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Jump Ball: Top 5 Offense or Top 5 Defense for Magic During Seeding Games?

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

Obviously, the Magic would love to be top five in offense and top five in defense during the NBA seeding games. But for debate purposes, if they can only be top five in one or the other, which would be more impressive/important to do? OrlandoMagic.com's Dan Savage and Josh Cohen each take a side.

Top 5 Defense

By Dan Savage

When basketball philosopher Josh Cohen approached me with the aforementioned question, my natural inclination was to reply with a quip, “why not both?” After all, NBA statistics have proven in the modern era that balance is as important as having a dominant defense or offense when it comes to winning a championship.

But once the appeal of being a wise … uh … fella … wore off, my memory reflected on some of my favorite teams of all-time to watch. The 1994-95 Orlando Magic and the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, the inspiration for “:07 Seconds or Less” (which was written about the subsequent year’s team), both hold a special place in my basketball viewing heart. I found myself about to agree with Mr. Offense, Josh Cohen, the pick-up equivalent of Kyle Korver – trust me don’t leave him open.

However, just as I was about to utter words of agreement, the logical side of my brain kicked in. This isn’t about sentimentality or offensive creations that can easily appeal to the basketball masses. This is a question that at its heart is about science and engineering. It’s about maximizing the talent of a particular group.

Any unit equipped with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, both fully capable of making NBA All-Defensive teams, that’s invested significant draft capital in Mo Bamba, whose combine record-setting wingspan and college career project him to be a high-level shot blocker in the league, and that possesses versatile gritty defenders like Michael Carter-Williams should have its identity centered around defense.

"We’re big from the one through the five, we can switch on anybody (and) we’re very versatile," James Ennis said.

Even when you look at the back of the Magic’s rotation, players like Wes Iwundu, Gary Clark, Melvin Frazier Jr. all offer tremendous defensive potential.

“People talk about the shots I make or being a shot maker or a three-point shooter, but really my calling is (if) I play really good on defense,” Clark said. “(Defense) is big for me, because coach is raving about defense, defense, defense, (which) gets me excited.”

We haven't even mentioned some of Orlando's underrated defenders like Nikola Vucevic, whose positioning and low foul rate make him much better at that end of the floor than he gets credit for, but I'm not going to name every player on the roster here.

With that in mind, to say that this team should prioritize offense over its defense would be rejecting its natural engineering. For example, the Porsche 928 has incredible towing capacity, but it’s not why it was designed. Instead, it was created to have a combination of power, poise and handling with the refinement that would make it one of the premier luxury sports cars of its era. We'll take the improving offense, but let's celebrate this squad's defensive design.

Plus, this formula has led to team success in the past. Orlando broke its playoff drought last season due to stellar play on the defensive end.

In their final 31 games last season, 22 of them wins, the Magic owned the NBA’s best defensive rating, reflecting their dominance in the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. That ferocious finish bumped them up to eighth overall in this category for the entire season.

That mark consistently proves to be extremely valuable. As my counterpart once pointed out, since 2000, only three teams – the 2001-02 Miami Heat, the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2012-13 Washington Wizards – had losing records despite finishing with top five defensive ratings. Three other teams – the 2005-06 Indiana Pacers, the 2014-15 Bucks and the 2016-17 Chicago Bulls – went 41-41. That means 94 of the 100 teams in the top five in this area so far this century posted winning records, with many of them recording over 45 victories.

When you consider that this restart season comes after a four-month-plus layoff and teams just had a few weeks of practice and only three scrimmage games, you could argue that defense will be even more important than in the past. Finding a consistent shooting rhythm will likely be a challenge for any team, thus making it imperative to rely on defensive effort and intensity night in and night out.

Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford has spent an extensive amount of time during Orlando’s restart practices focusing on the team’s ball pressure as well as their high and side pick-and-roll defense because of how pivotal it will be during the team’s seeding games.

So for my final point, I’ll just turn it over to him.

“For our team, our calling card has to be the defense,” Clifford said. “We’re going to have to play well at both ends of the floor to win a series, but again, defense for us is where it has to start.”

Need I say more?

