Magic fire Jacque Vaughn after rebuild stalls, defense regresses
The Magic fired head coach Jacque Vaughn on Thursday after weeks of rumors, replacing him on an interim basis with assistant coach James Borrego. The coaching change comes in the midst of a 10-game losing streak that has further cemented Orlando's spot in the Southeast's basement for the third straight season. Ultimately, Vaughn -- who was hired for his first head coaching job in 2013 after the blockbuster trade of Dwight Howard -- simply didn't have anything to hang his hat on.
Last month, Nets coach Lionel Hollins quipped that his team's identity was that they "don't make shots." Similarly, one might say that the Magic's identity has become their inability to stop anybody. The 2014-15 season has seen Orlando rank No. 25 on defense, returning the franchise to the same ranking it had in Vaughn's first year. Any progress made last year -- when the Magic finished closer to mediocre -- proved unsustainable, despite the growth of Orlando's young core pieces, the addition of a defensive-minded lottery pick in Elfrid Payton and the offseason investment in veteran big man Channing Frye. That dip from "nearly passable" to "terrible again" amounts to a death blow because the Magic have also spent the entirety of Vaughn's tenure ranked no higher than No. 25 on offense.
"We went into the season wanting to see progress and growth and we just didn't feel like we were seeing the type of growth we wanted to see," GM Rob Hennigan acknowledged on Thursday. "We find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. I would also say it's a road bump, not a road block."
That regression has really spiked in recent weeks, as Orlando has conceded at least 103 points in each of its last 10 losses, five of which came by double digits. The ugliest defeat came at the hands of the Thunder, who racked up 79 first-half points during a 127-99 blowout victory on Jan. 18. Losing in volume is a given for rebuilding teams like the Magic, but style points absolutely still count and it's hard to pitch a fan base on a bright future when the present isn't even competitive. Since Orlando's last victory on Jan. 14, the Magic have posted a 112.8 defensive rating, easily the league's worst mark.
Virtually every area on the court is a problem area for the Magic. Overall, they rank No. 29 in opponent field goal percentage, No. 25 in opponent three-point percentage, and No. 28 in opponent field goal percentage inside five feet. It's easy to picture Magic management going to Vaughn with these concerns and getting shoulder shrugs and upward palms in return.
Complicating the assessment of Vaughn's performance have been multiple cases of significantly improved defenses in the Eastern Conference. Steve Clifford transformed Charlotte from the league's worst defense in 2012-13 to No. 6 in 2013-14, progress that has continued this season. Jason Kidd's arrival in Milwaukee this season has seen an improvement from No. 29 in defense in 2013-14 to No. 2 in 2014-15. Even Philadelphia, with its notoriously stripped down roster, has improved from No. 27 last year to No. 12 on defense this year. It's difficult for Vaughn to lean on the youth and inexperience of his roster as excuses when other teams in similar stages of the developmental cycle are making demonstrable strides.
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Both Hennigan and team president Alex Martins stressed their belief in the talent on Orlando's roster during a press conference Thursday. There are certainly pieces assembled, even if their collective fit remains an open question. Center Nikola Vucevic (19.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG) drew All-Star consideration and was smartly rewarded last fall with a lucrative rookie extension. Forward Tobias Harris (17.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG) is the next man in line to get paid this summer thanks to the best year of his four-year career. The backcourt duo of Payton and 2013 lottery pick Victor Oladipo will likely determine the speed of the Magic's growth curve. Orlando's next coach will be tasked with fashioning a winning style built around his two athletic, energetic, weak-shooting guards, a job that could prove to be easier said than done.
Vaughn departs with a 58-158 (.269) record, the second-worst winning percentage of any coach with at least 200 games under his belt. He entered the season in the "Hot Seat" conversation, and he succumbed to a common fate in the coaching ranks. Hired to take a young Magic roster from the crawling stage to the walking stage, Vaughn just wasn't able to foster the required steadiness during a thankless plight. At 39, there's plenty of time for Vaughn to land another head coaching job down the road. His replacement, on the other hand, will face an accelerated timeline and increased expectations. Dumping a coach midseason -- during a year in which there were no legitimate playoff aspirations -- is a sure sign that the decision-makers are running low on patience.