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The promise of the Frank Vogel era

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Frank Vogel accomplished a lot in his time with the Pacers. What can we learn about him from those teams, and how much of that success can he bring to Orlando?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

"Orlando Magic hire Frank Vogel as Head Coach"

What a prediction this would have been a month ago. The Indiana Pacers were playing in their 5th postseason during Vogel's tenure, tied 1-1 with the 2nd-seeded Toronto Raptors in a series that would go seven games. There were murmurs here and there that all was not well in Pacer-land, but few thought Vogel's job was in danger.

Compare that situation with Scott Skiles'. Skiles didn't make the playoffs, and there were plenty of reasons to be less than thrilled about the Magic's latest coach in his first season, but Orlando did improve by 10 wins over the previous year. Certainly many of the players were convinced that if things broke just a little bit differently, especially in those numerous close losses and throughout that disastrous January, we'd be looking back on the season much more positively. Above all else, that was Skiles' first season with the Magic, and unless you're the Sacramento Kings, first-year coaches tend to turn into second-year coaches.

Yet here we are.

Playoff coaches usually don't get canned, and first-year coaches usually don't quit, but that improbable series of events has led to Orlando's surprise upgrade. Many Magic fans are thrilled with the hire, and for good reason. Among the available coaches on the market, he stood out as the one with the best resume, surprising many as the interim coach of the Pacers in 2011 and earning his way into a long-term contract.

He made the playoffs every season that Paul George didn't have a shattered leg, which happened to be just the one. Even that season he won 38 games, which is a minor miracle when you look back on the roster he was working with. Roy Hibbert had the second-lowest eFG% on the team, despite being, y'know, their center. David West was 34! Solomon Hill started 78 games!

At the very least, you can say that Vogel exceeded the expectations for his team almost every year, which is more than we can say about the Magic during their rebuild. If there was a theme for Orlando each season, it was just to look forward to the next one while trying not to think too hard about the present issues. For better or worse, expectations remain high entering the off-season.

Let's take a look, then, at what Frank Vogel accomplished with the Pacers, and if those achievements hint at what he offers the Magic. When I took a look at the problems with Scott Skiles and his on-court schemes, my conclusion was that he didn't offer the Magic the defensive tools they needed, nor did he help build an identity that the team could coalesce around. The good news is that, if history is any indication, Vogel should be well-equipped to solve these two problems.

Indiana's vaunted defense

Most NBA followers should know by now that Vogel's Pacer teams were consistently excellent, but it's worth laying out just how good their defensive efficiency was every season:

2011-2012 10th
2012-2013 1st
2013-2014 1st
2014-2015 8th
2015-2016 3rd

A top-10 defense every year is no easy feat, not to mention two consecutive years at the very top of the league. This discussion about Vogel can't go without mentioning his personnel--Hibbert's defense spawned the word "verticality," and Paul George was the best defender at small forward in the league before Kawhi Leonard came along--but he certainly added to their defense and used the players available to him well.

My favorite part of the best Pacers teams was the way they defended 3-pointers, or more specifically, prevented 3-point attempts.

As I've noted many times throughout this season while analyzing the Magic's defense, preventing 3-pointers is the most sustainable way to play good defense, as opposed to forcing a low shooting percentage on those shots. In particular, the Pacers allowed just 4.4 corner-3 attempts per game in 2012-2013 per NBA.com, 2nd-lowest in the league that season. Their numbers around the restricted area were similarly good, allowing the 3rd-fewest attempts within 5 feet of the basket.

That said, the Pacers have been consistently very good when it comes to forcing a low percentage on these kinds of shots. This season, per NBA.com's tracking data, the Pacers forced opponents to shoot an average of 1.9% worse on 3-pointers than they normally would taking those same shots against other teams. If there's one exception I'll make to the rule about opposing field goal percentage, it's when there are elite perimeter players involved.

Paul George, of course, stands out as one of the very best wing defenders in the past 5 years. The other teams who excel in this category, like the Spurs, Warriors, and Celtics, all have their own elite perimeter defenders they can rely on.

Those teams functioned with a scheme that, in many ways, is the opposite of what the Magic tried this season. As Zach Lowe noted back in his Grantland days, the goal of those defenses was to use a little help defense as they could manage, preferring to rely on their two pick-and-roll defenders to get their jobs done. That lies in stark contrast to Orlando's style, which used an abundance of help defense to stymie the initial action, relying instead on sharp rotations to get out to potentially-open shooters. This isn't to say that one technique is inherently better than the other--the Heatles-era Miami teams were quite good defensively in those same seasons, and they were well-known for their hyper-aggressive, super fast defense--but it does mean that Vogel should come equipped to try something new with his new team.

His defenses were also adaptable, flexible, and without weaknesses. When Hibbert was on the court, he would hang back near the rim to maximize his rim protection skills. When West subbed in, he would trap and blitz more frequently in pick-and-rolls, since he was faster.

