By John DentonJuly 5, 2015
ORLANDO – Asked a month ago by close friend Scott Skiles to join his coaching staff in Orlando, Adrian Griffin began debating the pros and cons of such a move when memories of this past NBA season flashed into his head.
Formerly an assistant coach with the Bulls, Griffin had a front row seat when the young and promising Magic whipped Chicago 121-114 in January and 105-103 in April and let a 98-97 result slip through their fingertips in February at the Amway Center.
Deep down, Griffin knew that with all of the Magic’s blossoming talent and Skiles’ coaching acumen that success would be dead ahead for years to come in Orlando. The Magic’s immense promise, combined with his long history with Skiles, helped make it an easy decision for Griffin to become an assistant coach in Orlando.
``That was one of the reasons why I felt comfortable coming to Orlando – because I recalled how hard (the Magic) played against (the Bulls) last season,’’ Griffin said. ``Each time we played Orlando, it was always a close game and you could just see the talent on the team. So you keep building because there are no shortcuts in the NBA. The next (actual) game for us training camp and you come to work and you let the cards fall where they may.’’
Griffin got his first Magic-affiliated coaching victory, of sorts, on Saturday when he guided Orlando to a 75-74 overtime defeat of the Los Angeles Clippers. The win was made possible by solid performances from returning Magic players Aaron Gordon (22 points and 18 rebounds), Elfrid Payton (seven points and nine assists) and Devyn Marble (14 points, six steals and four 3-pointers). Payton, who has spent the past month developing a close relationship with Skiles, had high praise for Griffin and the Magic’s new coaching staff.
``They were all very encouraging and they let us know when we messed up, which is good,’’ said Payton, who will already be playing for his third head coach next season. ``They stayed on top of us to make sure that we were doing the right things, but at the same time they were uplifting us, too.’’
Griffin was also wise enough to have Magic first-round pick Mario Hezonja on the floor with the game on the line in the extra period. With Orlando down two in the final seconds, the ball swung to Hezonja – a knockdown shooter with tons of confidence – and the Croatian small forward drilled a 3-pointer that proved to be the winning points for the Magic. Afterward, Griffin raved about the toughness and temerity of the player the Magic understandably fell in love with in the months and weeks leading up to the June 25 NBA Draft.
``There was no hesitation and he let it fly,’’ Griffin said. ``Obviously, he’s a great shooter and an excellent athlete. (Saturday was) his second full day with us and for him to go out there and compete the way that he did, he’s doing a helluva job. He’s going to continue to improve because he’s still learning the sets and learning the schemes, but you would have to be blind to not see his talent.’’
Griffin and fellow assistant coaches Monte Mathis, Mario Ellie and Conner Henry will share the head coaching duties this week in the Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League. Orlando’s ``Blue’’ squad – the one with Payton, Gordon, Hezonja and Marble – will play Oklahoma City on Monday at 3 p.m. Orlando’s ``White’’ squad – one filled with free agents and D-League players – will play Indiana at 1 p.m. The event is closed to the public because of space limitations, but all games are televised live on NBA TV.
Griffin, who turned 41 years old on Saturday, spent the past five years with the Bulls as an assistant coach, but his start in coaching came under Skiles in Milwaukee from 2008-10. Also, Griffin – a defensive-minded small forward with a high basketball IQ – played for Skiles during two different stints in Chicago (2004-05 and 2006-08).
Griffin is convinced that Skiles’ intensity, teaching abilities and competitiveness will be able to make a big difference on a promising Magic roster that includes Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier, Payton, Gordon, Marble and Hezonja. Griffin said one of the hallmarks of Skiles’ coaching is his thoroughness when it comes to practice and prepping for opponents.
``Scott believes in practice and that we’re going to be a practice team. We practice hard and smart,’’ Griffin gushed. ``And with Scott, you are going to know your opponent better than your opponent knows you. And he wants you playing together – five guys on the offensive end and five guys on the defensive end. It’s always about a collective effort with him.’’
Skiles, who was hired by the Magic on May 29, has a track record of not only making a difference in previous coaching stops with Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee, but having instant levels of success. In Phoenix, he took over early in the 1999 season and led the Suns to a first-round upset of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the 2000 playoffs. In his first full season in Chicago, the Bulls posted a 17-win improvement from 2002-03 (30 victories) to 2004-05 (47 victories). And in Milwaukee, the Bucks showed an eight-win improvement from 2007-08 to ’08-09. And in 2009-10, Milwaukee posted its first winning season (46-36) in seven years under Skiles, who finished second in the NBA’s Coach of the Year voting.
Griffin thinks that Skiles could possibly pull off the same thing in Orlando, where the Magic have won just 20, 23 and 25 games while rebuilding the roster with young and talented players. Griffin said Skiles will demand that the Magic play hard every night – something that usually leads to a handful of extra victories during the NBA’s marathon-like 82-game regular season.
``Scott teaches the little things, the attention to detail, the correct body position,’’ Griffin said. ``And the biggest thing is that you have to play hard for Scott. Sometimes in the NBA, that’s a skill in itself. NBA players, sometimes, have a reputation for turning it on and off. But when you play for Scott, you have to always be on when it comes to hard work and playing hard. If not, you’ll probably be sitting on the bench next to me.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.