Magic head coach Scott Skiles joined The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio last Sunday to discuss LeBron’s NBA Finals performance, getting back into coaching and the process of building a young team. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Chris Mannix: Have you ever seen a player do what LeBron James [did] this postseason?
Scott Skiles: You know, nothing really comes to mind. Again, you go all the way back to Magic (Johnson), when Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) goes down, he plays center and gets 41 [points] in his rookie year, but that was one game. It's really something, I think, that, I don't want to say unbelievable, but it's almost surreal watching him out there. It's almost like he came into the season trying to be a good teammate and things like that, be a leader. And at that point things weren't working out, and he just kind of took command of the whole team in a way that very few people [could]. Some people might want to do that, but they don't have the tools he does, either. For me, he's not that young anymore, a guy like him comes from high school and turns into the type of leader he is, it's really good to see.
Mannix: With David Blatt, what are the challenges that a coach has when he takes over a brand new team?
Skiles: Well, he didn't take over this team, he took over a different team. And, all of a sudden, a couple of weeks went by, and he had LeBron. So, you know, not a bad "Welcome to NBA coaching, David. Here, you're going to get LeBron and Kevin Love." So, look, every game is hard. It is tremendously difficult just to win one game. And, when you have a guy like [LeBron], and you've got to give him freedom and let him play and things like that. And, obviously, they've done a good job after some sort of adjustment period, whatever was going on, I don't know, and since then, they've all—including coach—done a phenomenal job.
Mannix: When you were out of coaching, did you watch a lot of basketball?
Skiles: Sure, yeah.
Mannix: Did you watch it analytically, did you watch as a fan? Were you studying in ways that you did before?
Skiles: It's hard. Once you sit and watch a team play on tape and do all the scouting stuff on tape, it's hard to turn it off when you watch a game. I think any coach is always looking at it sort of analytically, you know. "What would I do right here if I was on the other team," things like that, and just to go back to the Cleveland scenario, if LeBron has you in the box, do you double him, not double him, do you just try to get help and recover, do you give him the full rotation? What do you do? Do you run the guys off the three; there [are] a lot of decisions to make, and when a guy is playing at that level, there is no easy answer.
Mannix: When you left Milwaukee, did you think you were going to coach again?
Skiles: Well, there are only 30 of these jobs, so you never really know. I don't begrudge anybody for what I'm about to say, but it's not my style to stalk a bunch of jobs. Each of the last two years, I've talked to two or three teams that have had openings, and so, it's not like I've just been Howard Hughes and I'm sealed into my room or anything. I felt like an opportunity might come, but I was also prepared if it didn't. So, I'm happy to be back in it and looking forward to it.
Mannix: That's a great Howard Hughes reference.
Skiles: I'm at the top of the casino in my penthouse.
Mannix: When did you start to miss coaching?
Skiles: No, you know what, I really [didn't] miss it. And that's not to say I'm not excited and looking forward to the opportunity and all that, I am. But, I think a lot of guys might get in trouble. You sit around and maybe you stress about it—“Am I going to get back in?”—and it just does things that you don't really need to be doing. I have other interests, but, also, I'm a basketball guy, I'm always into it. And this opportunity presented itself and has some really good young players, and now we’ve got to get to work and try to get better.
Mannix: Even if you have a lot going on, it's got to be a huge adjustment to go from being a workaholic as a coach to all of a sudden, you're not really doing much, necessarily.
Skiles: Actually, the adjustment is the other way. I spent two years and a few months out of it, and then the next thing you know, I'm in the office all day long. So, that's been a little bit busy. And the phone's ringing constantly, and things are going on. We've got guys working in the gym right now. I'm looking out the window, and we're getting ready for summer league. And I've done it before, so that's helpful, I can hit the ground running, but we've got a chance to be pretty good. And so, that's why I think there's quite a bit of excitement right now.
Mannix: Was this job more appealing because it was the team you spent most of your career playing for?
