By John Denton
Oct. 8, 2017
ORLANDO – Just as NBA teams tend to sometimes take on the personality of their head coaches, those very same coaches occasionally get branded with reputations – fairly or not – based on the style of play that they demand from their teams.
Pat Riley, for instance, seemed to be the perfect fit for the flashy, “Showtime’’ Lakers of the 1980s with his tailored Armani suits and his slicked-back hair. Gregg Popovich’s heavy-handed, discipline-oriented style of coaching has always gone over well in a military town like San Antonio, and the Spurs have responded with five NBA titles. Similarly, Steve Kerr’s relaxed style, one that allows players the freedom to freelance and improvise, proved to be the perfect fit in Golden State with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and later Kevin Durant as the Warriors have rolled to two of the past three NBA titles.
For Frank Vogel, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and currently the head coach of the Orlando Magic, his basketball reputation through the years was largely defined by his biggest successes. Vogel got the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals in both 2013 and ’14 by employing an old-school, smash-mouth style of basketball that relied heavily on the willingness of big men David West and Roy Hibbert to throttle foes at the rim. Those Pacers teams didn’t just beat teams; they regularly beat them up and suffocated them with their Vogel-designed defenses.
Fast forward to 2017, a time when the NBA has so dramatically shifted to small-ball and space-and-pace strategies where 7-foot centers are viewed a dying breed, and Vogel has changed his stripes as a head coach to “modernize our team.’’ These days, the new-look Magic have a roster full of versatile wing players and Vogel is constantly imploring them to push the pace, spread the floor and hoist open 3-pointers. While some might think that Vogel was forced into this stylistic change kicking and screaming, he says he merely is coaching to the personnel on his roster – just as he did in Indiana years earlier – and he’s now playing a style he feels will help the Magic be the most successful in today’s NBA.
“It really is a big jump, quite frankly, and I am enjoying it,’’ Vogel said in the dramatically different style. “I started the process the last year I was in Indiana and I learned a lot that year. I learned a lot more the second half of last season (in Orlando) in terms of what (small-ball) looks like with our guys. I feel really good now that we fine-tuned a lot of things and corrected a lot of things and I think it will pay dividends for us this year.’’
That’s certainly the hope of a Magic franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2012. The hope was that the postseason drought would end last season, especially after the Magic hired the highly successful Vogel as their head coach. However, a 2016-17 roster that leaned heavily on big men Serge Ibaka, Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo was badly out of whack with the changing style of play in the NBA, and the Magic quickly fell out of contention.
A major change in philosophy came last February when the Magic dealt Ibaka to Toronto for shooting guard Terrence Ross, allowing the Magic to finally get sleeker, more versatile lineups on the floor. The shift to small-ball started for Vogel during that last season in Indiana in 2015-16, and the coach dove headfirst into the new style of play over the final 24 games of last season.
Now, this preseason, Vogel’s Magic have routinely had four players on the floor capable of shooting 3-pointers and often five are able to guard multiple positions. The Magic, 2-1 and about to play the Mavericks in Dallas on Monday, have hoisted 80 3-pointers and have run their way to 49 fast break points in three games thus far. Just as he did with the Pacers, Vogel is merely coaching to his talent and doing what he thinks will be most successful for the Magic.
“In Indiana, we were just playing to our personnel. As a coach, you have to play to how your team is built,’’ Vogel remembered. “Part of that Indiana team’s identity was physicality, attacking and playing with a fearlessness. That’s something that I’m still trying to replicate here in Orlando, but with a different style. Even though we’re playing with space (offensively), we don’t want to play a soft brand of basketball. We still want our guys to be physical, stay in attack mode and play with toughness.’’
VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO
To fully familiarize himself with everything there is to know about the NBA’s sweeping trend of small-ball, Vogel reverted to a tactic that has helped him all throughout his coaching career: He immersed himself in watching countless hours of video footage.
Two decades earlier, Vogel got his start in coaching at the University of Kentucky by convincing Rick Pitino and Jim O’Brien that he should be their video coordinator. He rode that same role to the NBA with the Boston Celtics and it taught him enough about the game to eventually earn him jobs as an assistant coach and later as head coach. Even today, Vogel tries to arrive at the Magic headquarters as early as four hours before practices and/or games so he has enough time to pour over video footage in an attempt to gain any sort of advantage.
