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Five Magic Observations: The “Mystery of the Missing Defense” Edition

A hunt for the missing defense, adding a sub-star, and Mario in the D-League

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Five Magic Observations. After an encouraging week on the road, the Magic have suddenly found themselves defenseless against their competition, in more ways than one. Has the clock struck midnight on their defensive magic? Or is there something more nefarious going on?

The game is afoot!

The Orlando Magic and the Mystery of the Missing Defense

I donned my trenchcoat and fedora, letting my burnt-out cigarette wither in a nearby ash tray.

The Magic’s defense? Yeah, I heard about the case. Matter of fact, I’m the guy who looked into the whole business. Complicated stuff, though some might say too simple. In any case, best we start from the beginning, yeah? Walk with me.

I strolled out the door and headed for the stairwell. I skipped the third step from the bottom like I always do, the one that wretched like an ‘ol VW getting crushed at the junkyard. I’d get an earful from Old Man Oliver upstairs if I disturbed his peace.

Y’know, there was a time not too long ago that people wouldn’t have thought there was a defense to go missing in the first place. Orlando was leakier than a submarine made of swiss cheese, especially when it came to protecting the rim. Kind of a problem when they were expecting a submarine made of lead-reinforced steel. Granted, a lead sub would be appropriate, given that it would sink about as fast as the offense does, but at least nothin’s gettin’ in, right?

In any case, the defense came around. That’s what you’d expect with folks like Serge “Two Thumbs Down” Ibaka and Bismack “The Mack Attack” Biyombo rollin’ into town, not to mention Frankie Vogel running the show. Again, I could probably round up a bunch of blind mice and let ‘em run the offense, and they’d still hit more shots than the Magic do, but at least they had somethin’ goin’ for ‘em.

As we hit the sidewalk, I turned and started heading up Church Street. We passed by a suit shop, nothin’ special or anything, but they had a pinstriped suit set up in the window. Looked pretty swell, if you ask me.

At first, nobody really realized somethin’ was wrong. So what if they gave up a few extra points to the Wizards? The Magic were scoring for once, and what this city needed more than anything was some points, right? Let them have their fun for one night, what’s the harm?

Well, one night without any defense turned into two, then three, four, five. Five games in a row without a lick of rim protection, with shots raining down like it’s the O.K. Corral. Now people start gettin’ worried. “Where’d the defense go? Did it get lost? Kidnapped? Something even worse?” And that’s where I came into the equation.

We stopped in at my favorite pizza joint, Hardaway Slices. Is it objectively the best place to get a slice? Maybe not, but it tastes like home to me. I ordered mine with pepperoni, seeing as they were running a promo to get your first topping for a penny.

Most folks would start at the scene of the crime, but I prefer to get a broader grasp on the situation first, so I hit up the boys at the lab to see what they had cookin’. Some of the old school fellas don’t care much for the numbers-based approach to things—”Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is their go-to expression—but who am I to turn down a potential lead?

I got a memo from John Schuhmann, or “Johnny Shoes” as I like to call him, concerning the situation when Two Thumbs and Mack worked together:

Ok, not terribly surprising when you think about how those two get their points (Ibaka on jumpers, and Biz not at all), but this is too broad. I wasn’t hired to get into the particulars of the offense, after all, so it was time to dig deeper.

As we hit the street again, we turned to make our way to where it all went down: Amway Center. I’d already cased the joint and interviewed witnesses, but it only made sense to revisit it one more time. It’s been a bad scene in recent years, but this building’s seen some good times, too.

Over the course of three games in this building, the Magic gave up a whoppin’ 170 points in the paint, about 57 a game. Throw in another 46 from the Wiz, and you ain’t paintin’ a pretty picture. The Clippers weren’t so crazy by the basket: instead, Austin “Swimmin’ with the Fishes” Rivers decides to bomb from long range harder than I did in my last organic chemistry class. Over these four games, the Thumbs-Mack combo has given up 117 points per 100 possessions. Back to swiss cheese, to sum up the whole situation.

