Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony of the Orlando Magic

How the Orlando Magic created an elite defense

The Orlando Magic’s elite defense is a bit unusual. They aren’t filled with lockdown one-on-one stoppers. They give up a ton of shots at the rim and an average number of corner threes. Their transition defense is porous, and they’re almost middle-of-the-pack in foul rate.

But the Magic are long as hell and brimming with kinetic energy. They put that effort to good use, attacking the ball when it’s in the air and swarming the passing lanes like an invasive species.

More concretely, Orlando is tops in the league in opposing turnover rate, fifth in opponent rim field goal percentage, and fifth in defensive rebounding. The defense is predicated on ensuring opponents get, at most, one shot attempt up while protecting the paint and corralling loose rebounds.

The Magic allow opponents to shoot just 84.3 field goal attempts per 100 possessions, the fewest in the league. That more than makes up for their league-average defensive effective field goal percentage (eFG%). In other words: you may be able to hit a jumper on them, but you’d better get it right the first time.

In practice, Orlando combines size, activity, and a variety of schemes to keep opponents guessing. Their favorite tactic is to shade off the weakest opposing shooters to a cartoonish degree, ensuring there is always at least one extra body in the paint ready to show early help. That willingness to leave weak or reluctant shooters completely alone to load up the paint gives them more margin for error at the point of attack, enabling their roving band of marauders to take risks and hunt steals.

Watch this possession from their recent game against the Indiana Pacers, the best offense in the league until they ran into Orlando:

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Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton pushes the pace after a make, but the Magic are essentially defending three Indiana players with four bodies as Cole Anthony ignores TJ McConnell on the perimeter. Mo Wagner (playing some of the best ball of his career) shows at the nail to slow Haliburton’s drive down before retreating, and Anthony (shotblocker extraordinaire!) swallows up Haliburton’s hesitant attempt at a finger-roll.

The Magic’s rotations weren’t perfect in that play, but the sheer number of bodies involved stymied the Pacers.

And those bodies are huge. Every ballhandler in the rotation except Anthony is at least 6’4”, and every big man is, appropriately, 6’10” or taller. Even the wings are gigantic. Length can cover up mistakes, allowing the Magic to wreak havoc in the passing lanes.

A great example is when Orlando comfortably beat Milwaukee (sans Damian Lillard) 112-97. The Bucks shot 49% from the floor compared to the Magic’s 43%, and Giannis scored 35 points on just 22 shots. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, no?

And yet, Giannis had six of the Bucks’ 19 turnovers, and the Magic only allowed five offensive rebounds. Orlando tried to keep Giannis guessing with a wide variety of coverages. While the smoke and mirrors didn’t prevent Giannis from having a monster scoring game, he and his teammates struggled to complete even simple passes.

The Magic switched most Giannis-driven actions at the beginning of the game but began sprinkling in some soft hedges, deep drops, a couple of possessions of zone, and even this hilariously hard-charging blitz from Goga Bitazde that startled Giannis into a clumsy turnover:

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Giannis eventually solved all of these problems, but the Magic took away his supporting cast and rode their own offensive aggression (30 made free throws!) to an easy win.

You may have surmised this from the previous paragraphs, but the Magic’s skullduggery in the passing lanes forces opponents into the path of least resistance: isolations. The Magic’s collective length works wonders in a team concept, but most Orlando players are rather pervious in a one-on-one game.

But in a large sample size, even consistently isolating weak defenders tends to create poor overall offensive efforts. The Orlando Magic force the second-most isolation possessions, per Synergy, and they can live with that when it means limiting opponents to the lowest assist rate of any defense in the league.

Let’s dive into some of the players themselves. We have to start with Jonathan Isaac. Isaac is finally healthy, but the team is wisely being cautious with his playing time. He’s averaging just a shade under 14 minutes per game, but despite that scant run, he’s averaging one steal and 1.4 blocks per game.

That, folks, is historic territory. Nobody in league history has hit those steal and block numbers in that little playing time. In fact, only two other players have done that in fewer than 20 minutes (give or take two games from some guy named Truck Robinson in 1985): Nerlens Noel and Vlade Divac, who both needed nearly half-again as much playing time as Isaac to hit those numbers.

Isaac has pterodactyl wings, a preternatural feel for where the ball will be, and the kind of motor only a guy who has watched games from the sidelines for two straight years can have. I’m not sure what LeBron James was going for here, but I’m quite certain he didn’t expect Isaac to apparate from behind Anthony Davis like an evil wizard:

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While Isaac likes to appear out of nowhere, Jalen Suggs is unmissable. He turns opposing ballhandlers into chew toys, wearing them out with constant pressure. He isn’t airtight, but he’s just so annoying to play against, and his two-way pressure on the ball is a huge part of what this team does on both ends.

I also want to highlight the rookie Anthony Black, who has looked like a seasoned pro starting for the injured Markelle Fultz. He has exceptional screen navigation for a raw, gangly guard and has already put forth some inspiring sequences tracking with ballhandlers.

But my favorite part about Black is his elite close-outs. He’s a little jumpy but has an uncanny ability to stop on a dime and contest with his full length without leaping past or into a shooter. Watch how fast he runs at Cam Johnson before leaping to contest and then somehow landing in the same spot he took off from:

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Also, this has to be one of the most unique and unintentionally funny charges taken I’ve ever seen:

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It isn’t just role players playing defense. The Magic’s offensive stars are doing their part. Franz Wagner is the rare Orlando player who doesn’t rack up steals, but he might be the best positional wing defender on the team. Paolo Banchero has fought harder (and more successfully) than I expected out of college; he will always be an offense-first player, but he’s already closer to average than bad on the other end.

We haven’t talked much about the injured Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter, but the Magic’s true starting five (those two plus Wagner, Banchero, and Suggs) allows a measly 95.1 points per 100 possessions, largely thanks to an unsustainable but still impressive 85% defensive rebounding rate. Both should be returning soon.

It’s reasonable to think that the Magic’s already fearsome defense could get better with the returns of Fultz and Carter. If they figure out how to score in the second half of games, the Magic may be looking at an earlier-than-expected playoff appearance.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.