Vaughn’s Coaching Identity Emerging

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.

Crash Course Begins For Magic Rookies

For the first time in a long time, the Magic are relying on rookies to carry a significant load early in the season.

DeQuan Jones became the first Magic rookie to start a game since Courtney Lee in 2009 (Daniel Orton was technically not a rookie last year although Basketball-Reference lists him as one). Of course, it took Lee 30 games before he cracked the starting lineup for the first time. Jones’ start in the second game of the year is the earliest a rookie has started for the Magic since Dwight Howard started on opening night in 2004.

“Life is good isn’t it?” coach Jacque Vaughn said about giving DeQuan Jones his first start Sunday. “Take advantage of the opportunity life puts in front of you. Relish those opportunities, and I think he will.”

Jones did that. He played a shade more than 16 minutes and scored two points on 1-for-3 shooting. He made hardly much of an impact — his role is to do more of the nitty-gritty intangible things that do not end up in a stat sheet. It was a quiet and solid debut.

The team’s other rookies too made quiet, subtle impacts in their first action in the NBA.

And while Maurice Harkless did not make his NBA debut this weekend in the first two games of the season, Jacque Vaughn anticipates bringing into a game soon.

Andrew Nicholson played 18 minutes in the two games this weekend, both at critical junctures in the third quarter where he got a taste of NBA life.

Kyle O’Quinn stepped in during the foruth quarters for five minutes in the two games.

Rookies are going to be an important part of the Magic’s future in 2013 and beyond. And the injuries are working to push them along a bit sooner than expected.

Jacque Vaughn said his goal with the rookies is to put them in positions where they can succeed. And so their progress may initially be a bit slow. But expect their minutes to slowly increase. Especially with the injuries hitting this roster. An opportunity to learn on the job and get game experience is presenting itself. It just depends on how Vaughn wants to bring them along and the situations he wants to put them in.

Vaughn said after Sunday’s game that he was happy to get Jones the 16 minutes he got and allow him slowly to regain his timing. Especially since Josh McRoberts was able to provide good minutes at small forward in Sunday’s win, it allowed Vaughn to make that slow transition for Jones and likely Harkless as they get back.

For these young players, there is a lot of learning by listening and a lot of work in practice to do and glean. Harkless said the veterans have told him to go out and play like you are not afraid to make mistakes. Harkless said the veterans advised him to play hard and play through everything when he finally gets out there.

Andrew Nicholson echoed similar advice from the Magic’s veterans. He said veterans advised him to play hard and stay focused on the reason he is in Orlando — to help the team win.

Undoubtedly having these veteran players showing them the ropes seems to have rubbed off on them already even before they get meaningful minutes.

It is a wealth of new experiences and perhaps Vaughn’s advice for his rookies entering their first opening night echoed what he said about DeQuan Jones’ first start Sunday:

“Enjoy the now. There is only one now. Enjoy it. It will never come again. Can’t simulate, can’t repeat it. We’re not in an era where we time capsule. Enjoy the now,” Jacque Vaughn said.

Magic Run Nuggets Out of Amway Center

Nobody knew quite what to expect from the Magic as they embarked on this new era. What would this team be? Who would be its leaders?

Inside the halls of Amway Center though, preparation was being done and the team was going about its business. There were no distractions from the prying eyes of media expectations, just a quiet resolve to play together and do what was necessary to win.

The things you would expect from a franchise hoping to re-taste championship glory and build a foundation after being destroyed and decimated.

Maybe, though, Orlando was not quite so stupid. Maybe those expectations were wrong. Maybe hard work and teamwork count for something if everyone believes.

Jacque Vaughn thanked his players for the hard work they had put in the last month as the Magic prepared to step onto the court for the first time in this entirely new and unknown era. And the Magic played exactly how Vaughn would want them to — with effort, with grit and with energy throughout the 48 minutes.

There was hardly a moment Orlando let up in its season-opening 102-89 victory over Denver at Amway Center on Friday night. And that is exactly what Vaughn is likely to remember when he looks at the game ball Jameer Nelson presented to him afterward.

“It was a good feeling,” Jacque Vaughn said of earning his first win. “Before the game I thanked all the guys. There was no elaborate speech, no elaborate poem or elaborate quote. I thanked the guys for this month of being together with them, for allowing me to be their coach, for coming to practice, for mutual respect and mutual communication. At the end of the game, Jameer gave me the game ball and that’s the reciprocity we’re talking about. It goes both ways. I’ll give and tonight they gave as well.”

