By John Denton Jan. 26, 2018
ORLANDO – In the wake of the Orlando Magic’s disappointing loss earlier in the week, Frank Vogel’s face turned red with anger, there was a far-away stare in his eyes and his words were clipped so as to not allow the proverbial simmering lava inside of him to erupt and char his surroundings.
Equal parts frustrated and embarrassed, the head coach wondered to himself if his Magic players were dealing with the same sort of feelings that he was after some sloppy offense and sluggish defense led to a loss to a Sacramento Kings team that had dropped its previous eight games. ``You’ve got to have a fire burning inside of you – I think that’s where it all starts,’’ a still-agitated Vogel would say later.
On Friday, three full days after the Magic’s 105-99 loss dropped them to a disappointing 14-33, Vogel spoke of his frustrations in being unable to turn this Orlando team around. Bowed but not broken, Vogel insisted that the Magic’s cluster of young players continue to improve, and he is more determined than ever to battle through the yo-yoing struggles and get the Magic back on the right path.
``One of the biggest challenges of my career,’’ admitted a candid Vogel, whose Magic will be in Indianapolis to face the Pacers on Saturday night. ``I’m a very competitive person and losing doesn’t sit well with me. It’s been a personal challenge of mine, going through this the way that we have.’’
Without question, Vogel has faced major challenges as a NBA head coach before – replacing his fired mentor in 2010 and guiding that Indiana Pacers team to the NBA playoffs; squaring off twice in the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James; steadying a franchise and getting it back to within a whisker of the postseason even after superstar forward Paul George had grotesquely broken his leg.
For a variety of reasons, Vogel has yet to have the same sort of effect on the Magic. They followed up last season’s 29-53 disappointment with a promising 8-4 start to this season, but the confluence of injuries and a particularly taxing portion of the schedule led to another mid-season swoon. Orlando showed signs of coming out of that tumble recently by pushing Cleveland and Washington to the brink and beating Minnesota and Boston, but those positive vibes vanished like air rushing out of a balloon following Tuesday’s loss to slumping Sacramento.
In the wake of that game, the coach once again challenged his squad, saying pointedly: ``We’ve got to decide whether we want to be a winning team or not.’’
Considering his tone, that wasn’t some sort of either/or question. It was an ultimatum that he wants answered in the coming days.
Vogel has been a success as a coach, largely, because of his unique ability to be encouraging and supportive while also being demanding. Players, both past and current, have raved about his perpetually positive approach, while also noting that there’s a fiery side to the witty, good-natured coach.
Vogel is just as likely to mix inspirational clips from a 1980s movie into a Magic film session as he is to dress a player down verbally for not boxing out while rebounding.
Orlando’s latest loss, like many of them from the past season-and-a-half, has tested him as a coach. The belief that better days are ahead with the work that is being done keeps him chugging forward.
``I’m also, by nature, a patient person. And that’s what I rely on, (focusing on) what’s ahead of us and not what’s behind us and the belief that our situation is going to improve,’’ he said confidently. ``That’s something that I hold onto very strongly – that belief, both internally, and believing that our guys are going to continue to improve the way that they are and believing that they are going to improve our team.’’
Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said he’s seen the team’s helter-skelter nature wear on the coach at times. Last season, Orlando endured a nearly four-month stretch without winning consecutive games and this season, Orlando hasn’t won two in a row since Nov. 8 and 10 defeats of New York and Phoenix. Answers as to why the Magic have been unable to carry over success have escaped both Payton and Vogel.
``I think he’s dealt with it the best way that he can – he’s trying to be positive, be there for us and challenge us,’’ Payton said. ``I know it’s been difficult for him and it’s been difficult for us (players), too.
``People think that just because you’ve been here all this time that you’re accustomed to (the losing), but I don’t think anybody here is accustomed to (the losing),’’ Payton added. ``It can’t be something you get used to. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I’m not used to this. It’s not acceptable to me and I do my best every night to turn this tide. I think (Vogel) has dealt with this the best way he can – by being positive and still trying to challenge us and not just accepting it.’’
Vogel has been able to find minor victories along the way to keep his spirits up. Payton and Aaron Gordon have become dramatically better outside shooters, making them more complete offensive players. Mario Hezonja, who struggled to stay on the floor in his first two NBA seasons, has evolved into a steady reserve. Jonathan Isaac looked early in the season to be a player the Magic can build around before suffering an ankle injury, while Khem Birch and Wes Iwundu have been finds that Vogel has cultivated.
Undoubtedly, there are certain limitations to the Magic’s roster what with them still lacking a go-to scorer or a dynamic playmaker who commands the attention of the defense and makes others around him better. Still, Vogel has held this Magic team to a high standard and expects greatness from it on a nightly basis. Excellence is the standard, he said, and he doesn’t ever want to waver from that as a coach.
``You always show them what they can do and what they’re capable of. Highlight the positives every opportunity that you get. But at the same time, you’ve got to be very firm with them in the areas that are hurting us and causing us to lose games,’’ he said. ``Really, the things that are causing us to lose games, you hammer them on the things that are controllable. Some of these things aren’t controllable; we don’t have Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Steph Curry, who are going to make elite-talent types of plays at times. But things like boxing out, making the extra pass – those are the things that we can control and that’s what we have to focus on.’’
At the top of Vogel’s frustrations has been the inability to get the Magic to defend at a high level, neither last season nor this one. He was always thought of as something of a master tactician on that end of the floor because of the way his previous Pacers’ teams defended with toughness and physicality. Because of the way the NBA has changed to small-ball sets and 3-point-heavy offenses, Vogel said he’s almost had to ``throw out’’ everything he thought and taught previously on the defensive end. Little that he’s tried with the Magic on that end of the floor has worked.
Said Vogel of the Magic’s defensive struggles: ``That has definitely been a big part of our challenges.’’
One thing that could be a much-needed ray of sunshine amid the darkness of another disappointing season for Vogel would be an Orlando win in Indiana. Head coach of the Pacers from 2010-2016, Vogel split with the franchise in May of 2016 and took over in Orlando just days later. Since then, however, he’s dropped six straight – four times last season and twice this season – against an Indy team led by close friend and his former assistant coach, Nate McMillan.
``Everybody wants to beat their former team, and I’m no different,’’ Vogel said with a wry smile.
Payton and his teammates are hopeful that they can bounce back from Tuesday’s disappointment and help their coach end a winless stretch against the Pacers.
``We definitely want to get this off of Frank,’’ Payton stressed. ``It’s something that he definitely wants – you can kind of tell. We want to help him get that, so we’ve got to find a way.’’
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