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Why the Orlan(d)o Magic Have Faltered This Season

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The Magic got off to a fast start during the 2007/2008 season, winning 16 of their first 20 games. But there's been a turning point. Since a home loss to the Indiana Pacers on December 7th (a day which will live in infamy...?), the Magic dropped 13 of their next 20 games. In other words, their 24-17 record isn't as good as it looks.

So, why have the Magic been playing .350 ball since that game? Let's compare the team's offense before and after, using offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and the Four Factors as measuring tools:

Before IND loss After IND loss Difference
O Rtg 110.5 111.0 +0.5
eFG% .523 .513 -.010
TO Rate 15.6 16.3 +0.7
O Reb Rt 21.3 25.9 +4.6
FT/FG 26.2 27.5 +1.3

Apart from the marked increase in offensive rebound rate, the team's offense has remained fairly consistent throughout the season. It can't be to blame for the team's struggles. Let us now turn to the team's defense:

Before IND loss After IND loss Difference
O Rtg 102.1 112.0 +9.9
eFG% .463 .507 +.044
TO Rate 14.4 14.3 -0.1
O Reb Rt 25.1 24.2 -0.9
FT/FG 18.4 26.7 +8.3

The team has regressed significantly on defense. Opponents are scoring more efficiently against the Magic, as the improved offensive rating and effective field goal percentage suggests. Also noteworthy is the increased frequency with which Orlando has allowed its opponents to parade to the foul line. The team has gotten lazy on defense, choosing to foul shooters rather than to take them out. In no way am I advocating thuggery, but the Magic need to be more assertive in challenging opponents' shots, especially in the immediate basket area.

Just how sharply has the Magic's defense declined? Had the Magic continued to hold opponents to a 102.1 offensive rating, they would be the second-best defense in the league behind only the Boston Celtics. Conversely, had the team played the whole season allowing an offensive rating of 112, it would be 27th and rated ahead of only the lowly Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Stan Van Gundy asserted after his team's 119-115 loss to the Jazz on January 12th that its defense "is one of the worst in the league right now. If it doesn't improve, it's going to be a long season." He is absolutely right.
Luckily, there are 41 games left in the season for the Magic players to regroup and commit themselves to defense; a 50-win season is unlikely, but still within reach. The first 20 games of the season showed that this team has the potential to be an elite defensive unit. Now it's a matter of the team playing to the best of its ability.

Thanks to the following sources: