Orlando Magic lacking a defensive identity and the results are showing it

Kenyon Martin Jr. and the Houston Rockets buried the Orlando Magic under a mount of threes. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kenyon Martin Jr. and the Houston Rockets buried the Orlando Magic under a mount of threes. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

127. 38. Final. 134. 169

The Orlando Magic knew they always had the potential to cause defensive chaos. That is partly how they are built.

The team is full of these long-limbed bigs who have the versatility to switch onto the perimeter or who can clog the lane and driving lanes just by showing their hands. They are the kinds of players who can overplay and make some mistakes because they have length to recover and the length behind them to impede any progress into the paint.

This is the general idea of the Magic’s roster and what everyone thought the team would be good at as the team grew up. That is what the team harped on as they closed the season last year. And everyone can clearly see this roster has a defensive bend.

So what, then, is this team’s defensive identity? What are they trying to accomplish and how are they trying to execute it? Can this amalgamation of limbs and size form a coherent defense?

So far the answer is definitively no.

The Orlando Magic struggled again defensively, giving a barrage of 3-pointers to the Houston Rockets as they still do not seem to have their defense set early in the season.

The Houston Rockets, a team full of its own offensive promise but little in the way of efficiency, carved up the Orlando Magic’s defense in a 134-127 win. The Rockets made nine 3-pointers in the first quarter, setting the tone for a 24 3-pointer performance (on 48 attempts) and a 134-127 victory.

"“You have to give them credit,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Monday’s game. “They did get hot. There were a lot of open looks. Our ability to get into that basketball. But you have to give them credit for knocking shots down. . . . I think we’ve got to continue to talk about that. Obviously understanding how we need to come out and set the tone early. Pick up our defense, let our defense be what starts it.”"

Even if it was somewhat attributed to non-shooters hitting shots, it was the kind of shooting performance that immediately put Orlando on its back foot trying to catch up. It is at least some credit (and perhaps a sign of this team’s true identity) that the offense was able to keep up. The Magic at least have something on that end.

But the defense stood out because the Rockets did not merely get lucky from deep. They moved the ball twisting and breaking the Magic’s defense. They took advantage of lax defensive pressure to shoot over the top.

Orlando just looked lost defensively as they tried to track a confident Houston team moving the ball inside and out and draining threes over them.

The Magic are not a defensive team at this point.

Really, all Orlando might be through 11 games is a promising but misshapen group surrounding Paolo Banchero’s Rookie of the Year campaign. And yes, Orlando is missing several key defensive players — Gary Harris and Jonathan Isaac most of all — but this team is not hanging its hat on the defensive end.

In 11 games, Orlando ranks 25th in defensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions. The team has had a defensive rating better than 110 points per 100 possessions just once in the team’s past five games.

The 132.7 points per 100 possessions the team gave up against the Rockets on Monday was the worst mark of the season. Something just felt off.

"“I think they were just comfortable,” Terrence Ross said after Monday’s loss. “We didn’t do a great job taking them out of their comfort zone. They might not be the best 3-point shooters, but they are still NBA players so they are capable. They got really comfortable early.”"

That comfort is something that spread and gave the Rockets early confidence. The lax defense early set the tone for the game.

It has been a recurring problem — with a few nice games early in the season — and the team has looked a bit off and not on the same page.

Their switching scheme can be a bit soft, simply passing players off to the next one, leaving the switching player to be a bit late to get out to the 3-point line. The Rockets had several threes they took simply over a defense ducking under screens.

Early in the game, Orlando’s difficulties came from switching guards or Franz Wagner onto Alperen Sengun. That collapsed the defense as the Magic had to help to stop the promising post player.

In neither case did Orlando actually dictate what it wanted the offense to do. The Magic were always reacting to what the Rockets were doing. As has been the case, the team just relied on its length to cover up for its issues in communication and its issues keeping penetration from the perimeter.

The Magic are trying a few different things to try to cover for this.

The team has gone to a zone defense to try to leverage the team’s length (and maybe hide some of its lack of speed because of the supersized lineups the team has played). But it too sits back and lets offensive dictate things. It never looks like Orlando knows exactly where it wants to be.

Whether it is man-to-man or zone though, the Magic are often slow to rotate — especially to the corners — and can often look too much to the paint trying to contest or block shots or overhelping, leaving them exposed on kick outs to the 3-point line.

The Magic’s turnovers are again a huge issue putting the defense even further behind the 8-ball — 20 turnovers for 31 points that at least the Magic were able to match off the Rockets’ turnovers.

In the end, the Magic’s defensive problems boil down to their inability to keep their man in front of them consistently on the perimeter and their slow rotations to cover for that.

On a big-picture level, it goes to the larger issue the Magic have of a team still learning the details and still learning the consistency necessary for success. The team has a long way to go to get there.

"“I think it’s going to keep being based on the little things that we do,” Mosley said after Monday’s loss. “We talk about dominating the simple. We were still in that game because of our fight. Then there is the other side of it where we have to continue to understand the simple plays — taking care of the basketball, defending without fouling early, understand who you are closing out to on the 3-point line. Just understanding those little pieces will help us continue to grow and get better obviously from a game plan night-to-night.”"

Some personnel changes — making the JumBol lineup a specialty lineup rather than a starting lineup and getting some guard health with Harris and even Isaac returning — may help put the Magic on the right path. Knowing the team has to rely on the defense may well help too if this offensive spark quiets down — it is easy to be lax on defense knowing you can score just as easily on the other end as the Magic did Monday.

Orlando Magic still have a point guard problem. dark. Next

There has to be a solution somewhere. But Orlando’s defense is nowhere near where it needs to be. And that is holding the team back and leaving a lot of potential on the table.