Orlando Magic have to adjust their defense without Wendell Carter

Orlando Magic, Wendell Carter. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic, Wendell Carter. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports /

Before Tuesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Jamahl Mosley was asked whether he believed both Wendell Carter and Gary Harris, two key defenders for the Orlando Magic, would be out an extended period of time. He gave a simple, “No.” It does not seem like there is much concern they will miss extended time.

Indeed, Harris is off the Magic’s injury report for Thursday’s game against the Utah Jazz and Mosley said he will play Thursday.

But Carter’s name remains on the injury report. He has already been ruled OUT for the game with hip pain. He will miss his third consecutive game.

And as the Orlando Magic start to lose contact in the postseason chase — they trail the Washington Wizards by four games after the Wizards lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday and they trail the Indiana Pacers by two games now for 12th in the Eastern Conference — getting their defense right is critical.

Carter’s absence was certainly felt in both games and he is as consequential a defensive player as the Magic have.

The injury to Wendell Carter has seemingly thrown the Orlando Magic’s defense out of whack. His absence has been something the team has struggled to adjust to.

In each of the previous two, the Magic clearly missed Carter’s presence.

Their defense cratered giving up 122 points and 119.6 points per 100 possession in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday and then another 134 points and 125.2 points per 100 possessions in Tuesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The two games followed similar themes. The Magic were unable to be as aggressive defensively and ended up allowing much more paint penetration leading to more fouling as the team tried to make up for it.

Neither the Blazers nor the Bucks did anything too different. They did not hit an excess amount of threes and the Magic won the scoring battle in the paint in both games.

But Orlando struggled to get stops consistently as players went to the line. The Blazers took 32 free throws (20 from Damian Lillard alone) and the Bucks took 34 free throws (14 from Khris Middleton). The Magic rank 11th in the league giving up 23.3 free throw attempts per game.

Considering the Magic typically use their foul shooting — they are still fifth in the league in free throw rate at 29.8 percent (nearly three free throws for every 10 field goal attempts) — to make up for other offensive deficiencies, losing this battle is a huge hindrance to the Magic’s hopes for winning.

The past two losses were indeed part of a frustrating and negative trend for the team. The Bucks had a 43.6 percent free throw rate, the fourth-worst mark of the season, and the Blazers had a 38.6 percent free throw rate. The Magic have given up a 30-percent free throw rater or worse in four of their past five games.

That obviously means this problem is not merely happening because Carter is out of the lineup. But his absence highlights the problem in those two games. The Magic are just visibly on their back foot and not able to play the same level of defense without Carter.

Overall, the Magic have a 111.5 defensive rating with Carter on the floor (compared to their season average of 114.0). The defensive rating rises to 114.5 points per 100 possessions when Carter is off the floor.

Things are not significantly worse or different statistically with his starter replacement in Moe Wagner on the floor — 111.0 defensive rating with Wagner on the floor compared to 114.2 off the floor. The Magic typically need their centers on the floor to help lock down the paint.

But things were obviously a bit exposed in the last two games — a 123.5 defensive rating with Wagner on the floor in the last two games as the starters struggled mightily in both games.

The defense is indeed fairly worse with Carter out of games with injury.

In the 22 games Carter has missed, the Magic have an average defensive rating of 115.6 points per 100 possessions. Again, the team’s average is 114.0. That is not a huge difference, and a good chunk of that came with Mo Bamba who has solid defensive numbers.

It is also worth noting the Magic went on their six-game win streak in December without Carter in the lineup. That speaks as much to how important continuity is to building a defense. Taking Carter and Harris out of the Magic’s lineup has thrown the team into some disarray with its rotations and they are still adjusting and figuring out how to cover for each other.

What the Magic are experiencing now and are struggling with is this adjustment.

Everything was in perfect balance and now the team is having to figure out its rotations again. They have to understand when to rotate now, often sooner, to cover for Wagner because his defensive abilities are different than Carter’s defensive abilities.

And it is a very different thing to cover. The team just has to adjust.

Wagner currently rates as the fourth-worst center in defended field goal percentage at the rim according to data from Second Spectrum, giving up 77.5 percent shooting. The three players worse than him all play fewer than 10 minutes per game.

Carter gives up a fairly poor 63.9 percent at the rim. So this stat should not be seen as the be-all, end-all of defensive impact.

But Carter is a significantly better rebounder (8.11 rebounds per 75 possessions for Carter compared to 5.90 for Wagner) and a significantly better interio defender. As expected with the number above, Basketball-Index rates Wagner as giving up 10.2 percentage points more than expected at the rim, one of the worst marks in the league. Carter gives up 3.6 percentage points worse than expected at the rim.

This is even with teams still plenty willing to attack Carter on the interior — Basketball-Index rates at +0.07 percent in their rim deterrence metric (Wagner rates at -0.68 percent, which suggests teams do not attack Wagner as much).

The two rate similarly in screen defense and the roll man scores 1.05 points per possession against Wagner compared to 1.61 points per possession against Carter, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. In pick and rolls, the ball handler scores 0.82 points per possession against Wagner compared to 1.29 points per possession against Carter.

Some of this still has to do with Wagner playing largely with bench lineups. Perhaps putting him in the starting lineup has exposed some of his defensive weaknesses much more.

There are always questions about how this data is tracked. And the level of competition here matters too. But it also suggests that Carter still has work to do to improve as a defender.

Getting his plantar fascia injury fully healed this offseason will help with that too. Thus the Magic are being cautious with this hip soreness and giving him some time to recuperate and get treatment.

But the Magic are going to have to march on too. Their play-in chase continues and they still want to make gains the rest of the season.

Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero have certainly gotten the message with two big scoring games in Wendell Carter’s absence. The Magic’s offense has been stellar in both games with above-average performances.

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But this team is built on its defense. And it is clearly missing something with Carter out. There is an adjustment the team still has to make without its best interior defender. And the team is going to continue to struggle until the defense gets straightened out.