Top 5 Offense

By Josh Cohen

Picking offense over defense will likely anger most coaches – not just in basketball but any sport really. Mike D’Antoni, coach of the Houston Rockets, probably is one of the few exceptions, so I appreciate his assumed support.

Nobody will disagree that to go far in the NBA playoffs a team must play elite defense. It’s been proven time and time again that to win big you have to step it up on the defensive end. The NBA champs of the last few years – the 2019 Raptors, the 2015, 2017 and 2018 Warriors, the 2016 Cavs, the 2014 Spurs and the 2012 and 2013 Heat all played great defense in the postseason.

But this debate is strictly focused on the seeding games, or regular season games for all of you who prefer more conventional NBA lingo. For the Orlando Magic, specifically, how well their offense flows will likely determine whether they end up as the No. 7 seed or not in the playoffs. If the Magic do eclipse the Brooklyn Nets, their first opponent during the seeding games, for that seventh spot, they will be guaranteed a second straight playoff berth and likely dodge the 53-12 Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.

In no way shape or form does that ignore the effort they must give on defense. But, if their offense is smooth, that will likely make it easier for the Magic to excel defensively, too.

Considering five of their seven opponents (they play the Nets twice) rank in the top 10 in defense this season, including the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers who are all in the top six, having a top five offense during the seeding games would be quite a remarkable achievement.

From Feb. 10 until the league shutdown, when it won eight of 12, Orlando had the NBA’s No. 1 offense. It ranked No. 1 in points (120.8), No. 2 in assists (29.1), No. 4 in turnovers (12.2) and No. 13 in 3-point percentage (37.0). Taking it a bit further, the Magic ranked in the top 10 in that period in points off turnovers, second chance points and points in the paint. Going deeper into the numbers, the Magic during that stretch ranked No. 2 in screen assists points, with their starting center Nikola Vucevic racking up the second most behind Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis. Their hustle on the offensive side was detectable as well. Over those final 12 games, Orlando averaged the seventh most offensive loose balls recovered.

It was just a scrimmage game, but Orlando’s sharp ball movement, effective execution and team unselfishness against the Denver Nuggets on Monday night was another example of just how good the Magic are when their offense is crisp. Six Magic players scored in double figures, as a team they made 18 of their 37 3-point attempts (48.6 percent) and they collectively dished out 30 assists.

The one main commonality among the three exhibition games at Disney was the Magic’s strong bench play, which was also mighty after the All-Star break. Obviously, Terrence Ross is a key piece to the puzzle, but D.J. Augustin, despite starting in the three scrimmages with Markelle Fultz working his way back to game shape, Michael Carter-Williams, Mo Bamba and Gary Clark, who was sensational in a starting role against Denver with 17 points, will be just as critical once the games start to count toward the regular season standings.

Orlando’s bench over the Magic’s last 12 games averaged 44.7 points, sixth most in the league in that time. Even more interesting and impressive was that they averaged a league-most 6.8 3-pointers made.

Playing against three of the best defensive teams in the NBA in their scrimmages likely helped the Magic get ready for the restart. The Lakers had the third best defense before the stoppage, the Clippers were fifth and the Nuggets 12th.

So, what are some specifics of what the Magic will need to do to thrive offensively during their eight seeding contests? Probably the most important thing is taking advantage of their collective versatility. Especially if Jonathan Isaac plays big minutes, the Magic will have so many interchangeable parts. They can play big. They can play small. They can be more methodical. They can play more up-tempo.

Speaking of tempo, the Magic played at a much faster pace over those final 12 games before the hiatus. They went from 28th in pace pre-Feb. 10 to 12th post-Feb. 10. It will likely be beneficial for them to continue playing at a more rapid pace, and that doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with speed but rather getting into their sets quicker and not being stagnant.

“Offensively, it’s just more sustainable ball movement, quick decision, if you don’t have anything move it, cut, create space and get to the next action – whether it’s pick-and-roll, dribble handoff, flash game, post it, no matter what it is,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said recently.

The bottom line is if the offense is clicking, shots are falling and they are trusting one another by sharing the rock, their defense will likely be solid, too.