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Orlando Magic And Defense (w/ Kevin Pelton)

Last week, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus wrote an excellent article analyzing the correlation between effective age and defensive success at the team level in the NBA. 


When Pelton speaks about effective age, he's talking about a team's average age weighted by minutes played. The purpose of this statistic is to eliminate the simple calculation of adding everyone on a roster and coming up with an average age. Instead, effective age takes into account court time for each player. 


To illustrate this point:


Oldest Effective Age / Oldest Actual Age

- San Antonio (31.4) / San Antonio (29.8)

- Phoenix (30.0) / New Orleans (28.8)

- Dallas (29.5) / Houston (28.0)

- Detroit (29.3) / Dallas (27.9)

- New Orleans (29.2) / Orlando (27.8)


As you can see, there is a noticeable difference when comparing effective age vs. actual age. By the naked eye, it's not hard to surmise that the Spurs are an old team. However, using effective age, you can see the true age of the San Antonio roster. Likewise with Phoenix. No secret that the Suns are an aging squad (average age 27.7), yet there is a big jump when taking account the effective age on the team. Definitely a difference. All in all, effective age does a good job of revealing the true age of a team. 


I won't elaborate further on Pelton's findings but the conclusion can be made that there is a correlation between age and defensive success. The older a team gets, the better a team is defensively (usually; this isn't absolute and exceptions can be made on both sides of the spectrum). 18.8% of defensive efficiency can be explained by age and the other 81.2% can be explained by "1.) coaching, 2.) defensive talent of personnel and 3.) experience."


Where am I going with all of this?


Well, after looking at the data posted by Pelton, I wanted to know if Orlando's success defensively is the best it can be. Even though the team ranks in the top five in average age, the roster is younger in actuality once effective age is applied. Thus, I wanted to see if the Magic can still get better as time progresses. 


Before revealing the answer, let's establish why Orlando is an excellent defensive squad. In speaking with Pelton, I wanted to see if his ordered list applied exactly to the Magic. 


Click after the jump to see the results. 


Here's what KP had to say. 

"I think Van Gundy deserves a lot of credit. When the Magic decided to play Lewis at power forward, I think the assumption was it was going to cost them a lot defensively while helping the offense. (Certainly, those of us who watched Lewis in Seattle mostly felt that way.) In comparison to 2006-07, when Orlando basically always had two true bigs on the floor, Van Gundy has had a lot less defensive talent to work with. In that context, ranking fifth in the league defensively last year is more impressive than ranking sixth in 2006-07."

Indeed, especially when you take into account Orlando ratcheted up the tempo last season (9th in pace) compared to two years prior (25th in pace). The fact that the Magic were able to sustain a high level of defensive efficiency, despite playing Lewis at the four and increasing its pace, is impressive. Fast-forward to this season and nothing has changed. Instead, Orlando has gotten better defensively, moving into the top three (in defensive efficiency) behind Boston and Cleveland. 


The question is, what makes the Magic a good defensive team? 


Well, one needs to understand the formula by which defensive efficiency is calculated. According to Dean Oliver, a team's defensive performance is calculated by the Four Factors - shooting (40%), turnovers (25%), rebounding (20%), and free throws (15%). 


With that in mind, one can gain a greater grasp of what's "going in" to the formula and what's "coming out" as a result. Looking at the numbers, the two main reasons for Orlando's success defensively can be attributed to shooting and free throws. For the season, the Magic hold opponents to a low field goal percentage of 43.6% (3rd in the league). However, there are two statistics that are better at gauging a team's shooting efficiency, effective field goal percentage (takes into account three-pointers) and true shooting percentage (takes into account three-pointers and free-throws). When looking at these particular advanced statistics, Orlando holds opponents to .469 eFG% and .512 TS% and see a slight change in ranking (3rd and 1st, respectively). 


Likewise, the Magic hold opponents to a low amount of free throw attempts (1380, 5th in the league). Going a step further, the free-throw rate for Orlando's opponents is below average (11th in the league), which is good. So already, a small majority of the defensive efficiency formula is accounted for, in which the Magic are excellent in two of the Four Factors. 


As for turnovers and rebounding, these are two aspects that Orlando isn't as proficient in. The Magic don't force a ton of turnovers (26th in the league) and Orlando is only an average rebounding team (16th in the league). Looking at advanced statistics presents no change whatsoever to the Magic's standing amongst the league in turnover rate or defensive rebounding percentage/offensive rebounding percentage. Nevertheless, when factoring everything as a whole, the Magic come away with a top three defensive ranking. 


It's clear what Van Gundy asks the team to do. Man up and don't put the opposing team on the free throw line. Simple as that.


With all that said, I then asked Pelton if Van Gundy was the main reason for Orlando's defensive success. 


Here's what KP had to say.

"Obviously, Van Gundy couldn't do it without Dwight Howard covering for Lewis, especially in terms of rebounding. So I would rate Howard as the most important factor in the Magic's defense, with Van Gundy a little behind. The quality of Orlando's defense and their role in it explains why I picked Howard as my midseason Defensive Player of the Year and Van Gundy as my Coach of the Year."

Looking at some of the numbers, you can see why Howard been such a monster on defense. Howard is 1st in the league in rebounding percentage (22.2%), is 4th in block percentage (5.7%), and his eFG% allowed is 46.8%, which is excellent (league-average is 49.9%). Also, when looking at Howard's numbers when paired next to every other Magic player on the team, you can see he is superb defensively. 



Plus, Howard currently ranks 7th in the league in Defensive Composite Score (45.23). Lastly, when looking at Howard's dMULT (defensive multiplier), he's held his opponents to 2% less than their normal production on a per possession basis. However, it's worth noting that Howard's counterparts (92%) have been eight percent worse than league average when using dQUAL (defensive counterpart quality). In Layman's terms, it means that even though Howard has done an excellent job of defending his opponent, the quality of his match-ups have been below-average. Certainly something worth noting. 


It may sound odd but it makes sense when you think about it. Even though there are a number of good centers in the NBA, only a few reside in the Eastern Conference (Okafor, Ilgauskas, etc.). Since Howard inherently faces more average big men in the East (due to scheduling), one can begin to understand why Howard's dQUAL percentage is low. Nevertheless, holding opponents to 98% of their normal production is impressive. 


Overall, when looking at Howard's numbers as a whole, it makes sense why he is regarded as the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. Using a plethora of advanced defensive metrics, Howard's numbers stack up nicely. Likewise, the intangible assets that Howard brings to Orlando (he can clean up the mistakes of his teammates on defense, etc.) can not be ignored (as Pelton points out above). 


Now that it's been established that Dwight Howard is the top reason for Orlando's defensive success, with Stan Van Gundy a close second on the totem poll, what about the age and experience of the Magic? Can the team improve anymore defensively?


Here's what KP had to say. 

"Orlando's effective age is right around league average, so I wouldn't say age is much of a factor in evaluating their defense."

Meaning that Orlando has leveled-out defensively, for the most part. Thus, the Magic's defense is most likely the best it can be. Certainly the team can improve incrementally, but the leap in numbers wouldn't be substantial.