The Orlando Magic have proven to be one of the NBA's more enigmatic teams this season. Orlando jumped out to a 10-3 start, with two of those losses coming to powerful Chicago and Oklahoma City. Then came a nightmarish 13-game stretch, during which the Magic lost six of eight. In the losses, Orlando averaged just 73.8 points and failed to reach 70 three times. Just when you thought things were really going to become unhinged, the Magic reeled off three straight wins, the last of which was an impressive victory at tough Indiana.
Add it all up and the Magic are 15-9, putting Stan Van Gundy's crew on pace for 41 wins. That's exactly what our SCHOENE projection system pegged for Orlando before the season, so in that sense there seems to be nothing amiss. It's not that simple of course. The Magic rank just 16th in the league in average margin of victory (+1.1), which means its point differential is that of a 13-11 team. When it comes to forecasting the future, point differential is a more accurate gauge of a team's strength than actual record, especially once the sample sizes get large enough. Being on the wrong end of a disproportionate number of blowouts can skew things, but the Magic are 5-5 in games decided by 10 or more points and 3-3 in those decided by at least 18. No, Orlando clearly has taken a step back and is in fact lucky to sport the record they do today.
The Magic have taken a step back at both ends of the court. Going into tonight's game against the Clippers, Orlando ranks 16th in offensive efficiency and 12th on the defensive end. Last season, the Magic were 12th and third respectively. Two years ago, Orlando was second on both ends of the court, so the decline has been both steep and rapid. The problems on offense are plentiful, but can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that, according to mySynergySports.com, the Magic is last in the league on isolations, averaging just .61 points per possession. The team is severely lacking in players that can create offense.
However, the defensive woes are even more troubling. Over the last four years, Stan Van Gundy's offense has fluctuated up and down the rankings, but amid that variance was the Dwight Howard-anchored defense, which has finished in the top five in each season. As everyone knows, Howard wants out of Orlando. On the most superficial level, the limbo hasn't seemed to affect his play. Could Howard's desire to move on be at the root of the Magic's decline on defense?
What makes Orlando's defensive ranking so disappointing is that the Magic actually lead the league in a key category: finishing possessions. With Howard and Ryan Anderson leading the way, the Magic are first in defensive rebounding percentage, as it has been the last two years. Orlando is fouling at about its usual rate. The defense doesn't force many turnovers, but that's typical Van Gundy's scheme. No, over the last five years, the Magic has ranked sixth, sixth, first, first and fourth in limited opponent shooting percentage. This year, the Magic have dropped to 11th. So we know the what, we just need to figure out the why.
The first thought is that because of all the distractions, Howard is not as committed to defensive dominance as past seasons, whether or not it's a conscious choice.
MAGIC'S DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY, WITH AND
WITHOUT DWIGHT HOWARD ON THE COURT
11-12 10-11 09-10 08-09 07-08 06-07
ON 101.2 102.6 103.6 102.5 107.4 106.1
OFF 107.4 105.6 106.9 103.6 104.0 105.4
NET -6.3 -3.0 -3.3 -1.1 +3.4 +0.7
The chart looks Orlando's defensive rating with and without Howard on the court since he rose to prominence a few years ago. The Magic defense has become increasingly reliant upon having the big center on the court, which is a big part of why he's been named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year the last three seasons. This year that seems more true than ever--with Howard on the court, the Magic is still an elite defensive club. Without Howard, the Magic have allowed a .506 effective field-goal percentage. That's the territory of the league's true defensive dregs like Sacramento, Charlotte and Detroit.
The problem isn't Howard -- it's everybody else.
One look at the Orlando roster tells you part of the problem: Howard is the only center on the roster. Glen Davis has taken the vast majority of the minutes at the pivot when Howard sits. He's a strong and able position defender with stubby arms that makes him ill-suited to be a basket protector. He holds his own when defending power forwards, but gets pounded when he plays against any center with a modicrum of post-up ability. That was also the case when Davis was in Boston, where out of necessity the Celtics used him at the pivot far too often last season and paid the price.
The other issue is the age of Orlando's starting perimeter players, especially on the wings. Jameer Nelson was struggling even before he went down with a concussion. Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson are somewhere between poor to putrid on the wings despite the luxury of having Howard play behind them most of the time. The trio is slated to earn about $25 million between them this season and are each signed for at least one more year. (Nelson has a player option for next season.) In other words, you're probably stuck with them, unless you package one in a Howard trade. If that happens, your season is sunk anyway.
Obviously the first and foremost treatment for every malady the Magic has is for general manager Otis Smith to repair his relationship with Howard and convince him to stay in Orlando. Bring in whoever you have to -- Tony Soprano, Alec Baldwin's character from Glengarry Glen Ross, Don Cheadle's guy from "House of Cards." It may well be too late for the situation to be salvaged, but the Magic has to keep trying. Losing Howard will lock Orlando out of the championship picture for years to come.
That said, let's imagine that Smith rolls the dice and instead of dealing Howard, he tries to shore up his current squad in hopes of a playoff run that convinces Howard to sign on long term. What can he do?
First thing is to pick up the phone today and offer free agent Joel Przyzbilla whatever portion of Orlando's available midlevel exception it takes to steal him away from Miami and Chicago. Przyzbilla would replace the size and defensive presence the Magic has missed so much since it traded Marcin Gortat to Phoenix last season. Przyzbilla, despite his chronic injury issues, is one of the better basket protectors in the game and would flourish in the part-time role he'd be asked to play behind Howard.
The other suggestion seems (very) counterintuitive, but the numbers show it'd be a good idea: play J.J. Redick full time at shooting guard. Sounds crazy when you're talking about defense but consider some numbers. The Magic has been 3.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Redick is in the game. The difference between he and Richardson is about 5.4 points. Orlando has allowed just a 10.2 defensive PER to shooting guards with Redick on the floor, though you have to acknowledge that much of that number may be due to the way Van Gundy deploys him. The more granular MySynergySports data has Redick slightly worse than Richardson -- .85 points allowed per play to .83. Still, when you add the difference in offensive efficiency, what can it hurt?
Admittedly, these are desperation measures for a team that is likely to find itself in the throes of some serious rebuilding in about a month. Still, if your tack is to maximize your chances to win enough this season to convince Howard to sign an extension, desperation may be about the only thing you have left.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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