In his three previous jobs, Skiles has dramatically improved his team’s defense, in some cases taking it from near the bottom of the league to near the top. That improvement helps the team become an absolute pain in the neck to play and make a quantum leap from the lottery to the playoffs.
Then at some point, Skiles and his hypercompetitive nature become a bit overbearing for some players, who – justifiably or not – begin to tune him out. The team stagnates and fails to take the next step. And Skiles is replaced amid whispers of a need for a softer voice.
Skiles has previously coached in Phoenix, Milwaukee and Chicago. He is in Orlando now, where he is beloved from his playing days with the Magic in the 1990s as the heart and soul of an expansion franchise. Only the Philadelphia 76ers have a younger roster. And he has been asked to accelerate a rebuilding process that many thought would be further along right now since the trade of Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012.
The Magic have made only incremental improvement since Howard left, going from 20 wins to 23 to 25 last season, when initial caretaker Jacque Vaughn was fired with 30 games to go. GM Rob Hennigan’s plan has stocked the roster with plenty of young talent but little experience. A group with five lottery picks and six more first-rounders probably should have shown a bit more progress.
Enter Skiles, whose impact is already being felt less than a third of the way through the season. The Magic are 10th in the muddled Eastern Conference at a competitive 12-11, which includes a 1-4 start and losses in their last two games. A bottom-10 defensive team a season ago, Orlando is a top-10 defensive team so far this season, even though their rotation doesn’t reveal a true stopper or rim protector.
But Skiles has done more than improve the defense. He has made a couple of significant changes to the rotation, letting the youngsters know that their minutes are not dictated by their contracts or perceived role in the team’s future. And he has imposed his personality upon the Magic, giving them a grit this group previously did not display.
“I’ve always loved his toughness,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone, who is embarking upon his own rebuilding effort. “I think the teams he coaches take on his identity. It’s great he’s back in the league. I loved him as a player and have a lot of respect for him as a coach.”
Last season, the Magic were 23rd in points allowed (101.4), 28th in opponents’ shooting (.464) and 24th in defensive rating (107.7). This season, Skiles has them at 10th (99.2), fourth (.428) and seventh (101.6). And it’s kind of hard to credit that change to the arrivals of C.J. Watson, Jason Smith, Shabazz Napier and rookie Mario Hezonja, all of whom come off the bench.
This is no different than the change effected by Skiles in Milwaukee, where the Bucks were dead last in opponents’ shooting and defensive rating in 2007-08 but 15th in both categories the following season under Skiles.
Or in Chicago, where the Bulls finished 21st in defensive rating in 2002-03 without Skiles, climbed to 16th in 2003-04 when Skiles took over in midseason and to second in 2004-05 – along with a league-leading opponents’s shooting figure of .422 – when Skiles had the benefit of a training camp.
Or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away in Phoenix, where the Suns went from a bottom-10 defensive team in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season to a top-10 defensive team in 1999-2000, when Skiles replaced Danny Ainge. The following season – again, with the benefit of a training camp – the Suns remained a top-10 group and led the NBA in defensive rating.
“In the past 20 years, if you’re a top-five defensive field goal percentage team, then 90-plus percent of the time you’re going to be a playoff team,” Skiles said. That is the only statistic that you can point to that has that type of percentage. That’s a pretty big selling point to a team at the beginning of the season when you lay that out there.”
Especially to a team that has virtually no playoff experience. Watson and Channing Frye are the only players on the Magic that have been privy to deep playoff runs. It’s no coincidence that they are the only players on the roster over the age of 30.
Skiles has transformed the Magic without the benefit of a Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint or a Kawhi Leonard throttling the perimeter. Sure, point guard Elfrid Payton is a ballhawk and backup center DeWayne Dedmon is a jumping jack. But Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic have seen six or seven points come off their defensive ratings since last season, all dropping to around 100, a highly acceptable number. Skiles has instilled his philosophy without a standout “stopper.”
“They’re a good team and that’s what they do,” said Gordon Hayward, whose Utah Jazz were swept by the Magic this season. “Defensively, they’re physical and they try to muck it up on you and take away things you want to do.”
