Scott Skiles made a surprising announcement Thursday morning: effective immediately, he is resigning his post as Orlando Magic coach, following a frustrating season wherein his team limped to a 35-47 finish despite looking the part of a low-tier playoff team through the opening two months of the season.
No one ought to argue Skiles' decision to leave will have a negative impact on the franchise. If he doesn't want to coach this team anymore1, there's no reason he ought to stay on. I'm more concerned with, and interested in, the long-term impact his lone season at Orlando's helm might have on the franchise's future.
Most pressing is how the personnel moves Rob Hennigan and his front-office staff made in 2015/16 look in hindsight.
Would Hennigan have dealt Tobias Harris, a 23-year-old gadget forward fresh off signing a cap-friendly contract extension who seemed to struggle in Skiles' guard- and post-heavy offense, if he knew Skiles would bounce a few months later? As much as I hate to unearth this old chestnut, it's relevant to the discussion at hand.
To recap: in return for Harris, Orlando received the expiring contracts of Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, who, probably not coincidentally, previously played under Skiles for the Milwaukee Bucks. Jennings served as a security blanket of sorts for Skiles, as his presence enabled Orlando's coach to keep Elfrid Payton, the second-year point guard with whom Skiles was obviously not enamored, on the bench. Ilyasova boarded and shot threes at a decent clip, but let's be real: his non-guaranteed salary for the 2016/17 season is what most attracted Orlando to him.
Ultimately, that trade with the Detroit Pistons didn't look great at the time, it looked worse when Harris blossomed2 under Stan Van Gundy3, and it looks positively dreadful now that Skiles is out the door. Unless the cap space unloading Harris created bears fruit over the summer, be it in the form of a valuable free-agent signee or the acquisition of a highly paid player via trade, that deal is going to haunt this club for years to come.
(And maybe Hennigan would have dealt Harris anyway. Only he and his staff know for sure. But Skiles' decision to quit certainly frames that trade differently. That's the point I'm trying to convey).
Which brings me to another point: the Magic do not look like a franchise that has its house in order. They're about to enter their fifth season after trading Dwight Howard to kick-start a thorough roster overhaul. Their next head coach will be their third full-time coach, and fourth overall4, in that span. Given those facts, were you a productive NBA free agent entering your prime, or still in your prime, and you were looking to secure your long-term future with the most lucrative contract you're likely to ever sign, how strongly would you consider Orlando?
The Magic can tout their stable of young, productive players--from Victor Oladipo to Aaron Gordon--the terrific weather, and the lack of state income tax as reasons for potential free agents to sign on the dotted line. Yet wouldn't the franchise's rudderlessness at least give you pause? In short, it's difficult to think of significant advantages the Magic might have over other teams come July, when damn near every club will have an almost literal blank check to offer free agents.
It's not just potential new additions who may be scratching their heads. Evan Fournier, a 23-year-old wing coming off a career-best season and about to enter restricted free agency, tweeted a profane, and ultimately fair, statement in response to Thursday's news.
And we ought to circle back to Payton for a second here. Orlando handed him the proverbial keys in his rookie season, but he didn't show any real improvement in his sophomore campaign5 as Skiles reined him in or simply sat him. Whether Payton has the skills to thrive as a full-time NBA starter is an open question--I tend to think of him as a career backup, for whatever that's worth--but one has to at least wonder what effect, if any, that downer of a 2015/16 season will have on his long-term development. And Orlando in general and Hennigan in particular has a stake in that development, obviously: Hennigan paid a decent--not "hefty" or "exorbitant," but "decent"--price to acquire Payton's Draft rights from the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014. That Payton, in his second season, lost minutes to the likes of a post-Achilles surgery Jennings, a hobbled C.J. Watson, and a largely ineffective Shabazz Napier probably reflects worse on Skiles than it does on Payton, but it is something to consider when weighing Payton's potential and the equity Hennigan used to acquire him.
Not to be obvious, but the Magic's future will come into sharper focus once Hennigan decides on a new coach. Maybe at that time the franchise's outlook will be sunnier. But in the immediate aftermath of Skiles' departure--which I must again stress is for the best, given that he wouldn't have left the gig if he were truly invested in it--it's fair to raise some pointed questions about what damage he may have wrought in just one season.
1. According to Justin Termine, Skiles first told Hennigan in January he made a mistake in taking the Magic's coaching job, but then "backtrack[ed]". If Skiles wanted to bail in January, he really ought to have, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.
2. After joining the Pistons, Harris averaged nearly a point every two minutes; posted a 57.7 percent True Shooting mark; and achieved career-best levels in assist and turnover rates.
3. Inarguably the greatest coach in Magic history, unceremoniously shown the door a few months before the Howard trade
4. Word to James Borrego.
5. Payton's True Shooting ticked up to 47.8 percent, which is still far below the league average and frees defenses to ignore him with no real penalty. He cut his turnovers and his assist rate stayed roughly the same.