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Analyzing the Magic's faltering defense

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Defense carried Orlando early in the season, but the recent trend is in the opposite direction. What will it take to get things back on track?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Ed note: This was compiled prior to the Magic's recent slight uptick in the defensive end. The issues outlined still exist, and are important in their continued struggles at times on the defensive end.

2016 has not been kind to the Orlando Magic.  The 2-14 record in January stood not only as a record-scratch moment to an encouraging season, but also also came a result some of the worst basketball played by any team during that stretch. Things have been a little rosier in February, with a 3-5 record including multiple close losses, but it's still worse than the promising start to the season.  To that point, per NBA.com, these are the Magic's offensive and defensive ratings in each part of the season, measured by points per 100 possessions:

First 32 Games Next 22 Games Differential
Offensive rating 102.6 98.5 -4.1
Defensive rating 100.3 106.6 +6.3

Offensively, the Magic went from bad to worse. A 98.5 offensive efficiency would place them third-worst on the whole season, and second-worst in this 22-game stretch of 2016. The same problems from before continue to persist: low free throw attempts, poor shooting from range, and so on.

As bad as that is, though, the defense has suffered even more.

What was a top-10 defense has been among the bottom-10. What was once the calling card of this young, surprisingly successful team now appears to be a major weakness. This is a big concern for a Scott Skiles-led team that was supposed to succeed on the merits of their effort and hustle. For the most pessimistic of Magic fans, it's like the team already experienced the full "Skiles experience:" a meteoric rise, followed by a disappointing and frustrating collapse, except in a few months instead of a few years.

I don't feel quite so dour myself, but I do feel like the recent struggles highlight major problems that haven't necessarily been solved with Orlando's recent trades.  It may also be a sign that the defensive results from early in the season were fool's gold. Before we get to those issues, though, let's highlight a few other possible sources of the decline.

Has Orlando's Schedule Been Tougher Lately?

Well, if you define lately to be "These last few games against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers and oh god the schedule the rest of this month is horrible," then yes, decidedly tougher. Looking at the same split as before, however, there doesn't seem to be much difference. The average offensive rating of the Magic's opponents in the first 32 games was 102.5. In the 22 games after that, it's a slightly higher 103.4.  A lot of that increase comes from those three teams, including two games against the Spurs.

Bear in mind, those aren't especially large sample sizes, and there's plenty of noise there: for example, the Sixers team Orlando faced off against in the first part of the year was probably worse offensively than the Sixers-plus-Ish-Smith in January. If anything, that just reinforces that there's probably not enough evidence to suggest the Magic are dealing with much tougher opposition.

Have Missing Players Been a Major Concern?

The most notable injury-absence in January was Elfrid Payton, who missed four games near the start of the month with ankle issues and was spotty in games before and after the games he missed. It's hard to point to Payton's injury as a blow to the defense, however: based on on-and-off court numbers, the defense has been roughly same whether he's in the game or not. More refined statistics like ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (RPM) see him as a negative on the defensive end--he's only 18th among point guards in the defensive half of the stat as measured in points allowed per 100 possessions.

Oladipo missed two games in the middle of the month, but he's not much better off as far as the stats are concerned. He's 11th among shooting guards in Defensive RPM, and slightly a positive contributor, but just two missed games isn't enough to say one way or the other. CJ Watson has been out since the middle of November, but the team was pretty much fine defensively without him through December...and really, nobody should expect the triumphant return of Watson to spark the team's defense.

The more interesting questions revolve around two players who have fallen out of the rotation in the last month or so: Andrew Nicholson and Dwayne Dedmon. Based on simple on/off ratings, the defense has been much better throughout the year while those two have been playing:

Defense ON Defense OFF DRPM
Andrew Nicholson 98.4 104.0 0.51
Dwayne Dedmon 99.2 103.4 1.85

Those basic numbers suggest the defense has been great while they've been on the court, and terrible while they're off. Things aren't as straightforward as they seem, however. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here: has the defense fallen off because these players aren't on the court, or do their numbers look good because they haven't been on the court during this run of bad team defense? If the problems extend past them, it's possible their defensive ratings would suffer had they been playing lately.

RPM, in theory, can get around that problem by accounting for competition and who they share the court with, and it takes a more mild view of their contributions. While both are positive, they also rank as average to below-average at their positions compared to the rest of the NBA: Dedmon is 36th among centers, Nicholson 53rd among power forwards.  It's worth noting in Dedmon's case that his 1.85 DRPM does rate significantly better than either Nikola Vucevic's or Jason Smith's, the players who presumably are getting minutes instead of him.

All that said, we shouldn't get too carried away trying to use RPM to compare these players. RPM isn't really supposed to be a "player ranking" tool.  Dedmon having the 36th DRPM doesn't make him the 36th best defensive center.  It's just a ballpark measure how significant his defensive contributions are.  Besides, there's really not enough playing time for these two, especially in January and beyond, to fully trust any kind of plus-minus-based statistic. If either player becomes a significant part of the rotation again and we see big leaps in the team's defensive quality again, it may be worth reconsidering their impact.

With all that out of the way, let's get into the roots of the problem.

The Defense's Greatest Strength has become its Greatest Weakness

When we took a look at the Magic's defense early in the season, we identified that the Magic gave up a lot of "high efficiency" shots to the opponents in the form of close baskets and 3-pointers. It didn't matter, however, because the Magic were really good at defending those shots, forcing a lot of misses on those attempts.

