ORLANDO, Fla. — As recently as three weeks ago, few people other than those inside the Orlando Magic organization knew who James Borrego was.
That was far less a concern to him than determining exactly who the Magic were.
When the 37-year-old native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with no previous head coaching experience outside of a couple of NBA summer leagues took over Feb. 5 for the fired Jacque Vaughn, he inherited a team with a 15-37 record and no distinct personality. The Magic were giving up an average of 102.3 points a game, including more than 100 in each of their previous 14 contests, and did not have a consistent 20-point scorer to help make up for those defensive shortcomings.
So Borrego described his first order of business as "trying to bring some clarity, some identity to the group — who do we want to be, and how do we execute that." That meant severely retooling the uptempo approach Vaughn implemented a month ago which saw the Oklahoma City Thunder score 79 points in the first half of one game and the woebegone New York Knicks put up 113 points in another Magic loss.
Spending two full years as Vaughn’s lead assistant going into this season allowed Borrego to become well-acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of the players on the Magic roster. It was a situation not unlike when Richie Adubato replaced Brian Hill in February 1997 and the Magic promptly reeled off six wins in a row.
"When you have been an assistant coach with the group, it’s not hard to transition," said Adubato, now a color analyst on Magic radio broadcasts. "You know their personalities. You know what they’re all about."
That familiarity doesn’t always lead to success. The Magic dropped nine consecutive games under Johnny Davis after he was moved up following the firing of Doc Rivers in November 2003, while Chris Jent got off to a 1-4 start in March 2005 that was followed not long thereafter by a seven-game losing streak after he took over for Davis.
The Magic head into Wednesday night’s home game against the Miami Heat with a 4-2 record under Borrego. While victories over the Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers and — most recently — the Philadelphia 76ers hardly qualify as transformational events, it’s worth noting that opponents are averaging only 92.7 points and shooting 42.3 percent against the same group of individuals playing the same amount of minutes for the most part that they did before Borrego was given control.
"When you win," Adubato said, "they believe anything you tell them."
"The group should feel proud," Borrego said. "And it should feel that they’re moving in the right direction. But by no means are we satisfied. Our defense is a work in progress. We’re far from where we want to be. The goal is to be an elite defense, not just a good or solid defense."
The Magic still rank last in the league in blocked shots and had a combined total of only four rejections in their victories over the weekend against the 76ers and the New Orleans Pelicans. Adubato added that, with the exception of Victor Oladipo, this is also a team which doesn’t take many charges in the paint on defense.
To compensate for that, the Magic are relying on Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton — whom Borrego calls "the face of our defense" — to bring the sort of tenaciousness which will rub off on their teammates. While their intensity won’t necessarily result in an increase in steals, it’s hard to find fault with Payton turning the ball over just once in the last two games while handing out 18 assists.
"They’ve put more pressure on the basketball with the guards, which is where your defense starts," Adubato said. "And they’ve been really aggressive on the pick-and-roll defense."
"We’re just more aggressive covering for each other," Borrego said. "I’ve seen more bodies around the ball, more of a commitment to one-on-one pride."
Borrego spent two seasons in New Orleans as an assistant under Monty Williams before joining the Magic in the summer of 2012. The two of them were also on the staff of Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, with Borrego working his way up from assistant video coordinator to assistant coach.
"His way is different from any other coach you’re going to see in the NBA," Williams said. "He’s just real patient, plods along. You almost think he’s too laid back at times. But he’s got a bit of a streak in him too. I’ve seen it come out when he wants to make his point."
Through six games, Borrego has not resorted to anything close to a public outburst to get his point across as the Magic have become far stingier when it comes to giving up points. Whether they can sustain that level of defense over their remaining 24 games remains to be seen, but the initial signs are encouraging.
"We’re still getting there," he said. "We’ve identified what we want to be about. Now it’s the execution of that."