I remember exactly where I was on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft. My friend and I were sitting at a bar across the street from my apartment, enjoying some nice beers, and getting ready to watch Ben Simmons get selected by the Sixers. I figured it would be a pretty quiet night, maybe some small trades, but nothing too big.
I was wrong.
In what seemed to be a desperate attempt to keep Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded their long-time rim protector Serge Ibaka for the high-potential swingman Victor Oladipo and a first round pick that became Domantas Sabonis.
At the time, myself and many others viewed this as a complete one-way victory. The Thunder traded a former, declining, multiple all-defensive team player who was also a block leader for a different player who had demonstrated all-star potential and a lottery pick. This was widely considered to be a huge boon for the Thunder, and a head-scratching move for the Magic.
Frank Vogel – Orlando’s new coach who lead the Indiana Pacers to multiple Eastern Conference Finals – was compiling a significant number of bigs with the goal of developing a defensive-minded Magic squad. Not only did he add Serge Ibaka to a frontcourt core including Nikola Vucevic and former lottery pick Aaron Gordon, but furthermore, also brought in rebounding savant Bismack Biyombo.
In short, Vogel wanted to develop a defense where perimeter players like Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier funneled the opponent’s guards into the post where they would be met by Ibaka’s and Biyombo’s tough, physical presences. ESPN’s basketball analysis demigod, Zach Lowe, has noted why this strategy could actually work. Lowe states, “[this strategy makes] the Magic huge and mobile — especially when they have Gordon, Ibaka, and Biyombo on the floor together. Those three can switch on defense, pound the glass on offense, and form a six-armed rim-protecting hydra to fix Orlando’s glaring weakness. The Magic are plotting a counter-revolution.”
Yet, Lowe also analyzes why it is problematic, by explaining that the Magic frontcourt lacks the necessary playmaking to be successful, it is exiting its collective prime, and that Aaron Gordon may not be a gifted enough ball-handler to play at the wing. These were thoughts I shared, and frankly, made me believe that Orlando was a bit of a clusterfuck.
While the Orlando Magic have not become a playoff team, nor a team that looks like they could become one this season, there have been certain positive signs this season. Primarily among them, Aaron Gordon is finally learning to use his athleticism. Frankly, at times, he has looked like one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. Below is a video of how Gordon uses his length to defend his opponent on the perimeter.
In both of these clips Gordon uses his length to double an opponent in the paint. This initially seems to mean that he is leaving his primary guard undefended; however, because of Gordon’s length, he is able to recover very quickly and thus not allow the open shot.
Surprisingly, especially after Aaron Gordon’s excellent defense against Harden last Friday, his defensive statistics are not that good. When Gordon is on the court, the Magic surrender 107.6 points per 100 possessions, a rank that would be sixth worst in the NBA if it were extended over an entire season.
On the other hand, Gordon has surprisingly good individual defensive statistics. Below is a chart that examines his opponent’s field goal percentage when guarded by and not guarded by Aaron Gordon.
As one notices, Gordon’s opponents shoot worse when he is guarding them from literally every area of the floor. He is quite simply a very effective defensive player who can guard all five positions. So why are the Magic’s defensive numbers so bad when he is on the floor?
When Ibaka moves to center, Gordon moves to the power forward spot, and Biyombo is benched, this still holds true, as long as D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic do not see the court. Per NBAWowy, in these situations, the Magic give up only 103.5 points per 100 possessions, which would rank top-six in the NBA extended over the entire season.
What is funny, though, is that Biyombo may be a small part of Orlando’s poor defense. When Ibaka, Augustin, and Vucevic are on the bench, with Biyombo playing center and Gordon playing power forward, the Magic give up 1.097 points per possession, which would rank third-worst in the NBA extended over an entire season.
What this means is that Vogel frequently pairs his two best defenders with at least one, and sometimes two, horrendous defenders 80% of their shared time on the court! This is awful lineup management and has contributed to Orlando hemorrhaging points, consequently making the Magic one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. Below is a video that shows why Gordon struggles when paired with poor defenders.
In this video, given Gordon’s responsibility of covering two offensive players at once, he tends to get lost going over screens. This results in players like James Harden and Julius Randle having the ability to abuse Orlando’s defense. When you watch this, it seems to make sense that Gordon ranks in the bottom third of all NBA players in defending the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. My thesis, though, is that this has more to do with who Gordon is playing with rather than Gordon himself.
For example, when paired with good defenders, Gordon’s length and athleticism makes for outstanding defensive possessions off of screens.
Even in the first clip, while Augustin is being hidden on defense, Gordon utilizes Ibaka’s and Biyombo’s length to do an excellent job on a defensive switch. This is, in part, a result of Biyombo and Ibaka both ranking in the top-third of all players at defending the roll man. Nonetheless, they are also examples of Gordon playing excellent defense.
In the second clip, Gordon partners with Ibaka on the perimeter and Biyombo in the paint to steal the ball from James Harden and get an easy transition bucket. This type of play is exactly why the idea that Gordon is a “bad defender” is problematic. Gordon is a very good, long, athletic defender who is put in bad position. When he is placed in good positions, though, his defensive excellence shines.
Consequently, the trade for Ibaka was not a loss for Orlando, nor was the seemingly redundant Biyombo signing. Both of these moves have allowed Gordon to gain experience as a defender. Moreover, while Ibaka is no longer the defensive player he once was, he has been still been a plus defender, forcing opponents to shoot 6.5% worse at the rim than they do on average.
Rather, the dilemma for the Magic’s defense goes well-beyond their three frontcourt players. D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic are two of the worst defenders in the NBA and are playing major minutes. Further, when Vucevic is on the court, that means one of Ibaka, Biyombo, and Gordon are not.
If it were only two bench players being poor defenders this would be resolvable. The problem is that Evan Fournier is also in the bottom fifteen percent of pick-and-roll defenders. Put simply, three out of nine men in Orlando’s rotation are terrible pick-and-roll defenders, and two of those three are amongst the worst defensive players in the NBA. This – combined with Vogel’s head-scratching lineups – prevent any desire for a good Magic defense from emerging.
Assuming they do not make any significant trades, Orlando will not make the playoffs this season, and that is not the worst thing for the franchise. So far, this season has proved great developmental time for Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. Moreover, Biyombo has fit-in to the team fairly well, and Ibaka is having a good season.
The dilemma the Magic face is that a Vogel-led team only has room for a maximum of two rotation players who are bad defenders. This means that Vucevic needs to be traded, and further, Rob Hennigan needs to evaluate what he wants Fournier’s role to be. The Magic are a classic example of when a team’s rebuild does not result in a superstar. In this case, Orlando is left with a group of nine or ten role players who do not fit well together.
As Vogel gains influence in the organization, and with the potential firing of Hennigan, Orlando should build around their frontcourt’s defensive prowess and Gordon’s athletic versatility. This should allow for a team to form in Vogel’s image, and moreover, one who has a chance of contending in an East dominated by a far superior Cleveland Cavaliers.