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Indefensible Decline: Looking at the Orlando Magic's Offense and Defense by Month

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The Magic's offense has improved each month this season. Unfortunately, their defense has declined each month. In February, the Magic have surrendered an eye-poppingly awful 118.7 points per 100 possessions to their opponents. If it keeps up, the team surely won't make it very far in the playoffs. Until further notice, this team should be known as the Orlano Magic. No "d."

It may appear as though those numbers are skewed by the fact that the Magic have faced two of the league's top-three most efficient offenses (Dallas and Los Angeles) this month. However, the other four teams they've played -- Philadelphia, Indiana, New Jersey, and Cleveland -- are well below-average.

The graph below shows the Magic's offensive progression (and defensive regression) by month. Clicking the chart -- and indeed any other chart in this post -- will open a larger version in a new browser window or tab, depending on your settings.

What's to blame for this awful defensive showing? I turned to the four factors, presented in Dean Oliver's book Basketball on Paper and summarized in this page at basketball-reference, to see if there were any trends. The first one I examined is effective field goal percentage:

The Magic have consistently outshot their opponents, but note the sharp increase from January to February. Six games should be a good enough sample-size from which to draw, and I doubt teams' hot shooting against the Magic is coincidental. Closing out on shooters and altering their shots at the basket -- I'm looking at you, Dwight Howard -- will send the opponents' eFG% downward.

Forcing turnovers has been a problem for the Magic all season. Despite playing at a much faster pace this season than last season, the Magic have turned the ball over less frequently. Unfortunately, so have their opponents. The Magic have a few good one-on-one defenders, but no one who consistently steals the ball. Rashard Lewis leads the team in steals per game, but that's only because hardly anyone else even tries, not because Lewis is actually a good defender. To his credit, he did an outstanding job on Dirk Nowitzki against Dallas last Monday.

As a team, the Magic are unbalanced on the glass. They rebound well on the defensive end, but not so well on the offensive end. The best move General Manager Otis Smith can make at the trading deadline would be to acquire a strong rebounding power forward. Tony Battie may return for the playoffs, but he's not a great rebounder, and thus not a viable long-term solution. The same could be said for Seattle's Kurt Thomas and Chicago's Joe Smith, for whom the Magic could trade, but they are more likely to make a difference on the defensive glass.

This table is the one that's most telling. As the season's progressed, the Magic have gotten to the foul line less often, while their opponents have gotten there more often. This trend, combined with the overall decline in defensive efficiency as displayed in the first graph in this post, suggests the Magic have simply gotten lazy or have stopped caring. They're settling for more jump shots -- and making them, as evidenced by their effective field goal percentage increase -- which is a sign of a lack of aggression. Meanwhile, their opponents are getting to the basket and to the foul line seemingly at will.

The key phrase in that last paragraph is "at will." Where is the Magic's desire to be great? What happened to it? In November and December, they showed they could dominate on both sides of the ball, even grabbing second-place in the Eastern Conference for a brief while. They finished the 2007 portion of this season at 22-11. Since then, they're a pedestrian 10-10. Which team will show up tonight against Denver and next week after the All-Star break?

Will it be the team that flexed its muscle during the first 33 games of the season and opened eyes throughout the league?

Or will it be the one that has played unenthusiastically for the last 20 games, content with mediocrity?