With the Magic about to shift fully into playing smaller and faster this upcoming season, Vogel watched and re-watched many of the playoff series involving the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Warriors – the NBA’s top three 3-point shooting teams last season and ones who have seemingly mastered the art of small ball. Vogel usually had his cell phone nearby during many of those games, taking a series of notes of things he picked up stylistically from those teams.
“I really focused a lot on the (NBA’s) final four (in the Western and Eastern Conferences) and those series,’’ he said. “The way Houston plays, there are a lot of little details that teams like them did better than us last season. Of course, those teams have some of the greatest players in the game, but there are some things that they were doing stylistically to facilitate everything. I’ve tried to carry some of those things over to what we’re doing here.’’
Never one to shy away from a heavy workload, Vogel also dove into footage from the NBA’s recent past and studied the small-ball styles of coaches such as Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer. After all, it was the Heat that beat the Vogel’s Pacers in 2013 and ’14 when they moved power forward Chris Bosh to center, and he repeatedly hurt them with jump shots from the perimeter when Hibbert stayed inside. And it was the Hawks that nearly upset Vogel’s Pacers early in the 2014 playoffs by using Al Horford and Paul Millsap to pull Hibbert and West away from the rim.
Watching all of that video footage rammed home something to Vogel that the coach shockingly first thought about midway through last season.
“You really have to re-think everything that you’ve always thought as a coach,’’ Vogel said.
“It’s a drive-and-kick league now, so you have to protect the 3-point line as much as the rim,’’ Vogel continued. “The things that I asked for in Indiana was rim-protecting, shot-blocking bigs first, and guys on the perimeter second. It’s totally the other way around now. The premium now is having quick guards who can contain the dribble. That’s the biggest thing that you need now to survive and build an elite defense.’’
EMBRACING THE CHANGE
Vogel’s acceptance of the change can be seen in how the Magic’s roster has been reconfigured. Orlando’s trading of the 6-foot-10, shot-swatting Ibaka for Ross likely would have never happened five years earlier as NBA usually always resisted trading a bigger player for a smaller one. However, in today’s NBA, wing players with the ability to shoot 3-pointers and contain penetrators, have a higher value than most big men.
In the offseason, Vogel worked closely with new Magic management – President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and assistant GM Pete D’Alessandro – to construct the roster to fit the team’s new style. Orlando drafted 6-foot-10 forward Jonathan Isaac in June because the big man has both the lateral quickness to play on the perimeter and the size to still hold his own on the inside. In free agency, the Magic inked Jonathon Simmons, Arron Afflalo and Shelvin Mack – players with strong reputations as perimeter defenders. Another addition, Marreese Speights, is a center capable of burying 3-pointers in bunches.
“Frank understands analytics and he knows the way the game is going, but he also understands his players and utilizing their strengths,’’ said Afflalo, who said he couldn’t wait to play for Vogel because of the coach’s stellar reputation around the NBA. “Using me as an example, he’ll call a post-up for me from time-to-time even though that might not be the most (analytically sound) play. But he knows he has a player who can get the job done and he trusts them.
“I just love his open-mindedness about the game and it will serve well for the players on this team,’’ Afflalo added.
Orlando’s shift to more of a spread offense and a faster pace served point guard Elfrid Payton well late last season. Taking full advantage of the larger driving lanes on the floor, Payton registered five triple-doubles and posted career-best numbers over the final 24 games of last season. Despite playing just 19 minutes a game this preseason – about 11 fewer than he likely will in the regular season – Payton has handed out 6.0 assists a game – many of them to versatile players such as Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Simmons or Ross for dunks.
None of it would have been possible – and the Magic’s hopes for this season might not be as high – if Vogel hadn’t been so willing to change his coaching style to better fit in today’s NBA, Payton said. The point guard has been quick to credit his coach for abandoning a style that gave him success in the past and switching to one mostly foreign to him prior to last season.
“He’s definitely embraced the change, and that has to be a tough thing for him to do, especially when it’s something that you are accustomed to,’’ Payton said. “It says a lot about him to change everything up to the way that the game is played today with the players that we have here.
“Frank’s definitely changed his thinking a lot. The trade for T-Ross helped that,’’ Payton added. “It’s tough when you’ve been doing something one way for so long and change, but he’s embraced it. Anytime you’ve been doing something a long time and you’ve had success with it, it’s hard to go away from it. You know it works and that makes it hard to go away from it, so I think it says a lot about Frank as a coach.’’
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