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Two days before last February’s NBA trade deadline and a deal came down that would turn out to be its most significant.
Tobias Harris, 23, months removed from signing a four-year, $64 million deal with Orlando, was headed to Detroit in a trade that sent veterans Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova to the Magic. It seemed strange that a rebuilding organization would jettison a young talent like Harris for a pair of players with expiring contracts; less that an experienced coach like Scott Skiles would want two vets he had coached before.
Said a rival executive, “That trade had Skiles' fingerprints all over it.”
Skiles' prints are gone, permanently, the result of his abrupt resignation on Thursday. Immediately, questions surfaced about a possible power struggle with general manager Rob Hennigan. Skiles wasn’t enamored with some of Orlando’s young talent, in particular point guard Elfrid Payton, league sources told The Vertical. More broadly, Skiles had grown increasingly disenchanted with the attitudes of the modern NBA player, league sources said, with one describing Skiles in the final months of the season as “miserable.”
At a news conference on Thursday, Hennigan denied any rift with Skiles over personnel.
“Not from my view, not from my seat,” Hennigan said. “I think Scott would echo this. We had really good dialogue throughout the season. Good dialogue means a lot of different things. It means agreements, disagreements, debates, arguments, jokes, and we certainly had all of that. That is what healthy organizations have in terms of communication. I really did feel like we had that.”
Perhaps the situation with Skiles was unsalvageable, but it lacked the one thing that might have saved it: A rock solid relationship between the coach and the people working above him. Hennigan insists Skiles was his hire, but clashes over personnel were legitimate and more significant than Hennigan let on. Orlando was hardly a unique situation. Sacramento parted ways with George Karl after Karl clashed with management over DeMarcus Cousins, and Memphis fired Dave Joerger when the disconnect between Joerger and the Grizzlies' front office became untenable. A year earlier Tom Thibodeau was jettisoned by Chicago after a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Thibodeau and Bulls' brass completely crumbled.
In the NBA, talent is paramount, but continuity between the front office and the bench is right behind it. The two don’t have to think as one mind; in Boston, Doc Rivers used to chafe when Danny Ainge supplemented the Celtics' core by gambling on low-priced players with oversized personalities or questionable character, and Rivers and Ainge thrived together for nearly a decade. The goals and the objectives have to be in sync, the lines of communication always open.
Need evidence? Look no further than the NBA’s elite. Gregg Popovich is in charge in San Antonio, but Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford — the reigning Executive of the Year — are in lockstep with each other. Sam Presti and Scott Brooks built a powerhouse in Oklahoma City, and Presti enjoys a similar, if not stronger, relationship with Billy Donovan. Erik Spoelstra was Pat Riley’s handpicked successor, and the two have built and rebuilt the Heat under trying circumstances.
Orlando will move on, and the Magic job does have its appeal. Payton, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic are talented 20-somethings while Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja are potential stars on the rise. Frank Vogel, who excelled at developing young talent in Indiana, is a natural candidate, while Patrick Ewing, Ettore Messina and Jeff Hornacek could also be in the mix.
Whoever it is, Hennigan must begin the relationship on the same page. Healthy disagreements can be productive; philosophical divides are not. A coach-GM dynamic can survive a lot of things. It can’t survive that.