What might Magic look like under Skiles?
ORLANDO, Fla. — The Orlando Magic will not be the first team Scott Skiles takes over that has taken its lumps by going with a roster laden with players under the age of 25.
As Skiles pointed out last week after being hired to coach the Magic, the Chicago Bulls were in a similar situation when he inherited a 4-12 team a month into the 2003-04 season. Those Bulls — who had a 21-year-old Tyson Chandler and a 23-year-old Jamal Crawford and Kirk Hinrich, but also a 35-year-old Antonio Davis and a 38-year-old Scottie Pippen — finished with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
The only team worse? The Magic, who ended up winning the NBA draft lottery and selecting Dwight Howard.
But before Howard developed into a dominating center who led the Magic to the 2009 Finals, it was Skiles and the Bulls who reaped the most immediate benefits from the 2004 draft. After adding Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, they improved from 23 victories to 47 and began a three-year playoff run highlighted by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat in 2007.
The Magic’s top five scorers last season, when they posted a 25-57 record under Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego, were all 24 or younger — center Nikola Vucevic, forward Tobias Harris and guards Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton. Throw in, barring a trade, the fifth pick in the draft in three weeks, and Skiles should have a roster constructed to his strengths.
"His ability to teach and to instruct and to tactically prepare teams to be as prepared as they can be … that’s something Scott really excels at," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said. "That’s something our team needs right now and will benefit greatly from."
"It’s exciting when you have an opportunity to work with young players because you can truly help them," said Skiles, whose 49 wins with the Bulls in 2006-07 represented the second-highest total in a coaching career which included stops in Phoenix and Milwaukee. "And any teacher or coach, that’s when you feel the best about your profession, when you go home feeling like you’ve helped somebody."
While he tried his best not to single out players on the Magic by name, Skiles said Oladipo and Payton "in my opinion, should be a top five defensive backcourt." The two of them combined for 262 steals, more than any pair of guards on any other team had last season.
Except for power forward Channing Frye, the Magic had perhaps the youngest starting lineup in the league. And during Borrego’s final two weeks, a significant portion of Frye’s minutes went to 19-year-old rookie Aaron Gordon.
"Probably our major weakness is that we’re inexperienced and young," Skiles said. "But that should also be our strength. There comes a point in the day-to-day communication with guys that they have to understand that can’t be an excuse anymore. It has to be turned into a strength. We should be playing with energy all the time, and I know we will."
Since acquiring Vucevic and Maurice Harkless as part of the four-way trade involving Howard three summers ago, the Magic have endured four losing streaks of 10 or more games while not reeling off four wins in a row since December 2012. Before Vaughn was fired in February, they had given up more than 100 points in 14 consecutive games.
On the positive side, Vucevic has averaged 15.6 points and 11.3 rebounds over that time to become one of the top centers in the East.
"I like this team," Skiles said. "Obviously when you don’t have your hands on the players yet, you don’t really know. But from afar, I like the things Rob has done. When you elect to go this route of sort of retooling and getting guys through the draft, it can be difficult but also very exciting."
In a month, the Magic will be facing a potentially difficult decision with Harris, who figures to draw attention on the free-agent market from other teams. Skiles was coaching the Bucks when Harris came to them in 2011 as a 19-year-old with one year of college experience at Tennessee.
Skiles said that, at the time, Mike Dunleavy Jr. was a better offensive player and Luc Mbah a Moute was a better defensive player than Harris at small forward. If there were any disagreements between himself and Harris, Skiles insists it was only because of playing time, though he admitted his demanding personality can rub some players the wrong way.
"I won’t deny that there have been a handful of times where I may have butted heads with a guy," he said. "I’m never looking for confrontation, but I’m not afraid of it."
The Bucks are the only other team to hire Skiles after a season ended. They improved by eight wins in his first year in charge and by 12 more the following year.
With training camp still almost four months away, it’s too soon to tell how much of a leap the Magic could take under Skiles.
"It’s going to be a long summer waiting on the season to start," he said. "But there are a lot of things to do, and we’ll get after it right away."