Orlando Magic’s most important goal is to get coaching hire right

The Orlando Magic's first rebuild struggled to get going as Jacque Vaughn never honed in on an identity for his team. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's first rebuild struggled to get going as Jacque Vaughn never honed in on an identity for his team. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic appear to be closing in on a head coach.

Whether it is Anfernee Hardaway or not is still a matter for debate — reports from Memphis certainly seem to be suggesting they are preparing as if their coach is departing — but the team has one “serious candidate” and three weeks’ worth of searching and interviews certainly suggests the team is nearing the end of the process.

The fact there are only three jobs currently open after seven were open this offseason also points to the end of the coaching cycle. The Magic will want someone in place soon so they can build their coaching staff and be ready to assist with NBA Draft preparations before the July 29 draft.

If the Magic want to take their time, though, that absolutely makes sense. This is going to be perhaps the most consequential decision president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman makes as the team attempts to rebuild once again.

The Orlando Magic are nearing the most consequential decision of their rebuild — a coach who can guide the team and help them grow quickly.

If Magic fans back someone like Kenny Atkinson over the nostalgia factor Anfernee Hardaway brings, it is because the team knows what inexperience can do in a rebuild. They know how much a poor hire in this situation can set the team back.

Disastrously back in many ways.

Finding and predicting a coach is still a bit of a shot in the dark for both fans and front offices. Nobody can tell what mix of experience, player relationships and cohesion will work to make a coach fit.

Some really successful coaches that seemed destined for success flame out quickly — think the hire of Stan Van Gundy in New Orleans — and some surprising hires work out really well — so far, so good in choosing Chris Finch over David Vanterpool in Minnesota.

Executives are going through interviews and weighing experience and making the best guesses they can to fill the job. A successful coach can transform the team and keep them competitive and growing the right way, the wrong coach sets the team back at least five years, if not longer.

The Magic hired the wrong coach in Jacque Vaughn in 2012.

In three seasons, Vaughn went 58-158 (.269 win percentage) and the team struggled to find anything resembling an identity. This was despite having a lot of talent on the roster — including Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic. There was no reason the magic should have struggled to find 30 wins at least once with that group.

They were all young, of course. But the Magic never seemed to have much cohesion. There was certainly some competition between players to see who would be the “top guy” and it was a definite lesson in players filling in and accepting roles.

But none of that seemed defined. Nothing seemed defined. And it never felt like Vaughn held players accountable. He certainly never explained anything well to the press to inspire much confidence the team was heading in the right direction — other than young players generally getting better with more experience.

Even that never seemed to coalesce.

Vucevic was used as a rebounder and garbage man in a lot of ways. Vaughn never unlocked the All-Star he would one day become under Steve Clifford.

Oladipo was shoehorned as a point guard, hoping he would become a better playmaker. That experiment seemed to slow his development as a scorer. And he never fully realized his defensive potential either.

Despite all the young talent that Magic had and the defensive potential they all had, the team never filled out. It was hard to say what the team was good at or what it was supposed to be good at.

There are a lot of reasons the Magic failed to launch their rebuild. The team’s poor Lottery luck and inability to find a surefire star is at the top of the list. But coaching and the staff the team put together is certainly part of it.

And it all has to start with the man in charge in Vaughn. The vision never coalesced. It just felt like everyone was learning on the job.

There were some really good coaches on Vaughn’s coaching staff. James Borrego was his lead assistant and has done an incredible job in his first full-time head coaching job with the Charlotte Hornets. Wes Unseld Jr. is up for head coaching jobs in this cycle with both the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic and will be a head coach very soon. Even Brett Gunning found a home with the Rockets and Mike D’Antoni after his time with the Magic was through.

But at the time the whole coaching staff was short on experience.

Vaughn had only two years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs before taking the job. Gunning had one year with the Rockets. Borrego had two years with the New Orleans Hornets. Unseld was the most experience with seven previous years with the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors before joining Vaughn’s staff in Orlando.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

If there is an over-emphasis on coaching experience or the hope the Magic hire a former head coach to assist whomever they hire, it is because it was clear too many of the team’s coaches were learning on the job. The team just did not have a set way to improve.

That is not to say the Magic should automatically disqualify a fresh assistant coach or a new NBA coach, such as Hardaway, but the group they put together needs to better balance the experience of what works in the NBA and growth and development for the young players on the roster. They need someone with clout.

But more importantly, the team needs someone with a vision for how to accomplish the team’s goals.

If there is a reason Hardaway went from a “courtesy” interview to the leading candidate for the job, it is likely because he laid out a detailed plan for how he hoped to reach and grow the young players on the roster and how he would build his staff to accomplish this goal.

This was something the team lacked in the early stages of its previous rebuild. A reason why Vaughn’s struggles to take root and grow the team set them back so much. His hire was truly the team’s original sin and one they never recovered from until they found a coach who had the tools and the ability to focus and direct the team in Steve Clifford.

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That is what the Magic should be looking for as much as anything. They need a person with the seriousness and detailed planning that Clifford had with the patience to work with and grow young players.

They need both someone with the patience to keep players’ spirits up and encourage them through mistakes, but the discipline to hold players accountable to their roles and define a vision for the team.

It is obviously not easy. And as many coaches have proven going from a rebuilding team to a playoff team is not an easy one. And it is even harder to go from the playoffs to a true title contender.

Vaughn, for his part, seemed more prepared for his second job when he took over the interim position for the Brooklyn Nets. Those Nets teams played hard and carved an identity in the face of injury. They surprisingly passed the Magic for the seventh seed in the 2020 Playoffs.

It always felt like Vaughn would be more prepared for his second job — one that he appears in line for with the New Orleans Pelicans.

It was unfortunate that Orlando became his experimental ground. It was not an experiment the Magic even set him up for success with as they began the rebuild.

The Magic have to make sure they do not fall into this trap again. They need clear goals and a coach with vision to kickstart this rebuild.

Next. Orlando Magic NBA Draft Combine: Watching Jonathan Kuminga. dark

As the organization knows, the wrong coach can be devastating to the franchise.