The Magic are a popular choice for a breakout team next season. They have a talented young core and have added a veteran head coach known for making an immediate impact. With the East having only a handful of truly good teams, Orlando could fight for a playoff spot with the ingredients already in place.
There is, however, a legitimate chance we see the team be worse than the sum of its parts. The reason for that is that their most productive, talented performer — Nikola Vucevic — is one of the hardest types of player to build around: a center who doesn’t have the mobility to be a defensive anchor.
Vucevic made a case for himself as an up-and-coming star last season after averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds. Yet the Magic did better with Vucevic off the floor because he’s such a drain on the defense end. He simply doesn’t have the explosiveness, length or instincts to be that last line of defense every good team needs. Whenever a perimeter defender is beat off the dribble, Orlando’s defense crumbles because Vucevic is often late to rotate or unable to bother shots:
Having such a huge liability on defense at a key position makes it hard to imagine any team that features Vucevic ever being a playoff team without having a killer offense.
That was the challenge for the Charlotte Hornets when they signed Al Jefferson, and they succeeded. After finishing in the top 10 in defensive efficiency the past two seasons and making the playoffs in 2013- 14, they now have a track record of success on defense while employing one of the worst defensive starting centers in the league. They offer the Magic a blueprint to follow as they prepare to grow as a team with Vucevic as their starting center.
The Hornets base their game plan on not allowing easy points. That means, first and foremost, not allowing fast break opportunities. To do that they rarely crash the offensive glass (second-to-last in offensive rebound percentage) and try to avoid turnovers at all costs (last in turnover percentage). Everyone except for Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is almost forbidden to chase misses, and the team plays at a deliberate pace and don’t rely on assists to score.
Part of that will be tough for Orlando to mimic. While the Magic didn’t really chase offensive boards much, they were turnover prone. It didn’t really kill them in terms of fast break points, but their margin is so small that they’ll need to trim those mistakes severely and achieve excellence. A year under his belt should help Elfrid Payton have a steadier hand while Victor Oladipo showed progress navigating the court with the ball in his hands late last season.
The second principle of Clifford’s defense is preventing second chances. The Hornets rebounded almost 80 percent of opponent misses, a mark that led the league. A big part of the reason why they managed that is because they have one of the best rebounding wings in the league in Kidd-Gilchrist to complement their bigs. The Magic were no slouches in that area, finishing eighth in the league in defensive rebound percentage. Vucevic is a monster there and Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris offer good supplemental rebounding. It’ll take effort and focus, but the Magic could excel here as well.
Where they could have more trouble is following the third rule of the Hornets’ defense: wall off the paint and don’t foul.
The Magic allowed very few shots close to the basket, but teams shots a blistering 61.4 percent on the shots they took within five feet of the rim. While Vucevic’s dreadful rim protection has to do with it, it’s not the only reason, as Jefferson was similarly porous as an anchor but the Hornets kept teams to a low percentage on close range shots. So how did they do it?
First, the Hornets were committed to staying in front of their assignments and contesting shots instead of simply funneling them towards the middle. Kidd-Gilchrist was fantastic at doing it, but really everyone that played gave plenty of effort in that area. The team also packed the paint, with everyone being ready to help on penetrations instead of relying solely on Jefferson to contest:
It cost them in terms of allowed three-pointers, but teams barely took shots in the paint and shot an extremely low 56 percent.
The Magic showed no such cohesion. In his effort to put pressure on ball handlers, Payton often got himself in trouble by being overaggressive, allowing players to blow by him far from the rim. Perimeter players were happy with trailing their assignment while funneling them to help. There were also situations in which — in stark contrast with the Hornets — no one was there in the paint, even when facing mediocre shooting teams:
Those inattentions are what Scott Skiles was brought in to fix. He has a history of building disciplined defensive teams and will surely instill better fundamentals to the Magic’s young group. He has, however, done his best work with a traditional defensive center. He had young Andrew Bogut in Milwaukee and Tyson Chandler and Ben Wallace in Chicago. Vucevic presents a different challenge, one that could force the typically inflexible Skiles to take a page out the playbook of a coach of a division rival.
There are legitimate reasons to be excited about the Magic in 2015-16. Natural progression from the young players should result in an improvement on offense. Skiles will hopefully erase some of the more glaring mistakes on their own end. If they hope to take a big step forward, however, they’ll need to find a way to defend at a high level with Vucevic on the court. Considering he’s just entering the first year of an extension that’ll pay him $53 million over four years, watching tape on the Hornets is probably a good idea for everyone involved.