Skiles also has done more than a little tinkering with the offense. After a loss at Cleveland on Nov. 23, the coach benched the struggling Oladipo – who is merely the face of the franchise – and replaced him with Frye, a stretch forward who hadn’t provided much bang for the buck since being signed as a free agent in the summer of 2014.
At times it looks like Frye is merely standing in the corner. But by doing so, that gives extra space to slashers Harris and Payton and more post room for Vucevic, a somewhat traditional center. Frye’s presence also has allowed Harris and Fournier to play their natural positions of small forward and shooting guard, where they encounter far less physical mismatches and can be more effective defenders.
Meanwhile, the second unit has been strengthened by the presence of a legitimate scorer in Oladipo, who can play both guard spots and is busting up opposing reserves. A move that seemed almost sacrilegious when it was first made has helped both the team and Oladipo; it triggered a five-game winning streak, and Oladipo is scoring nearly three points more per game (15.6) and shooting 50 points better (.420) in five less minutes per contest than he did as a starter.
Around the same time, Skiles also made the under-the-radar move of inserting backup forward Andrew Nicholson into the rotation. Nicholson has been on a downward trajectory since Hennigan took him late in the first round in 2012. He lost his rotation spot to Kyle O’Quinn last season and played just seven minutes in the first 11 games this season.
But Skiles finally went to him on Nov. 18, and Nicholson responded with eight points and seven boards in 22 minutes of a win over Minnesota. In the last 12 games, he is averaging 9.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.8 minutes while shooting a surprising 15-of-32 from the arc, providing the spacing the Magic desperately needs.
This is an ideal time for the Magic to make some inroads on a possible playoff berth. They may be 10th in the East, but they also are just two games out of third. After tonight’s visit to Brooklyn, Orlando plays all but one of its remaining December games at home. None of those are against world-beaters, and the lone trip is to New York on Dec. 21. In fact, the Magic don’t leave the Eastern time zone again until Jan. 25 at Memphis.
It should be noted that Hennigan’s rebuilding plan has been at this stage before. In the 2012-13 season or 1 AD (After Dwight), Vaughn had the Magic off to a surprising 12-13 start and poised to quickly turn a corner. Which they did – right down a dark alley that led to a staggering 8-49 finish.
This group seems to be on a little bit better footing, especially with Skiles in charge. With the playoffs in sight, it should be a while before the Magic grow tired of his voice.
TRIVIA: How many active players have won the MVP and the scoring title in the same season? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: This notation of a canine character from Family Guy being mistaken for Blake Griffin, courtesy of Deadspin, As a consolation prize, I have no idea why Pistons forward Marcus Morris has a tattoo of a kitchen appliance made by one of our nation’s founding fathers.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Minnesota guard Zach LaVine, asked if the young Timberwolves could learn anything from a tough home loss to the veteran-laden Los Angeles Clippers:
“I’d rather not learn something and get the win.”
TANKS A LOT!: On the day the Philadelphia 76ers hired Jerry Colangelo to
take the laboratory keys away from mad scientist mentor and advise GM Sam Hinkie, they lost by 51 points to the San Antonio Spurs, who rested Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Draymond Green, Golden State at Boston, Dec. 11: 50 minutes, 8-20 FGs, 2-9 3-pointers, 6-9 FTs, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, five blocks, two turnovers, 24 points in a 124-119 double-overtime win. Plenty of guys scored more points and shot better in games this week. But no one since Nic Batum in 2012 has had a “5 by 5” game. Green also was the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993 to go 20-10-5-5-5. With Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes sidelined and Stephen Curry off his game, Green made a handful of big plays to keep the Warriors unbeaten for one last night.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, New Orleans vs. Boston, Dec. 7: combined 34 minutes, 0-7 FGs, 0-1 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, four rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block, six turnovers, four fouls, zero points in a 111-93 loss. That’s right – the starting backcourt for the Pelicans went scoreless. Both were benched for good early in the second half. For Gordon, it was just the third donut of his eight-year career and first since Nov. 1, 2014 vs. Dallas. For Evans, it also was the third donut of his seven-year career and first since Jan. 10, 2014 at Dallas.
