Skiles Steps Down; Search for New Coach Begins

By John Denton
May 12, 2016

Updated: 5:03 p.m.

ORLANDO – Still stung by a frustrating season in which high hopes were dashed by a January/February swoon and not wanting to go forward as coach of the Orlando Magic, Scott Skiles abruptly and surprisingly resigned on Thursday.

Skiles, 52, said that he was the one who made the call on a shocking resignation that came less than a year after he took over as the Magic’s head coach in late May of 2015. The fiery head coach was filled with frustration all throughout the season even though the Magic won 35 games and made a 10-victory improvement for the fifth-largest season-over-season jump in franchise history.

Skiles said prior to the season that he felt the Magic had the talent to be ``a winning team,’’ and when that did not happen because of too many gut-punch close losses and the mid-season swoon, he didn’t hide his frustration. And on Thursday, a month after the Magic’s 35-47 season came to a close, Skiles stepped aside as the team’s head coach following just one season on the job.

Skiles first informed Magic CEO Alex Martins, a friend for more than 27 years, on Wednesday of his intentions to resign. Martins then called Skiles back on Thursday morning to try and talk him into staying on as coach, but there was no movement in the decision.

``I’m disappointed more than anything,’’ said Martins, who stressed that he sensed very little discontent from Skiles other than the usual ebbs and flows of a long, frustrating season. ``Scott’s a friend, first and foremost, and we have a long history together and I was very disappointed when I got the phone call from him (on Wednesday). I’m disappointed in his decision. We had a long talk about his reasons why and I respect him for his decision. It’s a personal decision that he felt like he had to make. I respect him for it, but I’m disappointed.’’

Martins and GM Rob Hennigan said that a ``separation agreement’’ was negotiated with Skiles, but they would not elaborate on the financial terms, per team policy. It is also unclear as to whether or not Skiles will be allowed to coach another NBA team next season if he so chooses.

The resignation announcement took the Magic aback, especially since the franchise was confident that it was heading in the right direction with Skiles as coach and core pieces Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja steadily blossoming. Also, the Magic have been prudent in their spending and are poised to have enough salary cap space this summer to potentially sign two maximum-salaried players who could greatly enhance the roster.

Hennigan, who was in Chicago on Wednesday preparing for the NBA’s Pre-Draft Combine, returned to Orlando on Thursday to address Skiles’ resignation and start the process of hiring the franchise’s next coach. Including 2015 interim coach James Borrego – a candidate for the job going forward – Hennigan’s next coaching hire will be his fourth in four years on the job with the Magic.

``I think there’s certainly a sense of urgency to make sure that we find a coach as soon as possible and make sure that we find the right coach,’’ Hennigan said. ``Again, you’ll have to ask Scott about the specifics (for his resignation). I will tell you that over the months that Scott and I worked together, Scott is very principled, he’s honest and straight-forward and we’re going to miss Scott Skiles.’’

Martins was adamant that Skiles never asked for Hennigan’s departure as a condition for him staying on as head coach.

``There was never any statement made by either one of them, quite frankly, that it was one or the other,’’ Martins said with conviction. ``There was never any threat directly or veil in any way by Scott or Rob during the course of the year. That just didn’t occur.’’

The Magic informed all of the players of Skiles’ resignation by midday on Thursday. Oladipo, whose play as an elite defender soared with a defensive-minded head coach in place, was shocked by Skiles’ departure.

Oladipo’s comment posted on Twitter: ``Im (sic) as surprised as anyone else, but I just wanna thank coach skiles for helping us but especially me improve on both ends of the floor this year in my 3rd season. What I learned from him I will keep with me for the rest of my career. I wish him all the best in anything he does.’’

Hennigan said on Thursday that he didn’t get the sense that Skiles had lost faith in the players on the Magic’s roster. The Basketball Operations staff and Skiles’ coaching staff had their disagreements about the strengths and weaknesses of particular players – common among NBA teams at the end of seasons – but the GM didn’t ever think the issue was so big that it would lead to an abrupt resignation.

``I didn’t get the sense that he didn’t believe in the players,’’ Hennigan said.

Out of the NBA for 2 ½ seasons before returning to take the Magic job on May 29, 2015, Skiles said in a statement on Thursday that he was not the right person to lead Orlando’s youth-filled roster. Skiles, a fan favorite when he starred as a point guard for the fledgling Magic from 1989-94, was also sorrowful about leaving the Orlando job following just one season on the sidelines.

``After much thought and careful consideration, I and I alone, have come to the conclusion that I am not the right head coach for this team,’’ Skiles said. ``Therefore, effective immediately, I resign my position as head coach of the Orlando Magic. I realize this type of decision can cause much speculation. The reality though is in the first sentence. It is simple and true. Any other rumors are pure conjecture.

``I sincerely apologize for any unintended consequences that may adversely affect anyone associated with this decision,’’ Skiles continued. ``The Magic are a world-class organization that employs world-class people. I wish them nothing but great success. I will always be thankful, especially to the DeVos family, for the opportunity.’’

