In an unexpected move, Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles resigned today – shocking many across the league. In his 14th year as an NBA head coach, and only his first at the helm of the Magic, Skiles led Orlando to a 10-win improvement over last year’s mark. Though he brought a new level of fight to the previously listless team, his one-year campaign will be remembered for a 2-15 start to the calendar year – all but sinking the Magic’s playoff goals.
From day one, Skiles brought playoff expectations to a group of players unsure of how to win. The team would get close, sitting at 19-13 through the first 32 games, but ultimately come apart when it mattered most.
As Skiles sat in front of the media during this year’s set of exit interviews in April, something seemed off. It was easy to write it off as a byproduct of a long season, but the normally confident coach was somber and reflective.
"It was a frustrating year because I believed what I said when I got the job," said Skiles. "I believe there was a winning team in the locker room this year, and we didn’t get it done, and that responsibility is mine."
In a statement published today on the team’s website, Skiles had this to say regarding his choice to resign: "After much thought and careful consideration, I and I alone, have come to the conclusion that I am not the right head coach for this team. Therefore, effective immediately, I resign my position as head coach of the Orlando Magic. I realize this type of decision can cause much speculation. The reality though is in the first sentence. It is simple and true. Any other rumors are pure conjecture."
Wherever the fault lies, it was clear that there were deep philosophical differences between Skiles and the basketball operations staff. These may have stemmed from the coach’s player management, as Skiles’ was known for a lack of preferential treatment to the team’s "stars". Be it benching shooting guard Victor Oladipo, limiting the minutes of rookie Mario Hezonja, or playing point guards Brandon Jennings and C.J. Watson long stretches without Elfrid Payton, there seemed to be no "normal" rotation for the Magic. This lack of consistency left players unsure of their roles, and the team’s play became as inconsistent as its lineups.
Despite the disagreements on how to allocate the team’s minutes, few would doubt that there is talent on Magic roster. NBA coaches love moldable minds, and there is no shortage of that in Orlando. The next leader of the team will be able work with breakout sophomore forward Aaron Gordon, in addition to developing the young back court of Oladipo and Payton. Despite a season of tape, Hezonja remains a mystery, and the Magic will surely hire a coach intent on unshackling him from his previous minute limits.
The biggest question, however, is how this coaching change will affect the Magic during free agency. The previous plan was to compete – to play hard with a limited roster so that the team could pitch a new era of Magic basketball to upcoming free agents. With Skiles going by the wayside, so too go any hopes of selling his hard-nosed winning culture. Continuity is gone, and the Magic find themselves starting the third "new era" since the departure of Stan Van Gundy – only five years ago.
Hiring an established name would certainly help, and the split between Frank Vogel and the Indiana Pacers last week couldn’t have come at a better time for Orlando. Still, the franchise runs dangerously close to regression.
The Skiles era could serve as a crucial turning point; it will either be remembered as a bump in the road during a longer rebuilding process, or the first domino to fall in a list that could include GM Rob Hennigan, or even CEO Alex Martins.