It's been three full seasons since the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard, and their rebuild under general manager Rob Hennigan appears to be stuck in neutral. The roster has been reshaped around a collection of young and talented pieces, but that work has yet to coalesce into a critical mass of forward progress. That task of coaxing something special out of those disparate pieces is now the task of Scott Skiles, who was introduced as the team's newest head coach this offseason.
Skiles was hired at the end of May, replacing interim head coach James Borrego, who was himself a replacement for Jacque Vaughn, fired midseason after Orlando's disappointing and uneven play had reached a point of no return. As coaching hires go, Skiles was not exactly the sexiest choice. He has won just over half of 876 games coached, with a win percentage of.506. He has taken seven teams to the playoffs but advanced past the first round just twice.
Even with a resume that screams mediocrity, he has at least two qualities that the Magic front office was looking for, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports:
Skiles, 51, has been the preferred choice of Orlando ownership, which has been fond of him since his playing days with the Magic in the 1990s. Skiles fits the candidate profile that Hennigan privately outlined for the coaching search: a successful head-coaching résumé that includes strong emphasis on upgrading Orlando’s defense and accountability.
Skiles definitely checks the boxes for defensive credentials and historical ties to the team. I suppose success is all relative and, for a team that's won a combined total of 68 games in the last three seasons, a .500 record would be a big step forward.
It's interesting that player development was an ignored (or at least unmentioned) point of emphasis in the coaching search. The Orlando Magic roster had an average age of 24.3 years old last season, the third-youngest team in the league behind the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz.
There is talent mixed into that youth, but the inability of Vaughn to leverage that youthful talent into something cohesive, getting everyone's developmental paths pointed in the same upward direction, is one of the reasons the Magic were looking for a new head coach in the first place.
It's worth noting that at an individual level, there was plenty of growth under Vaughn. Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris have all made strides. But collectively, it's a different story—the team hasn't cracked 30 wins in any of the last three seasons and had offensive and defensive efficiencies below league average in each.
If the Magic are really going to make something of their talent, they need someone at the helm who can cultivate their youth. There has been concern from some corners that Skiles is someone who has a preference for veterans, marginalizing the erratic tendencies of young players in favor of the stability of experience.
A perfect example of this is sitting on Orlando's roster right now. Harris, a restricted free agent and one of the key young pieces for the Magic, played just 479 minutes as a rookie for Skiles with the Bucks in 2012-13. He was traded to Orlando in the middle of the next season and blossomed once he started receiving regular opportunities.
However, the numbers show that Harris' experience was more the exception than the rule.
The graph below looks at Skiles' last two coaching jobs—the Bulls and Bucks—showing the minutes-weighted average age for his team each season. Weighting the average by minutes played lets us see the relative age of the roster in the context of which players Skiles actually put on the floor.
All things being equal, the average age would rise by one year each season as each player on the roster gets older. However, that's a far cry from reality, where rookies replace aging veterans, trades and free agency tweak the roster, and minutes are reallocated to the best players.
In both scenarios, the average age increased during the first season under Skiles. From there, the Bulls' average age plummeted before rebounding in his last season. The Bucks stayed relatively flat. I've also marked Orlando, who had one of the youngest rosters in the league last year, significantly younger than the Bucks or Bulls when Skiles took over.
What's interesting is that, with both teams, Skiles preserved their relative youth throughout his tenure. Players typically peak statistically around the age of 27, which means Skiles kept his rosters pushing right up against that crest.
In a Q&A with Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, Skiles talked about plans for developing his new young players:
Our backcourt — and I'm going to put Evan [Fournier] in that group with Elfrid [Payton] and Victor [Oladipo] — in my opinion, has a ton of potential. I think those guys should be excellent defensively, and they will be. There's a nice mix in that three-guard group of ball-handling, shooting, passing. We've got to get better with our decision-making off the dribble.
We've got to get better at making the extra pass as a group, and now I'm talking about everybody. I don't like to say "all the little things." There are no little things. ... There's so many things we can get better at. But just as far as having the pieces to help mold and work with, there's a lot here to be excited about.
Skiles mentions both offense and defense in reference to player development. Even if the Magic front office focused on defensive improvement, both areas will be important—Orlando finished 27th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.
The graphs below show how the offensive and defensive performance of the teams he coached changed over time. Offensive and defensive efficiency are shown here as relative to the league average—a defensive mark of -2.0 means that the team's defense was 2.0 points per 100 possessions better than average. Only Chicago and Milwaukee are included because Skiles coached just one full season in Phoenix.
A few really important things jump right off the graph, the first being the reason the Magic were interested in Skiles in the first place. His teams have shown a pattern of tremendous defensive improvement over his first two years working with them.
However, offensive efficiency is another story. Across these eight seasons, Skiles coached just one team with an offense more efficient than the league average. Often his offenses have been as bad as defenses have been good.
In the case of the Magic, they really were a team without a distinct offensive style last season. The graph below reflects four elements of offensive style—pace, ball movement, people movement and shot selection.
The Magic were not extreme in any particular area, ranking in the middle of the pack for their pace, player movement and shot selection. Their offense featured a lot of post-ups and static pick-and-rolls, which explain the low use of ball movement.
There is not one single stylistic recipe for offensive success, but the Magic lacked a clear focus. Given his comments to Robbins, it's fair to assume Skiles has his eye on increasing their ball movement. Given his track record, it's fair to question whether he is the guy to solidify this amorphous mass into a lean, mean scoring machine.
On the team performance graph from above, the distance between the two lines is a snapshot of how good or bad the team was—a visual representation of its point differential. In the majority of these seasons, Skiles' teams had outscored their opponents—but just barely. There are only two really dramatically good seasons in here—his first and last in Chicago.
All of this paints a depressingly limited picture of Skiles' potential. He can teach defense, but effective offense has been just outside his grasp, and he's never really brought a team to the level of championship contention.
All of these concerns were laid out in the media when Skiles emerged as a candidate. Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo Sports did a nice job of summarizing them just after the hiring:
Scott Skiles can coach well at the NBA level. Scott Skiles will bring a semblance of professionalism to your roster, and define your culture. Your team will improve, and players of all types and motivations will respond positively. Scott Skiles, for 24 or even 36 months, will be the best part of your basketball team.
Scott Skiles, because spots don’t change, will eventually tire of his role, and his players will tire of him. The offense, heavy on passing but also mid-range jumpers, will fail in this modern era. Skiles’ sarcasm will leak out in reports both on record and off, and both he and his players will want a parting of ways. Skiles, understandably, will want all the guaranteed money left on his contract, and he’ll push to be fired rather than walking away. Jim Boylan will be hired as interim head coach upon his removal.
It seems all but certain that the Magic will be better next year, perhaps significantly so. Given where the organization sits in its current cycle of rebuild-to-contention, Skiles makes a lot of sense as a leader to move this team forward. But judgment on his hire will ultimately be passed three or four years down the road.
For this move to really work, Skiles needs to help Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Oladipo and Vucevic reach something close to their ceilings. He'll need to move this team past competitiveness and into contention, doing things he's never really done before as a coach.