The end is near for Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn, and that’s somewhat sad.
If you have been watching, the idea of replacing Vaughn as Orlando’s coach is not hard to justify. The team has no focus or rhythm; there is no consistent plan of attack or rotation.
The Magic are lost and so is Vaughn.
You can see that Vaughn is searching for something, anything to give his team a chance. He has paraded numerous roster combinations trying to find something that works for more than just a night.
Some of that is on Vaughn. Some of that is also on his players who cannot seem to muster the same energy level in more than two consecutive games.
Now before we get into how we got here, there are some things worth saying:
Vaughn is a hell of a nice person. He is smart, articulate, patient, engaging and extremely cerebral. So while the Magic struggle, it’s easy to hurl negative comments at Vaughn, but it’s hard to take many of them seriously because he is not a dumb jock pulled off the street and asked to skipper the team.
He was simply set up to fail.
In July of 2012 the Magic set out to re-tool their basketball operation staff from the top down. Magic CEO Alex Martins ran the process of finding a new general manager and according to everyone associated with that process – many who interviewed – Martins was fair, thorough and thoughtful. He eventually settled in on Thunder executive Rob Hennigan.
As Martins tells the story, he and ownership sat down and talked about what the organizational philosophy needed to be going forward and they did a thorough study of all the teams in the NBA and narrowed in on those teams that had sustained year over year success. That led them to the Spurs.
The Spurs have been part of the NBA for 38 years, not including this season, and have been to the postseason 34 times. They are one of the smallest markets in the NBA and have avoided the trap of overspending that many teams fall into. They have been generationally successful because they work cohesively as a unit both on and off the floor.
There is a seamless process from the top of the organization to the ball boys. They have built sustained success through smart drafting, valuing character and smart spending.
The Magic wanted that kind of organization and felt Hennigan was the right guy to help them build that.
There were no delusions that building a world-class organizational structure like the Spurs have could or would happen overnight, so there was a mindful eye on building for the future. They knew it would take time.
Most of the hires that followed Hennigan were younger guys that could be part of a longer-term rebuilding. The team and ownership knew they were hiring some guys that would need to learn and grow on the job, but in time they could become something special because they were all brought along together.
That same philosophy was applied to the roster. The Magic would cycle out the old guard and bring in fresh new faces from the draft and trades and build a young core that could also grow together, much like the new management team would.
That’s was the plan and that’s why Vaughn was hired over candidates like Mike Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Brian Shaw and Quin Snyder.
Hennigan wanted a coach that could be an extension of the front office. He wanted a coach that would execute the plan that the organization set in motion. The sense then was Vaughn, who was referred to as the Spurs’ biggest acquisition by Gregg Popovich when he joined the bench as an assistant in 2010, was the right guy, despite not having a tremendous amount of coaching experience.
That’s how it started.
Over the last two years the Magic have culled the roster down to the young core they hope to be the future. Along the way young guys were held back a little so the Magic could play some of the veterans and keep their trade value high, but not enough to win games. The Magic were aiming for the draft and nine losses in ten games was an acceptable part of the rebuilding plan.
Vaughn had to be the instrument of that process, and that bred a little distrust from the younger guys who wanted to play bigger roles. They were being held back and watched as games were lost due to poorly timed substitutions and many couldn’t understand that games were being lost almost on purpose.
This season was supposed to be different. This was the year the young horses were supposed to run and really get a chance to challenge. However, from the start of training camp there was a sense that many things were not right. Some of the veterans that were brought in to support the young guys questioned some of the ideas being executed in training camp and in the preseason. That spread to some of the younger guys.
After two straight seasons of losing, there was doubt in the room and that didn’t go away. There was doubt that the decisions being made on the floor were in the best interest of winning.
The group didn’t have the confidence in Vaughn for many reasons, but the biggest is he had not earned it. There were games he played with guy’s minutes; there were accusations made about effort and roles before the first regular season game was even played.
So what’s played out on the floor in Orlando is not at all surprising. Vaughn’s team has not trusted him for some time, and whether that’s fair or not, that’s how it’s been.
With each mounting loss there is a sense that Vaughn does not have the answers. The players have turned to themselves, installing their own plays on offense, and forcing the tempo of the game trying in vain to find something that works for them; truly a case of the inmates running the asylum in many ways.
The biggest problem facing the Magic is not whether to fire Vaughn and call it what it is, it’s that they deliberately built a coaching staff with no real replacement to Vaughn.
The Magic’s organizational structure has each assistant coach serving as an extension of Vaughn in installing and executing the plan, so would a change even matter if the players view the assistants the same way they view Vaughn? And is Vaughn really the problem, or just the face of it?
There is no doubting that Vaughn is not part of the solution, but the overall effort and consistency of the team isn’t on Vaughn completely is it?
It is easy to say “Fire Vaughn” – however that may not change anything. No coach worth his salt is going to take the Magic at this point in the season. There simply is no time to install a staff, institute real change or really alter what’s going on.
So firing Vaughn means promoting either James Borrego or Wes Unseld Jr., neither has head coaching experience and neither is viewed as a future head coach in-waiting.
It’s possible that one of them could change how the players feel about the situation, but the problem is the trust simply is not there for the staff and the program.
If the Magic are going to concede that Vaughn is not the right guy, which seem inevitable, how do they go about repairing the divide if the new face of the future isn’t going to be hired until July?
When you hear that the Magic are evaluating the situation and gauging their options, it’s not nearly as simple as it seems.
Firing Vaughn is a much larger problem than the role he plays, it casts doubt on the entire plan and that’s the unfortunate part of trying to build something with so many unproven parts.
Vaughn just looks like he’ll be the first one to go.
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