Orlando Magic have seen defense slip but have chances to improve again

The Orlando Magic's vaunted defense has seen some considerable slipping in the last month as the team has struggled to stay .500 in December. The focus for Friday's home game and the next stretch of games is get back to being an elite defensive team.
The Orlando Magic's defense has seen some considerable slipping and the team is trying to figure out why.
The Orlando Magic's defense has seen some considerable slipping and the team is trying to figure out why. / Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said the team looked at and broke down the numbers before shootaround Friday. They are not looking good for a team that has gotten off to a fast start.

Yes, it goes beyond the fact the Magic have lost five of their last seven games and have gone just 4-7 since the end of their nine-game win streak. Orlando is 5-7 in December and needs wins in its last two games to assure a .500 month.

The team as a whole has crashed back down to earth. The team is trying to reintegrate Wendell Carter back into the fold while dealing with other injuries throughout the roster. The team's depth has certainly been tested in a major way this month.

The team has just stayed above water it feels like in the last few weeks. But everyone knows they have to get back to defending to find success.

At the end of the day, this team's identity is on defense. And while the team still ranks fifth in defensive rating for the entire season, December has seen some considerable slipping the team knows it has to correct.

"We looked at our numbers this morning and they have slipped quite a bit from where we were early on," coach Jamahl Mosley said after shootaround Friday. "It has to do with our ability to protect the rim. But then also offensively we have to take care of the basketball and not giving up easy transition baskets at the rim. We have to take care of the basketball and then back to defending without fouling, where we started the year out doing very well."

The numbers do bear this out. So it is our turn to run the numbers.

For the season, the Magic have a defensive rating of 110.7 points per 100 possessions, fifthin the league. That is the baseline for this team.

In December, however, the Magic are giving up 115.2 points per 100 possessions, 11th in the league. With how much the Magic's offense struggles and the team struggles to shoot, even that much slipping can drop the Magic a ton. Orlando needs to be an elite defensive team to have a chance to win consistently.

That shooting factor and the offense's struggles are certainly part of the equation too.

Orlando has struggled with turnovers all season. The team's 14.8 percent turnover rate is 23rd in the league and the team is 13th giving up 16.4 points off turnovers per game. That is pretty good all things considered, but also a sign of lost possessions for a team that needs as many bites at the apple as it can offensively.

In December, the Magic are giving up just 13.8 points off turnovers per game (fifth in the league) and have a 13.2 percent turnover rate.

The Magic have been better with turnovers this month. But because the team misses so many shots those turnovers feel a whole lot bigger. The Magic just cannot afford to give away free points or get caught off balance.

That was part of the problem in Wednesday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

And then finally, the team has given up more free throws. Opponents have a free throw rate of 28.1 percent against the Magic, 26th in the league. In December, that has sunk to 26.2 percent.

Again, this is where perception hurts. The Magic are getting to the foul line less at a still robust 30.2 percent in December. Because the Magic's offense is so poor, everything just feels tight.

So while all of these factors are important for the Magic, they do not quite explain why the Magic's defense has slipped. It may be something a bit more fundamental than that.

"I think for us, we have to do a better job of continuing to pack the paint," Cole Anthony said after shootaround on Friday. "At the start of the season, we started extremely strong on being a team that's playing 1on 5 on the defensive end where we have five dudes in help defense ready to rotate at all times."

Anthony noted too that the frustration over missed shots or momentary frustrations throughout the game have caused things to slip. Everything is connected and while Orlando has done well not to let poor offense drain the defense, there is a tipping point in every game where it feels like the team just cracks.

But it does start with paint defense. That has always been the central tenet of the team's defense.

For the season, the Magic are giving up 47.1 points in the paint per game this season, ninth in the league. But in December, Orlando is giving up 47.2 points in the paint per game, good for fifth in the league.

That does not appear to have slipped either. But everyone senses the Magic are not as strong in the paint.

It would seem then that all the reasons anyone has for the Magic being poor defensively do not pan out fully in the numbers. Rather, it is probably a mix of everything. A slip here one night and a slip there another night.

The Magic's defense just has to be better.

"We just have to keep communicating with each other on the defensive end and keep talking with each other," Chuma Okeke said after shootaround Friday. We have to know when teams go on runs, this is the NBA, everybody is good. We just have to keep sustaining their runs, keep our head on and stay together and we should be good."

That might get to it. It is less about any individual number and more about allowing runs to fester.

There might be bad 3-point luck -- opponents shoot 36.9 percent from three against Orlando this year (good for 13th) but 38.2 percent from three in December. With the Magic's poor 3-point shooting and offense that could well be the difference between a strong defensive effort and a bad one.

The Magic may just need to hit a few more shots and force a few more misses. They cannot afford those 3-point barrages like they saw at Brooklyn or Cleveland or against Miami at home. This is just not a team built to come bck.

Orlando still has a lot of fundamentals defensively that are working. But it is not tying together the same way it did. That is the biggest takeaway and the Magic have to get it right.

"We have to stay the course and get back to playing our game," Anthony said after shootaround Friday. "I think that we've as a unit, myself included, have taken some nights off defensively. We've had some rough shooting nights. There are a hundred excuses I can throw out there. At the end of the day, we have to stay the course and continue to play our game."

The Magic should be very pleased with their 18-12 record. But as Anthony said, it still feels like the team has left five or six wins on the board. As the team said throughout its win streak, the team needs to be a bit greedy.

Next. Magic foundation 12.26.23. Orlando Magic are building their foundation this season. dark

But it is all still a process. The Magic will get themselves right again at some point. The question is how quickly can the team pull itself together and get back to defense as its base.