Let's pretend for a moment that the atmosphere had sea-level density, pressure, and temperature all the way up to, say 500km high, and then would abruptly end in a complete vaccum. In such a situation you could have a glider orbiting at 501km high which could do a very graceful, low temperature reentry by simply slowing down the angular velocity and then using aerodynamic lift at, say, a 1:30 gliding ratio to drastically reduce the rate in which potential energy gets released. Or even have a completely vertical entry using a simple parachute..
With our real atmosphere though it seems that all reentries are at very steep angles and at very high radial velocities. Why? Is this a direct consequence of the low density at high altitudes, which necessitates a far higher velocity to reach the same lift/drag, and that high velocity contributes to increasing the temperature far more than the low density contributes to decreasing the temperature?