In their seven games without Davis since he sprained his left shoulder, the Magic have gone winless, due largely to an inability to defend. NBA.com's stats tool indicates Orlando owns the league's worst overall defense over that stretch, allowing 112.8 points per 100 possessions, a figure which would rank dead last by a wide margin if sustained over the course of the full season.
Perhaps no loss illustrates what Davis' defense means to Orlando better than Wednesday's against the Chicago Bulls. Starting big men Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson scored season-highs with 31 and 21 points, respectively, against a Magic team that played softly on the interior. Particularly troublesome was Orlando's help defense, which routinely showed up a step or two late to prevent either of the Bulls' bigs from flashing into open space in the painted area for a jumper. Chicago shot 11-of-13 on such cuts against Orlando on Wednesday, according to mySynergySports.com, a stat- and play-tracking service.
A sound defense involves all five players working in concert; it's less about individual matchups than it is about making correct decisions, as a unit, to systematically take away an opponent's options.
Against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, it was a different story. Toronto bombed Orlando away with 15 three-pointers, but DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis, its leading scorers, didn't attempt any threes all night. DeRozan did his damage coming off screens, while Davis popped out for jumpers and occasional drives to the rim.
Maybe the most improbable individual performance against Orlando's Davis-less defense came on December 26th, when veteran New Orleans Hornets center Robin Lopez, known more for his defense and rebounding, scored 29 points on 9-of-10 shooting. mySynergySports.com shows that Lopez shot 8-of-8 in the post, mostly against second-year Magic center Nikola Vucevic. Though some of his makes were ones Orlando would happily concede--two long two-pointers after facing up--more of them came as a result of Vucevic misplaying the Stanford product. Twice Vucevic lost track of Lopez as he cut to the strong side of the floor, leaving him well out of position as Lopez would catch an entry pass and easily turn to the hoop for a layup.
Davis probably would not have drawn the initial assignment on Lopez had he been healthy enough to play, but it's possible that coach Jacque Vaughn could have switched Davis onto him if Vucevic continued to struggle. Davis' individual post-up defensive numbers, from mySynergySports.com, suggest he would have defended him effectively. Opponents have shot just 15-of-42 from the post against Davis, draw shooting fouls just 6.7 percent of the time, and commit turnovers on 21.7 percent of their post-ups against the stout veteran from LSU.
Rookie power forward Andrew Nicholson has taken some of Davis' minutes in Davis' absence, starting four times in the seven games Davis has missed. He does not grade anywhere near Davis defensively, especially not in the post, where opponents have scored on him 58.1 percent of the time. Nicholson's lack of strength works against him in one-on-one matchups; he gives up at least 50 pounds to Davis, who also has the benefit of four-plus years of experience as an NBA rotation player.
Another interesting trend has emerged in Davis' absence, and one that hasn't anything to do with any of Orlando's individual defenders: Magic opponents can't miss from the free-throw line. They're hitting 80.5 percent of their freebies since Davis left the lineup, the fourth-best figure in the league. In the 25 games Davis played, Orlando led the league in "free throw defense," as its opponents converted just 71.3 percent of their foul shots. The uptick in free-throw accuracy has hurt the Magic, and it may have happened even if Davis had been healthy.
Vaughn may have put it best Wednesday when he said, "You have to meet your opponents' physicality head-on and try to be more physical than they are." The Magic have missed Davis' physicality at the defensive end, waiting to absorb hits instead of delivering them first. If they adjust their approach as Vaughn prescribes, they might be able to compensate for Davis' loss, and they'll be no worse offensively: the Magic had the league's second-worst offense when Davis went out, but in the two-plus weeks since his injury they have the league's 12th-best.