Orlando Magic defensive struggles are huge red flag
The Orlando Magic set out to build a playoff team based on a foundation of elite interior defense. That has failed and they need to turn it around quickly.
The Orlando Magic made their goal for the season very clear during the offseason: Solidify their defense starting from the inside and hope that takes them to the Playoffs.
It seemed like a solid plan, seeing as 12 of the top 13 defenses last season made the Playoffs and each of the top-16 defenses had at least 40 wins. Another promising sign for team success was how important rim protection is for winning games. The Magic seemed prime to be elite in that category after acquiring Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo.
There is only one problem with their route toward a hopeful Playoff berth: Their defense has been exactly the opposite as they had expected.
The front office, coaching staff and fans could not foresee the Magic being one of the worst defensive teams at this point.
The Magic stand at 29th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 109 points per 100 possessions. A team that was built to revolve around its defense and hope the offense comes later is the second-worst defensive team in the NBA.
The key to the defensive difficulties can be traced to what they hoped would be the key to the defense before the season: the interior defense.
According to the NBA.com player tracking data, the Magic are better than the bottom third in the league in field goal percentage against at every distance on the floor except for within 5 feet of the basket.
But the Magic are allowing the third-most field goals made per game from within five feet of the basket and defending at the seventh worst mark in there.
None of the three Magic big men have been good at defending in the paint so far. And that is alarming.
Nikola Vucevic is allowing opponents to shoot 60.6 percent on 4.1 attempts from within six feet of the basket. That is not good, but it is better than the numbers shown from the other two big men.
Those numbers are very alarming, especially from the latter two players who were elite rim protectors last season and acquired to help in this specific part of the game.
There are various reasons for why the Magic have struggled so much with interior defense.
One is the recurring theme from recent years of slow rotations. When defenses penetrate, the help defense is slow to shift over and cover for their teammates.
Perhaps this may improve as the players get more comfortable playing with each other. But as of now it is not good enough.
Often Nikola Vucevic shoulders that blame. And though he has not necessarily been great here, it is unfair to blame him this season. It is the new bigs’ responsibility to improve too. They have not been particularly strong in the area they were brought in to thrive.
Another reason the Magic have struggled with defending inside is their extremely poor defensive rebounding ability.
The Magic have the third worst defensive rebounding percentage, meaning opponents are getting easy second-chance opportunities way too often. It is hard to defend opponents who are receiving the ball above the rim.
This lack of rebounding shines light on perhaps the biggest issue with the Magic interior defense: the mental aspect. The Magic seem not to have what it takes to get opponents away from prime positions inside.
And thus cannot defend the shots.
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Opposing big men are pushing the Magic big men easily on rebounding opportunities and consistently winning the fight for prime post position. Specifically, teams such as the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls have even set up a lot of their offensive game plan around bullying the Magic bigs, most frequently Serge Ibaka, and getting easy rim opportunities.
The Magic were supposed to have an identity of intimidating defense, and the opposite has occurred. Teams are going right at the Magic bigs, and it is working.
They got to the rim at will and facilitated the rest of the offense when help came. They ended up combining for 24 points on 11-for-20 shooting and five offensive rebounds, looking way more dominant than the Magic front court.
The Heat also took advantage of the poor rebounding and lack of fight from the Magic, setting a rivalry record of 74 points in the paint in one game.
Miami, a franchise that has donned elite interior scorers in Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, scored more points in the paint on opening night against this Magic team than any other Heat team has. That was the first alarming sign, and the Magic have not improved much since.
Teams have also noticed that some of the Magic shot blockers, specifically Ibaka, like to jump on the first attempt. Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns recently have been able to get some easy shot opportunities pump-faking Ibaka out of the gym.
It is an alarming sign when teams are gameplanning to attack the supposed Magic strength. It is time for this to get fixed before they fall far behind in the standings.
The Magic invested a whole lot in bolstering their interior defense with the hope that if they can be elite in that part of the game, they could make the Playoffs. They signed Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72-million contract and traded franchise cornerstone Victor Oladipo and a first round pick for Serge Ibaka.
Not only have they not been elite at protecting the rim and defending, they have been abysmal. It is too early to tell if these investments will end up backfiring. But the front office has to be worrying about their early returns.
The Magic had a clear identity for this season. That was one that involved an elite defense and a mediocre offense.
So far, they are 25th in the league in offensive efficiency. That is not too surprising for a team that lacks a star scorer and is still learning to play together.
But the defense is on the opposite end that they had hoped to be. If the defense does not fix quickly, this team will lose a lot of games and end up closer to having the best lottery odds than having meaningful games in April.
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