Magic Start Search For New Head Coach
By John Denton
May 13, 2016
ORLANDO – In need of a proven coach who could get the franchise back in the playoff mix for the first time since 2012, Scott Skiles seemed to check all of the boxes for the Orlando Magic last May.
The veteran coach had been a turnaround specialist three previous times, drastically improving teams in Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee in his first seasons there as head coach.
Also, Skiles’ tough-minded personality and direct approach – especially as they relate to playing the right way and focusing on defense – seemed to be just the kind of tough-love approach that the youth-filled Magic needed.
To boot, Skiles was a legendary figure in Magic history what with his gritty, gutty play as a point guard on the first five Magic teams from 1989-94. Skiles set the NBA record for assists in a game (30) in Magic uniform 25 years ago and he never really left the area, making a home for himself and his family in Central Florida for much of the past two decades.
Hired by the Magic in late May of 2015, Skiles delivered on much of that promise by helping Orlando race to a strong start and make a 10-win improvement over the previous season. The Magic ultimately missed the playoffs – largely because of a 2-15 stretch at the start of 2016 – but the feeling was that with Skiles in place as coach and the young core showing signs of promise that much brighter days were ahead for the franchise.
Then, Skiles upset those feel-good vibes on Wednesday when he surprisingly and unexpectedly volunteered his resignation as head coach. The Magic checked back with Skiles on Thursday morning and the coach stuck to his plans, saying he isn’t the right coach for Orlando at this time.
Now, less than a year after hiring a candidate who seemed to be the perfect coach for the strides that they are trying to make, the Magic are in a similar position. Again, they find themselves needing a coach who can bring toughness, discipline and accountability to a roster long on potential and short on experience. It’s not where the Magic expected to be after landing Skiles just 50 weeks ago, but the reality staring the franchise in the face now is that it needs to nail the next hiring to bring some much-needed stability to the coaching position so that the players on hand can maximize their talent and get the team back in the postseason mix.
``While this is a challenging day, we have to now look at it as an opportunity to find a new coach, who fits our team and who can propel us forward,’’ Magic GM Rob Hennigan said on Thursday. ``We do have some big decisions to make, relative to the draft and free agency. Our philosophy all long is that we make decisions mutually, and we collaborate and we discuss things as an entire staff. And we will continue to do that once we get the new coach in place.’’
Potentially complicating matters for the Magic is the fact that they will be competing with four other teams that are also looking for head coaches. New York, Houston, Memphis and Indiana are in various stages in their pursuits of head coaches. In all, 11 teams have changed coaches since the start of the season, opening up several candidates to the Magic who have head mentoring experience.
Of those whom the Magic might consider: Frank Vogel, David Blatt, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Jackson, Kevin McHale, Mike Woodson, Brian Shaw and former Magic interim coach James Borrego are some of the potential candidates with previous head coaching experience. Patrick Ewing, Adrian Griffin and Darrell Armstrong are currently assistant coaches with past ties to the Magic, while San Antonio’s Ettore Messina, Toronto’s Rex Kalamian, Miami’s David Fizdale and Orlando’s Griffin are widely considered to be some of the top assistant coaches who have head-coach potential. Villanova’s Jay Wright, who led the Wildcats to the NCAA National Championship in early April, has also been mentioned as having interest in leaving the college game to coach in the NBA.
CEO Alex Martins said a variety of factors – strong ownership in the DeVos Family; a solid core of promising players; and a history of success – make the Magic job an enticing one among coaching candidates.
``Everything I’ve read has said that this now becomes one of the most attractive jobs in the league and I believe that, and most of the so called experts around the league have said we have a collection of some of the best young talent in the league that anyone that is available to coach would want to coach and I believe that as well,’’ Martins said. ``So, I think it’s a very attractive job, working for a great ownership, with an organization that has a history of winning – not most recently, but we have a great history of winning and I think that makes it very attractive to a potential head coach, particularly in light of the players that we have.’’
Eternally optimistic and positive, Martins was a bit somber on Thursday at the Magic losing Skiles to the stunning resignation. Martins and Skiles have known each other since 1989 when the Magic got their start in the NBA, and Martins has long been a fan of Skiles and the success that he’s had as a coach following a solid playing career. All season, Martins looked on with glee as he saw Skiles imparting discipline and accountability on Orlando’s young players and he was confident that the coach had the franchise headed in the right direction.
So when Skiles called him on Wednesday to alert him that he wanted to abandon the Magic’s coaching position after just one season, Martins was floored by the defection. Martins talked with Skiles again on Thursday and attempted to talk him out of resigning, but there was no movement in the decision.
Losing a coach of Skiles’ caliber was crushing for Martins personally and professionally, but he is confident that the Magic will recover from this because of the rock-solid foundation of the franchise.
``I think when anybody quits you’re blindsided. So, in a sense I would say ‘yes.’ I didn’t expect it in the least,’’ Martins said of Skiles’ resignation.
``He was a fan favorite and an Alex Martins favorite to begin with. So, I’m as disappointed as the fans are that Scott made this decision,’’ Martins continued. ``But having said that, the strength is in the organization and we talk all the time around here about no one individual is more important than the Orlando Magic organization. The organization is still here. Our ownership is still here, and I’ve said this to you before and in my opinion, one of the best ownerships in our league and in sports. And we’ll rebound from this. We are on an upward path in terms of winning on the court. We didn’t meet our expectation this year of getting to the playoffs, but we did improve by 10 games and so our expectation is that improvement is going to continue with a new leader next year. And our expectation is that we’re going to be back in the playoffs.’’
Hennigan, who will be hiring his third full-time coach in the past four years, knows that regardless who is leading the team as coach next season the goal remains the same to be in the playoffs. He thinks that the Magic can quickly recover from the stunning loss of Skiles and get a solid coach in place because of the attractiveness of Orlando’s organization. Hennigan sees no reason why the Magic can’t dramatically better the roster through the June 23 NBA Draft, free agency in July and various trade talks and be in the playoffs this time next year.
``We want someone who is going to continue to push us forward, place an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor and figure out a way to continue to develop our players, and as we continue to add pieces, assemble a highly-competitive team, which quite honestly, we feel like we are not that far away from being competitive here for a long time,’’ Hennigan stressed.
``I think we have a great situation here. We’ve got a great group of guys. We have a young team. We have guys who are willing to work. We have guys who want to be pushed, want to be coached. And we think the future is bright here, we really do,’’ Hennigan continued. ``We won 10 more games than we did the year before – that’s not an insignificant improvement. Our goal is to make the playoffs. Our goal is to make the playoffs immediately, and that’s what we are geared to do. But I see our situation as incredibly attractive.’’
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