ORLANDO, Fla. — With their present not looking all that rosy, the Orlando Magic have set their sights on the future by taking something of a journey through the past.
The Magic announced Friday the hiring of Scott Skiles, who played for them during their first five years of existence more than two decades ago, as their new head coach. Skiles, 51, had been out of coaching since resigning in early 2013 from the Milwaukee Bucks and spent the last two years at his home with his wife and two children just outside Orlando in what he jokingly called "the fortress of solitude."
But it’s just the opposite of solitude that he brings to a team which has not made the playoffs or won more than 25 games in any of the last three NBA seasons.
"Nobody’s ever going to convince me in any walk of life, in any profession that you have that you can’t still outwork people," said Skiles, whose contract is for three years with a team option for a fourth. "And that’s what we’ll have to do."
The Magic went 25-57 last season — a record which included a 10-20 mark under James Borrego, who took over as coach on an interim basis Feb. 5 after the firing of Jacque Vaughn. Skiles becomes the 12th coach in franchise history.
His teams have been known for their tenacity on defense. The Magic seldom displayed that under Vaughn last season, although they looked better in that area at times after Borrego’s promotion.
"We have to become a better defensive team," Skiles said. "And it’s not just defending the basket. It’s not just defending 3s. It’s defending everything all the time."
In addition to the Bucks, Skiles had coaching stints with the Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls and compiled a 443-433 record with six trips to the playoffs. While his name often popped up in speculation after Vaughn was let go, it wasn’t until after the season ended in April that Magic general manager Rob Hennigan spoke to Skiles for the first time.
Magic chief executive officer Alex Martins, who had a working relationship with Skiles during the former point guard’s playing days, insisted that Hennigan meet Skiles in person before hearing anything from him.
"I truly wanted this to be an objective decision about his coaching ability," Martin said.
"Alex made it very clear that this was Rob’s call," said Skiles, who still holds the NBA single-game assist record of 30 set almost 25 years ago with the Magic. "And Rob made it very clear at the beginning that it was Rob’s call."
Hennigan said there were "a select few candidates" given consideration but added "from the start, it became pretty apparent that Scott was a tremendous fit for us in a lot of ways." Skiles, Hennigan and Martins flew Thursday to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to get the approval of Rich DeVos, the 89-year-old senior chairman who bought the Magic while Skiles was still playing for Matt Guokas, the first coach in the franchise’s history.
"We talk a lot about culture here and trying to instill a winning culture with winning habits and structure and accountability," Hennigan said. "And I think those are all things Scott does top-notch."
Skiles summarized his philosophy toward his players as based on three things: being on time, playing hard all the time, and caring about winning.
"I have no reason to believe that those three attributes aren’t in a lot of the players," he said. "And so I’m going to go in believing that."
Current Magic backup guard Ben Gordon played for Skiles in Chicago, while forward Tobias Harris — who will become a restricted free agent July 1 — played for him in Milwaukee. As a 19-year-old rookie, Harris had trouble getting consistent minutes on a Bucks team which was expected to win right away instead of developing players, and that led to reports that he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Skiles.
Skiles denied having any hard feelings toward Harris then or now.
"We have a great relationship. And I’m positive Tobias would say that as well," he said. "I was instrumental in drafting him. Tobias is a very, very good person and a very, very good player. That combination isn’t always easy to find."
Even if Harris goes elsewhere, the Magic still have a young nucleus featuring Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, as well as the fifth pick in next month’s draft.
"It may not continue this way, but you can have a losing record and make the playoffs in the East," Skiles said. "If our goal sitting up here right now is to have a losing record and get the eighth seed every year, that’s pretty pitiful. We want to have a winning record, and I know that’s a tremendous jump from where we are. But you’ve got to put that bar up there."
The return of Skiles, who was always a fan favorite, could also renew interest in a portion of the fan base which has grown weary with the recent losing.
"He’s the right coach for this team right now and where we want to go," Martins said. "For our fans, it’s an added delight that they can cheer for Scott Skiles again. And they also have the best coach they can possibly have coaching this team."
To which Skiles wryly replied: "That’s nice, but it’s only the fans above 50."