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How Good Does a Defensive Team’s Offense Need to Be in the NBA?

For the first time since Dwight Howard’s departure, the Orlando Magic entered the season with hope. But an elite defense can do only so much for a team when the offense is this putrid.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The worst situation in basketball is whatever position the Knicks are in. So the next-worst situation must be sharing company with the Knicks. Unfortunately for the Orlando Magic, that’s where they find themselves in one crucial category after 11 games: 29th in offensive rating, just one spot ahead of New York.

This season was supposed to be different for Orlando, after a stirring end to the 2018-19 campaign. Over the last two-plus months of last season, the Magic went 20-8 and logged the league’s third-best net rating. They made their first postseason in seven years and even took Game 1 before succumbing to the eventual champion Raptors in the first round.

Yet the start to this season has resembled every other underachieving Magic season of recent vintage. Other defensively oriented teams are dominating the standings: The Lakers, Jazz, Heat, and Raptors are all in the top five in defensive rating and in the top six in winning percentage. But the Magic are an exception, with the league’s no. 3 defense but a 4-7 record and little hope to join their peers in contention. In this age of unprecedented offensive efficiency, a team that can’t score at all might not be able to win, no matter how relatively stout its defense.

Scoring has been a problem for the Magic since they traded Dwight Howard after the 2011-12 season. Orlando has ranked among the bottom-10 offenses every season since; only the 76ers, mired for much of that span in the Process doldrums, have rostered a less efficient offense.

This season is no different, as Orlando has struggled to connect from all areas of the floor—in particular those most conducive to points in the pace-and-space era. According to Cleaning the Glass, which strips out garbage-time numbers, the Magic rank 22nd in shooting percentage at the rim, 23rd from midrange, and 30th in 3-pointers. They rank 26th overall in free throw rate, continuing another long trend of infrequent trips to the charity stripe.

One strange aspect of this season is that thus far, no team has excelled on both sides of the ball. The top five teams in defensive rating all rank outside the top 10 on offense, for instance—but at least the others have outperformed Orlando. In doing so—in scoring just enough that they can turn sturdy defense into consistent victories—they have outlined a blueprint for succeeding as a defensively oriented team in an overwhelmingly offensive era.

The Lakers rely on star power; LeBron James and Anthony Davis can carry an offense, especially when they stagger playing time to cover all 48 minutes. The Raptors and Heat rely on elite shooting, ranking second and fourth, respectively, in 3-point percentage, on a high volume. The Jazz rely on a bit of both, ranking sixth in 3-point percentage as they surround a budding star in Donovan Mitchell with a roll man (Rudy Gobert) and shooters (Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and more).

Orlando, however, cannot manage either. Let’s take the two points in turn; first, star power. Nikola Vucevic led the Magic in scoring last season, at 20.8 points per game, but many of his shooting numbers so far outstripped his previous career bests that he seemed due for regression after re-signing with the team for four years and $100 million. Indeed, Vucevic has seen his 3-point percentage drop by 9.6 points this season versus last, and his 2-point percentage drop by 3.8 points. Even if he bounces back, it’s clear that he is not a true no. 1 scorer on a contender.

Beyond Vucevic, Aaron Gordon has still not taken the leap from worthy rotation player to top option. At the start of the 2017-18 season, Gordon seemed like he’d broken out as a scorer, as he made 59.5 percent of his 3s during his first 10 games. And then he settled back to his normal levels (30.0 percent from 3 over the rest of the season), and now it’s unclear whether he’ll ever reach that next level. Among 168 active players who have attempted at least 1,000 career 3s, Gordon ranks 160th in 3-point percentage.

Nor have other Orlando players stepped up in their stagnation, continuing—again—a long and worrisome trend for the club. Besides Vucevic and Howard, both centers, the last Magic player to average 20 points per game was Steve Francis in 2004-05, and the last and only Magic player to average even eight assists per game was Scott Skiles back in the early ’90s. They have consistently lacked a creative spark.

This season, that means the assist leader is D.J. Augustin, who has already been benched. (At least that outcome is better than this unfortunately hilarious image.) It means the Magic rank 29th in percentage of drives that score a bucket. It means they frequently bring possessions toward the end of the shot clock, without anyone able to penetrate and generate quick scores.

The second issue is Orlando’s lack of shooting, which manifests in a league-worst 3-point percentage: a ghastly 28.5 percent. More than bad luck, this result stems from a roster built with poor shooters. Using each player’s career 3-point performance before this season to predict how many 3s they’d expect to have made so far, Orlando’s “expected” 3-point percentage so far would be 33.5 percent—certainly better than where they sit now, but still a mark that would rank near the bottom of the league. Players like Terrence Ross and Vucevic have started cold from deep, but when half of the guard rotation is Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams, it’s hard to expect too many long-range fireworks.

