On Friday afternoon, the Magic announced the arrival of a new head coach. The timing suggests they might have looked to avoid a lot of scrutiny, and who can blame them? Signing Scott Skiles isn’t the type of move that’ll excite a fanbase. Skiles is an old school coach with a mediocre track record, not an up-and-comer like Fred Hoiberg or an established winner like Tom Thibodeau. Yet as uninspiring as the signing looks, it could very well have been the right decision for the franchise.
Skiles will be replacing Jacque Vaughn (James Borrego was the interim coach), a young coach who had the pedigree that comes with being a part of Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree. Needless to say, but things didn’t pan out as the Magic had hoped. Orlando under Vaughn showed very little improvement as a team and the young players not much in the way of development. The worst part of his tenure, however, was his inability to give the squad an identity. The Magic played slow, then played fast; they valued defense but were built around a limited defensive anchor; they signed three-point shooters in the offseason that the coach didn’t use.
For all his flaws, Skiles has no problem establishing an identity. His teams are built around defense. They cause a ton of turnovers and run when they have the chance. That’s the essence of almost every team Skiles has coached and what he’ll instill in the Magic. As far as identities go, it’s as clear-cut and easy to understand as any, and that’s exactly what a young team needs. It also fits the strengths of most of the team’s core players.
Orlando has its backcourt of the future in Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo. Both project to be at least above-average defenders and ranked among the league leaders in total steals and steals per game last season. In limited minutes, forgotten man Moe Harkless also excelled in that area. Turning that defense into offense will pose a challenge, as Payton was among the worst in the league in transition scoring, but with athletic freaks like Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and potentially Tobias Harris going out and running, Orlando could be a terror on the break.
Emphasizing disruption on defense makes a lot of sense for the Magic not only because of the strengths of some of their players but also the weaknesses of others. Nikola Vucevic doesn’t provide the type of defensive presence Skiles is used to after counting on Ben Wallace in Chicago and Andrew Bogut in Milwaukee. That means any expectation of a huge improvement in defensive efficiency is unlikely and dependent on what the perimeter players do. Vucevic has room to improve and likely will under Skiles, but he was one of the worst rim protectors in the league among starters last season and doesn’t have the quickness to defend in space.
If Gordon harnesses his athleticism and starts to reach his defensive potential after a lost rookie season, his energy and quickness could help out the Magic’s interior defense. The front office will have cap room to bring in help, and cheap guys like Bismack Biyombo or Kevin Seraphin could provide help defense either in the starting lineup or off the bench. But as long as Vucevic is on the court — and as their best offensive player and rebounder, he’ll get heavy minutes — Orlando won’t be an elite defensive team.
That’s fine, for now. What makes this underwhelming hiring sensible is that the Magic are nowhere near contention and they know it. Skiles has traditionally been good at instituting an identity and empowering perimeter players, but his demanding style wears thin fast. After two or three seasons players tune him out and stop overachieving. That’s when he inevitably gets fired and his old team starts looking for a better, more innovative coach who can take the team to greater heights.
That prospective timeline lines up perfectly with where the Magic are in their rebuild. If Skiles can help Payton and whomever the Magic draft with the fifth overall pick in the upcoming draft improve and gets the most effort out of the rest of the roster while teaching defense, the talented core will be in a much better place as they enter their NBA maturity. Even if the cycle repeats itself — and it likely will — and Skiles is out in three years, his tenure will be a success as long as he helps the young guys improve and allows the front office to figure out who’s worth keeping long term.
Skiles won’t win any championships in Orlando. His teams might not even make the playoffs before he leaves. Yet as long as he establishes a culture of accountability and a defensive identity, his job will be done. The Magic have made an unexciting hiring and the team will likely be hard to watch on the offensive end next season. This move appears to be about the long term, however, and while Skiles is probably not going to be around when and if this core is ready to contend, he can help them get there.