NEW YORK — In hindsight, the question was poorly phrased. Do you like coaching young players? Scott Skiles, hours before the Magic took on the Knicks, peered back at the questioner quizzically. Skiles certainly has young players. Orlando’s top five minute-eaters are 25 or younger, with Nikola Vucevic, a budding All-Star, the graybeard. Aaron Gordon, 20, and Andrew Nicholson, 26, round out the back of the rotation.
But does Skiles like coaching that type of roster?
“As opposed to, say, Golden State?” Skiles said. “The Celtics in the 80's?”
Fair point. A better way to phrase it would have been to ask why Skiles is so effective at coaching young players. In 2003, Skiles was hired midseason to coach the Bulls. The stars of that team were fourth-year guard Jamal Crawford, third-year center Eddy Curry and rookie Kirk Hinrich. Chicago was 19-47 under Skiles that first year; the next they were 47-35.
In '08, Skiles was hired by Milwaukee. That team had a little more experience—namely All-Star guard Michael Redd—but relied on fourth-year center Andrew Bogut, fourth-year forward Charlie Villanueva and rookie Luc Mbah a Moute. The Bucks went 34-48 in Skiles's first year; they were 46-36 in his second.
So, Scott, let’s revise the question: Can you explain your success coaching young players?
“No, not really,” Skiles said. “I had a couple of opportunities to get back into [coaching] before I did and they were different kind of situations. I didn’t do it. [Young teams] just happen to be what’s presented to me. It’s nothing I particularly search out or nothing I am afraid of either. It’s just kind of what’s happened.”
Fine. But even if Skiles isn’t seeking out young teams, they are hunting him. Take Orlando. The Magic were a mess last season, undisciplined, poor shooters and one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Enter Skiles, who came in so highly regarded that GM Rob Hennigan declared that his 25-win team was ready to compete for a playoff spot.
Nearly a third of the way into the season and the Magic are surprisingly doing just that. Orlando is 16-12, entrenched in the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game back from No. 4 and one game off of No. 2 Toronto in a crowded conference playoff field. This time last season, the Magic were 10-18. Defense—Skiles's calling card—has triggered the strong start. Orlando was No. 24 in defensive efficiency last season; they have jumped to No. 6 this season, surrendering a stingy 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Opponents shot 46.3% against the Magic last season, good for third worst in the NBA. This season opponents are shooting 43.3%, putting Orlando in position to become the first team since 2003 to vault from the bottom five to the top five in that category.
• MORE NBA: SI.com's top 10 NBA moments of 2015
Scouts will tell you: There are no tricks to the way a Skiles coached team defends. They shrink the floor, load up in the paint and play aggressively on the ball. They do everything possible to take away the first option in a possession, and Skiles storms the sidelines holding everyone accountable. “It’s nothing revolutionary,” says a scout. “His teams just always play hard.”
“We have a defensive system that we teach and work on every day,” Skiles said. “It would be meaningless if guys didn’t buy into it, so they have to understand the importance of it. If they do that, we’ll be fine. If they don’t, we’ll drop. It’s got to be something you do every single day. You have to stay with it. It can be tedious to have to to do the drill work every day and stay with it. So far, the guys have.”
Skiles can be tough; he’s never coached a team longer than four full seasons, in part because his relentless style can be grating. But the Magic are keenly aware that after an ugly end to the Jacque Vaughn era, they needed that type of structure.
“There is a lot more discipline,” says Nicholson. “There is a lot more accountability being held by the players. We trust each other more. There is definitely a lot more of that. We’re just playing the right way.”
There’s a long way to go, and Skiles will have to build on a still stagnant offense (No. 19 in efficiency) as well as continue to prod his players to work to get to the free throw line, a point of emphasis in the preseason that has not been much better than it was last season. But the building blocks for sustainable success are there.
Vucevic, who scored 26 against the Knicks on Monday, should be an All-Star. Victor Oladipo is a high-level defender. Elfrid Payton is slowly gaining confidence in his jump shot, Mario Hezonja is a couple of years and some serviceable defense from being a flat-out stud and Gordon is years away from reaching his potential. Orlando is 10-4 since Nov. 25, the best record in the conference since that date, and would be even better if they weren’t painfully inept at winning close games; the Magic is 3-5 in games decided by three-points or less.
No, Skiles may not have sought out this type of team. But this type of team seems to be an ideal fit.