Orlando Magic begin building a winning culture

Nov 25, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; New York Knicks guard Arron Afflalo (4) is blocked by Orlando Magic forward Jason Smith (14) as Magic forward Evan Fournier (10) drives to the net during the second quarter of a basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 25, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; New York Knicks guard Arron Afflalo (4) is blocked by Orlando Magic forward Jason Smith (14) as Magic forward Evan Fournier (10) drives to the net during the second quarter of a basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Culture is one of those buzz words. The Orlando Magic are trying to build their culture and took some important steps in 2016. The path forward is not easy.

There were numerous times when the locker room was quiet after a game. Not every one of Orlando’s 47 losses were the same. Some hit harder than others. The blowouts sometimes feel like a morgue as no one likes getting beat.

The close losses?

The close losses had a feeling of frustration. The feeling that one more play could have turned the tide. The feeling that the win was so close. It away at the team.

There were times when Nikola Vucevic took personal responsibility for a play in a loss. Or Victor Oladipo, like when he helped off of Kyle Korver in a December loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Or Elfrid Payton, taking responsibility for a bad decision to foul late against the Detroit Pistons. There were moments where players were left thinking about individual plays and how they could be better.

These are the growing pains of becoming a winner and building a winning culture. Losses have to hurt first.

The next step is learning how to build up from those losses. The next step is learning how to build a winning culture.

“We’re getting there,” Nikola Vucevic said at exit interviews in mid-April. “We obviously did improve from last year but we didn’t achieve our goal. Obviously we can’t be happy with our season. We are obviously disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet. There is still work to do. There are some pieces to be added and some stuff to work on.”

The Orlando Magic have not won a whole lot of games in the past four years. It has fed the frustration that entered this year.

Entering the 2016 season, the Magic had the fewest wins in the past three seasons. Winning 20, 23 and 25 games was small progress, but ultimately landed the team three straight top-five picks and everything that means. Those teams are typically the ones at the bottom of the standings.

The bottom of the entire league.

When Orlando hired Scott Skiles last summer, part of the reason for hiring him was to help build a culture of accountability. He has a reputation throughout the league for being a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach. The kind of coach that helps young teams take that step up.

Orlando did not take the full step up the team wanted, but the team did improve by 10 games and began shedding some of the losing that had dogged the team the last three years.

Winning was coming. And the new coaching staff was going to be a big part of building that. The new coaching staff did change things.

“I thought [Skiles] impact was awesome,” Evan Fournier said during exit interviews. “The whole coaching staff is just a bunch of tough competitors. They all played the game, so they all get it. I think the discipline we had this year, every practice was hard. Every practice was tough for us physically and mentally. I think he did a great job. It’s just too bad we had a terrible month of January, otherwise he would have had a shot at coach of the year.”

A lot of that, of course, changed when Skiles resigned last week. It left a big question mark for the Magic franchise as they move forward and raised some questions about the progress the Magic have made. Just how much have the Magic improved.

Rumors as to why Skiles decided to suddenly resign are flying all over the place. Chris Mannix of The Vertical reported Skiles had become disenchanted with the attitudes of modern NBA players. That seemingly goes against the thought of building a winning culture.

Skiles at exit interviews said the team improved by 10 wins. So they were better, but they were not close to the Playoffs either. The team is stuck in the middle somewhere.

After his resignation, Magic CEO Alex Martins said Skiles brought the team exactly what they asked of him. He brought accountability, structure and a focus on winning. Perhaps some of the growing pains and resistance to the difficulties of winning led to his resignation.

There were no regrets in hiring Skiles, Martins said. At the end, Skiles got the team closer, putting in the foundations for a team trying to turn the corner.

“I think we’re really close,” Victor Oladipo said at exit interviews. “I think guys definitely want to win. We need to figure some things out internally and figure some things out individually. We have to realize there is a lot that goes into winning. if we want to win, we have to do those things that go into doing that.”

The next season then figures to be an important one. The next coaching hire figures to be an important one.

The Magic have taken some small steps forward. But there is still a lot of work the Magic need to do to build a winning culture and start experiencing the success Skiles was supposed to bring.

The next coach will be continuing to build on that foundation established this past season, for whatever it is worth. Orlando is feeling the pressure to make the Playoffs and has to continue moving forward.

Winning in reality is habit. The culture is an environment that is conducive to that habit. It is hard to say that has developed fully yet.

The Magic certainly are young and still learning. The beginnings of that accountability and expectation were laid. No one was reveling in simply being 10 wins better than last year.

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Whether the Magic can take the next step will rely on the coaching hire the team makes to continue building off what Skiles and his staff did and the individual drive and improvement from the players on the roster.

There is no much time and there should be urgency to get that culture established and have it take root.

The desire though is there to begin and continue that work.

“We’re young and so a lot of times the youth can produce inconsistency.,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said during exit interviews. “When you look at the work ethic, the heart, the competitive drive of our players and our team, we feel really good about the fiber and fabric of what it is we’re doing here and the attitude and desire to want to win. If anything, I think the appetite for success has been heightened through this season and not diminished. Guys are hungry and they want to win. We have to figure out a way to get better.”

Now only time will tell if that combination can be stirred together to create something that can last.