Orlando Magic Defense Declines on the Interior

(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Since taking over as Orlando Magic head coach prior to the 2007/08 season, Stan Van Gundy has preached the importance of defense, and succeeded greatly: only the Boston Celtics boasted a stouter defense than Orlando in the four full seasons since Van Gundy came aboard. Van Gundy's Magic teams prefer not to play the passing lanes, instead forcing opponents to take long two-point shots and funneling would-be penetrators into center Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award-winner. They also don't crash the offensive boards, a defensive tactic designed to help the team get back in transition and prevent easy fast-break buckets.

But the Magic have slumped defensively in the lockout-shortened 2011/12 campaign. Though they're allowing the same 103.1 points per 100 possessions figure they have in aggregate since Van Gundy took over, that number doesn't account for the league-wide depression in offense. Said simply, the Magic have gone from extraordinary to ordinary on the defensive side of the ball, and it's one reason why they're on pace for their worst winning percentage in the Van Gundy era.

With a little help from mySynergySports.com, I delved into Orlando's defensive numbers and might have pinpointed a few reasons for Orlando's stark regression.

The table below gives the Magic's points allowed on a per-play basis for post-ups and situations in which the screener in a pick-and-roll receives the ball and either shoots or commits a turnover. Please note the distinction between points allowed per-play, which measure Synergy uses, and points allowed per possession, which measure is found in other advanced analytics*.

Season Play Type %Time PPP
(Rank**)
Play Type %Time PPP
(Rank**)
2009/10 Post-Up 9.5% 0.83
(3rd)
PnR Roll Man 5.5% 0.90
(1st)
2010/11 9.2% 0.84
(5th)
5.9% 0.91
(1st)
2011/12 8.7% 0.90
(29th)
6.2% 1.05
(27th)
** rankings current through games played prior to April 11th, 2012

The data are stunning. Almost overnight, Orlando went from a team that locked down its opponents in the post and on the roll to one that seemed to guide them toward the basket. Orlando's defense in other defensive situations--spot-up, transition, pick-and-roll ballhandler--stayed reasonably consistent, but these two proved to be unpleasant surprises.

Given that these two play types are inextricably tied to big men, and given that Howard has looked less engaged on both ends of the court during the so-called Dwightmare free-agency drama, it may be tempting to pin the blame for the Magic's defensive decline on their co-captain. But the six-time All-Star's individual defensive numbers indicate he's doing his share, allowing just 0.73 points per play to opponents in post-up situations and 0.85 points per play against roll men. It's true that, in general, Howard has not played up to par defensively, which is one reason why New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler is likely to end Howard's three-year reign as Defensive Player of the Year. But in these specific instances, on these specific play types, he comes out looking OK.

The Magic made a drastic change in their rotation during the offseason when they sent Brandon Bass to Boston in exchange for Glen Davis. The two have similar games, but wildly different degrees of success: Bass shoots the mid-range jumper beautifully and can finish inside when defenses overcommit to Howard. Davis shoots the mid-range jumper often, but with far less accuracy, and struggles to convert around the rim.

But defensively, Davis has proven superior to Bass overall, yielding 0.81 points per play in aggregate to Bass' 0.86 in his last season with Orlando. He bests him in defending both play types considered for the purposes of this post, so the blame can't lie with him either.

Starting forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson must strengthen their post play. Anderson, who inherited Bass' minutes as the team's starting power forward, defended 112 post-ups, more than any other Magic player, and has allowed 1 point per play on 52.1 percent shooting. In 62 post-ups defended, Turkoglu has yielded 1.11 points per play and 61 percent shooting. Some of the ugliness in those numbers stems from the Magic having to play Turkoglu out-of-position at power forward of late due to injuries to Anderson and Howard, but either way, he simply must play better.

A particular problem of Anderson's is that opponents know of his weakness inside and attack him early. The Miami Heat exploited him expertly in a March 18th victory over Orlando, feeding All-Star power forward Chris Bosh against Anderson several times in the first quarter. In eight first-quarter minutes, Bosh shot 5-of-5 from the floor for 12 points. The Chicago Bulls employed the same tactic one night later in an emphatic win against the host Magic, as Carlos Boozer scored 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting in just 16 first-half minutes; he finished with a game-high 24 points.

Accounting for the Magic's drop-off in defending the roll man is a much more complicated task and would require hours upon hours of film study. Unlike a post-up, which tends to be static and defended one-on-one, pick-and-roll plays can involve all five defenders and multiple rotations, depending on the coverage and offensive personnel involved. I'd be curious to know what's caused the Magic to falter so dramatically in defending this particular play, as they covered it well last season and made a significant defensive upgrade in upgrading from the often out-of-position Bass to the more in-sync Davis. Fortunately for Orlando, opponents have found the roll man just 6.6 times per game on average during the lockout-shortened campaign, meaning it's not an action it faces too terribly often. But if the team is going to make waves in the postseason, it'll have to do a much better job bottling up opposing post players and roll men.

* A possession refers to the period between a team getting control of the ball and giving it up, whereas a play simply refers to any action that results in a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover. One way to think of the difference: teams can run multiple plays on one possession. For example, suppose Darren Collison comes off a David West screen and misses a pull-up jumper, but Roy Hibbert grabs the offensive board and misses a tip-in. Paul George then swoops in from the weak side, snares the carom, and lays the ball in for two points. Synergy would count that example as three separate plays; per-possession analysis would count it as one possession.

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