Magic’s rise to NBA playoffs under Jamahl Mosley is about more than X’s and O’s

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s also true: A team takes on the identity of its coach.

That’s the Magic under Jamahl Mosley.

What makes this situation different, however, is that it didn’t transpire overnight for the 47-win Magic, who are in the postseason for the first time since 2020 as the No. 5 seed heading into Game 1 Saturday at the No. 4 Cavaliers.

It was evident during their 22-win season, Mosley’s first in Orlando and first as a head coach in the NBA.

It was evident during a 34-win season in Year 2.

First-time coaches often don’t fare well in the NBA. They take over bad teams with bad cultures that are thin on talent — and sometimes full of bad management — and have difficulty luring free agents unless they’re in glamour markets.

And those markets are reluctant to hire first-timers unless they have recognizable names such as Steve Nash (Brooklyn) or Luke Walton (Lakers).

Even that comes with no guarantees. Walton was fired after three consecutive losing seasons. Nash never had a losing season, but his teams loaded with superstars underachieved and he was fired.

First-time head coaches Stephen Silas (Rockets) and Nate Bjorkgren (Pacers) bombed out quickly.

Silas, a longtime NBA assistant who was fired after three years at the end of last season, holds the worst record in league history among those to coach at least 200 NBA games (59-177). Bjorkgren lasted only one drama-filled season in Indiana that’ll hamper his chances at ever being a head coach in the league again.

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Even a Hall of Fame player such as Chauncey Billups (Trail Blazers), who was one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market, has struggled. He’s 81-165 after three seasons.

Orlando has experience with this, too. Although he was hired by a different regime in 2012, Jacque Vaughn — who played 14 years in the league — went 20-62 and 23-59 before he was fired after winning just 15 of 52 games in his third season.

Mosley, however, appears to have cracked the code.

That never would’ve been possible if team president Jeff Weltman had a hair trigger at the first sign of adversity. He trusted his then-43-year-old hire, knowing that changes aren’t instantaneous with a roster so young and inexperienced.

“Jamahl’s doing a hell of a job,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “I give Jamahl Mosley a lot of credit for the job he’s doing with this team.”

Malone knows all about Mosley’s challenges. As a first-time head coach he took over the Kings, who had won just 28 games, in 2013 and was fired prematurely during his second season with Sacramento on the upswing at 11-13.

Malone was hired by the Nuggets in 2015. He had two losing seasons to start in Denver, but the franchise improved every year and it culminated with its first NBA title in 2023. The Nuggets are on the short list of favorites to win this season, too.

Toronto’s Garrett Temple, a 14-year veteran who played for Mosley briefly during Las Vegas Summer League when Mosley was a Cavs assistant coach, is glad to see a team break the mold and allow the coach breathing room.

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“Time is something that is not given to new coaches in this league,” he told the Sentinel. “That’s just the business that we’re in.

“But hats off to Orlando’s organization. They obviously saw something in him and what he was building. I would imagine most teams would love to have this blueprint when they first hire a first-time head coach.”

Mosley was rewarded with a four-year extension last month.

Mosley’s methods

The Magic’s defensive intensity hasn’t slipped.

Entering the playoffs, their defensive rating ranks third in the league (110.8), behind only No. 3 seed Minnesota and No. 1 Boston.

Their 8.1 steals are fourth-best while their opponents’ 12.1 second-chance points allowed are second behind only Sacramento.

Orlando also puts in the extra effort with hustle plays — 15.2 deflections rank sixth-most. In addition, the defense recovers 54.1% of loose balls, also fourth-best.

“At this point, if you’re doing it for this long during the season, that’s pretty much who you are,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “For a young team to commit to defend like that is notable.”

Look at any of the top 10 defensive ratings in the league in almost any year and they’re overwhelming populated by playoff teams or teams with winning records. The anomalies are Houston at 10th this season and Chicago fifth last season (both fringe playoff teams) and none in 2021-22.

Before rising to No. 3, the Magic were 19th and 18th in Mosley’s first two seasons.

He sets the tone.

It’s rare not to hear Mosley imploring his players to pick up opponents at half court. He feeds the aggressive streaks in Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs, two of the team’s top defenders.

“Loud. Loud. Loud,” Temple said of Mosley on the sideline. “I love it.

