Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
When the Magic announced the hiring of Jacque Vaughn to replace Stan Van Gundy this summer, I wrote that it made sense for a team that was, more or less, completely starting over from scratch to hire a coach with an equally clean record.
As soon as Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson were traded during the offseason, it was clear that this team was headed for the cellar of the Eastern Conference and that this season would be more about finding and developing young talent than trying to make the playoffs.
That reality could have led to this season being an unwatchable disaster. In some instances, it’s been all too apparent that this team doesn’t have the talent to compete with the better teams. But I’ve enjoyed following this team a lot more than I anticipated and Vaughn deserves a lot of the credit for that.
In watching the way this undermanned team start at a better-than-anticipated 5-8 record and lose some competitive games, I’m reminded of the impact Monty Williams had last season on a New Orleans Hornets team in a similar situation.
Williams was a lot like Vaughn when he was first hired by the Hornets in 2009: a relatively young former player who had nothing but endorsements as an assistant under one of the more respected coaches in the league. Williams cut his teeth under Nate McMillan in Portland. Vaughn came from the unassailable Gregg Popovich factory.
Williams coached Chris Paul for one year, in 2010-11, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t correctly think CP3 would be gone the following year, which made that first season something of a stopgap.
After Paul was traded to the Clippers, Williams was left with a pretty brutal roster, especially once Eric Gordon missed all but a handful of games last season. Much like Vaughn’s first Magic roster, Williams’ post-CP3 Hornets were an awkward mishmash of middling veterans (Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack) and young players that were complete unknowns (Al-Farouq Aminu, Gustavo Ayon). And they were about as bad as advertised, finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference at 21-45.
But anyone who watched that team last year saw the impact Williams had on the culture. The team sucked, but everybody bought in, and nobody was checked out. As lacking as the talent was, Williams had his guys playing hard every single night. And it’s hard not to look at the 2012-13 Magic and see that Vaughn has been able to do the same thing.
Veterans like Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis, who would have every right to be frustrated playing on a team headed nowhere in the immediate future, are relishing their leadership roles. Most of the youngsters (particularly Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless) have become regular contributors much earlier than anticipated. It’s to Vaughn’s enormous credit that he has allowed these players the time and freedom to figure out what kind of NBA players they are, rather than letting them languish on the bench.
On Monday, Glen Davis was asked by the Boston Herald to compare his experience playing for Vaughn this season with that of playing for former Magic coach and current Celtics coach Doc Rivers in Boston. Davis’ response was telling:
“Different guys,” Davis said of the two coaches. “Doc is more of a military-minded kind of guy, and Jacque is more of a Gandhi kind of guy — soft but powerful. Doc’s more, ‘Get the job done,’ and Jacque Vaughn is more the kind of guy who will ask you, ‘Would you feel comfortable getting the job done?’ I think that’s different with players. But in my system, I think I just feel better functioning in Jacque’s system. Doc wasn’t the kind of guy to pat you on your back and say, ‘Good job, man.’ He’s more like, ‘OK, move on.’ In a way that’s positive, but some players are different.”
Vaughn’s willingness to put the comfort level of the players first is exactly what a roster this young and unsculpted needs to thrive. He knows that the players who truly matter for the team’s future, the Harklesses and Nicholsons and Vucevics, are going to need time to get comfortable contributing with as many minutes as they’ve been getting. He understands the relatively low stakes of this season and thus far he’s squeezed as much as could be reasonably expected out of this roster.