A sentence nobody has expected to write while Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy were still associated with the Magic is one that I am about to write. Orlando's defense is struggling... a lot.
There have been times when shots do not fall. There have been times when the ball has gotten stuck and stagnant. There have been times when Dwight Howard simply will not make free throws. These have happened, will happen and continue to happen for the Magic.
But poor defense? Orlando has not had a bottom-of-the-barrell defense in the NBA since Tracy McGrady was traded. During the Stan Van Gundy era, the lowest the Magic have ranked in terms of defensive efficiency is sixth in Van Gundy's first year as the team's head coach in 2008. The Magic have not been in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating since Dwight Howard's rookie year in 2006.
Howard tends to erase a lot of defensive mistakes. And so, with one-sixth of the season gone and an 8-3 record, it is surprising to see the Magic so low in defensive numbers. According to Basketball-Reference, the Magic are 18th in the league with a 103.9 defensive rating. According to HoopData, Orlando is 20th in the league with a 101.9 defensive rating.
Comparatively, Orlando is at the bottom of the league defensively. And that will spell eventual trouble for the Magic no matter how you try and slice it. The problem is, it has been a problem Stan Van Gundy has noted for some time now.
"We're having more problems on pick and rolls than we have had in the past," Stan Van Gundy said following the Magic's win over the Nets on Dec. 29. "And the big thing I think is of concern on the defensive end is are we going to be able to defend and rebound when Dwight is not in the game?"
The pick and roll defense has been a big concern. The loss to the Bulls saw Derrick Rose turn the corner at will and put Magic defenders well out of position for rotations back out to the perimeter and movement around the horn.
This is not about Dwight Howard not trying as hard defensively. Howard is still a menace defensively and every team has to be aware of where Howard is. But, and this is purely my own observation, it seems like Howard is not playing free safety as much so that he can avoid foul trouble. This has put more of an onus on the perimeter defenders to stay in front of their man and stop dribble penetration.
As we well know, Howard does a lot of work cleaning up their mistakes and there is no all-defensive team caliber players on the perimeter right now.
It does not change the problem though. The crux of the Magic defense was defending the pick and roll and stopping that initial penetration. From there Howard could clean up whatever mess is created and force teams to its second and third options.
This year, that has not happened as much.
To Van Gundy's point about Howard being off the floor, Orlando posts a 104.2 defensive rating with Howard on the floor and a 110.2 defensive rating with Howard off the floor, according to 82Games.com. That is a pretty significant difference. But nothing totally unexpected. Last year the split was 102.6/105.6 on/off court for Howard.
The Magic have given up a defensive rating better than 105.0 in six of the 11 games so far this season. Orlando has given up more than a 100.0 defensive rating in each of the last four games. The team had only one such stretch last year -- and, surprisingly, it was before the trades.
There are still very large problems with this defense.
Taking a look at the rate teams go to the foul line against Orlando reveals some of the issues too. The Magic give up a 27.5 percent free throw rate, which is 13th in the league right now, but there was a long stretch early in the season where teams were parading to the free throw line. Toronto posted a 41.4 percent free throw rate in the Magic's come-from-behind victory and then the next night in Detroit, the Pistons posted a 53.2 percent free throw rate in the most lackluster game the Magic have played all season.
The only problem with those two games is that Detroit and Toronto are currently in the bottom third of the league in free throw rate and were doing much worse before the Magic faced them. It was a sign of the general lack of energy Van Gundy lamented in the early part of the season.
It was also a sign that the defense was not quite up to snuff early in the season.
"I think part of it is more discipline defensively, doing a lot of reaching and things that we don't need to do," Stan Van Gundy said during shootaround before the Magic's win over the Wizards. "The second thing is in the last two games, I don't think our energy level has been very good. And when it's not and you're a little late on rotations and things, that's causing fouls. Better discipline and better energy, we should be able to cut that down."
Since then, the Magic have done better cutting down their fouls. Still the raw defensive numbers have not improved. The team is not playing to the standard and program it has set in the last four years.
Even with the undefeated run out West, it left a lot to be desired on the defensive end. The Magic struggled to defend the Warriors for most of the night and nearly gave up a 20-point lead to the Trail Blazers.
There is some grit in this team, as Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel wrote Saturday. This team has scratched out some wins in games it did not necessarily play a full 48-minute effort. But the road gets tougher the rest of the month starting with the trip to New York and the back-to-back-to-back beginning Monday.
Stan Van Gundy said it best though:
"Somewhere along the line, we're going to have to get our defense cleaned up."
Indeed, Orlando needs to return to its defensive focus, intensity and strength. Finding that will be difficult as, one-sixth of the way through the season, this team is quickly becoming who it is. And without a top-ranked defense, the Magic will likely fall short of its championship goals.