November 19, 2017

By Jesus Gomez

It took them long enough, but the Orlando Magic finally look ready to stop rebuilding and start competing. After nine games, they have the third best record in the East at 6-3.

Orlando’s sixth-ranked offense has gotten most of the attention for their success, for good reason. But their competence on the other end has been every bit as important and twice as unexpected. The Magic have a top 10 defense, somehow, and if they want to make the playoffs, they can’t afford to let it slip too much as the season progresses.

Making sure it doesn’t will be the biggest challenge for Coach Frank Vogel. Whether he succeeds will determine just how good Orlando ends up being.

The most surprising part of the Magic’s defensive renaissance is that it has come about with a lot of the same players and lineups that struggled greatly last year. With Elfrid Payton and DJ Augustin in and out of the starting unit due to injuries, this season’s core has been the quartet of Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. That four-man lineup allowed 110 points per 100 possessions last season. This year, that number is down to a stellar 97 points. Lineups including at least two of those four are also typically doing well.

It’s an astounding improvement. Part of it is surely related to having more familiarity with each other. Eight players are returning from last seasons, including all five starters. It seems like there has also been a focus on player development, likely spearheaded by former Spurs development coach Chad Forcier. Individual improvements are translating to the team level. Yet most of the credit has to go to Vogel, who has introduced a new, more aggressive scheme, and the players for executing it with the appropriate effort and focus.

Instead of playing conservatively, like he did when he was in Indiana, Vogel is taking some risks. He has the Magic flying all over the court. It’s not as frantic an approach as the Bucks’ but it does require precision. There’s a lot of switching, which requires quick rotations, and a lot of help both in the perimeter and in the paint.

It makes sense for this roster to play this style. The Magic are small at the wing, so they try to leverage their quickness to make up for it, confident their players can recover after helping. Gordon can hang with most guards, which enables their switching. When it’s all clicking, Orlando disrupts the opponent’s defensive rhythm and creates some turnovers. The Magic rank in the top 10 in both turnovers created and frequency of opponent shots that come with four second or less in the shot clock.

Orlando has earned its place among the best defenses in the league so far through effort and focus. Despite having very few plus defenders they are uncomfortable to play against when they are sharp, which they have been on most nights. And yet there are a couple of issues that threaten to derail the success they’ve had on the defensive end so far.

Even with all the help coming from the weak side, opponents are destroying Orlando inside. There are no perimeter stoppers and Vucevic is one of the least effective rim protectors among starting centers. The wings rotate, but they are not good enough shot blockers to make a difference. Gordon has the athleticism to offer complementary rim protection, but it’s easy to have him switched to a perimeter player and away from the paint. It all adds up to the Magic allowing the most points in the paint in the league.

It’s not just the interior defense that is questionable. The Magic are allowing a low percentage on three-pointers, but that’s in no small part because they are dodging bullets. Opponents are just missing open looks. On wide open three-pointers (no defender within six feet) opponents are shooting just 34 percent, the fifth lowest mark in the league. On open threes (defender within four-to-six feet) that number is 28 percent, the third lowest mark in the league. Even mediocre outside shooters will connect on a higher percentage given enough opportunities.

Those weaknesses were in full display in the last two games, a close win against the Grizzlies and a loss to the Bulls. On both nights Orlando allowed 10 three-pointers and over 40 points in the paint. That’s not a recipe for a good defense, but it’s hard to imagine Vogel coming up with a solution. The Magic simply doesn’t have the personnel to wall off the paint, especially if Marreese Speights continues to take more of Bismack Biyombo’s minutes. Orlando is solid at preventing open outside looks, but every team surrenders some.

It seems the Magic will almost inevitable see their defense slide. That’s obviously bad news, but it doesn’t mean Orlando is destined to another trip to the lottery. The Magic are playing at a level befitting a contender, which they clearly aren’t. They started the season so well that they can afford a drop on both offensive and defensive efficiency and still hope to make the playoffs for the first time since embarking in a rebuilding effort in 2012. That would be a major step in the right direction for a franchise that seemed in disarray entering the season.

The Magic are clearly not nearly as good as they’ve looked at times so far, but they are not a mirage either. Both their offense and their defense have overachieved so far, but it doesn’t mean the success they’ve enjoyed is entirely predicated on luck. There are smart schemes in place and players working hard to execute them.

It’s taken five years, two general managers, four coaches and almost 60 players, but the Magic seem to have found a combination that should allow them to be relevant again.

Jesus Gomez

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