Weltman Says Team Won't Act Hastily in Finding New Head Coach

After year-long evaluation, Weltman says it was necessary for team to go in different direction
by John Denton

ORLANDO – At various points throughout yet another disappointing season for the Orlando Magic, troubling evidence kept emerging that the team was off track, no longer making positive progress and in need of a change.

For those reasons, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman – the man hired last May and tasked with returning Orlando to prominence – made the call on Thursday morning to fire head coach Frank Vogel and his staff. While Weltman said that there wasn’t one specific moment or even a handful of them that sealed Vogel’s fate, he simply stressed that it became apparent that the struggling Magic needed different direction.

``We said from the outset that we’re going to take the year to evaluate and we took the whole year,’’ said Weltman, who has worked in tandem this season with GM John Hammond. ``There’s no `ahhh-ha’ moment, no date, there’s no event that kind of clicked into place. It was just looking at the season, weighing all of the information, game-by-game, day-by-day and adding it all up at the end of the season.

``If you look at our record, you know that we have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas,’’ Weltman said later. ``I promise you that Frank Vogel drove home on many practice days, many game days and asked himself what he can do better – as do I and all of our staff does, I hope. I don’t have one trait or characteristic where I say, `this is where we need to get better.’ A lot of it is at my feet and organizationally we need to do better.’’

On Thursday, Weltman sympathized with Vogel’s plight because of the enormous amount of injuries that the Magic suffered throughout the season and the roster shortcomings that made winning consistently a tough task.

Orlando finished a disappointing 25-57 this season – its sixth consecutive season with both a losing record and well outside of the playoff race. Those struggles, combined with the 29-52 mark from a season earlier, convinced Weltman that the Magic needed to make a move, prompting Thursday’s firing of Vogel just 10 hours after the team wrapped up the season.

``I have nothing but the utmost respect for Frank Vogel as a coach and as a person,’’ Weltman said. ``I know he’ll be a head coach again shortly and I wish him and his family the best of success.

``Frank took the news as you would expect him to – he took it like a professional,’’ Weltman added. ``We spoke (Thursday) morning in his office and he was a pro and he understood. We had a good heart-to-heart (conversation). It’s a hard day for Frank, but he took it like a pro.’’

Weltman said the process to find the Magic’s next coach will begin in earnest right away. He said the fact that four other NBA teams – Phoenix, Memphis, Milwaukee and New York – will also be in the hunt to hire a head coach could expedite Orlando’s process, but the franchise feels no pressure to act hastily. Because of the timing of the transaction, Weltman said the Magic ``have no one in mind, … haven’t had contact with anyone and haven’t narrowed any lists down,’’ and that process will begin this week.

Weltman and Hammond have more than 60 years of combined experience in basketball, meaning they are no strangers to the hiring process. Weltman has worked with top NBA coaches such as Larry Brown, George Karl and Dwane Casey, while Hammond has built teams alongside of Rick Carlisle, Scott Skiles, Jason Kidd, Brown among others. Weltman added that rather than narrowing the field down only to candidates with head coaching experience or NBA experience, he will focus more on the character of the person and how that personality meshes with the Magic’s roster.

``It is something that you’d rather do sooner than later so that we can get a guy in place and have our new staff around so that they can get their arms around our players, develop relationships and develop our young guys,’’ Weltman said. ``All of that factors in. It would be better sooner, but as I always say … `we’re going to get it right before we get it fast.’ Hopefully we can do both on this.’’

Orlando’s new coach will be its fifth since 2012. Vogel took over in May of 2016 when the Magic were reeling from the unexpected resignation of Scott Skiles after just one season. At that time, he had the most proven track record of any coach on the market, having been to the playoffs five times and taken two Indiana Pacers teams to the Eastern Conference Finals, and Orlando’s acquisition was seen as a major coup.

While Magic players universally liked and respected Vogel as a person and as a basketball mind, his tactics didn’t always translate to the court. Undoubtedly, a rash of injuries and personnel shortcomings played a role in Vogel’s ouster, but there was also plenty of proof that the coach failed in his efforts to successfully reach the team.

