Throughout training camp last week, coach Jamahl Mosley told everyone the Orlando Magic’s defense was ahead of its offense. Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs were among the players who seemed to echo this notion, putting out thoughts of being in the top 10 in defensive rating.
Why wouldn’t everyone think this? The Magic were 18th in the league in defensive rating for the season last year and seventh in the league in defensive rating after Dec. 7 and the team’s 5-20 start.
The Magic have seemingly focused on selecting, rangy and versatile athletes, believing they can turn them into shooters. The offense, despite some intriguing weapons including the team’s two stars in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, has somewhat been neglected.
This is a franchise that has not had an offense outside the bottom 10 since Dwight Howard left in 2012 and finished 26th in the league in offensive rating. Nobody is still expecting Orlando to have a killer offense.
Yet. . .
There was some beautiful offensive basketball and something feels different about this Magic team’s offense.
The Orlando Magic want to build their identity on defense. But in two preseason games, the offense should be raising some eyebrows for this young team.
There was on the opening play Markelle Fultz finding Jalen Suggs on a backdoor cut only for Suggs to whip the ball quickly to Paolo Banchero for a corner three (it missed, but process over results, right?).
There was Franz Wagner driving and slinging a pass to the corner for Jalen Suggs to drain a three. Then there was Wagner lining up from 30 feet out and comfortably hitting a deep three. Or there was Banchero getting downhill to finish at the rim. Or there was the ball finding Fultz in the corner after an offensive rebound for three.
Is this Orlando Magic team, which scored 122 points including 41 in the second quarter in Tuesday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, becoming a strong offensive team?
It is too early to pull the trigger on that quite yet. The Magic still have plenty of moments early in this preseason where the team struggles to find points and generate offense.
Yet, it still does feel like a different team offensively.
Orlando, at least when its regular rotation players are in, continues to put up impressive scoring numbers and do things that you typically see from strong offensive teams.
In Thursday’s 108-105 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers (the Cavs went on a 13-0 run to end the game with both teams using their deep bench players), the Orlando Magic posted an offensive rating of 106.9 points per 100 possessions (that is very bad).
But, through three quarters, the Magic had an offensive rating of 114.3 points per 100 possessions (with a defensive rating of 98.7 for good measure). All of the Magic’s starters had a plus/minus of at least +14 for the game and an offensive rating of at least 122.0. And even though they gave up 31 points in the first quarter (including 17 to Darius Garland), the Magic still matched it to keep the game tied.
That is some very good offense.
What has stood out about the Magic to this point is that they are seemingly unrelenting. They know who they are and what they run and they stick with it, troubleshooting quickly and finding gaps to attack on both ends. And when the offense is working, this team is proving tough to beat.
What is a defense supposed to do with Franz Wagner pulling up for 30-foot threes or for that matter with Wagner leading the charge offensively and getting downhill. The Magic are quickly establishing an identity with their offense.
It is at least something to build on.
More than that though, they are doing things that they typically did not do last year.
"“We have to take advantage of what we have,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s game. “We have length and we have size. Being able to attack the basket is something we talk about with our guys on a regular basis. Finding a way to get to the rim because that allows knock-down, feet-set threes. Just putting it all together, our guys are really understanding what we’re asking of them.”"
The Magic are not sitting on their hands offensively. There are certainly key changes.
The Magic appear to be making a concerted effort to push the ball past half-court quicker this year too. They are trying to get into their offense faster and find mismatches before the defense gets set.
Orlando’s offense is using a lot more five-out sets too. They are lining up their center outside the paint or at the 3-point line as they try to exploit space for the team to cut and drive into the lane and collapse the defense.
The team seems set to take a lot more 3-pointers than last year and use that space effectively.
Orlando was 28th in the league in 3-point attempts per game last year. They took 45 3-pointers in Tuesday’s game. In Thursday’s game, the Magic took 35 3-pointers, making 8 of 22 through three quarters.
Franz Wagner stood out offensively with 18 points in 18.5 minutes, draining three 3-pointers including a pair of deep 3-pointers from well beyond the 3-point line.
More than that, the quality of those shots feels a lot better. Orlando averaged only 6.8 corner 3-point attempts per game last year, the second-fewest in the league.
They took nine corner threes (making six) in Tuesday’s game. Orlando took another nine in Thursday’s game, making five.
These shots are important because they are statistically the highest-percentage 3-point shots (the Magic made 40.8 percent of their corner threes last year, good for third-best in the league). They are also a good sign of the team’s ball movement and passing.
Passing was a struggle for the Magic last year as they ranked near the bottom of the league in passes per game.
That has not been an issue in the preseason so far. The Magic had 29 assists on 44 field goals in Tuesday’s game. They recorded 27 assists on 37 field goals.
For reference, the Magic had only 16 total games last year with 27 or more assists last season — and only five with 30 or more assists.
Further, Orlando has been solid with turnovers, especially for the preseason, even if there are still some sloppy moments. The Magic committed only 12 turnovers through three quarters leading to 10 Cavaliers points.
"“One thing that stands out because it’s one thing that we talked about throughout training camp is taking care of the basketball,” Mosley said after Thursday’s game. “I think our ability to keep taking care of the basketball and sharing the basketball. I like our guys’ willingness to share and understand, we said it last year as well, it’s going to be done by committee. Guys are willing and wanting to step into that way of playing.”"
Who knows how much of this will translate to the regular season? Who knows how much the Magic are actually showing the world during the preseason? Wagner and Banchero certainly are not going full tilt with their shot diet.
But either way, it certainly feels like there is a new energy to the team’s offense. As disruptive as the defense can be — and it has had some really strong moments where they get deflections and steals repeatedly — the team’s offense has looked refreshingly impressive early on in the preseason.
There is indeed something different about the way this group is playing so far. It should at least be turning some heads and gives fans something to keep an eye on.