Either way, the objective was the same: disrupt the play enough that the other three defenders can stick to shooters on the outside. This strategy worked well because the Pacers had, essentially, no bad defenders on their team. They played smart, and opponents could never choose a player to exploit, the way you think about guys like James Harden or Enes Kanter today.

While the roster's gotten much worse in recent years, that all-around solid play has continued. The 2015-2016 Pacers didn't prevent 3-pointers and layups the way their old teams did, but they still did everything at least at an average level. Across the board, no matter where you look, they're just not bad at anything.

They were good at securing defensive rebounds, they don't foul too much, and they contest a good number of opponent shots. They get a lot of steals, and an average number of blocks. They don't have many players that rate as "elite" in a variety of advance plus-minus stats like RPM or BPM, but they also play very few that rate negatively.

So what does this mean for the Magic?

There's a few things here that are positive signs for this team, but also some results that will be difficult to carry over. The most important difference is the quality of the players. Even if the Pacers were good at forcing a lot of misses, I'm less confident that the same could be said for the Magic, especially considering their defensive drop-off this season coincided with their sudden inability to contest shots successfully.

That difference extends to the interior defense, too. When it comes to defense and rim protecion, Nikola Vucevic can't hold a candle to Hibbert in his heyday. It's hard to see how well that low-key, 2-on-2 defense would work if the opposing offense can beat that pairing consistently. After all, Skiles's defensive plan seemed to extend from the assumption that the team couldn't defend screens straight-up. On the other hand, maybe that's a better compromise than what the Magic suffered through. The aggressive help system the Magic employed only worked for two months before teams started to wring long-range and close-range shots from it at-will.

Regardless, I think Vogel stands to offer the Magic some stability, and the ability to develop the young players into competent individual defenders. It means something that Vogel's teams had few-to-no weaknesses defensively, and even if Oladipo doesn't turn into Dwyane Wade overnight, just making the team "solid" across the board would go a long way toward developing them into something interesting. I also think Vogel is a smart enough coach to figure out the best possible scheme for the Magic, even if it doesn't look exactly like what the Pacers did.

A long-sought identity

Up until his last season with the Pacers, you always knew exactly what Vogel's teams were all about. In their peak seasons, they were a bruising, big team, staring straight into Miami's small-ball nightmare without blinking once. While they weren't a team that was gonna throw the ball in the post and abuse lesser big men around the hoop--Hibbert never had the offensive chops to pull that off--they still took advantage of their size to set picks and smother offenses. They were long, and smart, and relied on George's playmaking and the other George's (Hill, specifically) solid all-around play to set things up. I've never been a Lance Stephenson fan, but even he filled a role that helped round out their team.

The Magic, of course, are stuck in that youth-movement mystery phase.

My other complaint about the Skiles-era was the lack of identity, the lack of a definable, consistent plan of attack on a night-to-night basis. Even a team like the Sixers has had an identity, a dedication to launching shot after shot from downtown and playing as fast as possible. It hasn't worked because, well, they don't put NBA players on the court and they commit a kajillion turnovers, but they play a identifiable style of basketball.

Much has been made of the conflict between Vogel and Larry Bird about how the Pacers should have played this season. Bird, apparently, wanted them to shift to small-ball, and Vogel seemed unable to make that happen. I don't think Magic fans should be too worried about this, however.

For one, I think this was more of a Paul George problem than a Frank Vogel problem. George's disdain for playing power forward has been well-documented, and when it comes to superstar-coach relations, the star usually gets his way. I'm not saying George was being selfish or Vogel was being soft. That's just the way these things go sometimes.

Vogel's comments during his introductory interviews are also telling. In his interview with the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins, Vogel compared how his Indiana teams played with two bigs, saying:

"I think in today’s game, that’s risky. The way the game has evolved the last two or three years, it’s risky to do that, in particular against these teams that play with five 3-point shooters on the court....I look forward to having more of an opportunity in Orlando to try to execute more of an analytically based offensive approach where we are shooting more 3s, we are spreading the floor more and sort of breaking the mold the way a lot of teams in this league have done in terms of how the game is played."

In other words, don't worry that Vogel couldn't get the small-ball revolution rolling in Indiana, because he clearly has an idea for how he'd like to see the Magic play.

Vogel also made a point of comparing the young core he's adopting with the one he inherited in Indiana, talking about how he coached up the likes of George, Hibbert, and Stephenson.

"Those guys hadn’t really seen success at the NBA level, and we were able to just bring a positive energy-and-enthusiasm type of approach to the young talent that they had and we watched them grow."

Obviously, Vogel's not going to walk into his intro press conference and trash the roster, and I think we all recognize that Paul George 2.0 probably isn't on the team right now, but I think the comparison is still a fair one.

The Magic are a young team, and one that hasn't ever received the guidance they really deserve since the rebuild began. I'm not quite as optimistic as many Magic fans when it comes to their chances at making the playoffs next season under Vogel (pending offseason moves, of course), but I do believe this could be the turning point for this team, when the potential they've built up over several years starts paying dividends.