Hennigan: "It's a Road Bump, Not a Road Block"

By John Denton
Feb. 5, 2015

ORLANDO – After seeing the Orlando Magic endure two trying rebuilding seasons, Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins and GM Rob Hennigan fully expected progress to come in the form of more victories, more ``meaningful games’’ and some dramatic improvement from the young players on the roster.

As Martins and Hennigan frustratingly watched the Magic lose 16 of the past 18 games, including the last 10 in a row, they deemed the progress completely stalled and a change to be necessary. Complicating matters was their admiration for Jacque Vaughn, but that didn’t stop the Magic leadership team from firing the head coach on Thursday.

When he was unable to shake the Magic from the throes of a 10-game losing streak and stop a slide that included some unsightly regression in areas of defense and competitiveness, Vaughn was relieved of his duties as head coach. In 2½ seasons as a first-time head coach with an exceptionally young roster, Vaughn had a record of 58-158. Win totals of 20 in 2012-13 and 23 in 2013-14 had less to do with Vaughn’s ouster than this season’s 15-37 mark that has included a frustrating tailspin over the past six weeks.

``We went into the season wanting to see some progress and see some growth and we just didn’t feel like we were seeing the kind of growth that we wanted to see,’’ said Hennigan, who hired Vaughn on July 27, 2012 and spent much of Thursday lauding the coach’s strong character and impeccable work ethic. ``That led us to this point. We find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. We’ll call it what it is, but I’ll always say that it’s a road bump and not a road block. We will get through this, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you have to make the type of decision that we made today.’’

James Borrego, Vaughn’s top assistant coach the past 2½ seasons, will take over the head coaching job on an interim basis. The Magic have 30 games remaining and play next on Friday at the Amway Center against the Los Angeles Lakers. Assistant coaches Wes Unseld Jr. and Brett Gunning and Manager of Advanced Scouting Zach Guthrie were also let go, meaning Player Development coaches Laron Profit and Jay Hernandez will round out Borrego’s staff for the rest of the season.

Martins hired Hennigan in 2012 to begin the massive rebuilding project when the franchise was forced to trade away superstar center Dwight Howard. Martins liked how the Magic acquired promising talent such as Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton over the past two-plus seasons, but he was irked with the lack of progress this season. Especially frustrating has been the way the Magic have played at home, going just 5-17 with a host of ugly losses at the Amway Center.

Martins wants the Magic fan base to know that the organization is not happy with how this season has unfolded. The firing of Vaughn on Thursday was made because the organization is serious about making significant strides, and it couldn’t wait any longer with the way things were spiraling downward.

``What I would tell (Magic fans) was that we obviously weren’t pleased with where we stood and we acted upon it,’’ Martins said. ``We weren’t going to sit back and allow this to continue to happen throughout the course of the rest of the season without having an opportunity to turn it around and improve again.

``We’ve said it internally that this is just a short bump in the road and this can easily get back on track because we believe we have a great deal of talent on the roster,’’ Martins continued. ``Not to say that we don’t need to continue to grow the roster – we’re realistic about that – but we believe in our players and we believe that we have the capability of being better than we are. So, hopefully this change will be the shot in the arm to get back on that right path. But we believe in our plan and we’re going to stick with our plan. We believe that we are building for long-term success, and it starts with our belief in the core of players that we have on this roster.’’

Vaughn’s task of turning the Magic into contenders for a playoff spot this season was a difficult one what with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. Orlando did sign veteran free agents Channing Frye, Ben Gordon and claimed Willie Green off waivers, but those players have had little impact. And with two rookie starters being 19 (Aaron Gordon) and 20 years old (Payton) and another in his second season (Oladipo), the Magic have been far too inconsistent and inexperienced to make the strides expected.

To the very end, the eternally optimistic Vaughn pushed the Magic hard and the team played inspired basketball on Wednesday night in San Antonio, but lost 110-103 to the Spurs. It was the team’s 10th consecutive loss – the eighth such skid in the 26-year history of the franchise. Four of those double-digit losing streaks – combined with two other nine-game skids – have come in the past 2 ½ seasons with Vaughn at the helm of the team.