Skiles: You know, not really. I have a home in the area, so we consider this home, and anybody would like to coach where they live, so those things are great, but those are just more gravy. I wanted to be in the position where everybody was moving in the same direction, we're all going to sing from the same song sheet, we're going to have our goals and our plan and our principles, and we're going to do our best to stick to those. And, Rob (Hennigan) and the people here have done a nice job of getting high-character, young guys that have talent, and now what we've got to do is, we've got to get them into position where they're playing in meaningful games. Then, we can really start to see. There's a nice little core here, but it's time to stop winning 25 games and start trying to get focused on having a winning record.
Mannix: You said last week that you analyzed your approach during your time off and that there are some things that you'll do differently this time around. Can you elaborate on that?
Skiles: Well, you know, Chris, they're more private things I'd like to keep private, but I will say that this is the type of profession where there's always something that you're learning. And all the staffs I've had, we start every morning in the morning meeting with a simple question of: What can we do in this room to help our guys? And, that's what usually starts it off, so that's what we're trying to do. We want to help our guys get better, put our guys in a position to win games, close games, tight games. A big percentage of the NBA games during the season are kind of ugly, it's not every night that you go out and make 14 threes, so can you win a game 89–86 on the road somewhere when you don't play particularly well, and that's how you go from 41 wins to 54 wins. And when the season's over you look back, and it's like, "Wow, we won this game, and this game and this game," and they add up. And so, I think you always have to look and try to get better from a coaching standpoint, but, at the same time, stick with the things that you believe in. So there's always a balance in there.
Mannix: There's no question that the team you're taking over has talent. When you have looked at the film and studied this team, what is it missing at this point?
Skiles: Well, the defensive end has to be addressed. One of the things that jumps out at you is this team was eighth in the league in defensive rebounding percentage as a young team, so that's a good defensive rebounding team, but we're leaving offensive opportunities on the table because we don't get enough stops. So that end has to be addressed, and I'm totally confident that this is going to be a much improved defensive team. And then, our biggest weakness is all of our key players are under 25 years old. That's usually a recipe for disaster in the NBA, but we have to turn that from our weakness to our strength. That has to be our strength. We always have energy, we're pushing the ball, we’re creating pace, we're out on the break, we're attacking the rim, we're up on people defensively, things like that to kind of make up for our lack of experience.
Mannix: Is there an alpha male in this group? Is there a guy that you think can, all of a sudden, become the leader, the face, the star of this team?
Skiles: That's a good question, Chris, and totally honest, I don't know yet. I'm getting to know some of the guys. There's guys in-and-out of the building right now. So that is something every team would love to have, sort of a defined hierarchy in the team, that this is our best player, he's also our leader, and we kind of filter down from there. A lot of times in a younger group like that, that's really hard. You can't legislate that. It just happens naturally as time goes on. And we certainly have some guys with really good personalities that maybe develop into something like that, and, frankly, they're still trying to find their own games right now. That's the main thing, playing themselves and all that in their group but also kind of finding your own game and then hoping, over time, that person or persons just sort of develop naturally.
Mannix: Elfrid Payton showed a lot of potential last year. The shooting is obviously his next step. When you look at him and his form and everything you know about him to this point, what kind of shooter do you think he can become? And can you teach shooting, to a certain extent?
Skiles: Yes. He's in here, he has made a commitment this summer to correct some technical issues with his shots—not get it behind his ear, get it out in front of him. He's improved already. He knows how important it is. I mean the guy can get in the lane at will, imagine if he could consistently make an elbow jump shot off a pick-and-roll when they go under, and then eventually mix in a corner-3, which is a shot that guards need to make in the NBA. It's really going to open up his game. But he is really working at it, and he's got the ball out in front of him now. With summer league coming up. I don't know if we'll see the benefits of it yet because it's awful soon, but it's something. You've got to give him a lot of credit. There are guys that are self-conscious about it, and they're not willing to put in the time to correct it, and he is. I'm excited for him, because I think he's going to come back a much improved player.