Indeed the Magic did give, early and often. Orlando broke down Denver’s defense by getting out on the run and making quick passes to open teammates. The unselfishness was what Vaughn wants this team to be defined by and they displayed that in their first game.

Orlando had 24 assists on its 42 field goal makes and survived a horrendous 2-for-9 shooting game from Jameer Nelson and 3-for-13 shooting night from Arron Afflalo. They made their contributions elsewhere with Nelson dishing out seven assists and Afflalo doing a good job defensively on Andre Iguodala, who shot only 3 for 10 on the evening.

Particularly since Hedo Turkoglu left the game with a broken left hand in the third quarter, Orlando was stretched very thin at small forward, using lineups that often featured Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, E’Twaun Moore or Arron Afflalo to keep the boat steady. Despite the Nuggets featuring a big and long lineup, Orlando forced turnovers and got out on the break — another hallmark of what Vaughn wants his teams to do.

They all did their jobs though. Moore came off the bench to score 13 points. J.J. Redick put in a strong first quarter when it seemed like Denver might put in a bid to control the tempo and pace of the game with 21 points off the bench and six assists. Glen Davis though proved to be the guy Orlando turned to.

“We don’t got All Stars. We’ve got to be able to share the ball,” Glen Davis said after his 29-point, 10-rebound performance as he became the focal point of the offense with 13 makes on 25 shots and a 53.3 percent true shooting percentage.

“All night, every night we’re supposed to have a high level of assists because we need each other. We’re going to make sure that we play together. Some nights you’ll have guys shooting the ball 25 times. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes it might be a defensive night. Tonight was a night like that.”

Orlando made this night about what many perceived to be the team’s weaknesses. The Magic played strong defense, crowding the paint and making it difficult for the Nuggets to get clean passes back out to the perimeter. Denver shot 38.1 percent in the game and 7 for 26 from beyond the arc. The only time the Nuggets made a serious run in the third quarter was because of the Magic’s fouling — the Magic conceded 14 free throws and committed eight fouls in that quarter.

Orlando also attacked the paint and largely took care of the glass. The team won the battle on the boards 46-45, getting six rebounds from Afflalo and seven energetic rebounds from Josh McRoberts. The Magic had 60 points in the paint, including 20 alone in the first quarter, and 15 fast break points. Orlando was quick to get rebounds and run the floor to get easy looks and put Denver on edge.

The Nuggets never quite found enough footing to make a serious run after the Magic took control for good in the first quarter. Orlando went on a 9-2 run to end the first quarter and take an 11-point lead to the second. The Nuggets got the lead under 10 points just twice more in this game, using a strong third-quarter push to sneak back in.

But Orlando showed resiliency. They opened the fourth quarter strong with an E’Twaun Moore steal and running jumper and then an Andrew Nicholson put back off a missed Moore 3-pointer. Orlando did not relent and did not withdraw when Denver made its run.

For one game, at least, the Magic had it all figured out. That is not enough though. There is still a team to build, goals to achieve and doubters to prove wrong.

“We’re just trying to get better every day, play as hard as we can every time we step on the court whether it’s practice or the game,” Jameer Nelson said. “We did that tonight. We made a lot of mistakes, but nobody could tell because we were playing hard. We played through the mistakes that we made. We showed great resolve and we showed that we’re going to play together.”

And that is who this Magic team hopes to be. The work is just beginning.

Orlando’s Roster Still Has Strong Leaders

One thing that is generally a staple for successful teams is the vocal leadership of players with tenure on that specific team. Senior leadership cannot be undervalued. In an 82-game season, senior leadership is invaluable, not only for their statistical contribution on the court but also for maintaining morale and unity off the court.

So who will be the senior leaders in the locker room and on the court for Orlando this year?

Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick and Hedo Turkoglu immediately come to mind when thinking tenure. Since being drafted by the Magic in 2004, Nelson has had seasons averaging 16.7 points, 14.6 points and 13.1 points respectively. Add to that an All-Star appearance in the 2009 season and it should be clear that he should be a leader on this young team.

Since the Magic drafted J.J. Redick in 2006, Redick has shown progressive improvement, averaging a career high 11.6 points, 2.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game last season. Hedo Turkoglu had arguably his best season as a professional with the Magic in 2008, averaging 19.5 points while shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range.

