It’s almost impossible to strike the perfect balance between playing for the present and the future. After two years of arduous rebuilding from the ground up, the vast majority of teams are forced to reassess their long-term goals. Not every franchise is fortunate enough to land Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in consecutive seasons, and the road to contention for those who don’t is marked by multiple crossroads.
The Orlando Magic hit theirs midway through 2014-15 by firing Jacque Vaughn, and chose a direction several months later by plucking the notoriously difficult but undeniably successful Scott Skiles from the ranks of unemployed coaches. After three years of lottery balls yielded an impressive collection of prospects but no surefire means to a highly successful end, the Magic were fed up. They hired Skiles to win right now, development of young players be damned.
Is that the best route to a title? Probably not. But Orlando needed some legitimate reason for optimism beyond Nikola Vucevic double-doubles and the occasional highlight plays from its electric backcourt, and this new coach would provide it. Two weeks into his first season with the Magic, though, the wins – despite unsustainably poor performance in crunch time – had yet to come.
How did Skiles react? By making the kind of difficult move for which he was hired: replacing the gifted but inconsistent Victor Oladipo in the starting lineup with unspectacular veteran Channing Frye.
That was Nov. 24. One week later, Orlando has won four consecutive games with victories over the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Minnesota Timberwolves to move to 10-8 on the season. Oladipo has averaged 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in just 27.0 minutes since being moved to the bench, and the Magic have been as dominant defensively as their natural, burgeoning talent on that end of the floor suggests.
Will Orlando regress offensively? Certainly. Is the sample size big enough to render Oladipo’s obvious comfort leading second units viable? Of course not. And maybe most importantly, have Skiles’ eyes drifted too far from the ultimate horizon? Perhaps. Mario Hezonja’s exit from the rotation, for instance, seems laughably short-sighted, and Aaron Gordon’s minutes have been cut back, too.
But none of that matters for now. The Magic want to win, and this surprising lineup change – one we still don’t think is this team’s best – has propelled them to their longest winning streak in three years. And if it proves effective for the season’s remainder, could be the most significant turning point yet during Orlando’s long trip back to legitimacy.