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Some branches of 'Popovich tree' not exactly blooming

Jacque Vaughn, Brett Brown and Monty Williams all have ties to Gregg Popovich, but haven't been as successful as coaches.

POSTED: Feb 3, 2015 9:50 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell


Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has struggled to turn the team's bevy of young talent into consistent winners.

A coaching tree will bloom smack in the dead of February, inside a building coincidently nicknamed "The Garden", where the pick of Gregg Popovich's litter will sit on both benches at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game.

It'll be Golden State coach Steve Kerr representing the Western Conference, the Atlanta Hawks' Mike Budenholzer repping the East, and you can almost envision the rare smile on the face of Pop Patriarch stretching from Manhattan to San Antonio once the ball goes up.

Budenholzer spent 17 seasons as Popovich's assistant in San Antonio. Kerr played for Popovich with the Spurs from 1998-2002 and again in '03, winning a two titles there. Kerr and Bud are also in the process of tug-of-warring over Coach of the Year honors and who knows, maybe the teams they're steering, the Warriors and Hawks, will settle everything in June at The Finals.

GameTime: Popovich's Coaching Tree

Check out this special segment on Coach Popovich and his long line of proteges that are blossoming in today's NBA.

Then there's the flip side of the tree, where two of Popovich's guys are trying to dig out of tough situations. Coach Brett Brown will live to see another season in Philadelphia because the stripped-down Sixers are doing exactly what their management designed: losing big and often. But Jacque Vaughn could be out of a job in Orlando before you're done reading this.

Sometimes coaching is at the mercy of timing and the twist of fate. You need to look no further than to Pop's tree, where two of his disciples are losing more games in a month than Kerr and Budenholzer have lost all season combined (17, if you're keeping track).

The reason is pretty logical: The Warriors and, to a slightly lesser extent, Hawks were teams positioned to win now. The Magic and Sixers, based on what we see, will be ready to win sometime after President Barack Obama leaves office.

Forget the next election, though. Vaughn would love to make it to next month.

Unlike the Sixers, the Magic didn't enter the season with a tanker's mentality, and generous projections had them competing for a final playoff spot in the very forgiving East. From a personnel standpoint, they've recovered very nicely in the wake of the Dwight Howard trade of 2012, their Dwightmare lasting far shorter than most imagined. Except that's not evident on the court lately. The Magic are getting pounded, their defense is shoddy (105.9 DefRtg, 26th in the league), some of their young players aren't getting the proper minutes and management, perhaps rightly so, appears restless.

The Orlando media, hardly a pack of pit bulls, are already calling for Vaughn's scalp. Fans are howling, too, and there's the grim sound of silence coming from the front office. That's usually the prelude to an exit, and unless the Magic go on a Hawks-like tear pretty soon, someone like, oh, George Karl will be sitting anxiously by the phone.

The Starters: Jacque Vaughn in Orlando

There are rumors head coach Jacque Vaughn will be relieved of his duties with the Magic -- are they warranted?

In his first two seasons in Orlando, Vaughn went 20-62 and 23-59. He was essentially cleaning up the rubble from the Howard trade, but in those two years, the Magic gathered assets the way Disney World does strollers.

Nikola Vucevic has had at least 36 double-doubles every season in Orlando (he has 29 this season). Orlando got Tobias Harris, a solid small forward, from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for two-month rental of J.J. Redick. Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton are frisky guards plucked from the Draft. Evan Fournier and Kyle O'Quinn are solid rotation players with decent upsides.

Let's be fair about this: Teams filled with young players don't always know what's coming every night; such is the unpredictability of youth. Still, the Magic have won only twice since December 30 and last week trailed the Bucks at home by 30. In a conference where seven games under .500 gets you the eighth and final playoff spot today, should the Magic be floundering like this in February?

Then there's the flip side: should Orlando place such a high priority on wins and losses at this stage of their rebuilding? Another year in the lottery would serve the Magic well and allow them to add at least another asset, since they're not exactly built to win a round in the playoffs even if they make it. Still, enough red flags are flapping that management refuses to guarantee Vaughn will last the season.

The Magic rank near the bottom of every important statistical category and has held foes under 100 points only three times since Christmas. Growth and progress have not happened, and since Orlando hasn't suffered a hardship like a key injury that could excuse losing this many games, Vaughn's ability to reach his players is suddenly an issue.

"I don't abide by the tyranny of other people's attitudes and moods," he said. "Everybody has their opinion of what their expectations are going to be ... our job is to get the best out of these players and we're going to continue to do that."

Brown might be the most sympathetic figure in the NBA, although he knew the situation when he signed on. The Sixers won 19 games last season, his first in town, and might not crack 20 this season. This happens, of course, when you dump assets, clean house and begin laying the groundwork for a (possibly) lengthy rebuild. And when the rest of the league picks your game to rest their players, that's almost disrespectful.

But what can the Sixers do when they're trotting out players who were in high school just a few years ago?

"That doesn't bother me," Brown said. "We're such at a different stage than other teams. I've got a bunch of 20-year-olds who are just so excited to play on an NBA court. To take it personally or be insulted when (teams) do that, I don't give it any thought."

Brown might take it personally if the Sixers decide to go in another direction once the team is ready to win. Teams often feel certain coaches are only good for certain stages in a team's development, and then switch gears and find a more experienced coach for the next stage. That's not to say this is the Sixers' mindset, but we've seen this movie before.

No one can accurately say how good a coach Brown is, though, until he has a solid group to work with. He can only be judged on player development. How much better will K.J. McDaniels or Michael Carter-Williams get? Is Brown putting them -- and others -- in the best position to grow? Until Philly throws him a meatier roster, those are his challenges.

Monty Williams is another from the Popovich stable and his situation appears uncertain. The Pelicans are one of the league's most complex teams. All-Star starter Anthony Davis is in the midst of a breakout season that will earn him MVP nods. In short, he's a modern freak: a big man who can play any size. The rest of the team?

The Association: Monty Williams

Pelicans coach Monty Williams draws on his experience as a player to teach his young New Orleans squad.

The Pelicans are a mish-mash of awkward-fitting players, which isn't Williams' fault. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to name a player other than Davis who has shown substantial strides under Williams. Is Jrue Holiday better than his 2013 All-Star season in Philly? Does Tyreke Evans finally have the discipline that's missing from his game? And what, if anything, can be done to polish Eric Gordon (when he's healthy)?

Williams was a lava-hot candidate when he joined New Orleans and considered by some to be the next great coach. Smart and still young enough to relate to the whims of today's player, Williams is still waiting to make a mark that defines him.

The Pelicans recovered from an 8-10 start and since Jan. 18 have beaten the Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and stopped the Atlanta Hawks' monster winning streak at 19 last night. They're healthy, they own a winning record and have a possible shot at a playoff spot. That's not easy to pull off in the West, especially with the Oklahoma City Thunder in hot pursuit. If that happens, would that be enough to keep Williams in New Orleans beyond this season? More than a few NBA people have said they wouldn't be shocked if there's a housecleaning this summer should the Pelicans finish poorly.

No coaching tree can ever be perfect. Although you won't know that come Feb. 15. Both before and during the All-Star Game, Popovich's name will be mentioned a few times, which might feel strange and also satisfying for a coach who'll be two time zones away.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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