“Especially with a decently young team, communication is everything, especially on the defensive end. Coaches want to talk about talking and communicating but it’s always great to hear the coach yelling it out as well.”

It’s a 180-degree turn from Mosley’s demeanor otherwise. He’s often calm and doesn’t snap at reporters during his availability sessions.

He’s a live wire on the sideline, encouraging a team with an average age of 24 entering the season.

“He’s on the younger side so he can match the young kids’ energy,” league and Finals MVP Stephen Curry of Golden State told the Sentinel. “That’s necessary too because you do feed off that — hearing your coach throughout the game and seeing him out there, jumping around as engaged as the team should be.

“He’s got the right passion.”

Said Temple: “His ability to understand guys, speak their language, hold them accountable without being overbearing — that’s a skill and not a lot of coaches have it. He’s genuine and players respect that.”

And that’s the tricky balance, being an authority figure without being heavy-handed. Being a players’ coach without being a pushover. Steve Kerr strikes that balance with the Warriors, who have won four championships since 2015.

“You can see with the way they’ve developed over the last three years that they’re headed in the right direction,” Curry said. “When you have that much young talent — similar to what Mark Jackson did for us [as coach from 2011-14] — you develop an identity and a culture and the players respond to it.

“He got rewarded for that with an extension and I told him congratulations. There’s just a vibe that you can kind of see and I’m sure he has a lot to do with establishing that culture.”

Adapt and overcome

Although this might seem easy from the outside, Mosley had to overcome quite a bit.

Less than a week before the Magic opened the regular season, top assistant Nate Tibbetts left to become the head coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

Just five games in, Wendell Carter Jr. fractured his left non-shooting hand during the closing seconds of a two-point win at Utah. He missed the next 20 games, and the long-term injuries wouldn’t stop there.

Markelle Fultz was a late scratch from the same game at Utah with left knee swelling and he would only play once more a week later before sitting out 27 games with tendinitis.

Suddenly, Mosley was without two starters and a key piece of his staff before they’d even played nine games.

Unlike last year when Orlando started 5-20 without guards Cole Anthony, Gary Harris and Fultz, the Magic maintained success as Mosley adjusted on the fly.

He turned to No. 6 pick Anthony Black to start at point guard while inserting reserve center Goga Bitadze into the lineup. This was done to keep Orlando’s second unit — Anthony, Harris, Joe Ingles, Isaac and Moe Wagner — intact.

Through 25 games the Magic won 16, a stretch that included tying a franchise-high nine-game winning streak.

“They just line them up,” said Monty Williams, the Pistons coach and 2022 NBA Coach of the Year. “If somebody’s out, they bring somebody else in and they just fit into the system defensively. You can see the continuity and how they help each other. They know the rotations.

“It just speaks to what Jamahl has been able to do with his staff and the continuity of keeping young guys in the same program.”

Although he never played in the NBA, Mosley did play overseas after four years at Colorado in the Big 12 (1997-2001).

Then came coaching. But he spent 15 years as an assistant to earn his stripes (Nuggets, Cavs, Mavs).

Former elite NBA players get fast-tracked. Nash spent zero years as an NBA assistant before the Nets hired him. Billups only one. Current Mavs coach Jason Kidd had no coaching experience and was fired twice before ever becoming an assistant and learning the ropes.

From Day 1, Mosley has connected with his team.

“He’s a high-impact coach,” said the Pacers’ Rick Carlisle, whom Mosley served under for seven years in Dallas. “I talked to many teams about him for years and he was a guy a lot of organizations passed on.”

Now Mosley is a shining example for first-time coaches around the league.

“First of all, he’s an amazing human being,” said Darko Rajakovic, a first-time coach of the Raptors. “He’s a great coach and definitely somebody that I’m looking up to and trying to learn from.”

Temple, who has been vice president of the players association since 2017, played for four different coaches during his rookie year alone. He’s played for 12 different NBA teams, and he recently was courted in free agency by the Magic.

“I had some good coaches and I had some coaches that weren’t so great,” he said. “You can tell certain coaches [based on] certain cadence, how they speak, their ability to hold guys accountable in a fashion where guys can say, ‘OK, he’s challenging me to do better. It’s not personal; it’s about the team.’

“He just had that. That’s one thing where I was like, ‘I like Jamahl.'”

This appears to be the case for everyone, except maybe the Cavaliers starting Saturday.

Jason Beede can be reached at