The Orlando Magic have built their strong record and fast start to this season with their defense.
That was the repeated message throughout training camp and the consistent message for much of the past two years. Everything this team did would grow off its defense. Part of the 29-28 finish to last season with the sixth-best defense in the league.
That has carried over into this season. The Magic are fourth in the league in defensive rating at 109.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The heart of this defensive philosophy has always centered on defending the paint. The Magic would be a team that congests space on the interior and uses their length to get deflections and challenge shots at the three-point line.
Keeping this mentality and this base was going to be one of the biggest challenges playing without Carter since his injury.
The Magic have not lost much of a step defensively obviously in the 20 games Carter has missed.
Without Carter, the Magic still have a defensive rating of 111.3 points per 100 possessions -- the sixth-best defensive rating since Nov. 3 when Carter was officially diagnosed with a fracture in his left hand.
There has indeed been some noticeable slipping in moments -- the period after Thanksgiving saw the Orlando Magic play some especially poor defense and the team is coming off a pair of poor defensive games against the Boston Celtics. But this is about as solid as you could hope.
Overall, the Magic give up 47.2 points in the paint per game, ranking 11th in the league. Before Carter's injury, they gave up 46.0 per game (eighth in the league). Since Carter's injury, they have given up 48.2 per game (13th in the league).
From a raw numbers perspective too, the Magic are giving up 25.0 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area (10th fewest in the league) at 65.8 percent shooting (16th in the league). Opponents shoot 16.9 attempts per game in the paint outside of the restricted area (13th in the league) at 44.1 percent (12th in the league).
Before Carter's injury that was 23.8 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area (seventh in the league) at 58.0 percent shooting (second-lowest in the league). Opponents got 19.2 attempts per game in the paint outside the restricted area (20th in the league) at 47.9 percent (23rd in the league).
Since Carter's injury it was 25.3 field goal attempts in the restricted area (10th fewest in the league) but 67.7 percent shooting on those shots (eighth-worst in the league). Opponents shoot 16.3 attempts per game in the paint outside the restricted area (11th in the league) at 42.9 percent (12th in the league).
That is some noticeable slipping but expected considering how strong of a defender Carter is on the interior. Opponents are getting to the basket a bit more. And granted the 20-game sample size without Carter is more robust than the five games the Magic played with him.
The Magic are not as good defensively without Carter. But the team has hardly been a pushover either. What success the team has had is a credit to the entire team. Orlando has been able to hold the ship steady with little slipping in the end.
Goga Bitadze deserves a lot of credit for helping stabilize the team's interior defense. He was a strong defender last year and that has carried over this year.
For sure, Bitadze, with his ability to block shots and protect the rim has helped maintain the Magic's paint defense. He is averaging 7.5 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game -- including 8.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game as a starter.
This whole thing has been successful because Bitadze has held his own on the interior.
The Magic have a 106.8 defensive rating with Bitadze on the floor. Only Anthony Black has a better defensive rating for the team outside of Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter. Since Nov. 3, the Magic have a 107.4 defensive rating and a +9.9 net rating with Bitadze on the floor.
This tracks what Bitadze did last year. In his short time with the Magic last year, the Magic had a 104.8 defensive rating with Bitadze on the floor.
The Magic were killing it defensively in the first five games with Carter, posting a 103.6 defensive rating in those five games. Orlando had a 101.6 defensive rating with Carter on the floor.
The good news for the Magic is they seem to have a good interior defensive option regardless of their health situation. They have been able to maintain a solid paint presence on defense regardless of which player they have available.
But it should be noted the potential for the Magic to be even better defensively on the interior. Carter may not be the same shot blocker, but before his injury, he was a wall in the paint, able to stonewall drivers from getting to the basket and deterring shots at the rim.
Opponents shot 13 for 33 (39.4 percent) at the rim against Carter, according to data from Second Spectrum. Bitadze has not been too shabby either though at 54.2 percent on 120 attempts against him.
As a team, the Magic are giving up 61.4 percent shooting at the rim for the season (ninth in the league) -- 55.0 percent (second in the league) through Nov. 2 and Carter's injury and 63.1 percent (13th in the league) since Nov. 3.
Again, the sample size with Carter in there is far too small to draw too many conclusions, but it is clear there is another level to the Magic's defense the team has not reached consistently since Carter's injury.
The biggest thing to know is the Magic have settled into the season and have established their defense during these last 20 games.
That is a credit to everyone -- especially Bitadze for filling in at center. Orlando has not played him a starter's share of minutes -- even in the past 20 games, he has played only 24.2 minutes per game -- and Moe Wagner has made his own gains as an interior defender.
The team has held its ship steady defensively without Carter in the lineup. Their interior defense has remained fairly strong. But the team can still stand to get better and improve. The defense can indeed reach a new level.
It feels like Carter is a big part of unlocking that. And soon the Magic will be healthy and have their defensive anchor back in the lineup.