We’re treading on dangerous territory, here, outright insinuating that the coach of a professional basketball team is attempting to punt the very first game of the season, but before we dive in we should point out that we don’t believe for a second that Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn was trying to lose his season opener on purpose. That he wasn’t trying to stack the 82-game deck to earn the best NBA draft lottery odds to select someone like Andrew Wiggins next June. Not when the odds only reach as high as 25 percent for a team with the worst record in the league, and not with nearly six months left in an arduous NBA season.
Still, emerging scoring forward Andrew Nicholson had 18 first half points in Orlando’s surprising first half against the championship-worthy Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night. And Andrew Nicholson, for whatever reason, did not play down the stretch of the second quarter, or for all of the third quarter. The Pacers, once down big, came back to beat Orlando while the Magic desperately searched for scoring. That’s odd; and Vaughn (in his second year) can’t blame rookie jitters for his or the similarly sophomore’d Nicholson’s absence.
After the game, I asked Magic coach Jacque Vaughn to explain his rationale.
Vaughn wanted Jason Maxiell — not Nicholson — to guard rugged Pacers power forward David West.
“I thought Max was unbelievable against David West, and [Pacers coach Frank] Vogel ended up playing David West the entire third,” Vaughn said afterward. “So I thought that matchup was great for us. Andrew scored all his points against Scola. And, so, Scola wasn’t in the game, and so it was on me to make that call, and I did.”
To understand why Vaughn wanted Nicholson in against Scola, let’s flash back to last season. According to NBA.com’s StatsCube, Nicholson made all six of his shot attempts when he faced Scola last season.
And, to be sure, Maxiell did play effective defense against West on Tuesday night. West made just three of his nine shot attempts when Maxiell was on the court.
But by taking Nicholson off the court when he did, Vaughn cooled off his hottest scorer — a player who was on his way to a career night.
Indiana outscored the Magic by nine in the third with Nicholson watching from the bench, something that may have happened with or without Andrew. After all, the Magic may end up with the worst record in the league for the second straight year, while the Pacers could challenge for 60 wins.
We don’t bring this up to wonder aloud about the Magic tanking, because they weren’t. Vaughn may have just made a curious move (to put it rather nicely) in the heat of the first game he’s had to coach in months. And while we respect Nicholson’s touch and talents, it isn’t as if the St. Bonaventure product was on anyone’s list for Sixth Man of the Year candidates this season – his surprise offensive outburst had Basketball Twitter surprised, and it’s very possible the Pacer defense (ranked tops in the league last season) spent most of halftime focusing on how to stop the forward.
We bring this up because the attention paid to teams tanking is intense in this modern era, an intensity that was recently fueled by an NBA general manager outlying the principles and benefits to it in a recent column for ESPN. The attention to the practice came of age in the months before the 2007 NBA draft, one that featured Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, but it’s never been the subject of such scrutiny this early in the season. Hell, it was on everyone’s lips the moment the Philadelphia 76ers gutted their roster some four months ago.
Not even in 2002, when LeBron James’ hometown(ish) Cleveland Cavaliers traded star point guard Andre Miller for a project in Darius Miles, after drafting an even bigger project in DaJuan Wagner, was anyone writing off their 2002-03 season, or calling that team “tankers.” Those Cavs eventually won James in a lottery prize, something the Magic, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are attempting to do this season.
You get there by losing, and by not playing your best players. Did Jacque Vaughn have mid-May’s draft lottery going through his mind on the night of October 29th? Nah, he probably just made a regrettable coaching decision.
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Everyone’s watching, though. Just another thing they’ll have to deal with, in a desperate bid to draft a star.