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Why Giving Something Up on Offense Helps the Orlando Magic's Transition Defense

Orlando Pinstriped Post Photo / Bruce Maddox
Orlando Pinstriped Post Photo / Bruce Maddox

Recently, the Orlando Magic have received more credit for their top-notch defense than they had previously. National telecasts, it seems to me, are more likely to mention stats like Orlando's outstanding field-goal defense than before. While we attribute a lot of that increased attention to Dwight Howard, the NBA's two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, one factor in the Magic's third-ranked defense often goes overlooked. And it's because of something they do--or, rather, don't do--at the other end of the floor.

I've touched on this subject before, but it bears repeating: one of the reasons the Magic are a lock-down defensive squad is their reticence to attack the offensive boards. In coach Stan Van Gundy's three seasons with the team, Orlando has ranked 27th, 28th, and 25th in offensive rebound percentage despite employing Howard, one of the league's most gifted rebounders. It's by design. As Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub explains, "[t]hey’d rather get back on defense than crash the offensive glass." And as I'll show with data from Synergy Sports Technology, that tactic is paying off.

Before getting into the numbers, it's worth noting that offensive rebounding is important. Dean Oliver identified it as one of the Four Factors, or statistics that contribute to winning basketball, in his book Basketball on Paper. Thus, it's unusual for any team--let alone an analytically savvy one like the Magic--to largely abandon it.

Having established that, here's a table showing two metrics that rate the effectiveness of a given team's transition defense:

Team Transition Defense Statistics, 2009/10 NBA Season
Points Per Possession % Score
Rank Team Figure Rank Team Figure
1 Miami 1.04 1 Miami 49.8%
2 Charlotte 1.08 2 Charlotte 51.6%
3 Portland 1.09 3 Portland 52.2%
T-4 Orlando 1.10 4 Orlando 52.7%
Boston 5 Cleveland 53.0%

The Magic tie for fourth in points per possession allowed in transition situations, and also place fourth in the percentage of time that they allow their opponents to score. That's 90th-percentile territory. Elite territory. But there's a third element that illustrates the effectiveness of their transition defense, and it ties to their lack of offensive rebounding:

% Time
Rank Team Figure
1 Orlando 9.7%
T-2 Milwaukee 11.2%
San Antonio 11.4%
5 Oklahoma City 11.5%

The Magic do more than merely limit their opponents' effectiveness in transition; they also limit their opportunities, period, by a statistical mile. In this category, the difference between first-ranked Orlando and second-place Milwaukee is greater than the difference between Milwaukee and 15th-ranked New Orleans.

It's all about getting back on defense, and Van Gundy has drilled that idea into his team's collective consciousness, to great effect. Transition defense is indeed a team effort, as there aren't many players who can single-handedly stop a fast break. Orlando's success in limiting opponents' opportunities and success in transition offense attests to Van Gundy's vision, and the extent to which his players have "bought" it.