Orlando Magic know defense is the quickest way to compete again

Cole Anthony is the one offensive-minded player Jeff Weltman has added to the Orlando Magic through the draft. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Cole Anthony is the one offensive-minded player Jeff Weltman has added to the Orlando Magic through the draft. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

The first few days of training camp are always spent establishing the team’s core identity.

Coaches like to say they have only so much time with their players and they do not want to burn them out or push them too hard. They want to use their time effectively. Inevitably that means emphasizing things early at the expense of others.

What a coach chooses to emphasize in these moments can become the most important thing about that team.

At this point, the public only has the talking points from Jamahl Mosley of what his team is going to be about. They are likely to hear about them ad nauseum through training camp until the preseason games begin and everyone gets a taste of how this team will actually operate.

Mosley has only promised the Magic will play with pace, space and the pass on offense and be tough, talking and tied together on defense. No one will blame you if you have no clue what that is really about.

Looking at the Magic’s roster though and the kind of players president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman has acquired reveals at least some hint of the kind of team he wants to build. Not to mention Mosley’s past experience as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Magic are starting over. They are virtually a blank slate and the team is still going to reshape its future in the coming years. But it is clear the Magic have long put their focus on the defensive end.

The Orlando Magic are putting their focus on the defensive end as they begin to rebuild. In the early days of training camp they will clearly be trying to establish that as their identity.

They re-signed Jonathan Isaac to a four-year extension despite struggling with injury in much of his career. They invested in Isaac’s all-defensive team potential.

Weltman followed up drafting Jonathan Isaac by drafting Mohamed Bamba with all his defensive potential. He has signed defensive-minded players like Michael Carter-Williams and Al-Farouq Aminu with his free-agency capital.

They have added Chuma Okeke and Franz Wagner through the draft too. Both players established themselves defensively in college with their versatility.

Even Jalen Suggs was drafted as a tough-minded defensive guard in addition to his scoring ability.

Outside of Cole Anthony, a tough-minded scoring guard, the Magic have certainly had a type of player they have looked to acquire.

There has been at least some frustration with fans that the Magic have not focused on acquiring shooting or skilled players. Chuma Okeke is probably the best long-term shooting prospect the Magic have acquired since Jeff Weltman arrived in Orlando — Terrence Ross is the last holdover from the Rob Hennigan era.

That frustration is legitimate as the team tries to build. Shooting particularly is a vital skill every team in the league needs at this point. As the Magic continue to build and grow, they need to create the spacing Mosley is talking about when he lays out his basic offensive philosophies.

They cannot neglect offense.

There is rhyme to this reason though. As the Magic discovered in 2019, defense is still more than enough to make the playoffs and be competitive. A stronger defensive backbone is the fastest way to become competitive.

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The Magic rose to eighth in defensive rating in 2019 in their return to the playoffs, even as their offense continued to struggle. Even in 2020, the Magic were 11th in the league in defensive rating. You can make playoff appearances based on defense alone — just ask the New York Knicks.

Perhaps a team cannot win a playoff series on defense alone. But they certainly can be competitive.

Every team in the top-10 in defensive rating in the league last year made at least the play-in tournament — only the Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs proper. Only three of the bottom-10 teams in defensive rating made the playoffs too — with only the Brooklyn Nets escaping the first round.

Being one of the best teams in offense or defense — all 10 of the top-10 teams in offensive rating made the playoffs with just three of the bottom-10 making the playoffs — is a sure path to success. And championship teams are always those with top-10 offenses and defenses. At the end of the day, a team has to be good at both.

As former coach Steve Clifford liked to say, the goal for the team was to be top-10 in defense and top-half of the league in offense. That would be enough to have success.

With a team at its beginning stages, it has to figure out its path and what its identity is going to be about. The Magic have clearly viewed defense and defensive versatility as their building blocks for this next wave.

Whether that philosophy is the right one to build around is what Weltman is staking his rebuild and his tenure on.

This first season will almost certainly be about the building blocks and figuring out which pieces the team should move forward with.

With a young team, obviously, the first goal is helping players get better and improve. That is where Mosley has the most experience to give. But that is the provenance of assistant coaches. The day-to-day grind of helping players improve is typically delegated.

Mosley though will be carving his own path and have to address new challenges about the bigger scope of the team.

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The head coach is the CEO, looking at the massive expanse of the season, managing rest, practice days and overall team strategy. Here, there are few clues of who the Magic will be or where he will put his emphasis in the first days of practice.

For teams that have a long-standing history with their coach, this is a reinforcement of things from the previous year. It is important for integrating new players, but it is a reminder of what is really important to the team.

The Magic are not that kind of team. They are a team starting from scratch. They have plenty of holdovers from last year, but many of them are young. And they have a new, first-time head coach aiming to establish himself and what he is about.

And so the first few days of camp will be spent drilling the basics of their defensive and offensive system. It is a safe bet to say that outside of installing a few basic sets — perhaps some holdovers for those who came to Summer League in August — and running some more organized scrimmages, the Magic will do a lot o defensive drilling and shell work to get their principles down pat.

That is the kind of team they have built at the moment.

The key players — Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Isaac, Franz Wagner, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter or Mohamed Bamba — are all defensive-minded. And very clearly, the team wants to play an energetic and versatile defensive system.

That will be the base they are going to grow from. That is likely where the team will put its initial emphasis early in practice.

The Magic may not get a lot in the win/loss column this year. But they are going to begin building the kind of team they want to be. And it starts from day one.

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Expect the Magic to be focused on defense because that is a quick way to improve fast and build the kind of team that lasts. One way or another the team will set its identity in the coming days and weeks.