Following a rocky first season in Orlando, Vogel got the Magic off to a promising 6-2 start this season while preaching the benefits of having continuity between the coaching staff and the returning core of the team. The first signs of trouble came when Orlando followed up a victory that took it to 8-4 with a troubling nine-game losing streak in mid-November. Included in that skid was a defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz that proved to be the worst home loss (40 points) in the 29-year history of the franchise.

Soon after, another nine-game losing streak followed, sending the Magic were freefalling out of playoff contention before 2018 even arrived. Mix in other disturbing moments – an unsightly home loss to Sacramento on Jan. 23; James Harden’s NBA-record 60-point triple-double when the Magic refused to double-team him despite Houston missing three of its top five players; a particularly uninspired home loss to the New York Knicks in the first game after the break for the NBA All-Star Game; an 0-5 West Coast road trip in early March; and a 37-point loss to Charlotte on April 6 in which the team once trailed by as much as 45 points – and it was apparent that more change was needed.

``This was a process that took the whole year to evaluate and as we factored in all of the things that we were looking at as an organization and where we are on our path and where we want to go, we collaborated and felt that at the end of the season this was the direction that we needed to go in,’’ Weltman said.

Many of the Magic’s players admitted on Thursday that they felt bad about Vogel losing his job and said that more of the blame for the past two poor seasons should fall on their shoulders instead of a coaching staff that that took the fall.

``It’s tough. I feel bad for Frank and he’s a great guy. He did the best … with the situation that he had last year with a new team and it just didn’t work out for us on the court,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who has been around for each of the past six losing seasons. ``This season it didn’t work out for us the way we wanted it to. It’s a tough business and I feel bad for him, but I think he did everything that he could have to help us be the best team that we can. This is the way the business goes sometimes.’’

Added rookie forward Jonathan Isaac: ``All through the season with the mid-season coaching firings it’s been showing that this league is about business and it’s about what’s best moving forward, but you never really expect it to hit home with your team. It’s tough, man, tough seeing guys you are fond of and have grown with through the season and guys you expect to move forward with not be around. It’s definitely a business, and we all understand that at the end of the day, but I think it’s OK to grieve a little bit.’’

Isaac and center Bismack Biyombo lauded Vogel for bringing a perpetually positive vibe to the Magic despite the franchise’s troubles in recent years. Even to Wednesday night’s game – a 101-92 Magic defeat of the Washington Wizards – Vogel talked candidly with players about building for the future. That future will now come with a new coach, but it won’t dampen the team’s appreciation for what Vogel brought to the squad.

``I think Frank did well in terms of his positivity and his relentlessness. There were a lot of times where he saw us give up and he saw us not play to the best of our ability and he wasn’t having it. He was really, really excited about the opportunity we had to win a game (on Wednesday night), even though the season was over with. It’s a testament to him and be enthusiastic about winning a game, but unfortunately it was his last game with us. So, that’s just a testament to who he was and the pride that he brought to our team.’’

Added Biyombo, who joined the Magic two seasons ago not long after Vogel was hired as Orlando’s head coach, on Vogel’s greatest attribute as a coach: ``Finding a way to keep the locker room together, which is the hardest thing to do in the league because you have different personnel and people with different agendas. How do you rally everybody together? How do you help keep everybody together? That’s what he really did well for us. Quite frankly, whether this season worked out for us or not, he was there every night trying to push guys to win and help guys understand what winning is about.’’

As for Weltman, he said the need to fire Vogel and attempt to pick up the pieces after another dismal season just simply shows how much ground the Magic must make up. Almost certainly, Orlando’s firing of Vogel won’t be the last personnel move that affects the look and feel of the on-court product next season as the Magic will likely turn over the roster to a certain extent. After all, Weltman said, it won’t matter who the coach is if the talent on the roster isn’t significantly better.

``We’re not good enough,’’ Weltman said. ``We have a lot of areas to improve upon and this summer will be directed toward improving ourselves organizationally from every corner off the court and that will find its way onto the court.

``Obviously, I won’t discuss specific personnel, but I do think we have some good, young players on our team and it’s incumbent on us to develop those guys. But we need to add talent,’’ Weltman added. ``We’re excited about our draft pick and we’ve got to get that right. We just need to keep building this at the right pace. I wish we had not had all of these injuries, so we would have had a more consistent baseline, but we’ve been here for a season and we got to know who they are. … So, now we’ve got to put it all together this summer.’’

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