Which direction the Magic head for their next coach is up in the air, but they should have their choice of suitors because of the attractiveness of the job with the strong ownership and solid core players already in place. Frank Vogel, David Blatt, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Jackson, Kevin McHale, Brian Shaw and 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. Griffin was Skiles’ top assistant this past season in Orlando.

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.

``Our goal is to make the playoffs and make the playoffs immediately, and that’s what we’re geared to do,’’ Hennigan said of the plan going forward with a new coach. ``I see our situation as being incredibly attractive. We’re just going to try to find the best guy for the team. Whatever that looks like, we’re going to have to go through that process and outline that criteria.’’

Skiles took over with the Magic last spring with much fanfare after successful stints in his previous three NBA coaching jobs and because of his wildly popular history with the franchise. Skiles was a member of the inaugural Magic team and he starred as a point guard for the fledgling team from 1989-94. But it was made clear by everyone involved in the decision-making process to hire Skiles that he was brought back as head coach, not because of his ties to the past as a successful player, but because he was the right kind of person to bring discipline, toughness and accountability to the young and impressionable Magic.

``It was my decision, 100 percent my decision (to hire Skiles),’’ Hennigan said. ``We don’t regret that, no, because we believe in Scott. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances happen in life and there’s only so many things you can control at the end of the day. Again, we look at this as a challenging day and it was unexpected and surprising. But it’s hard to regret something that you can’t control.’’

Skiles seemed to have the Magic headed back to the playoffs after the first 2 ½ months of the season, guiding Orlando to a promising 19-13 start. However, a 2-15 stretch in January and early February sent the Magic into a tailspin that the franchise couldn’t shake out of the rest of the way. The Magic continued to play hard for its first-year head coach down the stretch, winning six of their final nine games, but it wasn’t enough to end the team’s four-year playoff drought.

Still, Orlando went 35-47 for the fifth-largest season-over-season increase in franchise history. Also, the Magic are one of just five teams in the NBA to make season-over-season improvements each of the last three years. Golden State, Cleveland, Toronto and Detroit are the others.

``When the season is over you are what you are and what your record says you are,’’ Skiles said the day after the season ended. ``Our record says we made a 10-win improvement, but it takes a winning record right now in the Eastern Conference to get in (the playoffs) and we weren’t close to that. We’re somewhere in the middle.’’

The Magic’s 9-6 mark in November was the team’s first winning month since March of 2012 and the 10-win run in December – the best mark in the Eastern Conference – earned Skiles the East’s Coach of the Month award.

One facet of the season that was particularly frustrating to Skiles was Orlando’s struggles in close games. The Magic were 8-15 in games decided by five points or less and 6-10 in games decided by three points or fewer. The 16 games decided by three points or less were two shy of the franchise record set in the 1994-95 season – one that ended up with the Magic in the NBA Finals.

Skiles felt like the Magic didn’t have enough veteran leadership among the players to weather tough times. That lack of experience was exacerbated by Orlando’s trading of veterans Channing Frye and Tobias Harris in February to Cleveland and Detroit, respectively. Having so much youth on the team and so many players who have yet to appear in the playoffs were a couple of the reasons why Orlando endured so many fourth-quarter collapses and why it was unable to shake out of the January/February swoon, Skiles said.

``The more veteran voices that you can have in the locker room to help, the better,’’ Skiles said a month ago upon the conclusion of the season. ``The good teams – the really, really good teams – the coaches aren’t doing too much of any policing of anything in the locker rooms because there’s so much leadership in there that there isn’t much to do. You’re talking to the guys all of the time, of course, but the locker room just kind of takes care of itself.’’

Skiles has a career record of 478-480 (.499) during his 14 seasons with Phoenix, Chicago, Milwaukee and Orlando. He was the 12th head coach in Magic history. Orlando’s next head coach will be its fifth since the spring of 2012 following the dismissals of Stan Van Gundy (2012), Jacque Vaughn (2015), Borrego (2015) and Skiles (2016).

Martins said the Magic’s fan base can rest assured that the franchise is still on right path toward building a team that can be successful for years to come. Martins pointed to sizeable increases in TV ratings, ticket sales (single-game and group sales) and corporate sponsorships as signs that belief is still incredibly strong in the Magic’s vision.

``Everything that I’ve read all day long says that this now becomes one of the most attractive jobs in the league and I believe that,’’ Martins said of Orlando’s coaching spot. ``Most of the so-called experts around the league have said that we have a collection of some of the best young talent around the league and anyone who is available would want to coach them, and I believe that, as well. It’s a very attractive job, with a great ownership and a history of winning – not most recently, but we have a great history of winning.

``The excitement is there, but we’ve got to get back to the playoffs,’’ Martins continued. ``I’m not naïve about that and we know that we’ve got to do it right away.’’

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.