This is no longer the case. I'll spare you the details and say that the proportions of each kind of shot haven't changed much over the course of the season, still plenty of close-range and downtown shots being attempted. What has changed is how many of those shots are going in lately. Let's see the shift from 2015 to 2016, per nbawowy.com:

How well are opponents shooting?
First 32 games Next 22 games
0-3 ft 59.4% 61.3%
4-9 ft 35.3% 32.3%
10-15 ft 40.9% 43.5%
16+ ft 39.5% 41.1%
3-pointers 33.8% 38.6%

The midrange numbers, taken all together, look pretty similar. The big red flags, of course, are those top and bottom bolded rows. The numbers around the rim weren't especially inspiring before, but allowing over 60% shooting in the restricted area is pretty terrible. More disconcerting is the massive increase in made 3-pointers. Opponents shooting at a 38.6% rate from downtown is equivalent to the third-best team in the league, while 33.8% was a bottom-10 figure.

It'd be one thing if the Magic were sacrificing one area to make up for the other. Plenty of teams, though fewer these days, have conceded long-range shots in exchange for packing the paint to prevent layups.  Orlando, seemingly, is unable to defend either of the most critical areas on the court.

Part of this is almost certainly regression to the mean. Historically speaking, a team's ability to "defend" 3-pointers tends not to be especially consistent on a year-to-year basis, and it wouldn't surprise me if that held true even within a season. A truly strong defense, like San Antonio this season, is marked by the ability to prevent teams from even attempting 3-point shots, forcing them into less efficient midrange attempts. While the Spurs are the second-best in the league in that respect (Detroit recently overtook them in this category), Orlando allows the fifth-most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. In other words, this was bound to catch up to them.

Still, Orlando has shot way past the mean at this point. That comes down to a few issues, the first being that opponents have figured out how to beat Orlando's scheme. The Magic weren't running anything especially complicated, but instead relied on an aggressive help system. As I wrote back when this was working, "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."

This is no longer working.

We'll start with something simple, because that's often how the Magic are getting beat. Time and time again, the Magic get crushed by these simple high screens, for two reasons. First, a high screen like the one you see above only involves two defenders, rendering the Magic's help system irrelevant. It's impossible for any other players to get involved as they stand 10 feet or more away from the play.

The second problem is that the Magic guards are really, really, really bad at dealing with screens, and the Magic's bigs aren't talented enough to compensate. Look at how Oladipo is stopped in his tracks by Kelly Olynyk's screen. Almost every time the other team puts Oladipo or Payton into a high screen play, they look like they're running into a brick wall. At that point, the ball handler can do whatever they want. Isaiah Thomas, an excellent outside shooter, opts for the easy pull up, but you can also imagine how he could have driven straight into Nikola Vucevic.

Poor pick-and-roll coverage also leads to issues on the "roll" end of the equation, as you can see in this next play from the tight game against Memphis late in January.

Another high pick-and-roll, this time featuring Payton as the defending guard. Granted, Marc Gasol / Mike Conley pick-and-rolls have never been easy to deal with, but it's still clear that Orlando misplays the situation, starting first with...

...Payton, left running after the play instead of defending it. It's not so simple as saying Payton should have gone "under" the screen, since Conley is a solid outside shooter. Instead, if Payton's going to go "over" the screen as he does in this situation, he needs to make a better effort at staying close to Conley. When he's left running behind Conley the whole time, he becomes a non-factor in the play. That leaves just one more chance to salvage the defense:

Oladipo smartly shades off of Tony Allen, who isn't a threat to score from outside, even on a corner 3. At the same time, Conley and Gasol are both moving toward the basket, and both of them need to be accounted for. If Oladipo does enough to slow Conley, Vucevic can focus on defending Gasol. If necessary, Payton could rotate to the corner to cover Allen, leaving Oladipo to guard Conley for the rest of the play.

Unfortunately, Oladipo doesn't commit enough to stopping Conley:

Conley just slides right by Oladipo, and Vucevic has no choice but to step up and prevent the layup. That leads to the easy dump-off pass to Gasol, and even though Tobias Harris has also rotated into the paint, he lacks the rim protection ability to prevent the easy dunk by the Spanish big man. In the end, this was a textbook high pick-and-roll, but the Magic made several mistakes trying to defend the play.

Unfortunately, the issues don't end just with lack of hustle or execution. The Magic's mental errors have also increased as of late, especially when it comes to backdoor cuts. Several Magic players have demonstrated a bad habit of ball-watching in the past, and that habit is rearing its ugly head again.

These backdoor cuts also come back to the scheme the Magic are using. Evan Fournier and Harris were on the court for both of these plays, and in each play they both shade heavily toward the paint to protect against the potential drive (a trend you may have noticed in that Memphis play, too). That can work out as long as they're each prepared to defend their man should he become involved in the play, but they got burned because they focused too much on the ball.

So What's the Solution?

At the beginning I alluded to difficult-to-solve roster issues. This season, with these players, it may not be possible to return to what seemed like a great defensive squad early in the year. Vucevic will never be a plus defender, or probably even an average one. Oladipo and Payton seem to do alright in pure isolation situations and can occasionally make a big steal or block, but neither has been able to learn how to fight their way through screens set by NBA-caliber bigs. Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja have the athleticism to become good defenders, but they're both very young and have a ways to go.

Neither of the trades looks like it's going to help much in the short term, either. The Channing Frye trade, of course, didn't return any players the team was planning on keeping.  The Harris trade brought back Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, but neither figures to move the needle much defensively.

One positive sign: the defense has been a little better in February, despite facing tougher opposition.  The Spurs game just before the All-Star break, in particular, stood out as a strong effort against an elite team.  In a win against the Mavericks, the defense stepped up late in the game.  Playing the kind of defense they did in January, that one probably goes the Mavericks' way.

It may just be a matter of time.  All is not lost for these young Magic players, and maybe another offseason under Scott Skiles is enough to get things going in the right direction. There's also free agency potential, and the Magic have signaled that, at the very least, they want to sign a big name. The potential is clearly there for Orlando. It's just a matter of whether they can unlock it.