Since being hired as head coach of the Orlando Magic in late May, Frank Vogel has touted the same message—the new Magic will resemble the old Indiana Pacers.
Hours after putting the pen to paper with the Magic, Vogel said that he took the job because Orlando’s young core reminded him of the Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson squad he took over in 2011. Vogel not only reiterated that statement in subsequent interviews, but added that he could turn Nikola Vucevic into a shot blocker like Hibbert was, simply by changing the way Vucevic positions himself on D. Vogel seems to have convinced several people within the Magic organization, as well as several talking heads around Orlando, that the Pacers of recent past are worth emulating.
When asked about the Vogel hire, Evan Fournier was optimistic, saying that it was "always a pain in the [butt]" to play Vogel’s Pacers, suggesting the Magic might also become a pain for opposing teams to play. As the Magic entered the free agent market, some in Orlando wanted the Magic to sign David West, the "tough-guy" power forward who anchored Indiana’s defense under Vogel. But perhaps no one is more on-board with the old-Pacers model than Magic general manager Rob Hennigan.
While Hennigan did not chase after West, he did use the offseason to recreate Vogel’s Indiana squads, which by Vogel’s own admission "played with two bigs [on the floor] no matter what." Trading for Serge Ibaka and signing Bismack Biyombo is clearly Hennigan's attempt to make the Magic "a grind-it-out team similar to many of Vogel’s Indiana Pacers clubs."
When explaining the Biyombo signing, Vogel said, "we always tried to have two rim protectors in Indiana, so we played 48 minutes with shot blocking." Does it matter to Hennigan that this "grind-it-out," two-big men tactic was a major reason why Pacers’ president Larry Bird let Vogel walk?
The signing of small forward Jeff Green wreaks of a last-ditch effort to find a Paul George-like forward. However, Vogel has gone as far as saying that Aaron Gordon will play the role of George in the new-look Magic system. Gordon is arguably the Magic’s most exciting young talent, but his skill set is entirely different than George’s. To make matters worse, Hennigan brought in D.J. Augustin to play the part of, well, D.J. Augustin, who played with Indiana during the 2012-13 season. Apparently it doesn’t matter that the Magic have Augustin’s carbon copy, C.J. Watson, already on the roster.
It feels as though the 2016/17 Magic are a clustered cast in a bad movie: Vogel’s Pacers. I can hear the trailer now: "Starring Nikola Vucevic as Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka as David West, Aaron Gordon as Paul George, Evan Fournier as…uuuhhhh…the other aspects of Paul George that Aaron Gordon simply doesn’t have the skillset to play, Bismack Biyombo as Ian Mahinmi, and D.J. Augustin as…himself."
It’s understandable that Vogel’s Pacers are viewed as a squad that the new Magic should aspire to be. After all, those Pacers made the playoffs five times in six seasons, and reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice. However, have we accurately assessed the context here? Have we already forgotten how bad the East was when Vogel coached the Pacers to those two conference finals?
Furthermore, have we forgotten the utter collapse of the Pacers in the 2013/14 season, when they were supposed to be serious challengers to LeBron James’ Miami Heat? How about the very fact that the Pacers let Vogel go because he couldn’t do the exact same things that Orlando Magic brass are bringing him in to execute?
There’s no doubt that Vogel’s 2012/13 Pacers were an excellent team. They took the LeBron-Wade-Chris Bosh Heat to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals, thanks in large part to Roy Hibbert doing things like this. But let’s not forget how Indiana got that far in the first place. They finished the regular season third in an Eastern Conference that featured eight teams with below-.500 records. The Pacers’ record that year was 49-32, which would have been good enough for sixth in the West, and was about 17 games behind the conference-leading Heat.
Furthermore, they faced an Atlanta Hawks team in the first round of the playoffs that still considered Josh Smith its cornerstone player, and a New York Knicks squad in the second round that featured little scoring power outside of Carmelo Anthony. Still, they made a great run at the Heat. But how will the Magic ever beat a loaded and LeBron-led Cavs team when Vogel’s Pacers never got past Miami?
The 2013/14 Pacers were a disaster. Despite starting the year 9-0 and holding a league-best 33-7 record in late January, the Pacers quickly plummeted both on and off the court. Their January was marked by giving up 124 points to a subpar Phoenix Suns team, and 42 points to Sacramento’s Marcus Thornton. So much for "tough-guy" defense. In a bizarre effort to address these issues, the Pacers signed beleaguered big-man Andrew Bynum. Just two years later, Bynum was watching NBA games with bleached-blonde hair and a cold beer.
One Paul George scandal and several reports of team in-fighting later, the Pacers were stumbling into the playoffs with a 12-13 record to close the season. Sure, they were still the Eastern Conference’s top seed, but they barely scraped by the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round, struggled against the Washington Wizards in the second round, and were handily defeated by LeBron’s Heat in the conference finals. To make matters worse, the Pacers watched Roy Hibbert fizzle from All-Star to bench bum. I guess Vogel forgot to talk to him about positioning himself on defense.
What appeared to be the Magic’s great fortune—Vogel’s sudden availability just as Scott Skiles was on his way out—overshadowed the reasons why Indiana let Vogel walk away to begin with. According to Larry Bird, Vogel was let go because he couldn’t "keep the ears of the players" and couldn’t "push them to higher levels" of play.
Isn’t that exactly what the Magic expect Vogel to do in Orlando?
Count me among the many Magic fans who were pleased with the Vogel hiring. He is certainly an upgrade from Skiles, and he did have a few bright moments with Indiana. But does that mean I—or any other Magic fan—should want this Magic to be those Pacers? Not in the slightest.
Unfortunately, the damage appears to be done.
Most of the offseason moves look great as isolated transactions in a vacuum—Ibaka is a great defender and veteran leader, Biyombo is a young and promising grit-n-grind guy, and Jeff Green can easily average 15 PPG in the right system. Even Augustin looks nice as an efficient shooter off the bench. But when you add all of the Magic’s new and old pieces together, the cast isn’t very cohesive.
And yet here we are, Orlando. We’re at the movies, the stage is set, and we’re about to watch a high-budget sequel to a movie that wasn’t very good in the first place. This new-look Magic is basically Battleship 2, with Stephen Baldwin replacing Liam Neeson, every member that was ever in 3LW replacing Rihanna, and Kylie Jenner stepping into Brooklyn Decker’s role. The unfortunate truth is that if the Magic continue on the path of replicating Vogel’s Pacers in an increasingly small-ball NBA and beefed up Eastern Conference, Orlando’s winning percentage might just be the same as that hypothetical film’s Rotten Tomatoes score.
Let’s let Indiana stay in Indiana, shall we?