ORLANDO, Fla. — First came the question, then the snicker. The reaction from Orlando Magic forward Kyle O’Quinn was delivered unfiltered and uncontained, like water boiling over a pot’s edge. His words showed that the thickest of thunderheads come with humor as well as a silver lining.
O’Quinn stood near his stall in a quiet locker room after the Magic’s 86-76 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night at Amway Center. It was Orlando’s 11th consecutive defeat — its second double-digit losing streak this season — and the rookie was asked how he keeps his focus despite the slide.
For O’Quinn and other young Magic talent, the franchise’s post-Dwight Howard world has included lessons in loss, yes, but also opportunity. Injuries to leaders such as guards Arron Afflalo (strained calf) and J.J. Redick (sore right shoulder), both out Wednesday, have led to the current dry spell. But their absences have allowed inexperienced players to receive more court time, which could accelerate Orlando’s discovery of its new normal.
After the loss to the Clippers, though, O’Quinn was forced to react to the present. There was a pause, followed by a brief laugh. Then, he offered perspective.
“I mean, it’s tough enough,” said O’Quinn, who scored 10 points and was one of three Magic players in double figures. “You can’t get down on yourself.”
What will it take to gain a spark?
“Just time where we get that chemistry of the guys who are going to be on the team and on the floor with the same game plan,” O’Quinn continued. “Just time will tell. Time will tell. Hopefully, it doesn’t take too long.”
This is the Magic’s reality, post-Howard. The adjustment will take time. The experiment will require patience. But there could be an improved outlook on the horizon, despite overcast skies above West Church Street these days.
The franchise remade itself with the blockbuster four-team deal in August that shipped Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers and brought Afflalo, guard-forward Christian Eyenga, forward Maurice Harkless, forward Al Harrington, forward Josh McRoberts, center Nikola Vucevic and five future draft picks to Orlando. That headline, of course, followed former coach Stan Van Gundy’s firing and the decision to part ways with former long-time general manager Otis Smith last May.
Exit drama, enter change. In came rookie general manager Rob Hennigan, who spent the past eight seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. In came rookie coach Jacque Vaughn, a former 12-year NBA player who spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Spurs.
But the current slide has left the Magic’s rebuilt roster looking like a MASH unit. Wednesday, Redick (averaging 15.3 points per game) missed his second consecutive game, and Afflalo (a team-high 16.7 ppg) missed his sixth straight. Guard Jameer Nelson (15 ppg) scored a game-high 18 in his return after missing two games with a sore left arm. Meanwhile, forward Glen Davis (15.1 ppg) is out at least two months after sustaining a broken left foot in a loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 30.
Consequently, younger faces have increased workloads. Rookies Harkless (38 minutes played) and forward Andrew Nicholson (27) and second-year guard E’Twaun Moore (38) all received starts Wednesday. O’Quinn played 19 minutes, and second-year forward Gustavo Ayon and third-year guard Ish Smith each added 15.
Lesson: You don’t break ground on a new foundation and expect to build Rome by sundown. The Magic are in transition — a process that includes, at times, unsightly scenes as the youngest within the franchise try to find footing as professionals.
Moving past a vision that produced playoff berths in each of the past five years will take work, stamina and a whole lot of nimble parts.
“I think overall, you adapt to a situation,” Vaughn said, when asked by FOXSportsFlorida.com about his team’s identity. “You appreciate what you have. You keep things simple. That’s what we try to do. We try to get better every single day. Over the course of time, those days will add up. The jar is filled up drop by drop, and that’s the approach. Over time, with great habits, those things will add up, and we’ll have success.”
That’s Vaughn’s goal. And yes, it could happen as the new faces become more familiar with one another. This is the hope on their sideline: Through struggle, they will grow stronger.
Vaughn, soft-spoken and calculated, isn’t shy about sharing why he has faith that this will happen. After all, he learned from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, one of the savviest minds in the business.
In listening to Vaughn speak, it’s obvious Popovich’s influence has affected how the rookie coach has tried to steer the Magic through these unfamiliar waters; Vaughn was a guard on the 2006-07 team that won the NBA title, and San Antonio went a combined 111-37 in his two years as an assistant.
So the model is clear: Orlando hopes some of San Antonio’s Midas touch can turn its future into gold. That will happen if young talent embraces a system that values results over flash, production over fireworks.
More Tim Duncan, less Howard. More teamwork, less individual interests in mind.
“I think we need to do the best we can to try to win games, to try to improve daily, whether it be in practice or in games,” McRoberts told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “It has been a struggle thus far. We have faced some adversity. We can try to learn from it and try to improve. … I think (adversity) prepares guys to be ready for anything. Anything can happen one way or another.”
What has happened so far suggests there’s potential — once Band-Aids are removed that hold the current roster together. The chance to test young talent is a positive, as is the confidence Vaughn and others share in their direction. Developing the Magic’s identity will require collective growth, from Hennigan to Vaughn, from veterans to young stars. One factor going for all involved is time.
“We have young guys playing well,” Nelson said. “Maurice is showing a lot of his game lately, whether he’s making or missing shots, he’s playing aggressive — a lot more aggressive than he was earlier in the year. … The other guys are still trying to find their way. It’s still going to take time. These guys are going to have to play and get experience. You can see the potential in all of them. I think they all have great upside to them.”
Upside. Optimism. Perhaps one day soon, a turnaround.