TRILLION WATCH: Another stellar week for the heroes of zeros. Utah’s Chris Johnson had a 3 trillion Wednesday, as did Detroit teammates Spencer Dinwidde and Reggie Bullock on Saturday. That was double duty for Bullock, who already had a 4 trillion on Monday, joining Lamar Patterson of Atlanta, who had a 4 trillion Thursday to add to his season-leading 8 trillion. Crashing the season leaderboard were Phoenix guard Ronnie Price with a 5 trillion Monday at Chicago and Cleveland center Timofey Mozgov, who deserves special recognition for his 7 trillion as a starter Tuesday vs. Portland, the best inaction of the week. And a huge honorable mention to Oklahoma City guard D.J. Augustin, who ruined a staggering 13 trillion by committing a foul Sunday at Utah. Take a bow, gentlemen.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City at Cleveland, Dec. 17. The first meeting of the season between Kevin Durant and LeBron James loses a little luster because the Thunder play the previous night and travel, while the Cavaliers have an off day. It could also mark the return of Cavs guard Kyrie Irving, who is scheduled to come back sometime this week.
GAME OF THE WEAK: New York at Philadelphia, Dec. 18. After a promising start, the Knicks have lost eight of 11, with one of the wins coming against the league-worst 76ers, whose latest losing streak is six. Sounds like a good night for Christmas shopping.
TWO MINUTES: Coincidence or harbinger? That question has to be asked after the Bucks ended the remarkable 28-game run of the Warriors on Saturday night. Milwaukee has ended the two longest winning streaks in NBA history; it also stopped the record 33-game streak of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 9, 1972. In fact, the Bucks have put an end to six winning streaks of at least 12 games in their history – the 1971-72 Lakers, the 1973-74 Boston Celtics, the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks and these Warriors. For what it’s worth, the first five all went on to win the championship. … Tuesday is the first day that free agents signed over the summer can be traded, which opens up a world of possibilities for the Suns and Markieff Morris. The perpetual headache began the season as the starting power forward, was moved to the bench behind Jon Leuer after an injury and has played just seven minutes with four DNPs in the last five games, even though he is healthy. Morris has this season, plus two more, at a combined $16.6 million remaining on his contract. Meanwhile, a recent addition to the rotation has been rookie Devin Booker, the youngest player in the league who is a startling 17-of-24 from the arc this season. Stephen Curry, eat your heart out. … Don’t be misled by Miami’s 13-9 record. The Heat have played a league-high 15 home games and a league-low seven road games. They also have played Cleveland without Kyrie Irving, Houston without Dwight Howard, the LA Lakers without Kobe Bryant, Utah without Rudy Gobert, Sacramento without DeMarcus Cousins and Cleveland again without Irving and LeBron James, going 5-1 in those games. … Nuggets coach Mike Malone’s streak of appearing in our Quote of the Week ended at two, but he still offered up this gem after his team was held to 74 points in a home loss to Orlando: “Our offense is on a milk carton – it’s missing. I don’t know where it is.” … When Warriors guard Klay Thompson drained 10 3-pointers at Indiana on Tuesday, he became the third player in NBA history with multiple games of at least 10 threes. The other two also are active: teammate Stephen Curry and Cavs guard J.R. Smith, believe it or not. … By scoring a season-high 10 points Saturday, Bulls center Joakim Noah finally has more points (74) than assists (69). … The Lakers have played half their 24 games against the East. That’s as many or more than six East teams have played against the East. … The Grizzlies have lost games this season by 50, 30, 20, 37 and 24 points. They are one game above .500 but their point differential is minus-5.2, 24th in the league. … Here’s three season-long experiments that should stop immediately: 1. P.J. Hairston (5.49 PER) starting for the Hornets. 2. Raul Neto (8.6 PER) starting for the Jazz . 3. Noah Vonleh (7.75 PER) starting for the Blazers. The Jazz seemed to get the message Sunday as Neto was a DNP-CD.
Trivia Answer: One – Kevin Durant in 2013-14. … Happy 48th Birthday, Eldridge Recasner. … When Golden State lost Saturday, did Warriors consultant and 1971-72 Lakers star Jerry West sneak a glass of champagne?
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.