Photo by AP/John Raoux
Live and die by the three.
That’s one of the most common criticisms against the Orlando Magic – they shoot too many threes! This isn’t normal!
Ever since head coach Stan Van Gundy took over as head coach for the Magic, he — alongside general manager Otis Smith — made the conscious decision to surround franchise centerpiece Dwight Howard with scads of shooters on the perimeter, diligently following a blueprint of winning a championship that’s been established by previous teams like the Houston Rockets in the mid-’90s.
Granted, part of the Magic’s chances of winning a title rested upon Howard’s broad shoulders and his ability to develop, and dominate, on offense. Needless to say, based on the early returns, Howard is doing just that. Only a stomach virus has stopped Howard from eviscerating more opponents.
But for all the chatter surrounding Orlando’s schemes offensively and Howard’s growth on that end of the floor, something else gets overlooked.
If the Magic are living and dying by the three, then the defense is preventing some gruesome deaths. Three straight Southeast Division titles, an Eastern Conference title, and an appearance in the NBA Finals, all of these occurrences happening in the last three seasons would be evidence for that claim. No, Orlando doesn’t have a championship but they’re always in the discussion.
Because of defense.
This year, the Magic’s offense has been more average than good. Orlando isn’t as efficient on offense as they were last year when they ranked fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Why? Turnovers have been way too high.
Ball security has never been the Magic’s strong suit, but the problem is out of control this season. Right now, Orlando ranks 27th in turnover percentage. That’s been the crux of the issue for the Magic at the moment because for all the ballyhoo about the team’s three-point shooting being in such a sporadic state, the percentage this year (.353 percent) isn’t that far off from last year (.367). And as Van Gundy has mentioned many times in the past, considering the shooting history of guys like Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, and others, the numbers will regress to the mean sooner or later.
So if Orlando has been wasting possessions on offense by turning the basketball over way too many times and limiting their opportunities to score, how have they been winning games?
Because of defense.
And for the Magic, it starts with Howard — the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year.
Defensively, Orlando has always been among the elite under Van Gundy but this season, they’ve been defending like mad dogs.
Via Synergy Sports Technology:
|2010-2011 regular season||Time||Poss.||PPP*||Rank||Rating|
|P&R Ball Handler||12.7%||270||0.73||90%||Excellent|
|P&R Roll Man||7%||149||0.87||90%||Excellent|
|Off Screen||6.6%||140||0.84||76%||Very Good|
Likewise, the Magic are tied for first in defensive efficiency with the Boston Celtics.
For those that are familiar with Van Gundy’s strategies on defense, this comes as somewhat of a small surprise. Van Gundy doesn’t emphasize forcing turnovers because he would prefer his players to defend straight-up. Likewise, teams that try to force a turnover defensively are privy to fouling their opponents since it can be safely assumed that they’re reaching in and trying to get steals, which is something that Van Gundy wants to prevent because the free-throw is one of the most efficient shots in basketball — an important discovery made by the analytics community.
As such, usually Orlando would rank in the middle of the pack in opponent turnover percentage because that’s not a point of emphasis on defense.
However, this year the Magic are currently tied for sixth in that category.
Hard to say, to be honest, because there’s so many variables involved but based on pure observation, Van Gundy has inserted a baseline trap that has caused turnovers in games. It’s a new wrinkle in Orlando’s defense and it’s a wily idea by Van Gundy because it takes advantage of Howard’s rare blend of speed and athleticism to wreak havoc along the baseline but recover to the paint, where his presence is sorely needed to prevent any jailbreaks.
Usually what happens is that a player will post up on the left or right block (there are other ways in which the basketball finds its way in the area but this is a common example). Once that occurs, Howard or another big man for the Magic will flash to the baseline and trap the ballhandler with the help of a second player. Most of the time, the baseline trip will do nothing more than encourage a kick-out to the perimeter but once in a while, the ballhandler will panic and turn it over.
Another thing that’s noticeable is that Howard is more active with his hands.
Indeed, even if it’s a small uptick, Howard’s steal percentage is the highest of his career. Aggressive defense in pick and roll coverage, in which Howard will poke his hands as the ballhandler passes it to the roll man and get some steals in that fashion, have been more commonplace this year than in previous years.
Howard’s never-ending impact
The best analogy to describe the seemingly infinite ways that Howard aids the Magic on the defensive side of the ball is that he’s a spider that weaves his web all over the court. Orlando continues to rank high in various metrics on defense because of Howard’s presence.
|Defense Four Factors||eFG%||TOV%||DRB%||FT/FGA|
|2010-2011 regular season||.475 (7)||.145 (T-6)||.776 (T-1)||.212 (5)|
Howard does everything defensively for the Magic — his pick and roll coverage is excellent, he defends post-ups as good as anyone else in the NBA, his intimidating presence in the lane forces teams to settle for jumpshots instead of attacking the rim, etc.
|Orlando Magic||10.2 – 17.1||59.5%|
|Sacramento Kings||13.2 – 18.1||73.2%|
|Los Angeles Clippers||13.0 – 19.9||65.3%|
|San Antonio Spurs||12.7 – 20.0||63.4%|
|Miami Heat||11.6 – 20.1||57.8%|
The odds of Howard winning his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year should be high. Voter fatigue may become a factor this season, but it would be a shame that Howard isn’t the favorite to be named the league’s best defender once again.
Howard’s impact has never been better.
*points per possession