Scott Skiles has amped up the defensive intensity of a young Orlando Magic team, which should come as no surprise given Skiles’ résumé.
Scott Skiles never intended to be a coach.
After ten years of playing point guard in the NBA, Skiles was wrapping up his career playing in Greece for PAOK Thessaloniki during the 1996-97 season.
I went from a player to a head coach in a span of about 12 hours in Europe. I was injured and I was about to go back home. They called me and said we’re firing the coach, and would you like to coach the team?
That’s what Skiles told TNT’s David Aldridge in an offseason Q & A after being hired as coach of the Orlando Magic, his fourth NBA head-coaching gig since taking the helm of the Phoenix Suns in 1999.
Despite losing to the Suns Wednesday night, Skiles has coached the Magic to a 12-10 record. While being two games over .500 won’t win him coach of the year, the relatively good start is refreshing for an Orlando franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2012.
The biggest difference between the Magic this season and last season is the team’s vastly improved defense. Orlando finished last year ranked No. 25 in the league in defensive rating at a dismal 105.2. Twenty-two games into this year, the Magic are No. 6 in DefRtg at 98.5.
Scott Skiles speaks to the media about defense before a game at Minnesota on Dec. 1.
This isn’t the first time Skiles has turned a team around defensively. He has a reputation for coming to young teams and toughening them up. It’s gotten the the point where he’s somewhat of a mercenary. Front offices hire him to act as a drill sergeant to turn talented individuals into a team. The organization then cuts ties with Skiles after he’s done his job.
Let’s take a look at the teams he’s resurrected around the league and the phenomenon known as the “Scott Skiles Cycle.”
Skiles’ stop in Phoenix was experimental.
After Danny Ainge stepped down as Suns’ head coach 20 games into the 1999-2000 season, then-assistant coach Skiles stepped in to fill the void.
The team went 40-22 the rest of the season. Whereas the team had been 19th in DefRtg the pervious year, the Suns finished 3rd with a dominant DefRtg of 99. The team went from giving up the seventh-worst field goal percentage to opponents (45%) to holding opponents to the fourth-best (42.4%).
The team earned a fifth seed in the playoffs and took out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round 3-1. They went on to lose 4-1 to a red hot Kobe-Shaq Lakers team that eventually won the championship.
Unfortunately, that’s the farthest the Skiles-led team went into the playoffs for the remainder of his three-year stint. The next year the team went 51-31, losing in the first round of the playoffs. And in the 2001-02 season, Skiles was fired after getting off to a 25-26 record.
The Bulls hired Skiles in the middle of the 2003-04 season. He began the 2004-05 season with a young Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, along with rookies Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. In Skiles’ first full season as Bulls coach, the team finished allowing the lowest field-goal percentage to opponents in the NBA (42.2%).
The team had a 26-game streak in which they held opponents to under 100 points, a franchise record. They finished 47-35 with a No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference before a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Washington Wizards. Nevertheless, Skiles managed to take a team that finished 14th in the East the year before and coach them into the 4th seed, despite Kirk Hinrich playing 36 minutes per game.
But as the Bulls improved defensively, they couldn’t establish a consistent offensive game. By 2007-08, the Bulls were shooting the worst field-goal percentage in the league. Twenty-five games into the season, Chicago sat at the bottom of the Central Division with a 9-16 record, and Skiles was fired.
In the 2008-09 season, Skiles inherited a Bucks team that had just gone 26-56 and finished 14th in the East the year before. Injuries to the Bucks’ best players sidelined their hopes for immediate improvement, but the team still managed to go from 29th in opponent field-goal percentage to 16th in his first season.
In 2009-10 the Skiles cycle was in full swing. Despite many picking the Bucks to finish at the bottom of the East, the team finished 46-36 with a sixth seed in the playoffs. Skiles was nearly voted Coach of the Year but finished second to Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks.
The Bucks never reached the playoffs again under Skiles, who resigned after starting the 2012-13 season 16-16. The team went 22-28 without Skiles.
Now we arrive at the fourth stop on Scotty Skiles’ Wild Ride. Taking Skiles’ history into account, before the season many figured Skiles would continue his cycle of making teams better in the short run. And that’s what he’s done.
The Magic finished 25-57 and bottom 10 in defense last season. This season, they’re holding the No. 9 seed in the East and are among the top 10 in defense.
Orlando defense stifles Oklahoma City’s offense under Scott Skiles.
But unlike the teams of Skiles’ past, the Magic haven’t regressed offensively. The Magic are scoring 100.8 points per game compared to last year’s 95.7. They’re ranked No. 22 in field-goal percentage, a slight dip from last year, but the team is attempting enough shots to make up for their offensive efficiency. The Magic are averaging the most field-goal attempts of any team this season, shooting 89.3 shots per game.
While many predicted Skiles’ tenure at Orlando would follow his script: Improve a team in the short run, and either have their offense fizzle out over the years or get fired for being the guy who can’t take his team to “the next level.”
The question is: Will Skiles’ prove he can be more than a defensive sparkplug? Or will we see the Magic opt to ship him off in two years after the rebuild is complete to find a coach ready to compete for a title?
(all stats courtesy of basketball-reference and NBA.com/stats)
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