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Magic pose many challenges for new coach Scott Skiles

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The Orlando Magic open the 2015-16 NBA season at home against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night. Realistic expectations do not envision the Magic playing basketball into late May. Fans would be happy with breaking even.

Since parting ways with Coach Stan Van Gundy after their playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers in 2012, there has been little to cheer about at the Amway Center. For those fans demanding Van Gundy’s ouster at the time, the message is clear; be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

Enter Jacque Vaughn. During his 2½ seasons in Orlando, the Magic lost 158 out of 216 games until he was fired on Feb. 5. Scott Skiles gets his shot to show what he can do beginning Wednesday night.

Skiles has history with the Magic. Selected in the NBA Expansion Draft, he was there from the beginning as Orlando fielded an NBA team for the first time in 1989.

The Magic went 18-64 that first year, a record similar to those of the past three years. By the time Skiles moved on, Orlando was a playoff team. Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and a few others had something to do with that.

One of the first missions of the new head coach is to instill a culture of defense on this team. He has a track record of taking Chicago and Milwaukee to the post season doing just that. Last year, the Magic ranked near the very bottom in several defensive categories.

“We have a bunch of willing guys who want to do the things we’re teaching them,” Skiles said. “They have athleticism and youth and I don’t see any reason why we can’t be pretty good on that end.”

Another way to be a better defensive team is to rebound the ball much better than last year. Orlando ranked No. 25 in the league in that category. Limiting second chance points will be a key to staying in more games longer, even stealing a few extra wins.

The Magic boast a talented starting backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Nikola Vucevic, in his fourth season with Orlando, is developing into a quality NBA center, while Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon will start at the shooting forward and power forward positions, respectively.

Skiles and Magic fans are anxious to see whether top draft choice (and 5th overall) Mario Hezonja, a shooting forward from Croatia, can play well enough as a rookie to earn significant playing time.

Skiles also expects a much bigger impact from veteran power forward Channing Frye. After signing a big contract, more than 39 percent shooting is expected of Frye.

The NBA has not made it easy on Orlando coming out of the gate. After tonight’s game with Washington, the Magic host the Oklahoma City Thunder with Devin Durrant back in action.

Then, they are off on a three-game road trip against 2015 playoff teams Chicago, New Orleans and Houston. Returning home, the Toronto Raptors, yet another playoff team, visit the Amway Center.

That is a pretty daunting opening schedule, especially for a young team. In just two weeks, Skiles will have the chance to form his first opinions on who can help him get this team back to a playoff-caliber squad.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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