Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
When the Orlando Magic extended the contract of coach Jacque Vaughn (and GM Rob Hennigan) through the 2015-16 season, the general consensus among Magic fans was that Vaughn was not deserving of his extension. Their reasoning was simple: he has not proven to be a good head coach.
Even though Vaughn was the NBA’s youngest head coach at the time of his hiring (at age 37) in the summer of 2012, expectations within the Magic fan base were high since he was coming from the hallowed Gregg Popovich coaching tree, having spent two seasons on the sidelines as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. Given that Popovich is undoubtedly the best head coach in the league, the thinking was that Vaughn would be an excellent head coach himself by symbiosis.
In the eyes of Magic fans, Vaughn hasn’t lived up to the hype. In two seasons with Vaughn at the helm, the Magic have gone 43-121 (.262) — the worst two-year stretch in franchise history.
Even though it’s common knowledge that the Magic have been purposely built, in the short term, to lose (or to tank in more blunt terms), the prevalent feeling in Orlando is that Vaughn has not done a good enough coaching job. In fact, there are those within the Magic fan base that feel Vaughn should have been fired already.
Vaughn’s critics like to lay out several bullet-point items that, in their view, he has done to undermine the Magic — particularly this season.
First, they feel Vaughn has made questionable rotations. Magic fans like to paint Andrew Nicholson as the victim of Vaughn’s rotation blunders. After a promising rookie season, Nicholson regressed in his sophomore year — to be fair, this is a fact, not an opinion. Who, or what, was to blame for Nicholson getting worse as a player in his developmental phase? If you ask the Magic fan base, they’ll say Vaughn and his mishandling of Nicholson’s playing time.
Second, they feel Vaughn has not played certain youngsters enough and third, by extension, they feel he has played some veterans too much. Glen Davis was the bane of Magic fans’ existence, a player they felt was taking minutes away from Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn. They believed that Vaughn was leaning too heavily on Big Baby, especially when it became crystal clear this season that O’Quinn could play.
Jameer Nelson, the team’s eldest statesman, got criticized to a lesser extent by a pocket of fans that felt Victor Oladipo should have started over him. But Oladipo played plenty and started plenty, and was getting fourth quarter minutes over Nelson was the season wore on, so Nelson wasn’t much of a lightning rod for controversy compared to Davis.
The problem with all these criticisms is that they’re low-hanging fruit. Rotations. Playing time. These are things that coaches get criticized for all the time by cranky fans. Even Stan Van Gundy, newly minted czar of the Detroit Pistons and former coaching demigod in Orlando, had to hear these criticisms (Brandon Bass, anyone?).
The fact of the matter is that the Magic had logjams at the power forward and center positions for much of the season. Glen Davis, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn, and Andrew Nicholson were all vying for minutes. There’s only so much Vaughn can do with a finite amount of minutes to distribute — that’s 96 minutes for five players. Someone is going to get squeezed out.
The easiest solution, benching Davis, wasn’t that easy of a solution, given his temperamental personality and penchant for flinging keyboards at local Travelodges. There’s a human element that fans tend to ignore. Big Baby, already a locker room disruption, would have been an even bigger one had his minutes been severely cut or he got benched. This is a player that got accustomed to starting and playing big minutes.
That’s why, ultimately, Hennigan bought out Davis’ contract shortly after the trade deadline expired, to alleviate that potential issue and clear up the aforementioned positional logjams — particularly for Nicholson and O’Quinn.
And as for Vaughn’s rotations, well, the Magic’s goal in the Hennigan-Vaughn era has not been to win games right now. It’s been partly to see what talent can play. Because there is not an expectation to win, that has allowed Vaughn the luxury to experiment with different lineups and discover optimal 5-man units — that’s something that Pop does with the Spurs in the regular season, by the way, and they’re trying to win a title. That experimentation has flustered the Magic fan base, which has demanded order and structure with the lineups.
These issues get brought up because Vaughn hasn’t been winning games at the natural progression that Magic fans want to see, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise that the Magic have been obsessively trying to model themselves after (along with the Spurs), also had a 43-121 record in the first two years of their rebuild. Orlando and OKC even had the same records sequentially in their first two respective seasons (20-62 and 23-59).
It’s true that Orlando hasn’t been successful when looking through the traditional lens of wins and losses, but that doesn’t mean Vaughn hasn’t done some things well.
Perhaps Vaughn’s greatest strength as a coach is, ironically, what he gets criticized for the most: player development. He’s done an excellent job of developing nearly every player on the Magic’s roster. From Nikola Vucevic becoming a double-double machine, to Arron Afflalo turning into an All-Star caliber player, to Tobias Harris breaking out after being shackled in Milwaukee, to Kyle O’Quinn going from benchwarmer to starter, to Victor Oladipo steadily improving as a point guard, to Maurice Harkless becoming a better 3-point shooter, there are success stories everywhere.
It’s true that Nicholson’s regression sticks out like a sore thumb, but that’s not to say he can’t bounce back next season.
Another of Vaughn’s strengths has been his ability to coax consistent energy and effort from his players on a nightly basis. Despite all the losing, you seldom see the Magic not give an honest effort. It’s easy for losing to wear on teams to the point that they don’t want to try in games. You see it all the time in the NBA. Yet that’s rarely a concern with the Magic.
A big reason for that is Vaughn’s penchant for preaching a positive message from the practice floor and locker room to the court on game days. You can tell the players like each other and like him. That harmony is vital, especially for the young guys that are trying to grow and find themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, Vaughn has demonstrated that he’s a smart, tactical coach. He gets criticized a lot for constructing an offense that takes way too many midrange jumpers, but the Magic are filled with midrange shooters — Afflalo, Davis (before he left), Harris, Nicholson, and O’Quinn — and bereft of 3-point marksmen. It’s hard to replicate the 3-point happy days of yesteryear when SVG was around with only three above-average 3-point shooters on the roster (Afflalo, Harkless, and the rarely-used Doron Lamb).
For what it’s worth, Vaughn is on the record as saying that he would like to play a more up-tempo, free-flowing style offensively (ala the Spurs). The problem is that the Magic don’t have the talent just yet to do that.
In the interim, Vaughn has shown that he understands the players’ strengths and has adjusted the offense accordingly. A lot of coaches are stubborn in their ideas and refuse to change to cater to players, but Vaughn has displayed a willingness to alter little fabrics of the offense to accommodate his guys. Unfortunately for Vaughn, schemes can only go so far, as the Magic have ranked in the bottom-five in offensive efficiency in the past two seasons.
What hasn’t gotten enough attention is that Orlando’s defense has markedly improved over time. The Magic went from having a bottom-five defensive team last season to having an average defensive team this season.
Two big reasons for that improvement has been talent — hi, Victor Oladipo — and Vaughn adjusting the Magic’s pick-and-roll coverages. Orlando went from a hedge-and-recover team in year one to a zone up team (in which the bigs patrol the paint) in year two.
That is a strategy that the Indiana Pacers have become famous for with the slow-footed Roy Hibbert and the Magic have done the same with the equally slow-footed Vucevic. It’s an adjustment that falls in line with the Magic’s general defensive strategy, which has been to pack the paint and force teams to beat them with jump shots.
Look, Vaughn makes mistakes and is still learning. He’s by no means a great coach. Yet. The jury is still out. And the argument that the Magic should have taken a wait-and-see approach with Vaughn before extending his contract is a fair one.
But the criticisms levied against him and his coaching acumen have been largely unfair. Vaughn has shown promise and the potential is there for him to become the excellent head coach that the Magic fan base expected him to be when he first got hired.