ORLANDO – Might the Orlando Magic, based both on personnel and mentality, end up being the best isolation defensive team in the league this season?
Just looking up and down each roster, not many teams, if any, have as many high-level one-on-one defenders than the Magic. For some of their players – such as Jonathan Isaac, Jalen Suggs, Anthony Black and Chuma Okeke – it might very well be their No. 1 strength.
Take everything that happens in the preseason with a grain of salt, but the Magic’s isolation defense in their four exhibition contests was superb.
Orlando guarded 26 shots in isolation during the preseason, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and opponents made just seven of them. Brazilian-team Flamengo was 3-for-11, so if we withdraw that game for competition fairness, the New Orleans Pelicans and Cleveland Cavaliers shot 4-of-15 against the Magic in isolation. That’s 26.7 percent. Last year, the best mark in the league was 37.6 percent, which belonged to the Chicago Bulls. Only five teams held opponents to under 40 percent shooting in isolation. Orlando’s mark was 42.5 percent.
The old adage of 80 percent of success is mental and 20 percent is physical might apply in this discussion. Obviously, a player must be skilled enough to lock up the game’s top isolation scorers. But they also must not be afraid of the challenge and believe they are the right person for the task.
“There were multiple text messages that went out through the summer to guys wanting and willing to take on that challenge,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said. “You had guys saying they want to make the All-Defensive Team. If guys are good individually defensively, then that will help us turn the corner for us as a team defensively, achieving some of the goals that you set forth in order to become a top 10 defensive team.”
Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. guarded the most shots for the Magic in isolation last season. Meanwhile, Okeke, although with far fewer chances, ranked No. 1 on the team in isolation defensive field goal percentage (33.3 percent).
While it remains to be seen how he’ll be utilized this year, especially with the Magic having so much depth on their bench, Okeke is someone Mosley can trust to come up with a stop in a big spot. No matter whether he’s in the game or not, though, the 6-foot-8, 229-pound forward is confident in his team’s defensive approach.
“All the way down from the guards to the bigs, I feel like everybody can guard one through five, honestly,” he said. “If somebody gets blown by or something like that, then we have help because that’s how our defense is designed. It’s designed to keep our man in front of us, but at the same time, if something does happen, we are there to help each other out and pick each other up.”
If the Magic turn out to be a top 10 defensive team this year in a general sense, chances of them making the playoffs are good. Over the last 27 seasons, which goes back to 1996-97, 241 out of the 270 teams that recorded a top 10 defensive rating reached the playoffs. That’s 89.3 percent. Four of those years were truncated because of either lockouts or the pandemic. So, looking exclusively at the 23 full-length seasons during this timeframe, 213 of the 230 teams that finished with a top 10 defensive rating won at least 40 games, which is 92.6 percent.