.

Orlando might well be able to shoot up the defensive standings, so to speak, with a few good performances. They just need to put those performances together.

Next. Orlando Magic need to help Terrence Ross bounce back. dark

The season might well depend on it.