Scott Skiles: Risking the future with another early departure
Yesterday, a particularly bizarre day in the NBA, began with the surprise resignation of Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles, who had been with the team for less than one year.
“Surprise” might be a bit of an understatement there. Skiles and those within the Magic who knew of this news managed to keep it entirely under wraps until the official statement was released – as can be ascertained from guard Evan Fournier’s slightly off-colour reaction, not even the players knew. In the Twitter era, this is no small feat. There are few genuine shocks left.
However, the unexpectedness of the announcement came only from the outside. Inside, the key players in the Magic’s front office set-up knew. Soon after the announcement, rumours inevitability filtered out as to why, and seemingly, discontent had been bubbling under for a while.
As the story goes, despite at one point heavily campaigning for the role, Skiles regretted taking it fairly soon after doing so and said as much to his hand-picked assistant coach Adrian Griffin (whom Skiles hired twice as an assistant and had twice as a player). In the first instance, it seems Skiles did not tell owner Rich DeVos, president Alex Martins or general manager Rob Hennigan, but instead only Griffin. And Griffin, caught in between a rock and a hard place, was the one to tell management.
(Seemingly, at the behest of Martins it never filtered up to DeVos. We will never know if he reacted like Fournier.)
Skiles not knowing what he wanted is fine. We all do that. Skiles or any coach having bad days at work and speaking out of turn is also somewhat fine. We all do that too, albeit perhaps not to this degree. Skiles having second thoughts is fine, even if airing them might not have been. And Skiles losing heart and walking away is also fine. The alternative would be to stay in the job for the money or the obligation, without the passion, a situation from which no one gains.
However, no one really gains from this situation either. The Magic are now going to have to find a new head coach at a time when the choicest hires have started being snapped up. They are also going to have to deal with a public relations problem and working with the remaining players and incumbent coaches on presenting a unified front going forward while also entering the draft and free agency periods with significant work to do on a talented but slightly disjointed roster.
Skiles did not help this disjointedness. Rumours suggest there was a disconnect between Skiles and Hennigan, specifically on the team’s future at the point guard position, even more specifically on the style and ability of the second-year player Elfrid Payton. Other rumours further suggest that Skiles had made a power play to Martins against Hennigan, trying to obtain control over the player personnel (although it is unclear how this ties in with says he wanted to walk away, and eventually doing so).
If Skiles could not cohere the pieces he was given, work with the person who gave them to him, or believe he could function as a successful head coach without the power to build his own team, then that is not a good look.
Moreover, this may be the beginning of the end for Skiles’ time as a head coach. Even notwithstanding the fact that walking away from a job you only recently took amidst rumours that you never really wanted it is something of an insurmountable hurdle should you ever be in a job interview for an equivalent position again, Skiles’s future as an NBA head coach is a legitimate question based on what he does when in post.
Perhaps his best achievement as an NBA head coach was the way in which he and then-general manager John Paxson took the consistently moribund post-dynasty Chicago Bulls, and turned them from perennial last-place finisher to a surprising 47-win team in 2004/05, despite little in the way of talent additions and a 0-7 start to the season. Skiles did this with an intensive, defensive, extremely disciplined and regimented style that was much needed at a time when the inmates were said to be running the asylum. He was the right man for the job.
Up to a point, Skiles did the same in his most prior gig with the Milwaukee Bucks. Again playing a defensive and micro-managed style, Skiles started well, winning 46 games in his second season and going to a game seven in their first round series, the franchise’s first for four years. Skiles’ dogged persistence also saw Larry Sanders develop into a briefly brilliant player; despite it burning bridges at times, there is evidence in all his stints that Skiles as a coach can develop certain individual talents.
But the NBA has moved on from that staid, micro-managed, intensive style. Coaches known for it are losing their jobs, as almost all teams try to adapt to a quicker, deeper, freer, friendlier, shoot-ier method of team building. There is nothing to say that all teams must follow any given blueprint just because some choose to do so – not everyone has to be a Warriors clone right now, just as not everyone had to be a Triangle clone in the 1990s. But what is key is adaptability.
It is here in which Skiles falls down. His adaptability in Chicago was essentially limited to just playing more veterans and more point guards (Kirk Hinrich started multiple games at small forward during Skiles’ tenure). In Milwaukee, he continued the pattern he began in Chicago in benching younger, better but more mistake-ridden players for conservative, undynamic veterans, the victims this time often being Tobias Harris and John Henson. The offensive plays and playbook remained much the same throughout both, the talents involved mitigated by its inflexibility.
In Orlando, despite there being so much young talent on hand that it was not possible to avoid playing it, Skiles forced on a style that did not fit the pieces he was presented with, to little effect. Harris again was the victim of that infamous inflexibility – some players he can work with and improve, but some he cannot. And whichever side of that fence any given player falls, the playing style will not change to adapt to their needs.
Concurrent with this, Skiles also seems to have a knack for leaving behind some tension. There have been rumours of clashes with players or with front offices throughout his coaching career. Being headstrong is a virtue. Being stubborn and unworkable is not.
Going back to his playing days and continuing through today, Skiles commands respect in NBA circles. He got so much from so little as a player, and has done the same a couple of times as a coach, that he cannot fail to do so. His lifetime regular season head coaching record is 478-480, as near as is .500 despite not having coached anyone better than Larry Sanders in the past 15 years. That counts for something, and there will likely always be a need for a taskmaster in the Skilesian vein somewhere.
But he seems to have both a ceiling and a life span. The ceiling is the second round of the playoffs, and the life span is three years. In this latest instance, he did not come close to either, and walked away in embarrassing circumstances. Although this is a league where pretty much every coach now has a life span of about three years at best – only five current head coaches have actually been in their post that long - at this point Skiles’ future head coaching candidacy has a lot of questions. One that all the untested assistant coaches out there do not – Griffin included.
Regardless of whether it is Griffin or any other candidate, Orlando seriously need to make their next hire count. They have done a fine job, better than most, of assembling player talent and rebuilding a core for the future, but they have not been nearly as successful with their coaching hires. Not since Stan van Gundy left have they enjoyed any measure of success or been the kind of team to maximise their clear ability. They need stability, unity, and medium to long term success.
Meanwhile, Skiles needs a rethink. There are things he keeps doing right, but something keeps going wrong. Coaches can learn and adapt; Terry Stotts, one of the aforementioned five coaches to have been with their team for three or more years, flamed out with the Bucks not long before Skiles did, but relearnt his trade and is now one of the best. Skiles needs the same. He needs a change, before it is too late.