Defense has been the keyword for the Orlando Magic throughout training camp.
Defensive drills were the first things the team worked on. The famed hustle bell was initially built to celebrate winning plays — many of them effort defensive plays. The team has a roster seemingly built to play defense.
In that sense, nothing much has changed in the transition from coach Steve Clifford to coach Jamahl Mosley. Clifford put a lot of focus on defensive fundamentals and crafted the team into one of the best defenses in the league.
That carved their path to the playoffs for two straight years.
The Orlando Magic are focused on building out their defense. But while the fundamentals Steve Clifford taught will be valuable, this will be a different defensive strategy.
But the Magic’s defense under Clifford was more about being solid rather than dictating terms. He wanted his team to be so solid that opponents had to take low-efficient shots and then he focused on limiting their second-chance opportunities.
It worked but had its limitations in the playoffs when teams could hit those shots and choke off the Magic’s limited offensive options.
Orlando is at least starting with several players who have that solid background. But the team is also trying to do something different.
New coach Jamahl Mosley has put a lot into the defensive end to start his training camp. He has made it clear that defending physically and with pressure are going to be keys to his way of playing.
He knows that what he was left from the previous coaching staff though is a good foundation for his team as he begins to cement his way of playing for the first time.
"“They have such a great foundation of teaching and a level of the fundamentals has already been instilled in a lot of these guys here,” Mosley said after Sunday’s practice. “It’s continuing to build on that as well as getting them to understand we can crawl into the ball a little more. We create the action that we want other teams into rather than them dictating what they are doing.”"
That is very different from what Clifford taught. His style was about being solid and protecting the paint. He wanted defenders to get into their opponents but he was not asking them to put intense pressure or shoot into passing lanes to gamble for steals.
It was a solid but conservative defensive strategy.
Mosley seems to be asking his defenders to be more assertive and dictate things to their opponents, working to make them uncomfortable at every level even if it leaves holes elsewhere.
Where Clifford was fine with forcing teams to run their sets perfectly in order to beat him, Mosley appears to want his team to knock the opponents out of their sets.
It is a very different ask and a different mindset. Building that mindset has been part of what the Magic’s camp has ultimately been about.
As good as the Magic’s defense was, Mosley is still rebuilding it and it is something very different. Something that requires players to adhere to certain principles, but gives them the freedom to react and adjust on the fly.
"“It’s very different,” Mohamed Bamba said of the team’s defensive differences after practice Sunday. “I feel like there is a lot more flexibility in our defensive — can’t even call them schemes because we stick to our principles. There is so much room to do different things rather than being one-dimensional defenders. There is a lot more expected of you and a lot more you are able to get out there and just show.”"
Bamba said he believes this type of strategy is better for young players because it provides a lot of different looks for players. It does not focus on doing one thing and one thing well within a structured defensive style.
It is no secret Bamba struggled within that structure Clifford sought. He certainly looked like he was thinking too much and letting mistakes compound. He rarely got the chance simply to react and play. Especially with concerns of a potential quick hook.
His injuries did not help matters much more as he struggled even to stay on the court consistently.
Bamba certainly has seemed eager for a fresh start and a new coach. And with Mosley focusing more on principles and rules rather than a rigid system, Bamba may get the chance to play with a more aggressive mindset and to go out and make plays.
Even his numbers at this point suggest he can still make a big defensive impact — 2.9 blocks per 75 possessions put him in the 98th percentile in the league although teams attacked and challenged him often.
Training camp has been a learning environment. And while the team has some solid fundamentals built in from the previous coaching staff, Mosley is building his own set of guidelines and principles.
What that looks like is still the bigger mystery. And the Orlando Magic’s first preseason game Monday against the Boston Celtics will provide a clearer public picture for how the team wants to play and what exactly those principles are.
"“Preseason is a tool,” Bamba said after practice Sunday. “You want to get decent groundings for things that will happen in the season. It’s just a tool. We know not to get too excited or too down over what happens in preseason.”"
Mosley said his message to his players is to keep things simple. Specifically in playmaking offensively, he is asking his players not to make home-run plays but to focus on making the simple plays.
That is very much in line with the day-to-day approach the Magic are trying to preach too. They want to improve each day rather than take gigantic leaps and focusing on the bigger picture.
Still, Bamba added the goal is to play aggressively with whatever time they had. That seems to be something Mosley is encouraging. To go hard and play with energy with the time on the court and then reset and recover on the bench while staying engaged with the game.
Everyone is a bit curious to see what this team looks like and to get a sense of who the Magic want to be.
Bamba is right that the preseason is not something to get too excited about. The final score is not going to matter so much as beginning to put the pieces together. Certainly, the team wants to look good enough to show they are on the right path.
But it is about showing they have built something and they can continue to build from there.
"“Going against other teams is going to be very important for us to gauge where we are,” Mosley said after practice Sunday. “It’s fun to go against ourselves and compete. But I think having another level of competition against another team is going to be great.”"
Orlando is going to get to see where it is at and the foundation it has built.
The Magic will certainly be more focused on their defensive progress than their offensive progress at this point considering what the team worked on to begin camp and what Mosley has said he wants his team to be about.
It will be something new. That is pretty much all we know. But it certainly will have echoes of what the Magic did before.