Earlier this week we pinned down some upward trends in Orlando, leaving us now with the task of figuring out what’s headed in the opposite direction. Worryingly, we’ve got a pair of entries to consider here, each of which lands on the more serious end of the spectrum. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations currently rest.
Figuring out why Orlando has been so bad on the defensive side of the ball during the recent losing streak is a painful endeavor. Some of the broad stroke figures capture much of it — a defensive rating of 120.4, third-worst of any side across their last five starts — but those don’t really pinpoint the unfortunate softness of the Magic’s resistance. Let’s unpack it a little further.
At its simplest, the Magic have allowed the opposition to shoot the ball too effectively and efficiently. The Pistons kicked things off by scoring at 46.6% from the field, almost 10 percentage points better than Orlando on the night. Brooklyn used a 53.3% conversion rate to rack up 129 points. The Jazz got 124 on 52.9%. Dallas raced all the way to 130 thanks to a shooting clip of 52.2%. The Hawks weren’t great for much of the contest but still managed to make 46.7% of their 45 attempts from deep on their way to 115 points. No one gets many wins conceding those sorts of numbers, an equation made even less favorable by the Magic’s relatively anemic offense.
Despite what the lop-sided nature of some of these games might imply, the Magic haven’t actually been scorched by teams hitting an unreasonable amount of three-point attempts; across the last five games opponents have connected on 37.9% of all shots from deep, only a smidge above the figure Orlando have ceded this season (36.9%) and one of the more fortunate marks relative to the rest of the league during this recent losing stretch (17th most accurate). Instead, the problem comes from the sheer quantity of long-range looks they’re surrendering. Across the last five games, Magic opponents have launched an average of 42.3 triples each night, a number well well in excess of the next placed team (Toronto, 40.0) and an unconscionable distance from the 30th ranked Pacers (giving up just 26.8).
Orlando’s wonky defense on the arc over the last five has resulted in an average of 48.1 points per contest for the opposition from the three-point line, a mark that exceeds almost anything that any other team has had to account for during the same stretch. In fact, only Charlotte have fared worse than the Magic by this measure, with an average of 48.7 long-range points conceded. For a team bereft of snipers of their own like Orlando, it’s a hellacious disadvantage to have to try and overcome each and every night.
Alarmingly, a deeper dig into the data indicates that Orlando has also recently been getting killed on baskets inside the arc. However, instead of sheer volume being the problem it’s actually the accuracy with which opponents are converting when they get into the painted area. On shot attempts within five feet of the hoop the Magic are surrendering an unfathomable field goal percentage of 73.8%, a mark that is easily the worst in the league. To compare it with the best across the same stretch — Dallas, giving up just 54.8% on an almost identical number of attempts from that distance — reveals an almost 10 point competitive disadvantage that the Magic are trying to make up when it comes to getting a winning score on the board.
One more thing amongst the noise of these numbers to consider: the majority of two-point shots that the Magic are giving up place the closest defender within two to four feet of the shooter (25.3 of the 46.6 total two-point attempts they face each night, to be exact). The NBA’s tracking data classifies this as tight coverage, but if you’re thinking about it in terms of forays into the lane — which, remember, is where the Magic have been particularly porous recently — it’s just as often reflective of a ball handler who’s managed to get over the hips of their direct matchup or someone releasing in the face of an ineffective closing attempt. Those aren’t effective defensive plays, even if you’re theoretically within range.
It’s also worth considering what’s being surrendered relative to Orlando’s own production. As noted, the Magic have let teams shoot an elevated percentage from inside the arc recently; this is an outcome that has certainly contributed to the fact that they’ve outscored their opponent on points in the paint just once across their last eleven starts. Once! We know that good things happen when teams get into the lane, but recently it’s been an area of the floor from where Orlando is ceding the upper hand more than 90% of the time.
So we’ve managed to establish that the Magic are losing the inside battle at the same time that they’re also getting blitzed from beyond the arc. Those two facts alone make clear the reason why they’ve tumbled so far down the defensive rankings when compared to the performance of recent seasons. To watch the games — particularly those tight moments when the intensity is at its greatest — the reasons for the miscues and failures are evident. The further down the rotation the injury-ravaged side have had to go, the less experienced and fluent the combinations become, with miscommunications, late rotations and blown coverages somewhat understandable but entirely debilitating.
Orlando is a better defensive team than they’ve recently shown, a fact which the eventual return of healthy troops should eventually bear out. However, what has been revealed over the last two weeks is just how thin the tightrope is; any inattention to defensive detail whatsoever will send this team tumbling.
The margin for error
It’s a coaching maxim as old as basketball itself: make the effort plays and take care of the little things. Make free throws, restrict fouls, control rebounds, limit turnovers, close open shooters … It’s a simple recipe for success no matter the level of competition. As it stands, the Magic aren’t a very good basketball team. Because of this it means that they have to beat the opposition in these little battles if they’re ever going to have a chance of winning the war. Unfortunately, recent results have seen Orlando routinely drop these contests that take place on the margins, an obvious factor underlying the current losing skid.
Let’s take a closer look, shall we? The first loss against the Pistons wasn’t the most egregious instance, but it now ultimately looks like a harbinger of things to come. The Magic shot free throws at a sub-60% rate, making just 13 of 22 (59.1%) and failing to leverage what should have been a sizable advantage in attempts. Making this charity stripe discrepancy worse was the fact that in the decisive third quarter Orlando didn’t even give themselves a chance to tilt the contest back in their favor, failing to generate any trips to the line as they lost the quarter’s free throw count to Detroit 6-0. The Magic have long been one of the league’s worst at drawing freebies, but they’re usually very good at controlling this particular battle; against the Pistons their accuracy undermined what has recently often been a strength and it cost them dearly.
Some other losses have resulted from more obvious failures. Orlando capitulated against the Nets, coughing up more turnovers (18 to 13) and conceding more offensive rebounds (7 to 4), while also allowing Brooklyn to more than double their number of made three pointers (20 to 9 for a whopping 33 point advantage). They fell to the Jazz on the back of a lopsided free throw count — Utah went to the line 24 times compared to Orlando’s 8 attempts — and the surrendering of 10 offensive rebounds, somehow ultimately losing a game handily in which they committed just 3 turnovers and conceded only 2 fast break points.
Against the Mavericks it was again the fouling of shooters that undid the Magic. In a game decided by only a couple of baskets they gifted the opposition 9 extra attempts from the free throw line (23 to 14), an obvious point of difference when evaluating two teams that were tightly matched otherwise. Finally, the Hawks leveraged some inattentive perimeter defense by the Magic in the game’s closing stages to surge to a huge advantage from beyond the arc, drilling 9 in the fourth quarter alone as they eventually outpaced Orlando’s own made three pointers by a total of 8, with 21 makes to the Magic’s 13 (a 24 point advantage).
These are some tough sets of numbers for any team to overcome, let alone one that is riddled by injury and already starting most contests with an obvious talent deficit. That some of the areas that have sunk the team are ones that have traditionally been a strength — free throw control and defensive rebounding, primarily — makes it all the tougher. The Magic aren’t blessed with the firepower to routinely blow teams out of the water; instead, they have to play measured basketball that relies on winning the battles that happen on the margins. During this recent losing streak those minor victories simply haven’t been secured.
On a break now until Thursday, the Magic have a chance to regroup and address some of the recent areas of concern before they next take the court. Whether they’re able to or not will likely go a long way towards determining how far the current skid extends, as well as how the back half of the season plays out in general. Play-in tournament or ping pong ball watching? Time will tell.