It ain’t fair to single out those guys, though. No matter how you slice it, things have been tough almost regardless of the guys on the court. So what gives? Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s a few possible explanations, and they’re all kinda bizarre. The first is that the defense never existed in the first place. Yeah, weird right? How’s a defense gonna go missin’ if there ain’t no defense to go missin’? Well, more or less you have to ask yourself “Which team was the real Orlando Magic? The swiss cheese, or the lead?” Maybe they were swiss cheese all along?

Personally, I don’t buy it. Anybody who’s anybody knows that the defense was realer than real estate. Some of the guys they ran over were pretty legit! You’re about to tell me the guys in San Antonio are a bunch of frauds? You say that too loud and Timmy D is gonna come outta retirement to teach you a thing or two.

Nah, the answer’s probably a little more mundane than that. I’m not gonna lie to ya, I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that defense...left. Took a break. Went on a vacation. In other words, no basketball-related crimes took place. Disappointed? You shouldn’t be. It just means it’s a matter of time before it comes around again.

Here’s the simple reality: The Magic just played eight games in twelve nights, six of them on the road. Ain’t nobody waltzing through that unscathed. Maybe a better team “finds a way to win” or somethin’ along those lines, but the Magic still went 4-4 across the whole thing. You tell someone two weeks ago that the Magic were gonna go 50-50, and they’d probably be pretty satisfied with that. Heck, they even split the last couple games since then. 5-5 in the last 10 ain’t so bad, right?

We strolled through the tunnels on the lowest level of the arena, admiring the paintings and murals of Magic players past and present. Noticeably absent was a certain center that played here not too long ago. If time heals all wounds, I guess they’re gonna need a little more time.

The witnesses were pretty tight-lipped about the whole matter. You ask about fatigue and the schedule, they’ll hem and haw about it, maybe yes, maybe no, gotta do better, etc., etc. Not that I’m surprised, none of these guys wants to look weak in front of the competition, or even in front of each other. For guys like Nikky V., who took a back seat to the other two bigs recently, you don’t wanna be the one makin’ excuses, right?

Doesn’t mean it’s not real. Heck, just consider the practices. They had a practice around the time they faced off with the grinders out in Memphis. Wanna know when they had the next one? Monday. Monday! For a team that depends so much on each guy doin’ the right thing every time, it’s hard to keep up if you go more than 10 days without a chance to set themselves straight.

Speaking of Nik, you’re not gonna believe this, but I’m fairly sure a lot of the bad defense goes back to him being outta the lineup. I know, I know, for most of his career you could put a cardboard cutout of Bill Russell in the paint and it’d do a better job defending than Vuc, but believe you me, he’s been important. Even if you ignored his own contributions, having him out means the Magic have to play small sometimes, and that’s gonna take its toll. Don’t take it from me: Frankie said on Wednesday that “The smaller lineups are hurting us, with our ability to, you know, really contest, use the size that was really good for us early in the season. Getting Vuc back will help on that end of the floor.”

As we got back to my office, I hung up my coat and hat before leaning back into my ratty ‘ol chair. You might think it’s a bad idea to wear a trenchcoat living in the middle of Florida, and, well, you’d be right, but I spent too much money on the damn thing not to use it.

Long story short, I’m not concerned. Give it a little time and the defense will show up like it never left in the first place. You want me to investigate the offense? Ha! Sorry buddy, but I ain’t a miracle worker. Then again...the way they’ve played lately, maybe the miracle already happened, hm?

Who would you add to the Magic?

A question I posed to a few of the other media folks at a recent game: if you could take a sub-all-star player and just add them to the Magic, who would help the most? We’re talking the sort of guys who are really good, maybe get one all-star appearance in their best season, but who at the moment are just important contributors on good-to-great teams. Here’s the short list of some of what I think are the best answers:

Nicholas Batum - Like most of the guys on the list, useful no matter what team you put him on. He provides much-needed shooting on the wing and knows how to make the right play. A potential glue guy who could bring the locker room together.

Danillo Gallinari - I think I prefer Batum in most respects over Gallo, but there’s no doubt his shooting would be valuable to Orlando.

