Orlando Magic have some proof, but plenty to build on defense

The Orlando Magic had one of the best overall defenses in the league after the All-Star Break but there is still work to do to become a defensive team. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic had one of the best overall defenses in the league after the All-Star Break but there is still work to do to become a defensive team. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are still getting used to their new surroundings inside the AdventHealth Training Center. Coach Jamahl Mosley joked after Tuesday’s practice he had to find players to get them back into drills when they went off to the side to get some corrections on drills or get some individual coaching.

There is a lot new too.

Most notably is a dry-erase board between the two courts the Magic use. On it, Mosley has gotten into the habit of writing down his goals for the team’s practice.

The first day of practice had one clear focus: defense.

Ask the Magic players what they believe their strength could be for this coming season and they will all say the same thing. They all believe this team could be a very strong defensive team. They all see the potential they have to be good on that end — from Wendell Carter’s solid defensive reputation to the potential they see in Jalen Suggs and even Paolo Banchero.

Of course, the other reason is that it is one of the few areas the Magic experienced success in last year’s difficult season.

The Orlando Magic’s rising defense was one thing the team pointed to as a sign of success. It was good enough for the team to believe this could be their future identity but it was not good enough to bank on without more work.

Orlando finished the season last year 19th in defensive rating at 112.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is not much to celebrate in the end. But considering how bad the Magic were, it was something they could hold onto.

Especially considering how they finished the season.

Orlando was seventh in the league after the All-Star Break in defensive rating, giving up 111.2 points per 100 possessions. The Magic were the only team in the top 10 after the All-Star Break with a negative net rating.

The end of the season is a time when offenses tend to overtake defenses. But the Magic’s defense held relatively steady. And the biggest impediment for the team remains its struggling offense.

A better offense will help the Magic improve defensively too. But this was something the team hung its hat on despite the relatively small sample size. A quarter of the season is not insignificant but it is not everything.

Still, it leaves at least a small blueprint for this team to improve the defense further this season. It takes digging a bit deeper into the numbers to figure out where the team had success.

Nominally, the Magic’s defense did not improve by much. It just improved relative to the league.

Maybe that consistency was a strength in the end. Maybe it was not.

A steady drumbeat in a time the league was seeing defense slip throughout the league is enough to claim some improvement. Maybe it still reveals how much work is ahead of the Magic to improve on that end.

The focus in the early parts of training camp has been in transition defense.

This has been an area of focus for the team as they continue to look to increase the pace. But there is an emphasis on decision-making in transition and understanding when to get it up quickly and attack and when to get it up quickly and initiate offense quickly.

In transition, in other words, is where the Magic really show their youth.

That same is shown on defense.

Orlando for the season actually was decent giving up only 12.2 fast break points per game. That was good for 14th in the league. That discipline slipped at the end of the season though. After the All-Star Break, the Magic were 19th giving up 13.6 fast break points per game.

That shows how easily the Magic could slip up, especially as they put their own focus on speeding things up. It is why the connection between the team’s offense and defense is important. Orlando cannot turn the ball over and give away free opportunities.

The real strength in how the team played late in the season came in the paint.

Orlando was second in the league after the All-Star Break in opponent points in the paint per game, giving up 44.3 per game. For the season, the team was sixth in the league at 44.5 points allowed in the paint per game.

Again, the Magic’s raw number did not change much, but even that stability helped the team improve relative to the league.

It would make sense the Magic put a lot of their defensive focus on defending the paint. Orlando has a lot of long-armed players who could collapse the paint and make it hard both to score and kick out.

For sure, the Magic should continue to improve in this area and with their individual defense. But Orlando seems optimistic that with Wendell Carter as an anchor, strong defenders in Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs, shot-blocking in Mo Bamba and even Bol Bol and the potential for Jonathan Isaac’s return and their belief in Paolo Banchero’s defensive development they have a lot of tools to make life hard in the paint.

The tools are all there. But they have to put all the pieces together.

The surest sign they are doing that is an improvement in 3-point defense, such a critical part of modern basketball. A 3-pointer is usually the end result of an overstretched defense or a bad defensive rotation.

For the season, the Magic were 26th in the league, giving up 13.3 3-pointers per game. Opponents shot 36.3 percent against the Magic, 24th in the league.

While Orlando still hit its share of threes. The team’s lack of three-point shooting made this a huge deficit for the team to overcome.

After the All-Star Break, the Magic still gave up 13.9 3-pointers per game (25th in the league) but rose to 12th in 3-point defense, giving up 35.8-percent from beyond the arc. That was perhaps one of the bigger changes for the Magic. There was actually an improvement, even if the Magic were giving up more 3-point makes.

There is a lot of luck in 3-point shooting. And perhaps this is a small enough sample that some luck played into the more makes. Or perhaps the other way around.

Nothing should denigrate what the Magic did in the final quarter of the season. They showed signs of playing strong defense — and late-season chicanery likely deflated those numbers plenty after the Magic were very strong.

After all, the Magic gave up 60 to Kyrie Irving and 50 to Saddiq Bey all after the All-Star Break while their numbers suggested positive defensive trends.

Still, the team went 9-13 after the All-Star Break — that’s a 34-win pace! — so there were clearly some positive results. Something clicked.

Part of the task now that the Magic have put their focus on the 2023 season is to figure out what made the defense successful late in the season but also understand that it is not a clear sign of the team’s defensive potential.

There is still a lot of work to do even if the post-All-Star run provided some proof of concept.

Next. Gary Harris' veteran poise will be key for Orlando Magic. dark

The bottom line is nothing with this team is proven or guaranteed. And if the Magic want a defensive identity, it is something they have to establish and work on early this season.