The Orlando Magic waited a little longer than the New York Knicks did to once again begin the process of starting over, but not much longer. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday morning that the Magic had fired head coach Frank Vogel, ending his tenure with the team midway through what was reportedly a four-year, $22 million contract following two more seasons of disappointing basketball in Central Florida.
The Magic confirmed the move shortly after Woj’s report.
“We would like to thank Frank for his contributions to the Orlando Magic,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in a team statement. “We appreciate the sacrifices he made as head coach and certainly wish him and his family well going forward.”
On one hand, the decision to move on from Vogel makes perfect sense. For one thing, Orlando’s results flat-out didn’t improve enough during his tenure to credibly make a roaring endorsement for keeping him on. The team went 54-110 in his two seasons on the bench — a worse winning percentage than the Magic mustered in their lone season under Scott Skiles and roughly the same one they managed under interim coach James Borrego in 2014-15. (It was appreciably better than the 58-158 mark rolled up by Jacque Vaughn during his two-plus years. That’s not a high bar to clear.)
Things did briefly tick up toward the end of Vogel’s first season on the bench, when the coach abandoned his experiment to turn Aaron Gordon into a small forward and began playing him as a modern four in smaller, faster lineups. The upswing briefly continued at the start of this season, with Gordon looking like a star in the making as the Magic surged to an 8-4 record.
That hot start was built on a foundation of unsustainable scorching shooting, though; Orlando led the NBA in team 3-point percentage through 12 games. When they stopped shooting like the Warriors, things quickly fell apart. The Magic lost 27 of their next 31 games, effectively ending their season by February and cranking up the burner beneath Vogel’s seat.
Combine the lack of results with the fact that Vogel pre-dated Orlando’s current front-office decision-makers, and the lack of a longer leash seemed all but inevitable. Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel reported before Wednesday’s season finale that “team officials’ recent silence about Vogel [had] been deafening,” noting that Weltman had “declined to comment when asked about Vogel’s future” in mid-March, and that team CEO Alex Martins last week deferred “evaluations about staff members’ futures [until] after a season ends.”
Evidently, the evaluation process didn’t take long. Now Weltman, hired away from the Toronto Raptors last summer, and general manager John Hammond, whom Weltman brought over from the Milwaukee Bucks, will get to search for Their Coach.
Wojnarowski reported that the Magic’s search could include Nick Nurse, who worked with Weltman in Toronto and has received rave reviews for helping transform the Raptors’ offense, as well as former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse, who has turned heads as the coach of the successful Raptors 905 G League franchise. Other potential candidates include former interim coach Borrego, now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, fellow Spurs assistant Ime Udoka, Portland Trail Blazers assistant David Vanterpool, and Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov, according to Wojnarowski. Robbins of the Sentinel suggests other possibilities could include Spurs vice president of basketball operations/former New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, former Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, and current Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, “if the Hornets make a coaching change” after the hire of Mitch Kupchak.
Whomever the Magic’s new front office brings in, the most important thing would seem to be picking a direction and sticking with it, something the organization has struggled mightily to do since the end of the Dwight Howard/Stan Van Gundy era in 2012:
Magic fired Jacque Vaughn in Feb. 2015. About to be on fourth head coach since, counting James Borrego, who was Vaughn's interim replacement — ie 5 coaches in less than 5 years. Maybe they can resurrect Red Auerbach.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 12, 2018
Results make it hard to say Vogel or Hornacek did great work in NY or ORL. Given injuries and nonsensical rosters, hard to say they did bad work, either. Sometimes rosters are so young/weird, it's hard to implement any coherent vision. Toss in injuries, no shot.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 12, 2018
Vogel never sniffed the level of success he reached during his 5 1/2 seasons with the Indiana Pacers, during which he missed the playoffs only once — the year Paul George lost nearly the entire season to a horrific leg fracture — and made back-to-back Eastern Conference finals. But he also never had anything approximating the level of talent available in Indianapolis, the result of years of draft misses, stalled development, unfortunate injuries and ill-fitting free-agent signings under since-ousted GM Rob Hennigan.
Hennigan drafted Victor Oladipo No. 2 overall in 2013, watched him develop in fits and starts through three rudderless and rocky seasons, then flipped him at the 2016 draft with another lottery pick, Domantas Sabonis, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka to help bolster Orlando’s defense. Weeks later, he would give Bismack Biyombo a four-year, $68 million deal to do essentially the same thing, raising questions about how exactly two new high-priced big men would fit alongside incumbent center Nikola Vucevic.
The answer was, “Poorly.” The three bigs never meshed; Orlando has remained a bad defensive team without much offensive firepower. Less than two years later, Oladipo’s a legit All-Star leading the Pacers to the playoffs, Ibaka starts on a Raptors team with the East’s best record, and all Orlando has to show for it is Terrence Ross and a top-20-protected 2020 first-round pick.
Hennigan was famously enamored of point guard Elfrid Payton in the 2014 draft. The 76ers took advantage of that, plucking the prospect he wanted two spots before Orlando’s pick, then essentially ransoming Payton for another 2014 draftee and two future choices. Philly came away from the deal with Dario Saric and the draft ammunition to pull off the trade that landed Markelle Fultz. After trading Payton to Phoenix this past February, Orlando’s haul in the exchange is “the second-most favorable” of the Memphis Grizzlies’, Charlotte Hornets’ and Miami Heat’s 2018 second-round draft picks.
With 2015 draft pick Mario Hezonja headed to free agency after the Magic declined his fourth-year option back in November — after which, naturally, the Croatian swingman showed sustained signs of life for the first time in the NBA — the only home-grown first-round picks of the post-Dwight era slated to be on Orlando’s roster next season are Gordon and 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac. To be fair, that’s not nothing. Gordon’s good, and when healthy, Isaac looked this season like he could be a transformative defender in a futuristic, switchable frontcourt. The Magic will also have this June’s lottery pick, currently pegged at No. 5 overall with a 29.1 percent chance of sneaking into the top three.
It’s just not a lot, especially with limited financial flexibility to improve given the eight-figure deals for Biyombo, Vucevic, Ross and Evan Fournier already on next year’s cap sheet, and Gordon up for a new deal, possibly the max, in restricted free agency. Six years after Howard and Van Gundy left town, the Magic are still searching for the series of moves that will lead them out of the wilderness. What those transactions will be, and how long they’ll take to bear fruit, remain glaring questions. All we know now is, whenever the next competitive team takes the court in Orlando, Frank Vogel won’t be leading it.
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