Before being fired, Vaughn said that ``adversity strengthens the strong and weakens the weak. On Thursday, after being notified of his dismissal, Vaughn – who turns 40 years old on Wednesday – released a statement through the team, saying: ``I would like to thank (Magic owner) Mr. (Rich) DeVos and family for the opportunity of representing the Orlando Magic as head coach. I am a stronger and wiser man and coach because of the opportunity. I look forward to seeing this group continue to grow. God bless, good luck. Jacque Vaughn…Proverbs 3:5-6.’’

Some of Vaughn’s former Magic players came to his defense on Thursday, saying that a good share of the blame from the sour season belonged to them. Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic – Orlando’s most productive and consistent players all season – raved about Vaughn’s caring demeanor and his talent as a motivator.

``Jacque is such a good dude and he’s always been professional and a first-class guy. That’s what makes this day tough,’’ Magic forward Tobias Harris said. ``But this is a business though and you can’t forget that. This is part of the business.

``It’s a combination (of blame for the coaches and players),’’ Harris continued. ``In this situation we have underachieved as a team. We have to step our games up. This is a moment that we have to come together as a team and pick our stuff up.’’

Added Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder, who came to Orlando 2 ½ years ago just as Vaughn was taking over as head coach: ``It’s tough because, for me personally, I always had a great relationship with Jacque. He not only gave me playing time, but he trusted me and believed in me and got on me – which I always wanted. He really helped me improve my game. I know this is part of the business that we’re in, but it’s tough because Jacque is a really good coach but an even better person.’’

Hennigan informed the team of the coaching change on Thursday morning and admitted that the players were, ``a little rattled.’’ He said the players admiration for Vaughn made it an emotional time and he said the team had to get past ``a disruptive day’’ and ``re-gather ourselves’’ and move forward.

``The one thing that I do know is that they believe in us and know that we are going to be the right kind of stewards to guide this thing back in the right direction,’’ Hennigan said. ``There’s a lot of trust.’’

The Magic seemed poised to salvage their season three weeks ago by snapping a six-game losing streak with impressive victories against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets. But the team’s play quickly deteriorated after that and several lopsided losses followed.

The Magic lost 16 of their last 18 games under Vaughn. Also, the Magic were just 5-17 at the Amway Center this season and suffered particularly ugly home losses to Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Indiana.

The entered the season hoping to be a top-10 team in defensive efficiency, but they have suffered huge drop offs on that end of the floor because of an inability to protect the rim and keep wing players out of the paint. The Magic rank near the bottom of the league in several major defensive categories: 24th in points allowed, 26th in point differential, 29th in field goal percentage allowed, 24th in 3-point field goal percentage allowed and 26th in defensive efficiency.

The defensive woes have been even more pronounced of late as the Magic have yielded at least 100 points to each of the last 14 foes. Included in that were games where Oklahoma City scored 127 points and Detroit hammered the Magic for 128 points.

Defense is where Borrego, Vaughn’s top assistant the past 2 ½ seasons, hopes to train his focus in the immediate future. Borrego has a close relationship with many of Orlando’s players, namely Vucevic, and he has regularly run the team’s film sessions this season.

``The defense is going to be our focus,’’ said Borrego, 37. ``We’re going to look to that (defensive) side of the ball. Our challenge will be to our guys to individually and collectively have a pride about our defense. That’s one-on-one containment, staying in front of the ball, keeping the ball out of the paint and challenging every shot and going after every rebound. For whatever reason we just haven’t been very efficient on the defensive end, but that will be our focus moving forward.’’

Martins still fully expects the Magic to play up to their capabilities and he is hoping that the coaching change will spark a turnover over the final 30 games of the regular season. The last third of the season could serve as a measuring stick for the talent on hand and the changes that need to be made to the roster going forward.

``Today’s (firing) decision is about the fact that we’re not where we feel we should be today,’’ Martins said. ``We said at the beginning of the season that this was the season that we needed to turn the corner and we haven’t – not at this point in time. We feel like we’re still going to turn the corner, but we might have to take a U-turn in the short term. But we’re just not where we expected or where we feel we should be.’’

It’s on the players, Harris stressed, to support Borrego in the interim and play well enough over the final 30 games to somewhat salvage the season.

``We have to have a focus that we have to turn this thing around. As a team we have to come together as a collective unit,’’ Harris said. ``There are two ways that you can go during this time – you can go downhill or turn this thing upside down and run with it. That’s what we’re looking to do. With a new coach and a new voice, things are going to be a little different, but we have to buy in to what (Borrego) is telling us. We have to buy in and let him be our leader.’’

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