For all the talk about players like Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton being excellent defenders, the Magic were pretty much terrible on that end last year. Some reasons for that were obvious: Nikola Vucevic's lack of rim protection, coaching turmoil, and the general youth of the roster all contributed to the porous defense. The Magic are still young, and they still start Vucevic--in fact, most of the roster is the same as last years--but they're somehow dramatically better. Is it just coaching? Or is there some kind of improvement with individual players?
The Magic sport a solid 99.2 defensive efficiency rating, meaning they allow 99 points per 100 possessions. That's good enough for 13th best defense in the league, a far cry better than their miserable 25th place spot last season (at a 105.2 rating). Granted, this is still very early in the season, and the Magic haven't faced most of the teams in the league, but even the eye test is enough to tell that something's different.
Let's start with what's not better.
The Magic can't secure defensive rebounds
One easy answer might be that the Magic are doing a better job of ending defensive possessions. Limiting opponent second chance points would be a great, simple way to improve the defense. This isn't the case, however. In fact, the Magic are much, much worse in this area, and it's arguably the single weakest facet of this team.
Last year, the Magic had a 76% defensive rebound rate: they successfully secured 76% of opponent missed shots. That was good for 9th in the league, no doubt driven by strong rebounding from Vucevic and Tobias Harris. They've tumbled to 23rd in the league this season, securing only 74.7% of possible defensive rebounds. That might not sound like a big difference, but over the course of a typical game that's another 2-3 offensive rebounds by the other team, which could lead to another 3-4 points allowed. Given how close the Magic's games have been this season, it's easy to see why this is important.
Long story short, the Magic are defending well in spite of their poor rebounding. So what about shot quality? Do the Magic force low-efficiency shots?
The Magic are giving up more close shots and three pointers
That's right, the Magic aren't actually forcing "bad" shots. Here's a comparison between the kinds shots allowed last season and this season, per the excellent NBAWowy.com. The chart below shows the proportion of shots from each "zone," so when it says "29.6%," that means opponents attempted 29.6% of their shots from that particular distance.
If you told me before the season that the Magic would give up more shots inside of three feet and 3-point attempts, and that they'd be a much worse defensive rebounding team, I'd have written off the year entirely. Surely they couldn't take steps forward under those circumstances...could they?
The Magic are making opponents miss
In the end, it comes down to something that simple. Part of this, no doubt, comes from effort. The players are visibly trying harder than they have at any other point during the post-Dwight era.
There's also a pretty significant shift in how the Magic defend, too. They've shifted to a more aggressive style, overloading the "strong" side of the court and relying on strong rotations to cover open shooters. Let's break down a play from the Toronto game to see how the Magic have enhanced their defense.
We'll start here after Kyle Lowry has passed the ball to DeMar DeRozan on the left wing (bottom of the screen).
The Magic immediately swarm DeRozan, which forces him to take a tough shot or pass back out to Lowry at the top of the arc. Not only that, but the "weakside" defenders -- Oladipo and Dewayne Dedmon -- have shifted over as well. Notice that this leaves not one, but two shooters unguarded at this moment. It's easy to see why the Magic might give up more 3-point attempts this way, but they're gambling that they can rotate out to these shooters in time.
Indeed, the ball swings back to Lowry, as Payton and Oladipo immediately both run to cover him. Again, this exhibits the "strongside" overload, and again it forces the ball handler into a contested shot or a pass. DeMarre Carroll is now wide open to receive a pass and launch a deadly corner three.
Oladipo is ready, however, and quickly closes out on Carroll, forcing him to make another decision: shoot, pass, or put it on the floor and try to make a play? With the shot clock getting low, he decides to force the action, and the Magic rotate again. Dedmon steps up to prevent the drive, and Harris guards the restricted area from Jonas Valanciunas. The Magic have four players with at least one foot in the paint, with Oladipo just a step away. The pattern is clear: overload the ball handler, force hard decisions, and rotate quickly to the open shooters. Carroll throws up a tough shot that misses easily.
This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. When executed properly, it prevents easy drives and forces contested shots late in the shot clock. Miss one rotation or get stuck on one screen and and you allow a wide open shot at the rim or beyond the arc. Is it working for the Magic? Well...
I'd lean toward "working," based on early results. From every single distance, the Magic have showed strong improvement, especially on those all-important close and long-range shots. They haven't exactly played a cupcake schedule, either, hanging tough against the likes of Oklahoma City, Washington, Houston, Toronto and Chicago.
Unfortunately, the Magic have been derailed by a rash of injuries, the latest being Oladipo's concussion on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Magic will need to up the effort even more to make up for that loss, but based on results so far, there's no reason to believe that the group out there can't get it done and continue to build a stronger defensive foundation for the Magic moving forward.