Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has proven himself in this league as a coach who builds foundations.
As has oft been repeated, Clifford’s teams are hard to play against because they do the fundamental things well. They do not give opponents second chances or easy opportunities.
If you are going to win, you are going to win because you out-executed them or their missed shots.
Clifford’s teams may not have had the talent to get beyond the first round so far in his head coaching career, but his teams have never been among the worst in the league. This year, injuries likely excuse the team’s poor record. But his team is still doing a lot of the things they have to do to succeed if they ever could get healthy enough to score just a little bit.
For Clifford two central tenets are key,
His teams do not turn the ball over and give away fast-break opportunities. And they secure the glass, preventing second-chance opportunities. With the team’s margin for error so small with such a talent deficit, accomplishing these two goals are vital.
Yet, since the trade deadline, the Magic have shown enough effort to win games. But many of these details are missing. Especially on the glass.
The Orlando Magic have seen a surprising slip on the glass since the trade deadline as the team has struggled to secure one of the central tenets of Steve Clifford’s success.
Orlando has gone from one of the best rebounding teams in the league to one of the worst.
“We did a lot of good things and there were a lot of things to build on,” Clifford said about the team’s road trip after practice Tuesday. “It was really that and the rebounding and we were up one with five minutes left and it was blown sets and blown coverages. That’s what we have to get to. There is obviously a newness to the group. But again, we can either be easy on ourselves and say we haven’t been together long or we can fix it.”
Orlando for the season ranks third in the league in defensive rebound rate at 75.5-percent. The Magic essentially grab three of every four misses. Before the trade deadline, that number stood at 76.0-percent, the best mark in the league.
But since the trade deadline, and dealing away two good rebounders in Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, the Magic have fallen to a 71.7-percent defensive rebound rate, 23rd in the league. Perhaps ironically, the Chicago Bulls have been the top defensive rebounding team since March 25.
Similarly then, the Magic have gone from giving up just 10.7 second-chance points per game (the best mark in the league) before the trade deadline to 13.8 second-chance points per game (18th in the league).
These are still fairly small sample sizes. But it is not an encouraging sign for the Magic. Their defense is the key to their success and aside from forcing turnovers to create easy baskets, the priority has to be on rebounding to finish possessions.
“That’s probably one of the main focuses,” Chuma Okeke said after the team’s practice Tuesday. “We can have good defensive possessions and we can have good rotations, but if we don’t finish it off with a rebound, that’s just a waste. In this league, if you give teams second-chance points and multiple opportunities to score, they’re going to capitalize off of that. We’ve just got to rebound as a group.”
It might be a bit reductive to say that losing Vucevic is the reason for this decrease.
Vucevic has long been a stellar defensive rebounder. His 28.9-percent defensive rebound rate led the team and had the top mark among players averaging 30 minutes per game. He grabbed 4.5 contested rebounds per game.
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Aaron Gordon was not too far behind. He posted a 17.3-percent defensive rebound rate (trailing only Nikola Vucevic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mohamed Bamba by that metric) and grabbed 2.4 contested rebounds per game, according to data from Second Spectrum.
What should be clear is the Magic traded away some of their very best rebounders at the deadline, leaving a huge hole that has not quite been filled by the team’s incoming players or returning players filling in bigger roles.
The numbers are clearly down. And the individual rebounding numbers are a good place to start.
Wendell Carter is posting a 21.8-percent defensive rebound rate. That is the best mark on the team since the trade deadline but far from the solid play Vucevic gave on the glass.
Carter is not known as a great rebounder to this point in his career. His 22.0-percent defensive rebound rate for the entire season is the best mark of his career.
His raw numbers are good — he is averaging 9.4 rebounds per game and 12.3 rebounds per 36 minutes since joining the Magic are certainly trending in the right direction for this team. He grabs 4.8 contested rebounds per game suggesting he can be a more dominant rebounding figure.
But it is clear too how much the Magic are missing on the glass. The team needs a better gang rebound mentality without Vucevic on the floor to clean everything up.
Bamba’s numbers were solid on the glass before the trade deadline. But those came in inconsistent minutes. Now that he is getting regular minutes, his rebounding has taken a sharp decline — posting a 17.8-percent defensive rebound rate.
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That might be fine when there is another dominant rebounder on the floor, but the Magic lack that at the moment. The pieces are not adding up to a team that is taking care of business on the glass.
Rebounding usually starts with the center and the players in the post. But right now, the Magic need a team effort to secure the glass and become the team Clifford knows they can be.
“Physicality, determination, pursuit,” Clifford said of what is needed to be a good rebounding team. “I’ll give you an example. We went to Charlotte and they had been 29th in defensive rebounding before. We did zero drills and we went to second. You are either going to do it or you’re not. It does speak to who we want to become as a team. You can do all these other things and get better. If we’re not going to rebound, it’s not going to matter.”
That is the truth of the matter.
There is no drill or practice a team can do to be a better rebounding team. They are either going to commit to getting a body on players, boxing out and pursuing rebounds. It is either going to be a team effort to get it done or it is going to continue to be something that costs Orlando games and opportunities to grow.
Clifford has made this a focus of his for all of his teams. The year before Clifford arrived in Charlotte, the team ranked 26th in the league in defensive rebound rate. They ranked no worse than third in his five years with the Hornets franchise.
The Magic were third in defensive rebound rate in 2019 and fifth in 2020. It was a central tenet of the team’s playoff trips.
Rebounding is a mentality as much as it is about personnel. That is Clifford’s point. And what the Magic have to put their focus on if they want to reclaim their rebounding reputation.