The Orlando Magic are bad. For some perspective, the Disney-sponsored team is currently tied for the worst record in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, and at 12-31, a third of their victories came in the first nine days of the season.
On a positive note however, the Magic have the benefit of, on paper, appearing more talented than their record suggests.
A bottom-10 offense and defense, glancing at the Magic’s roster obscures some of the team’s problems. Despite injuries to key pieces Jonathan Issac, Terrance Ross and Nikola Vucevic, the Magic suit up the tandem of a capable, pass-first point guard in Elfrid Payton, and a streaky-shooting, bundle of energy in Aaron Gordon.
Add to that a career year from Jonathan Simmons, the steady scoring Evan Fournier and center piece Bismack Biyombo and the Magic appear to be on the path to replicating the roster success of coach Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers.
Compared to, say, the Sacramento Kings, whose youth movement has been upstaged by Zach Randolph sipping from the fountain of youth, the Magic stand as a team with the pieces to be successful, while lacking a clear identity.
At the start of the 2017-18 campaign, the Magic boasted an empty rotation at the point guard slot and far too many big men in this iteration of the NBA. Picking up Shelvin Mack from the Utah Jazz somewhat filled that hole, and healthy contributions of eight points and three assists from DJ Augustin in just 20 minutes per game suggest Orlando has at least a modest rotation they can turn to.
So, what seems to stifle the Magic? Defense.
Defense wins championships, and before that, defense wins games. Vogel, esteemed as a talented defensive organizer in his Pacers days has hit the same wall with the Magic experienced by another defensive mastermind, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The new scenery, similar to the growing pains endured in Thibodeau’s jump from Chicago to Minnesota, is partially responsible for Vogel’s and the Magic’s defensive woes. Whereas the Pacers postured with the giant in Roy Hibbert and elite wing stopper Paul George as their defensive anchors, the Magic lack the foundation for sustained defensive effort in today’s game.
The lane is held safe by Isaac, Vucevic and Biyombo, all of whom are good for a block each night. Even with two of the trio missing to injury the Magic’s defense inside the arc is respectable, ranking 14th in the NBA.
At 29th in opponent 3-point percentage, however, Orlando struggles to contain shooters in part to the difficulties of Gordon and Biyombo’s rotations. As more teams run smaller lineups, Gordon and Biyombo are better suited to using their athleticism and size to lock down the paint than shuffling out to the 3-point line. Against the Pacers this season, the best 3-point shooting team in the East, the Magic allowed them 23-for-46 from deep, a testament to their poor defensive movement.
While the Magic might consider reshaping their roster to reduce death-from-beyond, the current core is suited to the today’s offensive game. Seventh in the league in pace, Payton leads the Magic up and down the hardwood, priming opportunities for transition throw downs from the highflying Gordon.
Instead, bolstering their bench with perimeter defenders to cover the 3-point stripe could keep the Magic on the development track without the need for (another) full rebuild.