Orlando Magic’s defense has been its calling card but still has room to improve

Cole Anthony is still working to improve his defense like the Orlando Magic are. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony is still working to improve his defense like the Orlando Magic are. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

At the beginning of the season, Cole Anthony laid out where he wanted to improve.

There was a long list for the sophomore guard. He wanted to become a more consistent and efficient scorer for sure. His scoring ability and that endearing confidence are part of what got him drafted after a difficult year at North Carolina.

Anthony knew he had a lot of areas to improve and get better at. As a second-year player, it was going to be easy to see measures of improvement in those areas.

But Anthony also made it clear he wanted to improve one of his biggest weaknesses — his defense.

His first coach, Steve Clifford, was a well-known defensive coach. And his new coach, Jamahl Mosley, was preaching defense as the team’s identity. It was pretty clear even early on that Anthony was going to have to make good on this promise to improve.

"“Honestly, in terms of my whole game, the defense is the biggest step that I’ve been able to take,” Anthony said after practice Friday. “I feel like I have made major strides. I feel like I have done a great job not allowing straight line drives, being able to defend a person on offense after multiple dribbles and being in the right spot at the right time.”"

Anthony knows he is not the fastest laterally or the most athletic defender, but he said he feels like he is doing a better job anticipating plays before they happen.

Anthony’s defense has improved, although no one will confuse him as a lockdown defender at the point guard position.

Like so much with this young roster, everything is a work in progress. But through all the work that is being done. There is clear improvement and something to build on.

The Orlando Magic have greatly improved their defense and have made it the team’s calling card in the last half of the season. But there is still a lot of work to improve.

That is all that counts for now as the team tries to establish its foundation. It is not anything for this team to rest its laurels on, but it is a place to build from.

Overall, the Magic sit at 19th in the league with a defensive rating of 111.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is not a great ranking or number. The team struggled with its defense to start the season.

But things changed in January. It was the first bit of progress the team made came on the defensive end during a winning homestand. The Magic rank ninth in the league in defensive rating at 110.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. That seems like a small raw improvement, but it is a big leap for a team like this.

The Magic have improved their standing around the league and improved that raw number. It feels like it has some permanence too considering the Magic have played 38 games in that span (nearly half a season).

The team has continued to play well since the All-Star Break too. Orlando remains the best defense by defensive rating since the All-Star Break at 109.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Orlando’s defense has remained its best calling card this year.

"“I’d say we’ve been really tied together as a unit,” Anthony said after practice Friday. “If one person messes up, the next person is there to help correct their mistake. The other thing is we are limiting those mistakes. It’s not a lot of times where you get someone blown by or we allow straight line drives. We’re not missing rotations as much and we’re just doing a great job as a unit staying tied together.”"

The improvement is certainly noted. But it is definitely not without its slips.

Defense is always on the knife’s edge and always a tricky balance. A tweak too much can throw a defense completely off. And the Magic’s defense has had some big misses.

Even in this 14-game sample after the All-Star Break, the Magic have had their two worst defensive performances of the season. The national spotlight was on their defense for the wrong reason when they gave up 60 points to Kyrie Irving and then 51 points to Saddiq Bey in back-to-back games.

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This is certainly one of the areas Anthony said he believes the team still needs to improve. The team needs to be better at containing individuals. That is a constant battle for every team in the NBA.

The Magic have spent their entire season doing well defending the paint. Opponents score 44.4 points in the paint per game against the Magic, the sixth-best mark in the league. They have some slippage but remain in the top-10 in that mark since Jan. 1 but are now third since the All-Star Break, giving up 43.6 points in the paint per game.

The Magic have continued to improve at forcing shots in good areas of the floor. That is a credit to their help defense and the way the team covers for each other.

This season, Orlando has done a good job forcing the low-value mid-range jumpers. They give up 12.6 mid-range field goal attempts per game (fifth-most in the league) at 43.0-percent (fourth-worst in the league).

Always some bad to go with the good trends the Magic have had. But that is the full season.

Since Jan. 1, the Magic are giving up 12.3 field goal attempts per game from the mid-range (10th in the league) at 39.6-percent (ninth-best in the league). That is quite the change from the team’s season average.

Since the All-Star Break, the Magic are giving up 10.9 field goal attempts per game from the mid-range (14th in the league) at 39.9-percent (ninth in the league).

Coach Jamahl Mosley added another area of improvement for the team has been with their defensive rebounding.

Orlando has a defensive rebound rate of 73.4-percent (ninth in the league) for the entire season. Since Jan. 1, the Magic are grabbing third with a defensive rebound rate of 74.7-percent. They are second since the All-Star Break at 77.4-percent.

These are all positive signs for the team and good indicators of where the Magic’s defense is headed.

"“We’ve said it from the beginning of our guys wanting to get better,” Mosley said after practice Friday. “As we see those gradual, small improvements, we celebrate the small successes. The guys are in the gym every day working with one another. Our staff does a great job. They keep everyone lifted up, including myself.”"

It has been a difficult season. At the end of the day, the Magic have had a lot of defensive success but are still just 7-7 since the All-Star Break. And there are those noted failures.

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The team is still working to improve its transition defense — Orlando gives up 11.7 fast-break points per game (10th in the league) for the season but the team is ninth in the league giving up 12.1 fast-break points per game since the All-Star Break.

The team too still struggles with its fouling. Orlando gives up 22.7 free throw attmepts per game (25th in the league) for the season. That number is at 24.2 free throw attempts per game (26th in the league) since Jan. 1 and 24.6 per game since the All-Star Break (21st in the league).

With the Magic struggling to score so much, it is easy to see how a few slips here and there leave the team in a major hole.

But it is all about improvement. And the Magic are clearly making improvements.

Just like Anthony.

His defensive numbers still do not tell a great story. His improvement is more anecdotal than anything else. But he does have a better understanding of where he needs to be defensively. It is all still a work in progress.

If the Magic have something they can build on, it is their defense. But it is just as clear the team still has things to do to make it more solid.

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