The Magic fired their coach after making little offensive progress and suffering defensive regression.

When you think of the Orlando Magic under Jacque Vaughn, how would you describe their identity? What about their desired style of play? Could you see progress being made toward something greater?

Orlando’s management could not, apparently, which led them to fire Vaughn on February 5th with the team riding a 10-game losing streak. In a statement posted on Magic’s website Thursday, general manager Rob Hennigan explained why he made the move:

We went into the season wanting to see some progress and see some growth and we just didn’t feel like we were seeing the kind of growth that we wanted to see. That led us to this point. We find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. We’ll call it what it is, but I’ll always say that it’s a road bump and not a road block. We will get through this, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you have to make the type of decision that we made today.

The Magic responded to Vaughn’s firing with a 103-97 overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 6th, but dropped a heartbreaker to the Chicago Bulls two nights later, coughing up a six-point lead with less than a minute left.

After taking over as interim head coach, James Borrego identified his primary focus in the early going, via John Denton of the team website:

The defense is going to be our focus. We’re going to look to that (defensive) side of the ball. Our challenge will be to our guys to individually and collectively have a pride about our defense. That’s one-on-one containment, staying in front of the ball, keeping the ball out of the paint and challenging every shot and going after every rebound. For whatever reason we just haven’t been very efficient on the defensive end, but that will be our focus moving forward.

Back in training camp, Vaughn made clear that the Magic would only be as strong this season as their defense. Third-year big man Kyle O’Quinn told Denton that “we all really think we should be in single digits [in defensive efficiency rankings] this year,” after the team went from 25th in 2012-13 to tied for 17th last season.

“Defense is going to be a premium for us from every single guy,” Vaughn told Denton. “In order to get minutes on the floor, [defense] has to be an area that you are dedicated to.”

Unfortunately, Vaughn’s vision this season never quite came to fruition. Through the 52 games in which he oversaw the team, the Magic coughed up 106.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents, the fifth-worst mark in the league. Opponents converted 46.9% of their shots overall, the NBA’s second-highest mark, and 36.0% of their looks from three-point range, the seventh-highest mark. Though Orlando limited opponents to the fourth-fewest field-goal attempts at the rim per game (20.8), 54.6% of those shots went in, the league’s second-highest mark.

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Starting with a 101-84 loss to the Lakers on Jan. 9, the Magic coughed up at least 100 points in each of their following 13 contests. Management deserves the blame for that in part, however, as they reportedly pushed him to “play a faster tempo based on the youth and athleticism of the roster,” per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski. Through January 8th, the Magic averaged just 94.75 possessions per game, the seventh-fewest in the league, and allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 20th overall. Starting with that Lakers loss, Orlando averaged 100.22 possessions per game over its next 14 contests, the NBA’s third-highest mark, while allowing a league-high 110.8 points per 100 possessions.

Vaughn voiced his frustration with the Magic’s recent style of play following a 113-106 loss to the New York Knicks on January 23rd, via Denton:

Our mindset of coming into the game and trying to outscore people instead of outplaying them and out-defending them … it’s evident in how we’re approaching the game. The defensive end needs to be a premium. Instead of thinking about scoring the basketball as soon as you step on the floor, worry about defending the basketball. That would help.

That same night, forward Channing Frye blamed the team’s identity about-face for some of its defensive woes, telling Denton, “I think we have effort, but it’s about all of us being on the same page. It just looks like a [lack of] effort thing because we’re all doing different things.”

Fourth-year center Nikola Vucevic echoed those concerns when speaking with Grantland’s Zach Lowe in late January:

I think the way we are playing lately with the pick-and-roll and a fast pace — that can be our identity. The main issue is that we are focused too much on running and trying to score, and we forgot that we have to play defense.