These veteran leaders will need to step up their game this season for the Magic to have any success at all, however limited.

Realistic expectations for a team consisting of no true “superstar” can vary. The Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship with a starting five consisting of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Granted, those are recognizable names, but none of the aforementioned players would be widely considered a “superstar.”

The Denver Nuggets have also experienced success without having a true star on their roster.

Since trading Carmelo Anthony in 2011 to the New York Knicks, the Nuggets have had a combined regular season record of 56-35. While the Knicks, who were the beneficiary of the “superstar” in that trade has a combined regular season record of 50-44.

Good chemistry in basketball can be just as important as having flashy names. And in a season full of questions, Magic fans may have to remind themselves of that.

Every team needs an identity, regardless of the sport. The Miami Heat has the big three. The Lakers have the Kobe system. The Celtics have the family atmosphere. The Bobcats have the hope of a deep draft class.

For Magic fans, the team’s identity will be based upon its ability to be unselfish, hustle and play for each other.

The Magic do have some solid pieces to build around however. And this is where the knowledge from players and potential leaders like Nelson, Redick and Turkoglu will really play a role.

Maurice Harkless averaged 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds in his one season at St. John’s. Arron Afflalo averaged 15.2 points and 2.4 assists per game with Denver last season while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. While Nikola Vucevic did not blow anyone away with his numbers in his rookie season in Philadelphia last year, he has been impressive in his preseason debut with Orlando. It would not be hard to see this young man turn into a double-double machine over time. Having a 16-point and 9-rebound performance against a front court consisting of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will draw that kind of praise.

Developing the young talent that Orlando possesses will be the key to the future of the organization. Jacque Vaughn was brought in largely for this purpose.

When it comes to the 2012-13 version of the Orlando Magic, there are multiple unanswered questions. Some ask “What are the realistic expectations in the win-loss column”? Others ask “Who will step up and be the vocal leader of the team”? Some might also wonder “Will there be any big time trades that Orlando will be involved in”?

Although its easy to get wrapped up in what might happen next, it’s important to take a look at the current roster and be excited for what is already here.

Orlando has a good mix of tenured veterans and young talent. Youth and senior leadership are the keys to success.

Magic Remain Full Of Expectations

As every member of the Magic filed through media day — whether it be the media scrum or OrlandoMagic.com’s live broadcast of the media day — the same message continued to come up.

Yes, the Dwight Howard saga was a bit of a distraction last year. But there is no ill will among his former teammates. Just because Dwight Howard is gone, does not mean the Magic are destined for losing. The expectation for this Magic team to win and win now reamins even without the superstar center anchoring the paint.

The Magic are not in a “woe-is-me” mentality. That is not the culture Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn want to build. This is still an organization that expects the best from its players every night, expects them to play hard and expects them to win.

No one within the Magic locker room or organization wants to use the “R” word. That may very well be what the Magic are actually undertaking as a franchise. They are not going to let a loser’s mentality or a tanking mentality enter the locker room however (no matter how beneficial such a strategy might be). Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn both echoed that their team will compete hard every night.

That is all you can ask for from a team like this.

Outside observers see a Magic team that will sink to the bottom. All the way to the bottom, even below the Bobcats. That is a very realistic possibility. Outside the flowery talk and message the Magic hoped to portray on Media Day, sits a team that does not have a star player or a player who can consistently create offense. Not to mention a team that is full of inconsistent defenders.

The Stan Van Gundy-era Magic these are not. Fifty wins would be a miracle it seems. Orlando is likely to lose more games than it will win.

That is the view from the outside. Inside the team, the machinations are much different. These are competitive people. Many of these players are veterans who have been around the block in the NBA. Many of these players have spent the majority of their careers competing for NBA titles. Accepting losses is not in their DNA.

The overall talent may not be there, but that desire to win and that expectation to win remain. And that is more than enough reason to believe this Magic team will overachieve. Competing for a Playoff spot might be a bit optimistic, but you cannot blame the team for believing it as a possibility. These are all players with something to prove and the experience to know what it takes to achieve in this league.

This does not sound like your typical bottom of the league team. This sounds increasingly like your middle of the conference, just outside the Playoffs team. Maybe that is where Orlando wants to be… maybe it is not.

Whatever Hennigan’s plan may be, the players that are on the Magic are expected to play hard and go out and compete regardless of their record. And the players, at least by their words on Media Day, are expecting the same things from themselves.