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Skiles out to prove how much he's grown as NBA coach

Coach has a reputation to refute as he rebuilds Magic

POSTED: Nov 4, 2015 10:58 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Magic coach Scott Skiles has averaged 292 games in his previous three NBA coaching stops.

Returning to the Orlando Magic this season after 21 years, Scott Skiles brought a reputation as a turnaround artist whose greatest challenge has been sticking around after the turnaround.

Skiles, the former scrappy Magic point guard who has earned his NBA paychecks elsewhere since 1994, is five games into his fourth coaching stint. Working his and the Magic's third game in four nights Wednesday night in a 119-114 overtime loss at Houston, Skiles will be focused on the short term rather than the long.

Like the Rockets, Skiles' team won for the first time in 2015-16 Tuesday -- Orlando beat the Pelicans in New Orleans, grabbing some positive reinforcement after a week of teachable moments. Unlike the Rockets, winning -- the how's and the why's of it, particularly -- is a habit the Magic haven't cultivated yet. That's why Skiles was hired.

Magic vs. Pelicans

Evan Fournier scores a career-high 30 points defeating the Pelicans 103-94.

And yet the question eventually -- not now, not next season or even the one after that necessarily -- will be, when will Skiles get fired? Because it always is.

In Phoenix, in Chicago, in Milwaukee, Skiles' runs have followed a familiar pattern: Bump at the front end, slippage after that, then frustration or flame-out and a change of address. He gets talked of in NBA circles the way Billy Martin used to in baseball, as a fiery leader who can fix what's broke but over time tends to break what ain't. Or he just chafes with management or the team over one or the other's inability to do whatever is necessary to take the next step, until someone decides it's best for all concerned to part ways.

When Skiles was hired in May by his old team to zap a young roster that had been babied maybe a season too long, he was seen by many familiar with both the Magic and him as a perfect fit. Even as they praised the hire, though, a lot of those experts flipped over the hourglass, anticipating the moment in the not-so-distant future when time runs out on the coupling.

Or can Orlando get where it wants to go in 292 games (Skiles' average tenure with the Suns, the Bulls and the Bucks)?

It's an irresistible force/immovable object dilemma. Skiles might do what he's always done, instilling a level of discipline and defense that boosts the Magic several rungs in the standings, all the way to the playoffs. And then someone upstairs will decide the conventional wisdom is right and a different personality and approach is needed to take the team higher.

Two problems with that pattern, though: No one ever did follow in Skiles' wake to realize a championship. And it presumes that he is the same guy today after all those experiences and time that he was back then.

"You're always changing," Skiles told the Chicago Tribune last week before facing the Bulls. "You're always trying to find different ways to get your point across, looking for a better drill to do or a better way to practice. You have to be flexible because you always have a different team. And the game evolves too -- now it's all about space and pace."

Skiles, who coached his final game for the Bucks on Jan. 5, 2013, remains a grit-and-grind coach in a space-and-pace era. Even as his strategies get adjusted and his plays get tweaked to account for 3-pointers and versatile defenders, two constants remain. He expects defense and he demands accountability.

The Magic learned that Monday, when they got run through a hard, physical practice in New Orleans to make up for a listless performance in Chicago. They picked up their first victory under Skiles Tuesday by outrebounding the Pelicans, outshooting them and limiting Anthony Davis to 3-of-12 from the floor for 14 points.

"He's given us an identity and we need that," Orlando forward Channing Frye said Sunday. "We know he's staying on top of us as far as what's expected of us every night. He's definitely inspiring us to play together and move the ball and play unselfishly on offense. He gives us a lot of freedom on offense, but he wants us to play right.

"It's just putting it together on a consistent basis. That's what he's demanding, more consistency. So it's not like expectations, it's more how we approach the games."

Skiles was chapped after Orlando's otherwise noble double-overtime loss to Oklahoma City Friday because he felt his players dropped their guard after Victor Oladipo's 3-pointer with four seconds left seemingly beat the Thunder in regulation. Instead, in their giddiness, they let Russell Westbrook free for the desperate 35-footer to tie.

Thunder vs. Magic

Russell Westbrook scores 48 points, Kevin Durant scores 43, and the Thunder rally to beat the Magic 139-136 in double overtime on Friday night.

So at New Orleans Tuesday, no one exhaled until Evan Fournier's 3-pointer made it 100-90 with 73 seconds left. That's a step.

"He's the leader, man," Fournier said the other night. "He's the leader of this locker room. He's just very tough. Basically just like he was as a player. We really need him to push us every day. We have a pretty good team here. We just need the right mentality."

That's one of the differences now for Skiles. Phoenix already was good when he replaced Danny Ainge as coach. The Bulls and the Bucks needed overhauls. But in Orlando, young talent needs old wisdom and ways.

"The decision on kind of the core players already has been made," Skiles said. "Or at least appears to have been made before I got here. So it's try to help 'em win. Put 'em in positions to win. Get 'em to guard a little bit better. Play at a faster pace. We've done both of those OK so far. Figure out, though, going forward who -- in tight moments -- can make big plays. It's a player's game. Games are won by a play being made here or there."

Oladipo made that play, then didn't, against OKC. C.J. Watson did in the fourth quarter against the Pelicans Tuesday, suffering a bloody lip while absorbing one of Orlando's three charges taken. That's a step, too.

It's on Skiles and the Magic players to determine how many more their turnaround coach sticks around for.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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