Denton: Vaughn Focused on Positives of Road Trip

By John Denton
Jan. 14, 2014

ORLANDO – Badly undermanned because of injuries to two starters and overwhelmed at almost every turn by more talented and veteran-laden teams, the Orlando Magic limped back to Central Florida in the early morning hours of Tuesday winless on their five-game road trip.

Still, head coach Jacque Vaughn was smiling and pointing out positives of an otherwise forgettable trip. Along the way, Vaughn had praised the second-half rally in Los Angeles, the near flawless offensive execution for three quarters in Portland, the defensive improvement in Sacramento and the second-half fight in games in Denver and Dallas.

All of those games, of course, resulted in losses, some of which came in lopsided fashion. By no means was Vaughn turning a blind eye to the fact that Orlando had failed to win on the trip. But rather than stew in the negativity and take on a woe-is-me approach to a 0-5 trip, Vaughn tried to project positivity and look to the small victories along the way.

Vaughn is the type of eternal optimist who can find a refund on tax day, sweetness in a root canal and rainbows behind the raindrops. Where some see blight, he sees light. While some might pout and cuss, Vaughn remains stout and doesn’t fuss. Show him rain and he’ll produce flowers, offer up lemons and he’ll squeeze lemonade and even in losses he sees lessons.

The eternal optimist is, to his very core, who Vaughn is. This is no act, no phony smokescreen and no kind of cover-up for the Magic still being very much a team in transition. And even in the face of a seven-game losing streak and the Magic likely facing several more runs of tough luck along the way, the positive type is who Vaughn wants to be. He wants to always be a person who his players can count on to have their backs and a coach who points out plusses rather than muses over minuses.

``Bring on the next challenge,’’ Vaughn said before his team fell in Dallas on Monday night to drop to 10-28 on the season. ``I accepted this role and I look forward to the challenge every single day, I really do, of waking up and trying to make this organization better. I love the challenge and I love the grind of it. I really wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.’’

The Magic will be at the Amway Center on Wednesday night where they will face the Chicago Bulls and they will be hoping to end their longest losing skid of the season. Despite all of the losing, the team has been able to stay together and stay positive because of the consistent approach of Vaughn.

Proudly, Vaughn says he is the same guy after tough losses as he is after big wins. He still greets players with a smile, asks about their families and throws his arm around them when they falter. To a man, Magic players say they respect Vaughn’s ability to stay true to his persona and remain upbeat even with the franchise in the midst of another difficult season.

``Jacque emphasizes doing the right thing. And I respect the fact that he doesn’t project any negativity on his players, especially in the media,’’ said Magic guard Arron Afflalo, who hopes to return on Wednesday after missing the past two games with a strained right foot. ``And after games, when emotions are typically high, he’s able to keep the mind frame of staying positive. I commend him for it.’’

The Magic had a highly successful five-year run under head coach Stan Van Gundy from 2007-12, but the organization grew weary of his constant negativity when his players didn’t excel. Van Gundy’s postgame news conferences were often must-see-TV because of his fiery personality, often over-dramatic showmanship and his sky-is-falling predictions following most losses.

With the organization about to deal Dwight Howard in August of 2012 and set to go through a massive makeover centered around young players, the Magic wanted a coach who was on board with the plan and someone who could foster positive vibes.

Vaughn fit the description perfectly, but he knew the challenge ahead – building around young players still in the infancy of their careers and stockpiling draft picks to add even more raw rookies – would challenge his every fiber to remain upbeat. Ninety losses later, and Vaughn hasn’t blinked in a season-and-a-half when he could have blown his lid several times.

``I accepted this job and understood the challenge that was ahead of me,’’ Vaughn said of the Magic’s rebuild. ``I think a big part of me getting the job was that there was a big group who thought I could do the job. My belief and my faith never waiver, and they can’t as this team’s leader.’’

Still, Vaughn said he must walk a fine line between being positive and still holding players accountable for their actions on and off the court. Fail to box out for a rebound and Vaughn will call it out during film sessions. Coast back on defense and give up a layup and Vaughn will be quick to jerk a player out of the game. And when he doesn’t see the enthusiasm and fight that he wants, Vaughn will occasionally raise his voice to screaming levels.

``He gets angry, but he does a good job of holding his composure because he’s the head of the state. He’s our coach,’’ Magic captain Jameer Nelson said. ``It’s easy for Jacque to get upset when guys make mistakes, but it’s harder to play for a guy who is upset every play. I don’t know if we have the type of team where we could handle a guy yelling and screaming all of the time. So he’s doing what he needs to do for the team to deliver a message in his own way.’’

Afflalo said he’s played for coaches – namely Ben Howland while at UCLA – who would flip over tables at halftime and berate players for making errors. Of course, he prefers Vaughn more mild-mannered approach, but he also likes how the Magic mentor holds players accountable for their errors and effort.

``You have to have a little fear because fear heightens your awareness to mistakes and doing the wrong thing. Also, it can put you in attack mode because you have a fear of losing,’’ said Afflalo, whose career has flourished to all-time levels in Orlando. ``You want to feel free and confident, but you don’t want it to be where you don’t play the game the right way. I’ve had some coaches who have emphasized fear and told us to make sure you were doing this or else, but Coach (Vaughn) has been finding a good balance.’’

Vaughn said that while it’s important for players to know that he has their backs, it’s also important for him to be able to lower the boom from time to time. Vaughn has no tolerance for selfishness or an unwillingness to play the game the right way. He believes that over time that if he holds firm in these areas that the Magic will build the kind of foundation with which to springboard off of for years to come.

``I’m real with the guys, also,’’ Vaughn said candidly. ``We’ll watch film and there are reality checks at the same time. But at the end of the day I believe they know I have their best interests at heart. I’m trying to push them to be the best men and basketball players that they can be. I believe having an atmosphere of positivity gets the best out of people.’’

Vaughn has adopted a supportive approach, in part, because of the age of the Magic’s roster. More than half of the active players are in their first or second seasons in the NBA. Maurice Harkless is 20 years old, while Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris are just 21. And even veterans such as Nelson – only the second player in franchise history to wear a Magic uniform for 10 seasons – appreciates Vaughn’s supportive ways even in the toughest of times.

``It’s good because you have to find positive things. In adversity you have to keep guys up and you can’t have guys putting their heads down,’’ Nelson said. ``Jacque does a great job of coming to practice, games and shoot-arounds with energy and it enlightens you and give you energy. It’s one of those things that you can feel – him trying to help you and making you comfortable in your skin. We just have to stick together and stay the course.’’

Afflalo said there will come a time when the Magic will have enough time and maturity to be championship contenders once again. He is convinced more than ever that Vaughn is the right man to lead the franchise because of his ability to straddle the line between positivity and accountability. Ultimately, Afflalo said, players will thrive in a culture where they know that the coach supports them and won’t embarrass them publicly.

``At the end of the day, a positive perspective on a day-to-day basis provides better energy and motivation for tackling tough circumstances,’’ Afflalo said. ``So it’s better that Jacque is positive instead of negative. It’s just that the positivity can’t lead to passiveness or a blasé-blasé environment. I think the positive approach that Jacque projects around here is still the right approach.’’