By John Denton
Feb. 17, 2015
ORLANDO – James Borrego, who has already notched two wins and very nearly a third in just four games as the Orlando Magic’s interim head coach, nabbed another big victory on Tuesday: He was told that he will be the team’s coach for the remainder of this season.
And to make matters even better for Borrego, the support staff around him will grow as Igor Kokoskov has been hired as an assistant coach. The Magic (17-39) have been off since last Wednesday for the NBA All-Star Game, but the team will return to practice tomorrow. Orlando hosts the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night.
Borrego, who took over on Feb. 5 when Jacque Vaughn was dismissed as head coach, has clearly opened some eyes with his abilities as the Magic’s mentor in a short period of time. Borrego knew that any chance that the Magic had of making a turnaround would come with defensive improvements, and the 37-year-old head coach has the team defending with much more vigor of late. Orlando allowed 14 consecutive foes to score more than 100 points, but have held four straight teams to less than 100 points since Borrego’s appointment.
``We’re still learning each other and it’s my job to give them a base and it’s their job to execute and play within our team concepts,’’ Borrego said. ``The (all-star) break (is) good for me and our staff to evaluate our players, our rotations and pick a few things that we want to emphasize coming out of the break that we really can accomplish.’’
The Magic are still planning to open up the coaching search following the season before naming the permanent head coach. GM Rob Hennigan has said that Borrego will be considered for the full-time position.
Borrego served as Vaughn’s lead assistant for the past 2½ seasons and has a familiarity with the players on the team. He is especially close with standout center Nikola Vucevic, who said that Borrego instantly commanded the respect of the players in the locker room with his passion and knowledge of the game. With 26 games remaining and Borrego locked into the job for the remainder of the regular season, Vucevic feels like there is still time for the Magic to make a late-season surge.
``We feel like we can and we feel like there is still time for us to make a run,’’ Vucevic said. ``We need to put up a winning streak. Everybody wants to put up a better showing out there because nobody is happy with the record that we have. We know that we have more talent than our record shows. This break is going to be good for us to not forget about what has happened, but put (the poor start) behind us, move forward and try to have a better finish to the year.’’
In Borrego’s first game as a head coach at any level, Orlando rallied past the Los Angeles Lakers and won in overtime to snap a 10-game losing streak. Two days later, Orlando played with tremendous fight and led the Chicago Bulls by six points only to see the lead get away in a crushing one-point loss.
Orlando lost to a rested Washington Wizards team last Monday, but it rallied to beat the New York Knicks at the Amway Center just before breaking for the NBA All-Star Game. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton said that Magic players felt a great responsibility to play hard for Borrego because of his loyalty to them.
``We’re all one family and we’re supporting him,’’ Payton said. ``All of this put him in a tough position. All we’ve got is each other and we don’t want to leave him out to dry.’’
Borrego has gone primarily to a starting lineup that features Tobias Harris and Channing Frye playing together at the forward slots. Borrego did show the coaching acumen to replace the struggling Frye with Dewayne Dedmon last week, and the reserve forward responded by blocking six shots. Borrego even hinted that he might make the bold move of starting Dedmon in the future if it gives Orlando the best chance to win.
Along with Vaughn, assistant coaches Wes Unseld Jr. and Brett Gunning and video scout Zach Guthrie were relieved of their duties on Feb. That left Borrego with a skeleton staff of only development coaches Laron Profit and Jay Hernandez as assistants. Kokoskov, who has been in the NBA for 14 seasons, served previously as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons and Los Angels Clippers. Upon getting hired by the Clippers in 2000, Kokoskov became the first non-American assistant coach in the NBA.
Vucevic said he believes fully in Borrego’s abilities and he thinks the Magic can salvage their season under the rookie coach.
``From Day 1, guys accepted him as our head coach and we look at him as our coach,’’ Vucevic said. ``Guys respected him when he was an assistant coach. You know that he has great basketball knowledge and he has a great relationship with guys and you can talk to him about whatever that you want. Guys like that about him. Now that he’s our head coach, we’ve accepted it and we respect him.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.