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Reading Between the Lines of Scott Skiles’s Media Day Comments

Finally! Training camps are officially open across the league, starting off with Media Day and its traditional slew of interviews. In the first two days of Orlando’s season, the Magic posted not one but two medium-length interviews with the team’s new head coach, Scott Skiles. It’s probably too soon to say, but it does look like the hyper-intense Skiles has — what?! — mellowed a bit with age. Skiles didn’t hold a coaching job in either of the last two seasons, meaning that he’s just come off his longest break from the NBA since his rookie year in 1986-87.

While Skiles didn’t get too detailed in his talking points, both interviews contained some revealing nuggets about the general concepts Skiles will use in coaching this team.

“I don’t have any starters yet.”

Plenty of things about Orlando’s 2014-15 season were filled with uncertainty, but at least it looked like the team had established a starting unit: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Channing Frye and Nikola Vucevic. Instead of, say, confirming that the team will focus on maintaining continuity as they move forward, Skiles essentially announced that there’s open competition for starting spots.

Skiles didn’t elaborate on what he projected his Opening Night starting lineup to be, but it’ll likely be clear to track his thinking throughout Orlando’s eight preseason games, the first of which is at home against the Charlotte Hornets on Oct. 3. To speculate: perhaps one of the team’s three highest per-minute scorers — Vucevic, Oladipo, Harris — will be assigned to lead the bench unit while a more defensive-oriented player gets the nod as a regular starter.

“The ‘want-to’ is not the problem here.”

Skiles’s reputation as a coach is that he’s very demanding, and he leads elite defensive units. Considering that the Magic finished 24th in the league last year in points allowed per possession, that attention to defensive discipline and detail is an obvious strength that helped Skiles secure the job.

So it’s interesting to hear that, even though the Magic were labeled as a disengaged team last season — leading to the dismissal of former head coach Jacque Vaughn — Skiles is starting out as content with his team’s individual defensive efforts in practice. If Skiles thinks that the “want-to” was and is not Orlando’s weakness on the defensive end, perhaps there are specific strategic changes he’ll implement that he sees as dramatically improving the team’s overall performance.

Focus on free throw rate.

Skiles brought attention to a particularly unflattering stat from Orlando’s 2014-15 season: the team was dead-last in the league in free throws attempted. (With the NBA’s 25th-best accuracy from the charity stripe, Orlando was also bringing up the back when it came to total number of made free throws, too.) Instead of just offering something ambiguous and unhelpful like, “We have to get to the line more,” Skiles offered two concrete ways he’d like to see the team boost its free throw rates:

  1. Turn defense into offense. Skiles pointed out that, since the Magic were getting scored on so often last year, they started most of their own possessions by taking the ball out-of-bounds against a set-up defense. If Orlando generates more low-percentage looks, steals and blocks this season — all of them certainly priorities for Skiles — the coach anticipates that that’ll lead to more transition opportunities for the Magic. And in transition, opposing defenses often have to decide between fouling or allowing a high-percentage shot.
  2. Move Vucevic around more within the offense. Skiles pointed out that Vucevic didn’t attempt many free throws last year: it turns out that the center only averaged 3.1 free throws per 36 minutes. Skiles proposed that Vucevic made it to the line so few times because he often simply attempted a post-up, a high-percentage shot that also doesn’t result in many free throws. (You can see the same effect in the game of the Hornets’ Al Jefferson, who’s averaged 3.9 free throws per 36 minutes for his career.) The coach indicated that Vucevic will be put into motion within the offense more often, a strategy that should take advantage of the center’s respectable shooting range.  

If the Magic effectively make these adjustments, expect them to shoot a lot more free throws this season.

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