Jacque Vaughn proving he was worth the risk
Two weeks ago, Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn found himself on the receiving end of league-wide praise for his team’s unexpectedly competitive start. After a 7-3 flurry to kick off December, the Magic sat at 12-13 heading into a five-game stretch against teams under .500, and many were crediting Vaughn for Orlando’s success — so much so that he’d even been thrust into the Coach of the Year discussion.
However, after five consecutive losses to opponents with a combined record of 48-104 — and one overtime heartbreaker to the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat on Monday — those discussions have come to a screeching halt. And the Magic, at 12-19, are looking more and more like the team most people thought they’d be without Dwight Howard.
As the Magic have continued to slide, the media praise has virtually disappeared. In the Twitter-verse that we live in, the media moves on, and Vaughn and the Magic, as a result of their slide, are no longer sexy stories. Instead, they’ve become a perfect case of “what have you done for me lately?”
But it’s too early to jump off the Jacque Vaughn bandwagon. The former Gregg Popovich disciple certainly hasn’t forgotten how to coach 31 games into his first head coaching jobs, and there are obvious answers as to why the Magic have stumbled like they have. Injuries, youth, and an overall regression to the mean have been Orlando’s downfall, and none of them are a result of poor coaching.
In fact, relative to expectations, Vaughn is probably doing everything that was asked of him and more.
See, Vaughn wasn’t hired to compete for a conference championship, so to that end, he’s reaching his potential. First-year Magic general manager Rob Hennigan chose Vaughn because he wanted a coach who could develop Orlando’s young pieces — who could shape Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Nik Vucevic into competitors and above-average NBA talent — and Vaughn been able to do that thus far.
Unfortunately, that development hasn’t led to wins, but it was never really supposed to.
At the start of the season, the majority of prognosticators had the Magic lottery-bound, winning somewhere between 15 and 25 games, and despite the early success of his team, Vaughn is well aware of the long journey ahead. He knows that, in this league, there is never an easy solution to a complex problem — especially not as challenging as those faced by the Magic — and he attacks every day with that in mind.
When asked how he would evaluate his performance so far, his answer was modest, saying that he’s always self-evaluating while trying to hold himself and his players to a standard of being the best they can every day. But within Vaughn’s reticence lies a deeper understanding that the image his team holds of him is a direct reflection of the effort they will put forth on the court.
“I’ll just continue to self-evaluate myself on a daily basis and continue to set a standard of being the best that I can every single day.” -Vaughn on his performance
And while the early season dreams of competing for the 8th playoff seed and a .500 record seem far stretched, the Magic have plenty to look forward to with Vaughn at the helm.
Once, perhaps, a leading candidate for the award, Vaughn won’t be coach of the year this season — Orlando’s 0-6 slide over the last two weeks virtually assures it. But perhaps that’s a good thing, as only three of the last 10 coaches to win the award are still with the team they won the award with.
For the Magic, the goal this season was to set a new framework for the franchise moving forward, one that that carries an expectation of winning while knowing that growth is still a process.
Orlando doesn’t yet have all the pieces on the floor to return to legitimate contention — and won’t for a while. But when it comes to the man leading them from the bench, they’ve struck gold. Hennigan took a chance on a young, unproven coach and passed up on proven low-risk, retread options, and so far, even despite the Magic’s recent struggles, that chance is proving to be worth the risk.