Despite real reasons for optimism entering the season, the Orlando Magic are starting to look stuck in a perpetual rebuild. Entering their matchup against Milwaukee last night (which they lost), Orlando is in the midst of a dreadful run that’s included 15 losses in their past 16 games. Owners of the the second worst record in the league, the Magic are starting to become a cautionary tale.
This setback would be a lot less depressing for Orlando fans if the team merely had one, easily identifiable flaw. Whether it was a faltering offense, a porous defense, injury misfortune or an underqualified coach, the Magic could quickly remedy the problem going forward.
Unfortunately for Orlando, their offense and defense both rank among the bottom five teams in the league. As far as injuries go, the only core contributor to miss significant time has been Terrence Ross. And in head coach Frank Vogel, the Magic had the architect of two of the best defensive teams the NBA has seen this decade.
The lack of defensive cohesion under Vogel has arguably been the most surprising development in central Florida. Given his success in Indiana, it was assumed that at the very least, Vogel would move this Orlando team closer to the middle of the pack when it came to stopping their opponents. Instead, the Magic have regressed this season -- dropped from 21st to 25th in defensive efficiency per NBA.com.
Now the success of any coach obviously is linked to his personnel. In that regard, Nikola Vucevic often is a scapegoat for Orlando’s defensive shortcomings. As a big, lumbering center in a league trending toward mobility and versatility, Vucevic and a few other bigs -- Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, etc -- are beginning to look like dinosaurs. That doesn’t mean, however, that a team with Vucevic on it is destined to be among the league’s worst.
While he’s not going to switch out and swallow up the league’s most explosive guards, Vucevic has managed to use a combination of effort and technique to provide passable defending. When he’s targeted in pick-and-rolls, Vucevic uses angled shuffles along with his length to contest any shot from the ballhandler while staying in a decent position to recover back to the roll man. So if you picture Vucevic as a statue that opponents blow by routinely, it’s the wrong image.
The problem for Orlando (or any future team that employs Vucevic) is that while the big man has adapted to avoid him personally being a liability, the approach causes a ripple effect in the defensive chain. Because he has to cede space, Vucevic will basically leave mid-range or quick-stop pull-up 3s (Think Lilliard and Curry) virtually uncontested:
And because Vucevic cedes space until he’s at the rim, ballhandlers can get off plenty of shots deep in the paint. Since shorter shots yield a higher percentage of offensive rebounds -- and Vucevic isn’t agile enough to contest the shot, turn and drive the roll man out of prime rebounding position -- opponents are primed to generate extra possessions off missed shots. In fact, Orlando gives up the fourth most offensive rebounds per game and the fourth most shots in the paint, per NBA.com data. While this isn’t all because of Vucevic’s pick-and-roll shortcomings, it’s definitely a factor.
Now before using this to reinforce the idea that a team with Vucevic is swimming upstream in order to be competent defensively, remember that Al Jefferson once anchored a Charlotte team that finished in the top 10. The reason that happened was a good combination of scheme and personnel. That recipe is lacking the same ingredients in Orlando.
What Jefferson had that this Magic roster lacks was perimeter defenders that aided their slow-footed big man in pick-and-rolls. That Hornets team started two long athletic wings (Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) along with a supporting cast that possessed good technique and were adapt at either getting to a rearview contest -- bothering a shot while trailing behind in pick-and-rolls -- or working hard to get back in front of the ballhandler after he came off the screen. This Orlando team doesn’t have many disciplined defenders capable of protecting Vucevic as he drops to protect the basket.
One of the main culprits is Elfrid Payton, proud owner of the worst defensive rating (min: 100 minutes) on the team. While Payton isn’t a space cadet or lazy, he basically just exists on that end of the floor. His biggest downfall is his inability (or unwillingness) to impact ballhandlers coming off pick-and-rolls,basically gives them a free run to get downhill at Vucevic. Getting into the ballhandler and slowing his momentum is an underappreciated aspect of pick-and-roll defense. Sometimes this Payton flaw is subtle and other times it’s plain for all to see:
The problems with the players surrounding Orlando’s defensively limited center don’t stop at just their young point guard either. Summer free agent signing Jonathan Simmons is a total wildcard possession to possession (on both ends of the floor, which we’ll get to later). He too posts a worse defensive rating than Vucevic. But one of the team’s sneakiest culprits for their defensive woes is perhaps their most promising player; Aaron Gordon.
When talking about an “athletic” player like Gordon, we too often forget that athleticism exists in different boxes. Steve Nash is still considered to be “unathletic” even though his hand-eye coordination and body control were a huge part of his success. Mike Conley isn’t going to wow people at a slam dunk contest like Gordon, but he might be one of the NBA’s most agile players. These are all components of producing and controlling force that get lumped into the word “athleticism.”
When talking about Gordon he is, obviously, an insane athlete in a lot of ways. When it comes to straight-line power and speed, Gordon’s a beast. And as a vertical athlete, he’s clearly among the league’s best. But while Gordon is at the head of the class in those categories, he isn’t when it comes to his overall movement -- something that is contributing Orlando’s inability to stop opponents from scoring.
Unlike some of the league’s “switchier” 4s, Gordon doesn’t have the combination of desire and agility to lock down high-level NBA guards in space. It’s partly why the vast majority of actions Gordon is involved in aren’t automatic switches in Vogel’s scheme. For a player that many thought could come in and help mitigate some of Vucevic’s limitations, Gordon right now is more part of the problem than the solution.
