No one can blame the Orlando Magic for trading Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012. He was clearly ready to flee Orlando upon becoming a free agent the following offseason, giving the franchise little choice in the matter. If the Magic didn’t deal him when they did, they risked either receiving a diminished return at the trade deadline or getting nothing at all if he left in free agency.
After scuffling through three Howard-less seasons with 25 wins or fewer, Orlando’s rebuild appeared to be somewhat stuck in mud heading into the 2015-16 campaign. Though the Magic had amassed a considerable amount of young talent via trades (Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier) and the draft (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Andrew Nicholson), that hadn’t yet translated into anything but a handful of extra wins each year.
One-quarter of the way through the 2015-16 campaign, however, the Magic finally appear to be rising from the ashes of the Howard era. At 12-10, they’re already nearly halfway to their 2014-15 win total (25) and were riding a five-game winning streak until losing a nail-biter to the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 5. (It was their first five-game win streak since Howard left.) Orlando already owns pairs of wins over Utah and Minnesota, a 19-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics and a 24-point thumping of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Magic have also lost by one to Washington, two to the Clippers and dropped overtime contests against Houston and Oklahoma City (double overtime).
Though no one should be penciling the Magic in for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals this coming spring, they appear to have legitimate playoff aspirations for the first time since Howard departed. Unsurprisingly, new head coach Scott Skiles deserves much of the credit for the sudden revival.
Skiles has a lengthy history of taking over teams and rapidly helping restore them to respectability. Take a look at the win-loss record of each of his teams prior to his arrival and in the first full season after he took over, and it becomes clear that Orlando’s sudden rise up the East’s standings is no fluke:
|Pre-Skiles||27-23 (.540)||30-52 (.366)||26-56 (.317)||25-57 (.305)|
|Year 1 of Skiles||51-31 (.622)||47-35 (.573)||34-48 (.415)||12-10 (.545)|
Defense helped fuel the success of Skiles’ previous squads, and the same is true in Orlando this year:
Seeing as the Magic made few significant alterations to their roster over the offseason—beyond drafting Mario Hezonja with the No. 5 overall pick, they only signed Jason Smith and C.J. Watson while adding Shabazz Napier via trade—it’s no secret what (or who) helped spur their sudden jump up the defensive leaderboard. As Skiles told John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com in November, his dedication to accountability on defense is helping teach his young players some tough lessons:
With defense, Skiles has been more than willing to hold players accountable, going as far as telling them that if they don’t defend that they won’t play for him. A lifetime of preparing to be a coach taught him that occasionally a mentor has to be willing to ruffle some feathers in the pursuit of excellence.
When searching for a new head coach this offseason, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan specifically desired someone with “a successful head-coaching resume that includes strong emphasis on upgrading Orlando’s defense and accountability,” according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski. Based on how the first quarter of the 2015-16 season has unfolded, Hennigan had his wish come true and then some.
Through 22 games, every single one of Orlando’s rotation members has improved upon his defensive rating from the 2014-15 season, suggesting Skiles’ devotion to defensive accountability has taken hold quickly. Evan Fournier, one of the most pleasant early-season surprises among any team, told Denton that the 51-year-old has given Orlando an identity: “We’re a defensive team and we share the ball well.”
It’s not as though the Magic were starting from square one on defense, despite their dismal defensive rating in 2014-15. They had the eighth-highest defensive rebounding percentage last season, grabbing 76 percent of available defensive boards, and ranked 12th in opponent turnover percentage (13.6 percent). Skiles acknowledged the former in an interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix over the summer, saying the Magic were “a good defensive rebounding team, but we’re leaving opportunities on the table because we don’t get enough stops.”
That’s no longer the case, particularly since Skiles switched up his starting lineup, moving Oladipo to the bench and installing Channing Frye as Orlando’s starting power forward. The Magic have gone 6-2 with this new starting five in place and are shredding opponents defensively, posting the third-best defensive rating (94.5) and the fourth-best net rating (8.4) since Nov. 25. (According to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe, “team higher-ups” discussed the prospect of bringing Oladipo off the bench as a “super-sub” last season, but they never followed through until now.)
The new starting five “just gives us more balance,” Harris told Lowe, “and more spacing.” The numbers bear that out, as Orlando was averaging just 98.7 points per 100 possessions with the Oladipo-Payton starting backcourt, the league’s seventh-worst mark, but they’re up to a league-average 102.8 per 100 with Frye in place of Oladipo in the starting lineup. As Lowe noted, Payton has been the major beneficiary of the change offensively, as his shooting efficiency inside the restricted area skyrocketed from 42.9 percent pre-lineup change to 64.1 percent since.
Skiles’ motive in separating the two was primarily to improve the team’s offense, as neither Oladipo nor Payton possess a reliable enough perimeter stroke to command respect from opponents. His move to the bench shouldn’t be seen as a demotion due to any defensive concerns, though. In fact, earlier this season, Skiles told reporters the third-year Indiana product was playing “at an all-league defensive-type level,” saying, “he’s guarding different guys and within our system; not only one-on-one is he very good.”
Though the Magic’s 26-and-under core is primarily carrying the load for the team, a few veteran players are helping to round out the roster. Whereas the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia 76ers have thumbed their nose at the importance of veterans over the course of their controversial ongoing rebuild, the Magic took a different approach, bringing in guys like Frye, Jason Smith and C.J. Watson to complement their young budding stars. That trio has rewarded Orlando’s faith by recording three of the team’s five best defensive ratings and the three best net ratings of any Magic player.
Though the early returns are promising for Skiles and the Magic, they’re still very much in the honeymoon phase. The 14-year coaching veteran has “a reputation for burning out teams and wearing out a path to his exit,” per Wojnarowski, as evidenced by him never lasting more than five years in any of his three previous coaching stints. NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin likewise expressed skepticism about Skiles’ hiring, writing at the time, “Whether he is the best guy to develop that young talent is up for debate — that’s not his known skill set and his hard-driving style tends to burn players out.”
Ben Gordon, who played under Skiles during his time with the Chicago Bulls, told Denton any concerns about the head coach wearing out his welcome in Orlando were overblown:
I told Rob that with this (Magic) team, that burning a team out is not going to happen. Maybe he burned out some other players somewhere else, but that won’t happen to this Magic team because this team has good conditioning and it has workers. Based on the conditioning work that I did in Chicago under Skiles, I don’t think these young guys will have a problem doing it here. Our young guys are in shape and ready to go.
At this point, it’s too early to tell how well the long-term marriage between Skiles and Orlando will fare, despite the strong start. His teams do have a tendency to fall apart after a handful of years, giving him a coaching resume of a rich man’s Doug Collins. Though the Magic’s young core may help mitigate those concerns, provided Hennigan is able to retain key contributors like Oladipo, Payton and Fournier, it remains to be seen whether this team is capable of developing into a legitimate championship contender.
If nothing else, though, the Magic appear to have officially relegated the Howard era to an afterthought. After three years of accumulating young talent, Orlando is ready to exit the rebuilding phase and re-enter the playoff-contender conversation.
All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com and are current through games played on Wednesday, Dec. 9.