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June 4, 2009
Magical Defense
How They Get Stops

by Kevin Pelton


The Orlando Magic do not fit the profile of an elite defensive team. While the Magic D is anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, the rest of Orlando's roster comes up short in terms of defensive reputation; no other Magic player received a single vote for this year's All-Defensive Team. Orlando plays a small lineup with lanky Rashard Lewis, a small forward throughout his career before signing with the Magic, teaming up alongside Howard in the frontcourt.

Nevertheless, the results speak for themselves. Orlando led the NBA in Defensive Rating during the regular season, allowing opponents just 103.0 points per 100 possessions to edge out the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the league's top spot. Throughout the postseason, the Magic has been even better, holding their three opponents an average of 8.4 points per 100 possessions below their performance over the course of the season. By contrast, Lakers opponents in the playoffs have been held 5.0 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season performance.

Breaking things down into the Four Factors of Basketball Success pioneered by Nuggets analyst Dean Oliver, it's clear that Orlando is strong defensively almost across the board:

          eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%
Factor    .466   .760    .209    .143
Rank        1      2       4       25

Here, the Magic is indeed conventional. This defensive model is very similar to those used by the Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets of recent vintage. Like those teams, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is willing to sacrifice creating turnovers by overplaying the passing lanes in favor of playing solid position defense, keeping the opposition off the free-throw line, and finishing the stop by getting the defensive rebound.

Besides the inability to force turnovers, it's hard to find a weakness in the Magic defense. Orlando defends two-point shots better than anyone in the league (.454), thanks in no small part to Howard's shot-blocking presence in the paint. However, teams thinking of beating the Magic from outside are in for an unpleasant surprise, since Orlando is also second in the league in three-point defense (.342). An equally important part of defending the perimeter is keeping teams from getting off three-point attempts in the first place; the Magic ranked second to San Antonio in this regard.

The most surprising aspect of Orlando's defensive success might be its fine defensive rebounding. This seems unusual, because Lewis is a very poor rebounder; he grabbed 13.9 percent of available defensive rebounds, as compared to the average of 19.4 percent amongst all power forwards. However, Howard's phenomenal work on the defensive glass allows the Magic to get away with playing Lewis at power forward and still dominating the boards. Howard grabbed 29.5 percent of all opponent misses, which ranked second in the league. Even when Howard is on the bench, backup Marcin Gortat is nearly as strong a defensive rebounder, pulling down 26.3 percent of available defensive rebounds.

While he inherited an elite paint defender in Howard, Van Gundy deserves a lot of credit for turning Orlando into an elite defensive unit. They rarely break down and make mistakes defensively, forcing teams into lower-percentage options. Orlando does an excellent job of rotating on defense when players are beat and need help. Van Gundy has also helped players like Lewis develop at the defensive end. So, although Howard is the only top-tier defender on the roster, nor are there any weak links. Even the player considered the Magic's worst individual defender, reserve guard J.J. Redick, turned in a masterful defensive performance against Ray Allen in the postseason.

Orlando has also developed a pair of quality wing defenders in newcomer MickaŽl Pietrus and rookie Courtney Lee, one reason the Magic defense has improved from last season. Pietrus did battle with Paul Pierce and LeBron James the last two rounds and more than held his own, allowing Orlando to defend the two stars without giving help. Lee was responsible for shutting down the red-hot Eddie House in the series against Boston and served as the Magic's stopper in the regular season. Now, both players will get their chances to contend with Kobe Bryant as Orlando attempts to employ a similar strategy to what Houston did earlier this postseason, making Bryant an inefficient scorer by taking away shots in the paint and trips to the free-throw line as much as possible.

One other factor that bodes well for the Magic in the NBA Finals is that the team's strong defensive rotations make it hard for opponents to beat them with the pass. Orlando opponents had assists on 50.7 percent of their field goals; only San Antonio allowed assisted buckets at a lower rate. The Lakers (and especially Kobe Bryant) are perfectly capable of creating their own shots, but are at their best when they are creating open shots with their excellent ball movement out of the triangle offense.

Last year, the Lakers' offense was held in check in the NBA Finals by the league's top regular-season defense. If Orlando is to win this series, the Magic defense will have to turn a similar feat this time around.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Back and Forth (06/04)
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Playoff Prospectus (06/05)

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