The Orlando Magic had a nice run of success under the watchful eye of Stan Van Gundy, making one trip to the NBA Finals and winning 50 or more games three times. But that all came to an end in the summer of 2012, with Van Gundy exiting and star center Dwight Howard being traded in a four-team deal to the Los Angeles Lakers. Since then, the Magic have been a 20-something-win team that’s desperately trying to put together a young core of talent.
Jacque Vaughn got his shot at coaching after Van Gundy left, and despite not being given a whole lot to work with, he was shown the door the past summer. With a few good, young players on the roster and management thinking it could be a key time in their development, the front office brought in a battle-tested coach with a solid track record with young teams. Scott Skiles, a former player for the Magic who holds the NBA record for 30 assists in a single game, was the coach they chose. This is Skiles’ fourth stop in the NBA as a head coach, first with the Phoenix Suns, then the Chicago Bulls, and then the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s well known for having initial success but losing the locker room over time with his abrasive style and personality.
Skiles took over the Suns from Danny Ainge in the 1999-2000 season, when they were 13-7, and led them to a 53-29 season, losing in the conference semifinals to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns won 51 games the next season, but Skiles lost his job after they started 25-26 the season after that. He took over a bad Chicago Bulls team in the middle of the 2003-04 season and they finished out 19-47. But the next season, after starting 0-9, Skiles taught the extremely young Bulls to play strong, disciplined defense and they finished 47-35.
The Bulls made the playoffs that year — for the first time since 1998 when Michael Jordan retired — and then again the next two seasons. But they started 9-16 in 2007-08, with Skiles’ hard defensive preaching wearing on the players, such as Ben Wallace and rookie Joakim Noah. Skiles got a job with the Bucks, taking another strong defensive team to the playoffs in his second season, but the team never got back to the playoffs over the next couple years, and then he lost that job in 2013.
But here he is again with the Magic, who finished 25-57 last season and started 19-13 this season with basically the same roster. They’ve hit a small lull the last few games and sit at 20-18 as of this moment, but the improvement in the team is obvious. Their team offensive rating is up from 101.6 to 104.1, and their defensive rating has improved from 107.7 to 103.8. But it’s not all about the coach.
The rebuild of the Magic is a big part of the reason they are where they are. They got Nikola Vucevic in the deal where they sent away Howard. He’s been their best player this season, leading the team in points per game and rebounds. As a matter of fact, he’s the only player from that trade with the Lakers, Denver Nuggets, and Philadelphia 76ers who is still with the team he was traded to. Those other teams are in the midst of rebuilding their rosters, too.
The Nuggets received Andre Iguodala in that trade and, despite having a good year in Denver the next season, he chose the Golden State Warriors in free agency the following offseason. The Nuggets have seen their winning percentage decline since that trade, and they’re currently on their third head coach as well. At 14-24 on the season, the Nuggets seem to be trailing the Magic a bit in the rebuild department.
The Lakers received Howard in that deal, and they made the playoffs the next season with him at center. But then Howard bolted for Houston in the offseason and the Lakers have fallen apart ever since. They’re also on their third head coach since the deal and are just 56-144 since the start of the 2013-14 season, with their team winning percentage also declining each season. They now sit at just 8-28 on the year.
The 76ers are an interesting case as a rebuilding organization. There will likely be books written about what they’ve done. They were coming off a 35-31 lockout-shortened season when they got involved in the four-team trade, bringing back center Andrew Bynum — who was coming off the best season of his young career. But Bynum had a knee injury and never played a single game for the 76ers. He is now out of the league. Like the other two teams, the Sixers have gotten worse each year, winning 19 games in 2013-14, 18 games in 2014-15, and starting this season at an astonishing 4-33.
With some good drafting as well as quality overall players such as Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, and Tobias Harris, the Magic have improved incrementally each year since the Howard deal went down. Now, they’re set to challenge for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Outside of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the East is wide open. The Magic may currently sit in ninth place in their conference, but they’re only four games behind the second-place Bulls.
Skiles will likely follow his familiar script, wearing out his welcome after his team sours on his coaching style. But everyone should know by now that he’s a “point A to point B” type of coach, and that to get to “point C,” the Magic will have to bring in someone else. The exciting thing for fans in Orlando is that it looks like they have the beginning of a roster that may eventually get there.
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