These problems all compound such that Orlando has to work hard on seemingly every possession to score in the half court, which is a difficult trick to pull off for a single game, let alone a full season. On a night-to-night basis, the “defense wins championships” aphorism isn’t true.

Regular-season winning percentage actually correlates better with offensive than defensive rating. And specifically in the case of extreme teams, a tilt toward offense tends to produce a superior product. During the past decade, teams with elite offenses and terrible defenses fared better than their all-defense, no-offense counterparts. This chart shows the average results for teams with a top-10 ranking in one category and a bottom-10 ranking on the opposite side of the ball; we’ve also included top-10 in both and bottom-10 in both for comparison, to show the range of outcomes.

Outcomes for Extreme NBA Teams, 2010-19

Offense Defense Wins per 82 Games
Offense Defense Wins per 82 Games
Top 10 Top 10 57.4
Top 10 Bottom 10 44.6
Bottom 10 Top 10 41.6
Bottom 10 Bottom 10 22.8

On average, the teams with a sturdy defense and no offense have finished about .500, with 41.6 wins in 82 games—and that seems about right when looking at the Magic, who went 42-40 last season and now seem destined for that same band of wins again, as a best-case scenario.

Orlando might try to break out of its years-long rut by pursuing more easy shots in transition; the league’s least efficient transition offense this season still scores more points per play than the most efficient half-court offense. Yet the Magic haven’t seemed eager to run this season, ranking 29th in pace and only 18th in transition frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s fine when a team like the Lakers plays slower because they have the personnel to score in one-on-one situations against set defenses. Not Orlando, which ranks 29th in half-court points per possession and has struggled with efficiency in pick-and-rolls, post-ups, handoffs, and every other manner of play design worth tracking.

Against a Joel Embiid–less 76ers squad on Wednesday, the Magic pulled away in a 112-97 win largely on the strength of fast-break buckets. Midway through the final quarter, after blocking a Ben Simmons layup, Gordon collected the loose ball and charged ahead, generating a four-on-two advantage. Within six seconds of Simmons releasing his layup attempt, Evan Fournier was rising on the other end to swish a wide-open 3.

Two minutes later, Gordon collected an errant Tobias Harris pass and caught Philadelphia in transition, with three 76ers to guard all five Magic men. Gordon looked off the defenders, feigning another perimeter pass, as Vucevic snuck in behind them for an uncontested lay-in.

That’s the kind of offense Orlando could use more often, both in terms of aggression and the use of Gordon as a distributor. A nonshooting wing needs to be able to handle the ball to pose a real threat in the modern NBA, and to Gordon’s credit, he averaged a career-best 3.7 assists per game last season. But the Magic have yet to fully empower him as a playmaker, as he still lags behind lesser teammates in tracking metrics like time of possession and passes thrown.

Turning more of the offense over to Gordon and Jonathan Isaac would give Orlando, potentially, more flexibility and dynamism in creating mismatches to exploit. Isaac has been the team’s best player this season, but with most of that value concentrated on defense; the former lottery pick is still only averaging 12.1 points and 1.6 assists per game while posting a lower usage rate than every other Orlando rotation player except Al-Farouq Aminu. The Magic could do well to target him more regularly to see if his third-season breakout can encompass both sides of the ball.

Orlando could also go the trade route; this week, Ringer teammate Kevin O’Connor reported Orlando’s interest in DeMar DeRozan, who isn’t a shooter but would at least give the team a 20-point-per-game scorer who can handle the ball. That kind of veteran would make sense to inject in Orlando’s rotation, whether it’s DeRozan or a somewhat lesser target like Goran Dragic if Miami needs to move money to add a star player midseason.

An offensive upgrade could yield huge dividends for the Magic, who even for their season-opening choppiness may still return to the playoffs because of the weakness of their competition. The East has only five good teams plus Indiana, which might be good—the Pacers are 7-4 with Victor Oladipo due back from injury at some point, but they’ve also played the league’s easiest schedule by far, without a single game against a team with a winning record.

Several playoff spots are ripe for the taking, and it’s unclear which teams are favored: The middle of the Eastern Conference is an unholy mess of underachieving reigning playoff clubs (the Magic, Nets, and Pistons) and plucky upstarts who might be a year or two early (the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Hornets). Against that caliber of competition, Orlando’s defensive strength alone might be enough to sneak into the playoff field. But doing so will be an arduous struggle every possession, every game, and the ceiling won’t raise any higher without an aggressive offensive intervention. Elite defensive teams cannot survive without at least poking their head above water on offense—and the Magic are the league’s chief example once again.

Stats current through Wednesday’s games.