With the news early Thursday morning that Scott Skiles had stepped down from his position as the coach of the Orlando Magic, the same questioning tone could be found throughout the variety of takes offered across the small cluster of basketball pundits who have the time to give a minute to the Orlando Magic amidst an entertaining second round of the NBA playoffs.
Despite improving the team’s record by 10 wins, Skiles was unable to augment the roster past the sum of its individual parts. This is the fundamental issue that the next man in power must face — how to fit a roster of spare lottery parts into a cohesive unit on both sides of the ball.
That figures to be no small task, considering the team is paying (and centering the roster around) a ball-stopping, offense-first big as he slips out of athletic prime and into defensive regression. The Magic also employ a combo guard who lacks the necessary ball skills to be run an offense and a shot too inconsistent to be relied upon next to a fellow non-shooter. That same point guard may be too small and inefficient to survive at that position long-term, which was apparently one of the primary points of contention for Skiles.
So how can the Magic build around the core of those three (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, and Nikola Vucevic), successfully develop Aaron Gordon into the fourth member of that group, and coalesce into a playoff team in an Eastern Conference with a week bottom half? First, they’ll have to nail the coach signing after bumbling through two tenures (Skiles and Jacque Vaughn) in four years.
Clearly, management has a view of this team as something completely different from what the guys in the locker room can see. The fact a guy like Payton is so contentious makes that clear — it’s almost like their valuation of a draft pick translates directly into the valuation of the guy the pick becomes. Payton is no longer “what the 12th pick could have been”, he’s Elfrid Payton. He is a triple-double threat, a slithery distributor and a great scoring driver (five points on eight drives per game, according to NBA.com). He is not a great defender, and may never be more than decent on that end.
Victor Oladipo is a good defender, and can develop into a special player on that end — he has the sort of monolithic athleticism that swallows guards whole. Those Dwyane Wade comparisons out of the draft weren’t for nothing and his defense will always be bigger than his size. On offense, he jumps out as a guy who could benefit from posting up more when matched up on opposing point guards. Those looks would simplify his passing reads and allow him to take advantage of his athleticism and length. He’s the centerpoint of this team, not Vucevic.
Vucevic is a strong post player with a sweet stroke — a poor man’s Brook Lopez without the foot problems. He can be on a winning team; he’s raised his assist numbers from microscopic to passable, but he needs to take advantage of the space his shooting affords him in more ways than one. He might always be too big to drive effectively, but expanding that range to reliable three-point effectiveness appears to be the next step in his development. Oh, and the defense — it’d be nice if he could handle pick-and-roll reads while zoning up, at the very least. He did, however, make improvements as a rim protector this year.
Aaron Gordon is a few dozen buckets of fun. He lit the NBA and the city of Toronto on fire in the dunk contest this year, and is realizing his potential as maybe just someone who doesn’t shoot very much. The dude had a 17.0 PER this year behind much-improved rebounding and scoring numbers. His pogo stick style bodes well next to a guy like Vucevic as he can cover up quite a few mistakes every night defensively, and should be able to switch onto guards better than most bigs. Gordon’s development is still the most important thing going forward for the Magic and if he can produce efficiently on both ends, the whole thing works a lot better. And don’t rule that shot out because of two years’ worth of tries. He’s flashed it at every level.
What the Magic can’t afford is letting talent leave via free agency. Remember, the front office that has botched relationships with consecutive coaches is the same one that failed to retain Moe Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn. They lost out on Millsap last summer and figure to rinse and repeat with his frontcourt mate Al Horford this year. Channing Frye was among the most troubling additions a team made two years ago before finding rejuvenation on a Cavs team that actually made efforts to adapt itself to his style.
Rather than throw money and minutes at aging, low-upside vets like Jason Smith or Al Horford, the team should embrace the young talent it already has and give veteran minutes to clubhouse commodities who figure to form relationships with the young guys. Those guys can be had every year; for example Elton Brand got time in Philadelphia in 2016.
As the coaching situation comes into focus in the coming weeks, the Orlando Magic will find themselves facing difficult introspection for what feels like the millionth offseason in a row. Maybe this coach will understand the limitations that the front office has installed across the roster, and maximize the performance anyway — and maybe that coach will have the same fate as Scott Skiles.