These three players are currently seeing the lion’s share of minutes around Vucevic. Combine that with the fact that Bismack Biyombo -- a major free agent signing two summers ago -- has been a total bust as a defensive stopper and young forward Mario Hezonja is soaking up frontcourt minutes and you have the recipe for a pretty bad defensive team. It’s hard to really fault Vogel too much given his personnel.
The area where Vogel rightfully can be criticized is Orlando isn’t suffering subpar defending in order to reap the benefits on the other end of the floor. But before pinning this all on the head coach, it’s once again time to see where the problems lie in this roster’s collection of skills.
When starting there, you immediately get to Biyombo. The team’s big money center has played in the most games (41) on the team while averaging 17.3 minutes in each of them. In the time he’s on the floor, Orlando’s offense craters to a pathetic 93.8 offensive rating, per NBA.com data. To put that in perspective, the Kings currently sit dead last (by a full point) with an offensive rating of 99.8.
This has been a pattern now with Biyombo everywhere he goes. The veteran center just hasn’t developed an offensive skill a team can leverage into an efficient rate of scoring points. And in Orlando, Biyombo isn’t surrounded with enough firepower -- in the bench/hybrid units he typically belongs to -- to mitigate his shortcomings.
The next issue plaguing Orlando's ability conjure up points is tied to their other free agent signing, Simmons. Unlike Biyombo, Simmons has clear tools that Vogel tries to leverage in his equal-opportunity system. But in some respects, Simmons is a dangerous player. The intensity in which he approaches games, attacking style and occasional moment of brilliance are like a siren song that can lure a coach into giving him more responsibility than is good for the team.
This is what’s happened so far in Orlando. Simmons is posting a career high usage rate of 23.2 in Orlando -- the fourth highest mark on the team behind Gordon, Vucevic and the infamously shot-happy Mo Speights. And having the ball in Simmons’ hands more (he’s been a defacto point guard at times) hasn’t produced a positive net effect, evidenced by the fact he’s boosting a higher turnover percentage than assist percentage, per Basketball Reference data.
Now Simmons can’t exactly be blamed for hijacking the offense. Random injury spells to other core contributors have played a part in his increased role. But so too has been Vogel’s offensive approach.
In an era in which team after team is increasingly obsessed with ball movement, it’s no surprise Vogel has been swept up in the craze. One of the team’s sets has been “Delay Double Quick”, a concept that acts as a vehicle for players to get into random dribble hand-offs or pick-and-rolls. A lot of touches for Simmons come out of sets like this, which is part of a bigger problem within Vogel’s approach.
For teams like the Spurs or Rockets, a concept like “Delay” is a great tool -- for totally different reasons. The Spurs ethos has always been about development. It’s why we’ve seen players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green transform from specialists to multi-faceted offensive players. San Antonio gears their entire approach toward emphasizing spacing, ball movement and training their players to excel in a variety of actions.
Houston, on the other hand, can run actions like Delay because as the ball pings around it will find one of two future Hall of Famers (James Harden or Chris Paul) or a very capable Eric Gordon in the process. All those players were brought in via trade or free agency -- not developed over time -- then fit into concepts like Delay and make them dangerous plays. (On the other end of the spectrum is someone like Rick Carlisle who basically tweaks his playbook year to year based on the skills of his current personnel).
Vogel is essentially running a Spurs' like system without a top-down emphasis on development or players that have the well-rounded skill sets to pull it off. Think of Orlando’s most-used lineup of Vucevic, Gordon, Simmons, Evan Fournier and Payton. Neither Simmons nor Fournier rank above the 60th percentile when it comes to scoring or making plays out of pick-and-rolls or hand-offs per Synergy data (and Simmons ranks in the low 30s). And when either Simmons or Fournier handle, Payton, who despite modest improvement on a low number of attempts, is one of the players spotting up on the perimeter.
The use of that play is a essentially a microcosm for the overall approach by both Vogel and the previous front office that’s led to Orlando taking a step back this year instead of going forward. The solutions for both better results this season and a clear understanding of what’s needed going forward will be more evident without this whole square peg-round hole mindset that’s enveloped this franchise from the start of the rebuild.
It’s become clear that this just isn’t going to be a defensively dominant team with Vucevic operating as a centerpiece. The sooner Vogel and the front office accept that, changes can be named -- likely starting with the elimination of Biyombo from the team’s rotation.
From that point, putting players like Payton and Simmons is more suitable roles will help the club understand their true value. Payton is by far and away the team’s best passer. Continuing to throw him into the starting lineup without having him unquestionably be the primary playmaker does a disservice to the team and muddies the understanding of Payton’s value.
This would also help set up an environment to better understand what exactly the team has in Simmons. Can he thrive playing off the ball? Or is his best role as the defacto point guard in a second unit? And by figuring out what Simmons can be, the team will also learn whether Vogel is an adaptable coach or a byproduct of his previous environment.
It’s unfortunate that six years into their rebuild the Magic still don’t find themselves on the right trajectory. But in this setback lies the opportunity for the team to come away with a better understanding of what they are. In order to do so, however, they need to stop repeating the mistakes from their past.