By John Denton
Oct. 16, 2017
ORLANDO – Perpetually positive, usually uplifting and upbeat, Frank Vogel can often find sunshine in a storm. But even Vogel’s positivity can turn sour when he thinks about the dismal defense that his Orlando Magic played last season.
That’s why Vogel’s message to his Magic all throughout training camp and the preseason has been about as subtle as a punch in the gut. It goes something like this: Minimal gains defensively just won’t cut it; Orlando must pull off a massive makeover on that end of the floor if it wants to make serious gains in the standings this season.
“He has made that clear over practices and I’m sure he’ll continue to do it,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said, referring to the message given almost daily from Vogel this preseason. “I know that they’re looking for a lot of guys to be defensive-minded and they want me to be a defensive anchor, so I have to hold myself accountable on that end. It’s a sacrifice that everyone needs to make for this team to be better.
“Our identity needs to be defense and we need to pick it up there, communication-wise, with our technique, our will and our pride,’’ Gordon added. “A lot that is code for defense and that’s where our identity needs to be made.’’
Vogel and the Magic have made fixing the defense a top priority because of the manner in which the team struggled on that end of the floor last season – starting with a humbling opening loss against the rival Miami Heat last October.
That bitter memory is pertinent now because the Magic will open the regular season on Wednesday against Miami at the Amway Center for a second consecutive season. Last October, the Magic yielded a staggering 74 points in the paint in that 108-96 loss to the Heat. Orlando is well aware that if it can’t contain the Heat’s dribble drivers, backdoor cutters and 3-point shooters, it could be a long night once again. And if they can’t make major strides defensively the rest of the season, as well, it could be another long year.
“We know that we’ve got to see a big improvement on that end of the floor if we’re going to do what we want to do this year,’’ Vogel said. “They were reminded of that today in film and our defensive work in practice and they had a great attitude about it.’’
Orlando seemed to be taking Vogel’s words to heart in the exhibition season, playing with a distinct sense of urgency defensively and ranking in the top five in the NBA in several key categories. Then, in Friday’s preseason finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers, many of their old habits returned on the defensive end and they were beaten 113-106 despite LeBron James and Kevin Love not playing at all and Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose playing just a half.
The Magic’s season-opening loss to the Heat last October lent some insight into what was to come on the defensive end of the floor all season. At the time, the Magic were trying to play with center Nikola Vucevic and power forward Serge Ibaka simultaneously and their lack of speed showed up regularly against the small-ball lineups that are sweeping through the NBA today.
Orlando dramatically switched its style of play last February by trading Ibaka to Toronto for guard Terrence Ross. That change helped the Magic be more competitive on the defensive end, but it didn’t totally repair numbers that were mostly obscene last season.
Not only did the Magic struggle in the major categories – they ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per game (107.6), 25th in field goal percentage allowed (46.7 percent) and 24th in 3-point percentage allowed (36.8 percent) – they were gashed so often that far too many lopsided losses were handed to them.
Orlando suffered eight losses by 30-or-more points and, according to NBA.com, only the Lakers spent more time trailing by 20-or-more points last season. The Magic yielded the most drives into the paint in the NBA and they were the only team to surrender 70 paint points three times. Not only were they in the bottom 10 in the league in defense in the restricted area, in the paint and in a couple of areas beyond the 3-point line, they strangely had the NBA’s worst defensive rating against their primary rivals from the Eastern Conference.
“Too many times last year, we’d have one or two guys not on the same page,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “The defense is like teamwork. Offensively, you can have a guy that carries you, but defense is really teamwork. So it has to be five guys working together.
“To me, another key is transition (defense),’’ Fournier added. “For some reason last year we struggled to get back and match up. And in the new NBA, when you don’t get matched up in transition, it’s usually a three or a layup. So I’d say those are the keys to us being better on defense.’’
Those numbers caused Vogel – long considered a defensive guru because of his huge success on that end of the floor while the coach of the Indiana Pacers – to re-think how he teaches defense. Rather than designing everything to pack the paint and protect the rim, Vogel said defensive strategies almost have to be “outside-in’’ focused now.
Much of the Magic’s strategy this summer was adding players who not only have a defensive mindset, but also ones capable of guarding multiple positions. Orlando did just that in drafting rookies Jonathan Isaac and Wes Iwundu and signing free agents Jonathon Simmons and Arron Afflalo.
So much of NBA offenses now are designed to get bigger, slower defenders switched onto cat-quick wing players, and now the Magic should be better equipped to switch defensively and still hold their own. Players such as Simmons – who had the NBA’s best individual defensive rating last season – and Gordon and Isaac should make the Magic’s defense much more flexible and better at containing dribble penetration.
“I’m always going to be that guy to try and set the tone (defensively), but we have to hold guys accountable, too,’’ Simmons said. “That’s what we want to do this season on defense.’’
That accountability carried over to the preseason games where the Magic showed a renewed commitment to the defensive end. Players embraced one-on-one battles on the perimeter and the Magic’s defense seemed better connected when they had to help. The transition defense was much improved and the Magic had several instances where they forced foes into 24-second clock violations because of their hyperactive scrambling to close out on shooters.
As a result, Orlando exited the preseason ranked sixth in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed (41.4 percent), sixth in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (30.3 percent), ninth in overall defensive rating (94 points per 100 possessions) and 10th in points allowed per game (96.8). It’s always dangerous to put too much stock in preseason results, but those numbers are big improvements over the unsightly figures that came out of last season’s defense.
Now, the goal is to keep it up on the defensive end over the NBA’s marathon-like 82-game regular season – starting with Wednesday’s opener against Miami. After all, the Magic are well aware that making major strides defensively is likely the only way to can ensure that the team improves dramatically this season.
“We know everything is going to boil down to us getting stops,’’ point guard Elfrid Payton said. “We’ve just got to continue to work and make big jumps. We’re going to make mistakes and we know that’s going to happen, but we’ve got to make sure we don’t repeat mistakes and make the kind of mistakes that will beat us.’’
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