A major coaching change can get Orlando Magic back on schedule

Apr 8, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles huddles up with teammates against the Miami Heat during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat 112-109. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles huddles up with teammates against the Miami Heat during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat 112-109. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic had a disappointing 2016 season that seemed to knock them off schedule. A stroke of luck and a new coach may have them back on schedule.

A little more than a week ago the Orlando Magic appeared to be all at sea. The Orlando Magic not only seemed to be disappointing but with a future too uncertain to predict.

Following a disappointing regular season campaign that saw the team miss out on the postseason for the fourth straight year, head coach Scott Skiles dropped a bombshell by announcing his departure after just a year in the job.

On the whole, Skiles’ tenure was brief but successful as he led the inexperienced Magic to 35 wins.

It was by no means remarkable. But for all his flaws, Skiles helped Orlando tack 10 wins on to its 2015 record by making some significant offensive and defensive improvements. For instance, this year the Magic recorded the league’s 21st best offensive rating (105.1), up from 27th (101.6) the year before, and the 16th best defensive rating (106.8), up from 24th (107.7) the year before.

Going from 20 to 23 to 25 to 35 wins seemed like a general step in the right direction for a rebuilding franchise. the team was young, but getting direction and moving forward. The Playoffs could very well be in sight for 2017 along this path.

An old-fashioned coach who takes no prisoners, Skiles failed to win the hearts and heads of colleagues, players and fans alike, and it was perhaps his inability to connect with his young charges that counted against him in the end.

His adopted circumstances were largely unfamiliar to him after all as, prior to taking the Orlando job, Skiles had coached experienced teams made up predominantly of veteran players.

Of course there was an element of romance involved in his hiring, as Skiles is still considered by many the franchise’s first star player, one who still hold the franchise and NBA record for most assists in a single game. He was also a departure from his predecessors, Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego, who had very little experience as head coaches between them.

Still Skiles was never likely to be a long-term appointment. In fact, many saw him as a stepping stone back to success – a coach who could come in and shake things up a bit with his old school approach before (as in previous jobs) he reached a breaking point.

And to a certain extent it worked, as the Magic looked a lot better this season than they have in years.

A large part of that can be attributed to the young players on the team are another year older and another year better. But Skiles deserves some of the credit for helping the likes of Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier – two of Orlando’s most improved – take huge steps forward. Granted he did very little more than give them an opportunity to prove themselves, but on the evidence we have seen this year that was all they needed.

Gordon averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 78 appearances and Fournier put up 15.4 points, 2.7 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 79 appearances.

Assuming the Magic reach an agreement with Fournier — a restricted free agent, this summer — he and Gordon could become two of the Magic’s key building blocks moving forward. Add Mario Hezonja – another player who showed signs of growth under Skiles – to the mix and the team’s exciting young core starts taking shape.

These young players were getting better and producing more on the court.

Still, given how young the roster is as it stands, success still seems a long way off. The goal of making the Playoffs in 2017 — let alone the failed goal of making the Playoffs in 2016 — remains uncertain.

Orlando needs to take a huge leap forward, starting this offseason.

Enter Frank Vogel: a coach who took a burgeoning Indiana Pacers team and made it into a competitor. In fact, he did more than that, he made it into a consistent competitor that made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014.

The roster he adopted in Indiana bore numerous similarities to the one Orlando currently has, as it too featured some promising pieces – Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, for instance – who needed guidance. Vogel took those pieces, and key veteran additions George Hill and David West, and shaped them into a contender that put defense at the heart of everything it did.

The similarities are plentiful, and it seems as if Rob Hennigan made the best of a bad situation by hiring a replacement who has all the know-how and experience required to build on the progress Scott Skiles made this year.

In fact, this hire was huge for both the Magic and for Hennigan, whose first and second appointments both met premature ends, albeit for different reasons.

It is important to remember Hennigan is still proving himself as a general manager, but hiring Vogel could turn out to be one of the defining moments of his career.

He should not relax just yet though, as another is on the horizon – this summer’s draft and free agency period.

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It is essential Hennigan uses both to help the team advance, regardless of the means. Whether he trades some of the young pieces he has amassed for more experienced players – Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic could all find themselves on the block, if the price is right – or simply looks to add to what Orlando already has, the pressure is well and truly on.

Having a talented coach like Frank Vogel is all well and good. But as a general manager, your job is to ensure the coach has the right players at his disposal to make things work. Larry Bird did just that in Indiana and the results spoke for themselves. Even this past year as Vogel pushed that team into the Playoffs.

And it is hard not to think that the same thing will happen in Orlando, should Hennigan equip his coach with the right pieces.

It certainly helps Frank Vogel has spoken publicly about how much potential he sees in Orlando’s existing roster. He and Hennigan will undoubtedly have numerous conversations in the coming weeks to ensure they make the most out of this offseason, and that can only be a good thing.

Assuming their views align, the Magic may actually find themselves not just back on schedule but ahead of schedule.

Next: Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan talks hiring Frank Vogel

These are exciting times.