By John Denton
April 14, 2017
ORLANDO – The plan for this past weekend was for Frank Vogel to take his wife and daughters to Disney World, and in time, the Orlando Magic head coach – who grew up years ago just blocks away from the ocean in New Jersey – hopes to take in some of the beauty of Florida’s beaches for the first time since moving to the Sunshine State.
No offense to the family or Florida’s hundreds of beach towns, but Vogel would prefer pouring over game film or competing in a tense, win-or-else NBA playoff game to some mid-April vacation time now.
Competing in the playoffs and savoring the white-hot glare of the postseason is something that Vogel grew accustomed to doing five times in his 5½ seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Out of the postseason following a highly disappointing 29-53 first season with the Magic, Vogel said the failures over the past seven months will drive him throughout what figures to be a busy offseason.
``I do believe in balance in life and I do want to get away from it and let it go a little bit, but it’s going to sit with me all summer,’’ Vogel said candidly last week upon the Magic’s season wrapping up. ``When I get back to work, I’m going to be very driven to do all of this studying and evaluation of our team to get this thing back going the right direction.’’
Vogel’s offseason responsibilities with the Magic increased a bit last week when the franchise fired GM Rob Hennigan and Assistant GM Scott Perry following a fifth consecutive losing season. Assistant GM Matt Lloyd, a Magic employee the past five seasons, will serve as the interim GM and he will work hand-in-hand with Vogel to help the franchise prepare for the June 22 NBA Draft. Vogel, who has been promised that he will return as head coach regardless of who is chosen as the Magic’s next GM, will also join CEO Alex Martins in the search for the team’s next leader of the Basketball Operations department.
Vogel doesn’t mind the extra work to fill time that he’s usually spending competing in the playoffs. Though he just completed his first season in Orlando, he understands the urgency needed to get the Magic back in the playoffs. The franchise has been out of the postseason five straight years – the longest such drought in team history – and Vogel wants to do whatever necessary this summer to get things back on track.
``I’ve never been a big `summer projects’ guy, but I think I am now this summer,’’ Vogel said. ``We’re going to be doing a lot of that stuff with research, evaluation and re-watching a lot of our games. We’re going to take the fundamentals of a lot of the things that we’re trying to get done on the defensive end, offensively and with the running game (and evaluate them).
``It’s a new style of play (for the Magic), it’s a new era of basketball and the game is almost unrecognizable in some ways when you watch it compared to what people were seeing five, six or seven years ago,’’ Vogel continued. ``There’s a lot of studying to be done – something that I’m excited about doing, quite frankly. I obsess about this stuff. We’ve made strides in terms of who we are (as a team) and who I am as a coach (over the final two months of the season). I look forward to getting this team back on top, I really do.’’
Vogel started this past season thinking the Magic had the potential get back amongst the top teams in the Eastern Conference, especially after the franchise went out and acquired defensive-minded big men Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo in the offseason. Vogel, who built his reputation in the NBA as a defensive guru, said he was fully complicit in the addition of those players because he thought their versatility defensively could make the Magic dominant on that end of the floor.
Instead, a Magic team trying to alternately play 7-footer Nikola Vucevic, Biyombo and Ibaka looked like an 18-wheel big rig trying to keep pace in a league full of Ferraris. The sweeping trend in today’s NBA is to go small at nearly every position and depend more on speed and shooting as opposed to size and muscle.
Warning signs were there for the Magic that the plan wouldn’t work all throughout the preseason and a 6-11 start to the season. However, Vogel stuck with playing the bigger lineups for months in hopes that eventually Orlando’s sagging defense and choppy chemistry would come around. When those things never matured, Ibaka – the player Orlando surrendered three assets for back in June – was dealt to Toronto for shooting guard Terrence Ross. The problem, however, was that the Magic were 21-37 and far out of the playoffs chase by the time they switched styles and got Ross on the floor.
Does the benefit of hindsight make Vogel wish now that he had pulled the plug on the big lineups sooner? Does he wish now that he had pushed for a trade sooner so as to possibly salvage the season?
``I really don’t, to be honest with you. I think you have to explore your roster and how you’ve built your roster, you have to see if it can be successful,’’ Vogel said. ``You have to give that enough time to see if that works. You pull the plug too soon and then the other way (playing with a smaller, faster lineup) doesn’t work, then you look like you are just searching for things and that doesn’t give a message of strength to your team. And I also believe in playing your best players and Serge, Vooch and Biz were among our best players. That’s another reason why we stuck with keeping those guys out there.’’
Sticking it with it proved to be a major problem for the Magic when things tended to go bad in the middle of games. Not only did Orlando lose by a franchise record 47 points late in the season in Chicago, they dropped eight games by 30-or-more points and another eight from 20-29 points.
Those failures ultimately cost Hennigan, the Magic’s GM the past five years, his job. And they cost Vogel – a coach who prides himself on being able to motivate and reach players even in the worst of situations – several nights of sleep. It bothered the veteran coach immensely that he could never reach the team fully and do something to prevent the season from spiraling out of control.
``Not the group all together, but there was a handful of times that I felt I wasn’t reaching a couple of guys and it brought all of them back,’’ Vogel admitted. ``But it’s a difficult thing when you lose as much as we did and you have the expectations that we had. It’s almost impossible to not lose a game here or there and (lose players). That’s not any different of any team that I’ve coached. I pride myself in keeping everybody pulling them back (from frustration) and keeping them together and in it. I do believe that we finished that way with everybody bought in, engaged and playing together.’’
Several of the Magic’s players said the way that Vogel kept encouraging them and kept pushing the team – even after it had been eliminated from playoff contention – should speak volumes about the coach’s fight and strong character. Many mentioned that their hope for the future is strong because the prospect of having Vogel as the head coach going forward.
``I know that Frank doesn’t like to lose at all and we have that in common,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, one of the players who benefitted the most from Vogel’s midseason style change to one that is speedier and more uptempo. ``(Vogel) feels that he had greatness within him and I have the same feeling.’’
Added point guard Elfrid Payton: ``He’s a competitor and he wants to win just as bad as we do. Even when things were bad he was still coming in and pushing us and working with us and that’s something that I really respect about him.’’
Despite a rocky first season in Orlando, Vogel clearly has the respect of his team. The coach has always seen himself as someone who forms partnerships with players – rather than simply bossing them around like a drill sergeant – in order to coax the best out of them. Vogel believes strongly in the young talent that the Magic have in place and thinks the best is yet to come. With a tweak or two here or there, Vogel is hopeful that this time next year he’ll be getting the Magic ready for a long playoff run instead of visiting Disney World or hitting the beaches.
``They’re still very young and if you look league-wide most of the ones winning aren’t doing it with young guys. The book is still out, but I still have a great deal of belief in these guys and what they can be,’’ Vogel said with conviction. ``They haven’t reached that (elite) level yet, but they’ve shown flashes of it, so we know it’s there and we just have to put it all together and add the right mix that is needed.
``I do still believe in the young core that is here. Not just Elfrid, Aaron and Mario (Hezonja), but Terrence, Evan (Fournier) and Vooch – those guys are still young guys, too,’’ Vogel continued. ``This group is about to enter its prime and that’s how we have to look at this. You have a group that is about to enter its prime and those are the groups that go on year-after-year playoff runs where they are in it every year and they have a chance (to win a title).’’
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