Orlando Magic focused on defense again as coaching search progresses

Denver Nuggets assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. has zoomed ahead of the Orlando Magic's coaching search. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Nuggets assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. has zoomed ahead of the Orlando Magic's coaching search. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are still an unmolded mass.

The advantage of what president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman did at the trade deadline was to wipe the slate clean for his team. They had some remaining pieces and talented players, but they would largely something new. They could be whatever they wanted.

Weltman was going to have the chance to create something entirely new and shape it however he wanted.

If Jeff Weltman was criticized early in his tenure for running things back and just rolling with the players left to him by Rob Hennigan, then this would be his chance to craft the kind of team he wants.

The first step to doing that would be hiring a coach. That would give at least some hint for the kind of the direction the team wants to go.

Like many of Jeff Weltman’s draft picks and the team Steve Clifford helped lift to the playoffs twice in three years, it was centered on defense. That became the team’s backbone and calling card.

Even with a coaching change and a chance to do it again, it appears this is where Weltman is focusing his efforts again.

The Orlando Magic’s coaching search is entering the next phase and the team appears to have centered its focus on defensive-minded coaches to start the rebuild.

Josh Robbins and Shams Charania reported Thursday the Orlando Magic interviewed Denver Nuggets assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. for a second time, signaling the team has entered the next stage of their coaching search (a meeting with ownership with the team’s choice would be the final move).

More importantly, it was yet another sign of the team’s focus for its next coach. The Magic are looking for a defensive coach.

Unseld is widely believed to be responsible for the Nuggets’ defense after taking over as associate head coach for the 2021 season. He also has extensive coaching experience working as a scout for the Washington Wizards for nine years before joining them on the bench for six years from 2005-11. He then jumped to the Golden State Warriors for a season before joining Jacque Vaughn’s staff in Orlando from 2012-15.

He joined Mike Malone’s staff after that as an assistant coach with the Nuggets.

Just focusing on his time with the Nuggets, and understanding he was not completely responsible for the team’s defense in that time, they became a surprisingly strong defensive team as they climbed the standings.

Before Unseld arrived for the 2016 season alongside Malone, the Nuggets ranked 26th in the league in defensive rating. Since Malone and Unseld arrived, the Nuggets ranked: 25th, 29th, 23rd, 10th, 16th and 11th.

This certainly has tracked with the Nuggets’ improvement in the standings and ascension to borderline contenders.

The Nuggets’ defense is not the best in the league — and part of that is personnel including players like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. who are not known as good defenders. But the team has done well enough with their offense to compete and improve. That is a positive sign.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But other candidates the Magic are chasing also have a defensive bent too.

The team reportedly interviewed Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Jamahl Mosley recently. He was elevated to the Mavericks’ defensive coordinator role in 2018. The team finished 18th, 18th and 21st in those three seasons. Again, how much of that is personnel or not? But that speaks at least to some of his defensive capabilities.

The team certainly focused on him because of his reputation as a player developer and his strong relationship with his players — specifically Luka Doncic — but also because defense was where his main focus was on building the Mavericks.

Becky Hammon, still a favorite among fans to land the job, comes from a San Antonio Spurs pedigree that is known for its defense. It is not clear what her exact responsibilities were within the Spurs’ ecosystem.

And the Magic, of course, interviewed many of their own assistants — Tyrone Corbin, Pat Delaney and Steve Hetzel — who all came from the defensive-minded Steve Clifford’s coaching orbit.

Whether any of these coaches can be a stronger defensive coach with a young group like the Magic will be another story.

But, in Weltman’s defense, that is sort of how his roster is built already. His drafts have been focused on building with strong defenders.

Jonathan Isaac has established himself as a potential All-Defensive team player when he was healthy. He drafted Mohamed Bamba for his defensive versatility. Chuma Okeke cut his teeth in college as a versatile defender and that is what the Magic hoped for in bringing him in. Even their second-round picks in Wesley Iwundu and Melvin Frazier pointed to this defensive bent.

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Weltman hired Clifford to improve the team’s defense and give it a defensive backbone. The Magic made back-to-back postseasons with top-10 defensive efforts. They clearly see this as an easy way to build a culture and a foundation to return to the playoffs.

They should also know that it is not enough to get wins. That was something the Orlando Magic proved in 2019 and 2020  as much as the New York Knicks proved it this year.

It is right to wonder where the Magic will find some offense. And if typically teams go the opposite way with new coaching hires, there is a moment to consider why the Magic would go from a defensive coach like Clifford to another defensive coach.

And certainly, the Magic need to find some offense somewhere. It has to be a focus for the team. The team cannot merely hire a defensive specialist and expect everything to turn out OK. They need some offensive focus too.

But the Magic are also trying to re-establish a foundation for their team. They are trying to reshape their identity. And very clearly, they view defense as the best way to build this team up to get back to that championship level as they add talent.

This will surely be part of what they look for in the Draft too — a reason the team is considering Scottie Barnes with the fifth pick as much as they might like Jonatha Kuminga. The team definitely has a type.

How the Magic make all these pieces fit together will be the next question. Orlando needs to find a better balance for sure. But they clearly view their backbone and identity as defense.

Next. Moses Moody can reach from his floor to this ceiling. dark

It seems to make sense to expect the Magic to focus on finding a coach with a defensive reputation. That clearly seems to be where their focus is as they hit the next phase of their coaching search.