It’s been a long time coming. When they take the court this Friday against their primary foe for the seventh seed, the Brooklyn Nets, it will have been almost five months since we last watched a legitimate Orlando Magic basketball game.
In the time since we’ve witnessed team practices, half-speed scrimmages, an unexpected JI return, an AG diss track, Jordan fever, the emergence of Mo ‘Muscles’ Bamba, and even incredibly the drafting of Peter Pan to Central Florida. 2020 … it’s been wild.
Now, amidst a continuing period of global uncertainty, some routines and familiarity will slowly return alongside the NBA’s resumption of play. We’ve got twenty-two teams jockeying for the final sixteen playoff positions, with eight games on the slate for each before the scheduled start of the first round, August 17. And although the Magic likely feel pretty confident in their playoff odds — the depleted Wizards would have to gain ground on Orlando just to force a play-in tournament — they remain a side with plenty of questions still to be answered across the remaining contests of the 2019/20 season.
What exactly do the Magic have to prove? In this series, we will unpack some of the biggest storylines the team faces when the ball is once again tipped. Part I examined whether the Magic’s pre-hiatus offense was legit. Part II focuses on the defense.
The Magic must prove that...
They are a strong defensive unit
At the other end of the court Orlando will also be seeking to set a narrative straight, although this one relies instead on a reversal of late fortunes.
On a team with very few outside shooters or scorers of note it might seem obvious, but the side was expected to make defense their calling card this season. It was a strength down the stretch last year, and although they weren’t absolute pace setters in 2019/20 the Magic were still pretty good by this standard. On the season they accrued a tenth-placed finish with a defensive rating of 108.7 points per-100 possessions, while finishing top six in defensive rebounding percentage, steals, and blocks. They were the league’s stingiest in terms of points from turnovers and second chance opportunities, while also giving up the third fewest points on the break and seventh fewest in the paint. Some of this was a function of the team’s slower pace and deliberate style of play, sure, but when all was said and done Orlando were a difficult team to score on.
Worryingly, this fell apart after the All-Star break. Separating the defensive numbers around the mid-season showcase emphasizes just how far the Magic tumbled in this regard: a seventh-ranked defensive rating of 107.4 in the 55 games before the event plummeted all the way to 115.9 — just 23rd overall — in the 10 games after. Some of the boxscore figures make for nasty reading: they surrendered 130 in a loss to the Blazers. Scores of 125 and 118 against the Wolves. 122 to the Mavs. 120 to the Hawks. 116 to Miami. In fact, only one opponent failed to reach 113 against the Magic in this late stretch, a Rockets team that was ice-cold from deep but still put up 106. Masking this defensive decline somewhat was the results column. Although they were bleeding points the Magic were still winning, going 6-4 over the stretch and pushing much of the attention to their now torrid scoring. It’s hard to complain too vociferously when a team is cashing Ws.
So what exactly was the problem? Well, a couple of elements stand out as significant in this regard: improved opponent shooting numbers and an alarming increase in the number of points given up in the paint. Teams shot a collective 3% more accurately from the field against the Magic across the final ten games, while also shifting a greater number of their attempts beyond the arc (from 38.6% of the total shot diet surrendered to 41.0%). Allowing the opposition to both attempt and more regularly make three-pointers is a tough recipe to follow when aiming to concoct a stout defense. Closer to the hoop the Magic also faced problems. After the All-star break they gave up 50.0 points each night in the paint, a twenty-third placed ranking that was a long way removed from the fifth placed finish they built prior (44.5 points per contest). Again, more attempts and improved finishing ... It’s little wonder the defense dropped.
Although the Magic were undoubtedly worse defensively during this late swoon, many of the underlying numbers actually suggest that they should be able to right the ship. During the stretch they remained an elite team on the defensive boards, as well as in their limitation of points off turnovers and from second chance opportunities. The steal and block numbers dropped a little, but hopefully the now-expected return of Isaac can go some way towards rectifying those. It’s going to require a greater attention to detail than the side exhibited during the closing run, but a number of the principles that they used to build a stout defense in the first place remained evident even as the overall numbers wobbled. Orlando can be better. They’ve proven it as recently as February. Now’s the time to show that their true colors can be counted on when the chips are down.
Check back soon for Part III, which compares this year’s Magic team to last year’s.