Orlando Magic's bench keeps up the defensive intensity

The Orlando Magic lean on their defense to carry the day. They have built up a defense that carries through to their bench, giving them 48 minutes of strong defense to build upon.
Jonathan Isaac has helped anchor a bench group that does not let up defensively and gives the Orlando magic a full 48-minute defensive identity.
Jonathan Isaac has helped anchor a bench group that does not let up defensively and gives the Orlando magic a full 48-minute defensive identity. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

For a lot of teams, when the bench comes in it is a chance to breathe a bit easy. Teams' identities can change slightly as the bench comes in. There is a different gear a team tries to hit.

When a lot of teams probably look at the Orlando Magic's bench, they probably think they are due for a bit of a shift.

Cole Anthony is more of a scoring guard. Joe Ingles is sly with the pick and roll but not exactly mobile. Moe Wagner is not nearly the paint presence that Wendell Carter is on defense. Markelle Fultz is a true point guard, but someone with a checkered offensive game.

The Magic's bench has still been a strength, ranking fourth in the league with 41.7 points per game. They can score a lot of points with Anthony and Wagner both proving capable of going on long scoring bursts to help boost the team.

With Jonathan Isaac, everyone expects a strong defensive showing. He is one of the best defensive players in the league and even just his presence in the paint is enough to deter players from driving. He makes everyone's life easier.

But the Magic's bench defends not just because of Isaac. They have turned up their defensive intensity too. The Magic have a defensive culture and it permeates every part of their team.

It is not just Isaac and his presence. It is Cole Anthony being a pest digging in from the perimeter or picking up full court to control the opponent's pace. It is Moe Wagner stepping in to take charges. The Magic are defending at every level and their bench has become reliable on that front.

It is why the Magic's depth remains a strength.

"It's not common that you have a team where you can sub out five and put another five in who can match the energy on both ends of the floor," Fultz said after shootaround Friday. "Being able to use our expertise and experience and then also having JI there to clean up when stuff breaks down. It just gives us confidence to get into the ball and get into the ball. Obviously, offensively with the way [Isaac has] been shooting the ball, Cole Anthony and Joe [Ingles] and Moe and their pick and roll. You've got a very experienced group out there who can do different things."

The Magic's all-bench lineup of Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, Joe Ingles, Jonathan Isaac and Moe Wagner has a net rating of +4.9 points per 100 possessions with a 107.9/102.9 offensive/defensive rating split in 68 minutes entering Friday's game. Taking out Markelle Fultz for Franz Wagner as part of a nine-man rotation, the lineup has a +21.2 net rating (125.9/104.6 offensive/defensive rating split) in 74 minutes.

Even with how many points that bench group can score, it is clear defense is still the group's calling card. They keep the pressure and intensity up even with different personnel.

Everyone has an understanding of what they need to do to defend at that high level and get on the same page.

The Magic have made defense their identity without a doubt. But that permeates every part of their identity. Players off the Magic's bench know that for however long they are on the floor, their intensity matters.

"It's cool to be part of a group that takes that very seriously," Moe Wagner said after shootaround Friday. "You are only in there for 15-20 minutes. You are trying to put the starters back in a position where they can finish the game out strong and create a run and a little wiggle room for them is huge. We've taken that very seriously on both ends of the floor. I think we have been pretty productive."

Obviously, Isaac plays a big role in this.

The Magic have a 101.7 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. He is someone who can change the game defensively just by stepping onto the floor.

He erases shots at the rim, giving up just 49.2 percent shooting at the rim, according to data from Second Spectrum (the second-best mark in the league for players who have played at least 50 games and defend 2.0 field goal attempts at the rim per game).

As Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford joked before Friday's game, the best way to attack Jonathan Isaac on defense is not to try. That is the impact Isaac can have.

But it is truly not just about Isaac. Everyone has seemingly gotten better and improved as a defender. Everyone contributes something to the whole.

Moe Wagner has made huge strides defensively and the numbers show it. He has found a way to anchor the defense using his positioning -- he is third in the league in charges drawn, according to NBA.com's hustle stats. Magic players have joked that taking charges is rim protection too.

But Wanger does his share of paint protection too, one of the big areas he has improved.

According to Second Spectrum, he gave up 75.5 percent shooting at the rim. That was the worst mark among centers who played at least 41 games.

This year (entering Friday's game), Wagner is at 64.0 percent. That is a big step up for him and a sign of how the Magic have improved defensively everywhere.

"I think, for me, it was more about being more disciplined, trusting the work that you put in and don't do your own plan all the time, don't gamble," Wagner said after shootaround Friday. "When you take charges, being very mindful of when you take them. At the same time, bringing physicality to the game even though you don't want to foul. Those are kind of my points of emphasis."

He is not alone in finding that discipline and making his impact within the team's defensive scheme. Orlando wants to apply pressure and physicality and everyone plays a part.

Anthony, for instance, improved from 0.88 steals per 75 possessions and 1.59 deflections per 75 possessions last year to 1.3 steals and 2.64 deflections per 75 possessions this year, according to data from Basketball-Index. His catch-all defensive metrics, such as D-LEBRON, are not in the top half of the league, but they are massive improvements.

Some of that is from playing with a better defensive team. Team defense lifts individual defensive numbers. It allows everyone to increase the pressure knowing there is help behind them.

But it just shows how everyone contributes something on that end. Even the bench.

The Magic's defense does not relent just because their starters are out. The team still feels like it can play the same way.

"Honestly, I feel like our defensive standard has been that way with or without me," Isaac said after shootaround Friday. "I definitely feel like when I come into the game I do my best to change the momentum of the game, change the energy and make plays. I try to do my job. But I think our defensive standard and our strategy has played in whoever is on the floor."

The Playoffs are going to be a different challenge. Everyone is still expecting the Magic to tighten their rotation and perhaps leave their 10-man rotation. That may depend on the matchup and how games are going.

Magic back to the paint 04.04.24. Orlando Magic have to get back to the paint to use 3-point gains. dark. Next

But Orlando knows the defense does not stop just because the starters come out. With Isaac, it perhaps improves. But even without him, the Magic know their identity is in good hands. Their defense makes a big difference.

All stats through April 4, 2024 (before Friday's game against the Hornets).