Jacque Vaughn has a calm demeanor at all times. He is the anti-Stan Van Gundy in that way. He doesn’t stomp his feet and gesticulate, yell or gyrate. He gives a stern stare and a calm word. He and his coaching staff discuss and plan what they are going to say.
There is strategy behind everything.
Take the decision to move Maurice Harkless into the starting lineup. It came as somewhat of a surprise to many as it was a closely guarded state secret. When I asked Vaughn the next game if Harkless would make a second start, his eyes widened and he feigned a shocked look and asked in a hurried tone whether he had missed the deadline to turn his lineup in.
It drew a chuckle from the experienced members of the media who knew Vaughn likes to keep those decisions close to the vest. The next game, for the record, another reporter asked the same question and just to keep the media members like me “on your toes.”
That approach though has worked for the Magic. Vaughn has preached, much like Rob Hennigan, a process of sorts. He is methodical in his decision making and patient and calm in his approach to players. He demands a lot, for sure. And his players have responded, playing extremely hard and fighting even with the apparent talent gap.
“I’m not sure about deep reflection, but you take a little glimpse at what’s been good for us offensively as a team, what’s been good for us defensively,” Jacque Vaughn said before Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta. “We’ve been able to stay defensively with some sound principles throughout the course of the year.”
Vaughn noted that the team has shown improvement in several areas as the year has gone on and the team has settled into the identity Vaughn wants to build.
Defensively, Orlando is tied for seventh in defensive rating with the Spurs at 99.1 points per 100 possessions. This is the biggest surprise from this Magic team, but perhaps the one that would make the most sense considering where Vaughn came from, what type of player he was and the type of team he wants to build.
Vaughn was a defensive-minded player who played with passion and calm throughout his career. His team has been that way too. And in that way, this team has become more like the Heart & Hustle team of 2000 that it has been compared to — and is now living up to — so much.
“There are some [comparisons to the 2000 team],” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before the Magic’s game against the Celtics in late November. “Obviously you lose what they lost in Dwight [Howard], people don’t think you’re going to do anything, you come in and you play hard every night. They do that extremely well. They probably have a couple more names – just a few, not many more – than we had the first year I was here.
“They are just as difficult. I think it was Reilly who told me the hardest thing about preparing for us was you can’t practice effort in practice. You keep telling the other team that they play hard but you can’t practice that. I find myself telling my guys that now. You can’t practice that, you have to mentally prepare for that. To me, when you watch them, that’s why they win games.”
Indeed that is pretty high praise. Probably the ultimate praise you can give a coach — that his team plays hard and that is as difficult to mentally prepare yourself for as the Xs and Os.
Rivers said that during his one year coaching Vaughn while he was in Orlando, and simply described him as a pro. He was someone as a player who “does his job” and doesn’t joke around, but in a good way.
So far, everyone observing the Magic seem to think Vaughn is doing the right things and moving the team in the right direction. An Eastern Conference scout told Marc Stein of ESPN.com a few weeks ago about the impressive job he has seen from Vaughn so far.
Again, high praise. There is nothing more you can ask for from outside observers.
Of course, what ultimately matters is the final result. The Magic are 11-13 and eyeing a .500 record and (unthinkably before the season) setting their sites squarely on a Playoff push. There is still much work to be done before that.
But Vaughn has accomplished a lot already.
“They’re very consistent with their effort, and that’s what they have to be,” Rivers said. “Their ball movement is spectacular. To get a team to buy into ball movement when there is no key guy to play through is hard to do because most of the guys think they are all the key guys when you are that way. They’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
The simple thing that Vaughn has gotten his team to do is to play hard and play together. The ball is moving well and the team is responding to Vaughn and playing hard for him. That is all a young coach can ask for.
This team’s identity is simply that: a strong defensive team that will play for 48 minutes.