A lack of votes for some key defensive stoppers for the Orlando Magic on the All-Defensive teams this season will be a motivator moving forward.
The NBA has released its All-Defensive First and Second Teams, with no Orlando Magic player featured in either team. Although it may seem unfair that this is the case, the Magic were on national television only once during the regular season, in the final game of the year against the Charlotte Hornets.
With their playoff status already secure at that point, it was a flat performance that still led to a win. The Magic don’t have most of the media’s attention, despite the best efforts of head cheerleader Stan Van Gundy, so it is easy to see why some of their standout defensive players were overlooked.
Whether they should have been left off both teams is another discussion, and one worth exploring to see if this truly was a snub of epic proportions. Before building the case for three of their best players on that end, there is one inexcusable fact that needs to open the argument: Not one Magic player got a single vote to appear on either team.
This is baffling, beginning with the fact that the Magic had the eighth-best defensive rating in the league this season (107.5). This was a big improvement on the 109.3 mark Orlando posted in 2017-18, which put the team 20th in defensive ranking that season. To improve so much in one season and build their identity around defending as a unit, but still not get a single vote, is strange.
Some of the players to get votes over any Magic player included Jordan Bell, Ed Davis, Joe Ingles and Brook Lopez. There’s nothing wrong with any of these guys, as they are all above-average defenders for their positions. But better than any one of the trio of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Khem Birch? That is a harder sell.
Starting with Gordon, the Magic had a defensive rating of 105.1 when he was on the court. This was the season when he began to turn away from the athletic freak moniker and morph into a more complete two-way player. Head coach Steve Clifford set him to the task of making First Team All-Defense for the year, and although he came up well short, he did become the organization’s best and most consistent defender.
Gordon was the one tasked with guarding an opponent’s best player on any given night, and he usually did a solid job of at least making them work for their points. This continued into the playoffs, as he did his best to slow down Kawhi Leonard. In fact, Gordon was the only player to come out of the Magic’s foray into the postseason with his head held high.
The Magic were a better team defensively when Gordon was on the floor, and the fact that he did not receive a single vote at all is tough to take. Isaac’s case is a bit lighter, but the case to at least have received a few votes is there to be made too. The team was again better than its normal defensive rating when he was on the court (106.6).
Isaac is longer than Gordon and more capable of altering shots and passing lanes simply by being in the way, but it was the effort he combined with this that allowed him to continue his rapid growth on this end.
With Gordon usually taking the quicker and more celebrated offensive players, Isaac was able to shut down secondary scoring options. Using blocks alone to argue a player’s influence defensively is folly, but alongside the defensive rating and shot-changing efforts of Isaac, it becomes another number to validate his case.
The 1.3 blocks per contest Isaac averaged were not only a team high (although Mohamed Bamba may have bettered this if he had stayed healthy for the whole season), but also ranked 19th in the entire NBA. For a second-year player, this is impressive. His snub is more understandable, and his time will surely come, but he too can feel slighted about not receiving a single vote.
Birch is the final person who should have received some votes, but his case is more unique. He wasn’t a regular in the rotation until Bamba’s leg injury in early February, at which point he saw his role and production rapidly increase.
The numbers (4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game) were pedestrian, but everything else about his play was anything but. To have a Player Efficiency Rating of 19.2 in such limited run was impressive, especially with the league average sitting at 15. Better than that, the defensive rating of 102 the Magic had when he was on the court would have led the league if used over a whole season.
It was the energy of Birch off the bench that helped dig the Magic out of a hole, as they came back from 11 games under .500 to make the playoffs. In the postseason, Birch had a defensive rating of 90.7 — a crazy number that isn’t valuable on its own because of the small sample size of five games. Yet somehow, that is a number that still leads all players in the postseason.
Again, it’s a stat that can be bent in different ways to bolster a player’s case without meaning a whole lot. But added to the credentials that Birch put together this season, he is actually the most surprising omission of all. Not only did he help resuscitate a franchise’s entire season, he also helped to power a top-12 defensive team off the bench.
If Gordon and Isaac didn’t get any votes though, it was going to be nearly impossible for Birch to get the nod. Outside of a few NBA writers, most people don’t know or care who Birch is. His play isn’t flashy and he isn’t a diverse offensive guy, meaning he flies under the radar of casual fans.
While this is disappointing for all three, it is the perfect motivator for the organization as a whole heading into next season. The Magic were a surprise package by finishing 42-40, winning the Southeast Division and making the playoffs. Yet that still wasn’t enough to be rewarded with even one All-Defensive vote for one of their three deserving players.
Clifford will ensure everybody knows that they will need to work even harder to make the media pay attention to the optimistic future being built in Orlando. This includes Gordon, Isaac and Birch (if he is still on the team), three young players who only figure to get better. This snub will serve as motivation as they continue to help the Magic become players in the East again.