Jae Crowder - Not to be too repetitive, but...shoots, plays great defense, wing player. All things the Magic need. Arguably the Celts’ best player last year, so maybe he’s too good to be on this list, but he’s undoubtedly someone who would improve the Magic in a lot of different ways.

And last, my personal favorite answer...

George Hill - There’s plenty of reasons to be happy about the obvious on-court skills he provides, including his shooting, ability to run an offense, and solid defense, but there’s a lot of other ways this works out too. There’s the Vogel connection from his time in Indy, of course, but I think even more importantly he’s demonstrated that he’s capable of playing in any role. He’s excelled playing as a pure spot-up role player type of guy, as someone who needs to run an offense, and as someone who’s had to carry his team from time to time. Getting a point guard like him represents the best opportunity the Magic have to improve with a non-star player.

Of course, the Magic can’t just add these players for free, and most of their teams would never consider trading them (Denver being the one possible exception). Still, it shows the value of having a multi-talented wing player.

Mario Hezonja to the D-League?

Since Vogel mentioned the team has considered sending Mario Hezonja down to the D-League, there’s been some debate around the Magic about how good an idea that might be. Here’s my two cents: if the Magic feel that Hezonja has more to gain by playing in a feature role on the Erie Bayhawks than he does by staying with the team and getting input from the main coaching staff, then I see little downside to giving it a go.

In theory, there are two ways it could backfire: first, Mario Hezonja may take the move personally, and the ensuing friction with the team worsens an already difficult situation. I can’t pretend I can get into Hezonja’s head and understand completely how he’d feel about the situation, but if the coaching staff is clear that this paves a path toward more playing time, I think he could be amenable to it.

The other risk is that Hezonja completely flops in the D-League, making him borderline untradeable. I’m not especially concerned about this, first because NBA players rarely get crushed in the D-League (Stephen Zimmerman, for example, did plenty of work in his short time with the Bayhawks, and he’s the Magic’s 3rd-string center, 4th if you count Ibaka), and second because his trade value, to me, must already be really low. No team would vaguely consider exchanging a lottery pick for him, and I’m not even sure how many would be willing to give up a low-end first-rounder.

In other words, it’s not like Hezonja’s standing on the team could really get any worse. If there’s even a small chance that he finds his long-lost shooting stroke gunning against D-League competition, the Magic should consider taking it.

That one time Serge Ibaka ruled both ends of the court

This play was a big deal in process of the Magic’s 3rd-quarter comeback, but mostly I’m sharing this to riff a bit on Ibaka’s block celebration.

Let me start off with saying that I’m totally in on that celebration. Two thumbs down is unique, it has a little bit of attitude, and it’s easily replicable in emoji form. If this encourages Ibaka to spend some extra energy on rim protection so he can bust out the move, that’s a bonus.

My issue is with the execution. He’s had a bit of a habit, especially early on in his use of the gesture, of lingering a bit too long giving the thumbs-down instead of running with the play. In the above clip he looks like he’s about to freeze-frame before suddenly dropping it to run the court, kind of like he’s gotten in trouble about it before and had to speed up the process.

Just keep it speedy, and everything’s kosher. Maybe he could try a running-and-thumbing combo to be more efficient, but as long as he doesn’t linger too long then I give his celebration two thumbs-up.

What’s coming up next?

12/16 - Magic vs. Nets - Look. Do you really care about this game? Do you really? Because if not, that’s cool, I can totally skip this preview. Really, not a big deal. Frankly, most of you probably aren’t even reading this paragraph, your eyes just glazed over when you saw “Magic vs. Nets,” and you’ll probably wake up by the time you get to the comment section.

Ok, just to make this preview official: The Nets are bad. The Magic might win. There ya go.

12/18 - Magic vs. Raptors - Obviously the Raptors are a better team than the Magic, but this might be a sneaky-bad matchup even beyond the skill difference. Vogel’s defensive scheme will happily concede midrange jumpers, and DeMar DeRozan will happily take them. It might just come down to how hot he gets. That Kyle Lowry guy is pretty good, too.