Vucevic emerged as one of the league’s best rebounders under Vaughn’s tutelage, averaging 11.4 boards per game over the past three seasons. He’s largely the reason Orlando ranks seventh in percentage of rebounds per chance (61.4%) this season, although the Magic are one of the league’s worst teams in contested rebound percentage (32.2%). The contested-rebounding struggles partially explain Orlando’s dismal marks in rebounds per game (40.7, the league’s third-worst mark) and overall rebounding percentage (47.5%, ahead of just Philadelphia and Dallas).

Though the USC product was one of Orlando’s lone bright spots on the glass, his rim protection left much to be desired under Vaughn. In 2013-14, among the 75 players who faced at least five field-goal attempts per night at the rim, Vucevic allowed the sixth-highest shooting percentage (56.3%) in the 57 games in which he appeared. He hasn’t been much better this year, allowing opponents to convert 54.7% of their looks at the rim, the 10th-highest mark among the 76 players facing at least five such field-goal attempts per game.

A lack of a defined identity on either offense or defense ultimately proved Vaughn’s downfall in Orlando. Just look at how the Magic stacked up compared to the rest of the league during his tenure:

OffRtgDefRtgNetRtgPaceOpp FG%Opp 3FG%
2012-1398.9 (27th)106.7 (25th)-7.8 (29th)94.48 (14th)46.3% (22th)35.9% (T-16th)
2013-1499.3 (29th)104.8 (T-17th)-5.5 (T-25th)95.87 (16th)45.6% (T-13th)37.1% (T-26th)
2014-1599.5 (25th)106.1 (26th)-6.5 (26th)96.22 (15th)46.9% (29th)36.0% (24th)

 

For the sake of comparison, here’s how the Philadelphia 76ers are faring two years into their rebuild:

OffRtgDefRtgNetRtgPaceOpp FG%Opp 3FG%
2013-1496.8 (30th)107.5 (27th)-10.7 (30th)101.62 (1st)47.1% (T-28th)37.0% (25th)
2014-1591.6 (30th)102.3 (12th)-10.8 (30th)98.00 (6th)44.8% (14th)34.8% (T-14th)

After a dismal defensive start to the season, the Sixers have been rock-solid on defense since December 1, posting the league’s seventh-best defensive efficiency in that span. Only two of their past 12 opponents have topped the 100-point threshold, which has helped the Sixers remain competitive in losses to the Atlanta Hawks (91-85 on Jan. 31) and the Golden State Warriors (89-84 on Feb. 9). Following the team’s loss to the Dubs, head coach Brett Brown praised his troops for sticking to the franchise’s overarching game plan:

Compare that to how Lowe summarized Orlando’s woes in his post mortem of Vaughn’s tenure:

On some nights, you can see the blurry outlines of an interesting team — a spread pick-and-roll machine with tenacious perimeter defenders and some grit.

On other nights, it’s a mess. The Magic under Vaughn toggled haphazardly between different offensive styles and defensive schemes. There has been no consistent identity beyond “hard work,” and everyone in the NBA works pretty hard. Maurice Harkless vanished for no real reason. A coach with a firmer hand would have imprinted some coherent vision upon this roster by now.

Two-and-a-half years into his tenure, sporting a 58-158 record wasn’t necessarily Vaughn’s downfall. After all, Brown figures to have an equally dismal record come the middle of next season, and he’s earning widespread praise for the work he’s done with the league’s youngest roster. Vaughn didn’t have much more to work with — the Magic entered the year tied for the fourth-youngest roster— but Hennigan has done a rather masterful job reloading the team’s cabinets following the Dwight Howard trade in August 2012. Between Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon, the Magic have the outlines of a young, talented squad that could one day force its way into the title conversation. But there were few signs of that core developing under Vaughn.

Vaughn’s inability to determine what the squad would hang its hat on — whether it would be a defensive-minded, grind-it-out group or a fast-paced, pick-and-roll-centric team that relies on floor spacing to thrive — ultimately sealed his fate. Unless Borrego can carve out a cohesive identity in the coming weeks, his tenure as the team’s head coach likely won’t last long, either.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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