By John Denton
Sept. 28, 2016
ORLANDO – After years of striving for improvements on the defensive end of the floor – and seeing only minimal gains – the Orlando Magic now have high hopes of attaining defensive greatness this season.
Greatness as in knock-down, shut-down, gritty, fearsome, tops-in-the-NBA kind of defense.
Fortunately for the Magic a perfect storm of having the right coach and heaps of new talent could make those lofty defensive goals possible. And Orlando’s strong belief is that if it can get to the level of being the NBA’s top defensive unit, that will propel the team into becoming a playoff powerhouse come mid-April.
By hiring Frank Vogel – a head coach known for his history of having strong defensive teams – and acquiring noted shot-blockers Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, the Magic have a strong defensive foundation and loads of potential. Throw in the versatile, lock-down abilities of wings Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green and an expected bounce-back season from point guard Elfrid Payton and the Magic are already thinking big on the defensive end of the floor.
``The goal is to be in the top five (of the NBA defensive rankings) and when (opposing teams) come here they will have to know what they are facing,’’ said Biyombo, Orlando’s top signing in free agency following a stellar defensive run in the playoffs with Toronto. ``People will have to really sit down and think a lot about having to face us. We have to establish ourselves and earn our respect. It’s going to be fun.’’
It most likely won’t be fun for foes when facing the Magic with Ibaka and Biyombo patrolling the paint. In years past, players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and John Wall carved up Orlando by getting all the way to the rim with little resistance in their way. Now, they will most likely encounter at least one, if not two shot-blockers coming to re-direct their shots.
Acquiring difference-making rim protection proved to be a guiding factor in the players that the Magic sought this offseason, Orlando GM Rob Hennigan said.
``If you look at the numbers we were in the lower quadrant of rim protection last season, so that was a big focus of ours in the offseason,’’ Hennigan admitted.
Ibaka, acquired in a draft-night trade with Oklahoma City, led the NBA in total blocks four straight seasons from 2010-11 to 2013-14 and he’s ranked seventh, third, second, first and first in blocks per game over the past five seasons. Now, Ibaka thinks he can help the Magic become extremely stingy as it relates to defense.
``Why not? I think so because we have players who can play defense and can be used a lot of different ways,’’ Ibaka said. ``We just have to work together to bring all of those talents together to be one of the NBA’s best defensive teams.’’
Biyombo was 14th in the NBA in blocked shots last season (1.62) and he swatted 1.35 shots in 20 playoff games last spring. Biyombo also has a long history of being a stellar rim protector, ranking first in the NBA last season in field goal percentage allowed against the player he was guarding. Also, he’s ranked 14th, 18th, 28th, 9th and 8th in the NBA in blocked shots per game over the past five seasons.
Ibaka and Biyombo, both natives of Congo in Africa, have long been friends and are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to play together. Ibaka spoke with Biyombo when he was trying to decide which team to sign with in free agency, and the big man ultimately joined the Magic. Now, they are envisioning nights where they will form a ``SWAT Team’’ of sorts along the Magic’s frontline.
``We know that we’re going to make lives miserable (for opposing players),’’ Biyombo said recently. ``We had some fun conversations about that. It’s exciting to think about, but at the same time it’s a challenge because we need to establish that (chemistry). It’s going to be exciting playing with him and we’re both already looking forward to it.’’
Long before the additions of Ibaka and Biyombo, Orlando made major strides in improving its defense with the hiring of Vogel in May. In addition to guiding five Indiana teams to the playoffs in his 5 ½ seasons there as head coach, he also has a long history of success on the defensive end of the floor because of the emphasis that he places on stopping foes. Last season in Indiana, Vogel’s Pacers finished in the NBA’s top 10 in defensive rating (third), opponents’ field goal percentage allowed (sixth) and points allowed per game (eighth). His Indiana teams finished sixth, third, first, first, sixth and seventh in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed over the past six seasons.
``We have some really good defensive talent and it’s going to come down to how well they learn, how well they commit and how important (defense) is to them,’’ Vogel said of the potential of this Magic team. ``We’re going to put them in positions to have great defensive success. We’re going to drill the heck out of it in practice and it’s going to be something that’s one of the most important things for us. We want to take pride in being a great, great defensive team.’’
History says that if the Magic can truly become ``a great, great defensive team’’ they will be able to ride that all the way to the playoffs.
Here’s some proof: