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Jacque Vaughn’s Magic Struggling in Fight for Credibility

If the Orlando Magic don’t take the next step forward soon, changes may be in order.

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The Orlando Magic are still trying to find themselves during the third year of their rebuilding process. They have good pieces in place, but they have yet to make the leap from a rebuilding team to a playoff contender. To earn that kind of credibility, consistency is a must. With that, the wins will follow.

“The only way you can get credibility is if you go out there and compete and get past your opponent and get the win,” Tobias Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The way I look at it is that it’s on us as a team, and the five guys that are out on the floor need to be better than the guys who are in front of you.”

Forming consistency has been so hard for the Magic mainly because they are still trying to figure out who they are as players and how they fit into head coach Jacque Vaughn’s system.

“I don’t think we really nailed down what we are going to do every night and who is going to be producing for us like that at a level that we can win,” veteran Channing Frye explained. “I think that we have guys that can produce, but I think we only average about 92 points so it’s tough to win games like that.”

To be exact, the Magic are averaging 93.7 points per game and currently hold a 13-22 record. The Magic players expect themselves to compete for a win every game. They have a double-double machine in Nikola Vucevic, Harris as a consistent offensive force and the runner-up in last season’s Rookie of the Year race Victor Oladipo as a defensive force. With the talent that they have, they should be closer to an above .500 record. In the last 10 games, they have gone 4-6, including losses to teams like the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers.

“We need to hold ourselves accountable as players and we have been losing games to teams that we should have beaten,” Harris said. “The last couple of games have been disappointing because the teams we played against have just played harder than us and that’s just not the type of team that we are.”

The notion of not playing hard enough is not only coming from the leading scorer on the team. Harris’ teammate, Evan Fournier, felt the same way after the Magic’s loss to the Jazz.

“It’s not just about defense, its about playing harder. We started the game flat [with] no energy,” Fournier said. “We are not tough enough, sometimes that is what it comes down to. We have to play harder to be at least be in the game.”

Every team will have ups and downs throughout the season, but the downs typically hit younger teams worse than others. Adversity might shake up their confidence; they can get distracted and eventually check out if things don’t get better in a hurry. Losing streaks tend to be a test to see how tough the players and the team really are.

“We keep our confidence up by knowing when we do things right it looks good and feels good and we get wins from that,” Frye shared. “These kinds of stretches come and go during the course of a season so it just determines how much fortitude we have towards knowing how to play the right way and knowing how to play for each other.”

Frye knows a thing or two about being part of rebuilding teams that take the next steps to become a contender. He was part of the team that took the Portland Trail Blazers to the playoffs in 2009 after the team missed the playoffs the previous six seasons. After that, he was part of the Phoenix Suns team that reached the Western Conference Finals, but they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Lakers after six games. Last season, Frye helped the young Suns team reach a surprising 48-34 record.

“I remember there was this one time when I was in Phoenix and we went to the Western Conference Finals,” Frye recalled. “That year, we lost pretty much the whole month of December and it took one game, one time, one practice to really understand how hard it is to work and play for each other and to win.”

Frye knows what it takes to get to the next level and believes the Magic can do it. They have young, talented players in Harris, Vucevic, Oladipo, Fournier and rookies Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. They also have the veteran leadership of Frye, Ben Gordon, Willie Green and Luke Ridnour to help guide them. The question then becomes if they have good pieces, why aren’t they getting better and gaining credibility?

Some may point to Coach Vaughn as the reason why this young team is not moving forward. His rotations this season have been questioned by many. Recently, he changed his starting lineup from Oladipo, Fournier, Harris, Frye and Vucevic to Payton, Oladipo, Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Vucevic. He made this change to help achieve more balanced scoring with his second unit; only time will tell if that move will benefit the team in the long run.

Vaughn’s unwillingness to play two former first-round draft picks this season has also been a serious area of concern. The Magic have invested over two years on Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, but neither player is seeing the floor much. During games, Vaughn has chosen Green over Harkless numerous times (and not played Harkless at all), making it seem like Harkless is not part of the long-term plan. Harkless and Nicholson have showed flashes of being able to contribute, but it’s hard to make the most of spot minutes when you don’t know the next time you’ll be seeing the floor again unless you make something happen immediately. During their first two seasons, Harkless had started to developed his corner three-point shot and Nicholson showed a knack for getting good looks down low and expanding his shot.

As we’ve come to learn, even the most proven head coaches get questioned. Vaughn, who has yet to earn his stripes as a head coach, is far from exempt, but he still has the faith and confidence of the front office. There better be a method to his madness, though, because if this squad doesn’t start earning credibility soon and looking like a legitimate playoff team – not just one that is still alive in the race for the eighth seed because the Eastern Conference is woefully top heavy – the blame is quickly going to come down on him.

Mary Stevens is entering her third year covering the NBA. She is based out of Orlando, Fla. and has also covered the NFL, NCAA and MLS.

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