Orlando Magic need to improve rim protection to finish defense

Wendell Carter leads an Orlando Magic defense that is strong in a lot of areas but could get much better. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter leads an Orlando Magic defense that is strong in a lot of areas but could get much better. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports /

The excitement building around the Orlando Magic’s season is palpable.

It is not just the buzz about the Magic’s new throwback jerseys and court. There is something special brewing on the court and everyone can feel it.

The hope for the season obviously starts with the individual talent on the roster. Paolo Banchero seems like he is on a clear star trajectory after a stellar rookie season. Franz Wagner also seems like he is poised to take another leap. Several other young players took major leaps throughout last season and could make leaps again.

Of course, it is one thing for young players to get better individually as they are expected to do, it is another thing for the team to come together. And that is ultimately the question this Magic team is going to ask.

They found some of their identity for sure in going 29-28 to finish last season. They started to find themselves and their path to success.

The Orlando Magic’s defense was key to the team’s strong finish to the season. It is expected to be the bedrock for this season but it can still greatly improve.

The key to the Magic’s success last year was certainly its defense. And if there is an identity the team are going to take on this year, it is on that end. Orlando’s success this year will depend on the team’s improving defense.

But as good as Orlando’s defense was to end last season, it was hardly foolproof. There were a lot of elements the team needed to tighten up to get the team where it wanted to go. And a lot of that will start with finishing off one of the Magic’s defensive strengths last year.

Orlando was an excellent team defending the paint last year. But the element that was missing to make this an elite defense was true rim protection. And that could be the key to turning the Magic from a good defense into one of the best defenses in the league.

The Magic showed hints of being a strong defense overall last season. After their 5-20 start, the Magic were sixth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 113.0 points per 100 possessions. That is a number that can clearly improve, but was still close to the Magic’s overall offensive rating and was a sign the team could hit .500 at the very least.

There are still clear weaknesses to this defense.

Orlando gave up a lot of 3-pointers — the third most in the league at 37.0 attempts per game. While the Magic were able to defend the 3-point line decently well, that still left them susceptible to some big 3-point performances against them — think the losses to the Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks especially.

It was a recurring problem. It is an area where better rim protection could actually help the Magic.

Orlando’s overall defensive philosophy was to pack the paint and make it hard to get shot attempts at the basket. They would then use their length and speed to track back out to the 3-point line to contest threes.

Orlando bet that they would have good 3-point luck more often than not. So those times when the 3-point math went against them would be few and far between.

That is the gamble for the Magic. And it largely worked as Orlando was very good at protecting the paint last year.

The Magic were sixth in points allowed in the paint per game 47.6 per game for the entire season. After Dec. 7, they were second at 46.3 per game.

This is the heart of the Magic’s defensive success. Orlando did well to limit attempts at the rim with opponents shooting only 26.8 attempts per game within five feet against Orlando’s defense, the fourth-fewest in the league. Opponents took only 9.1 attempts per game from 5-9 feet, the sixth-fewest in the league.

This is why it was not so important that opponents shot fairly well when they did get to the basket. Opponents shot 68.2 percent within five feet against the Magic, the second-worst mark in the league. According to data from Second Spectrum, the Magic gave up 68.4 percent shooting at the rim, the fourth-worst mark in the league.

Orlando averaged 4.7 blocks per game last year, putting the team 15th in the league. The Magic have a lot of size and versatility, but Wendell Carter is not a traditional rim protector — opponents shot 64.0 percent at the rim against Carter, according to Second Spectrum, and he averaged a career-low 0.6 blocks per game last year and has only cleared 1.0 block per game once in his career.

That does not get to Moe Wagner who had the worst field goal percentage at the rim in the league among centers who appeared in at least 41 games.

None of this leads to a clear conclusion there are ways around this as plenty of other players work around statistically poor rim protection.

Bam Adebayo gave up a worse field goal percentage at the rim than Wendell Carter but is largely considered a solid rim protector. Opponents took only 5.8 field goal attempts per game at the rim against Carter, the 16th fewest among centers who played at least 24 minutes per game (Adebayo gave up 4.2 attempts per game).

There is something to preventing attempts in the paint and at the rim before even needing to block a shot. That is clearly what is at the center of the Magic’s defensive strategy.

Blocking shots is not everything in rim protection. But this is a clear deficiency.

It should be noted too that good rim protection is not essential to a great defense. The Denver Nuggets gave up 68.9 percent shooting at the rim last year. But Orlando needs every advantage defensive the team can get. Especially considering nobody is expecting the Magic to be a dominant offense.

Defense is going to be the key to the Magic’s success. And so cleaning up the team’s rebounding (a whole separate issue considering Orlando’s strong paint defense) and rim protection to generate fast breaks and help the team cover the 3-point line more effectively.

This is once again a small improvement that could have big gains.

Orlando has the baseline for a strong defense for sure. The team ranked well overall and it was the strongest overall unit for the team. How well the Magic’s defense performs will determine just how good this team can ultimately be.

But there are clearly still holes. There are clearly still areas the team can improve.

Orlando’s base defense focuses on protecting the paint. A stronger rim protector who can deter drives to the basket entirely could make it easier to defend the 3-point line and complete the defense. Then you have to wonder if the Magic have the personnel to play any other style of defense.

And the Magic will not truly understand their individual or team defensive weaknesses until they get into a playoff series and find out where teams try to attack them. The rim may be one of those hidden weak spots.

Orlando is likely to employ a lot of the same defensive principles this season. They will look to compact the paint and make it hard to get shots up and then fly back out to the 3-point line to prevent open threes. It will take everyone doing their part to make this successful.

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Undoubtedly, stronger rim protection would help make this job easier and complete what should be a strong Magic defense.