Stan Van Gundy is a man who has made mistakes. Clearly, this blanket statement alone proves me worthy of NBA analysis. Clearly, I’m hoping you pick up on my sarcasm. The now deposed coach of the Orlando Magic is now on the job hunt like most of America seems to be these days and joining him on the unemployment line is the Magic’s former General Manager, Otis Smith. Notice, however that the title of this piece refers to the “ascent” of Stan (and incidentally a pretty catchy Ben Folds tune) and the word choice is indeed intentional. For while Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic are coming off a relative trouncing at the hands of arguably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers, where they lost each game by an average of 14.5 points, Stan Van Gundy’s resume may read better than recent events would lead you to believe.
Here is a man with a career regular season winning percentage of .641, who has improved every team he’s ever coached, never missed the playoffs with exception of the ’05-’06 where he (pushed out or not) resigned from Miami, and led the Magic to the Finals in 2009. Now, the logical counter to that argument is to point out the tools he had to work with. A just blossoming Dwayne Wade and a productive Shaquille O’Neal in Miami and, of course, a center dominant enough on offense to warrant an offense specifically designed for him to pound the point or kick it out for an open three, and one of the best paint defenders this league has seen in recent years, Dwight Howard. As much as I empathize with the notion that Stan would be nothing without his players, can you name me a coach who would?
Before you go thinking I’ve reserved the front seat of this guy’s bandwagon, I would be remissed if I didn’t point out some flaws in a coach whom, to this point, I’ve been making out to be some sort of modern-day Adonis in the very, very, figurative sense of the name. The most important and, in some cases, toughest aspect of coaching on any level is managing a locker room. It is essential to success for a coach to keep their players engaged and on the same page with each other and the goal at hand. A coach must, in the simplest sense, show his players the big picture and help them take the necessary steps to make that picture a reality. For whatever reason, Stan Van Gundy seems to struggle with that.
Whether or not you believe Pat Riley pushed Stan out of Miami, it’s clear he left South Beach about as unceremoniously as LeBron James came to it. Shaquille O’Neal, who played under Stan in Miami referred to him as a “master of panic”, essentially saying that he was unfit to coach when the pressure was on. Whether or not that’s true is all a matter of opinion and not really worth breaking down, but while Van Gundy’s Magic have never gotten over the hump, I can honestly say I’ve never once considered the Magic of this era the best team in the East, much less the league, at the start of the season. Also, I can think of a great many coaches who’ve never quite reached the promised land despite their best efforts in Jerry Sloan, Rick Adleman, and George Karl. Am I putting Van Gundy in the same class as those coaches whom I hold in such adulation? No, but I am saying that there’s a compromise to be found between being a “master of panic” and simply not having the talent needed to win. More on that later.
Of course, most recently and perhaps most obviously, as we recently heard from Van Gundy himself, he and Dwight Howard were not all seeing eye to eye regarding the future of the Magic franchise, and it cost Stan his job. Make no mistake, Stan Van Gundy’s disclosure to the media of private talks within the organization concerning his future with the team and his relationship is an egregious error in judgment on his part and made for one of the most awkward moments in television since CNN anchorwoman Contessa Brewer mixed up her reverends. Stan Van Gundy’s passion and candor is as respectable as it is destructive and that moment, above all things, seemed to signify the need for change in Orlando. Up until a couple of months ago, I may have been inclined to agree with the collective majority and call for Van Gundy’s head on a platter. Again, in the very, very figurative sense of the phrase, but Orlando’s showing against the Pacers made me rethink my position and may sway yours as well.
Scribing you recounting of what went on in the series would be as much a waste of my time to write as it would be yours to read. I can only assume that if you dig roundball enough to peruse this less than condensed column, you’re largely familiar with the fact that the Magic lost in five games to the Pacers and, while impressively winning Game 1 on the road and pushing Game 4 to overtime in defeat, the Howard-less Magic were outmatched by the Pacers, who would go on to at least rattle the Heat. The results of those Magic-Pacer games were not so much what caught my eye, but the fashion in which Orlando met defeat.
What I saw, with the exception of Game 3, was a team full of desire and grit and while I concede that there’s no team that’s going to walk into the playoffs and roll over and play dead, the passion and heart I saw out of Orlando was not indicative of a team without their star player for the forseable future and at odds with their coach. Now, anyone who says (and there are a couple) that the Magic are better off without Dwight Howard is a little silly and likely a little bitter, but there is no denying that something had to be done to quell the fires of Dublin… I mean, Orlando and I do believe the right move was made, but that move was not the release of Stan Van Gundy, but the mutual decision to part ways with Otis Smith.
Think of it this way, Howard’s absence aside, every pregame telecast during the Indy/Orlando series was centered around how far Big Baby Davis could take this Magic team. You don’t have to be a student of the game to know that there’s something wrong with that outlook. I mean no disrespect to Glen Davis. I consider Big Baby and J.J. Redick two of the most quintessential role players in the league that any team would be fortunate to have come off the bench for them, but under no circumstance should they be the focal point of your offense. Consider that when Dwight Howard’s future with Orlando was still in doubt, it fell on Otis Smith make sure he surrounded Dwight with the kind of players that he would want to stick around and play with. Otis Smith responded by grabbing an over the hill Vince Carter, a lukewarm acquisition of Jason Richardson, a re-acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu (who was coming off two woeful seasons in Toronto and Phoenix), and a solid, but not game changing pick up of Glen Davis (which you can argue is a wash considering they gave up Bass to get him), not to mention losing Marcin Gortat in the process. Obviously, I named acquisitions in a pretty random order, but my point is that at no point did Otis Smith shake up this team enough to give Dwight Howard or Stan Van Gundy a chance of returning to the finals and it seems to me that Stan kind of took the fall for it.
Again, you can’t overvalue the importance of a coach’s chemestry with his team, so maybe this firing isn’t all as premature as I’m making it out to be. I’m simply humbly submitting that Otis Smith’s departure from Orlando is much more apt business decision than Stan Van Gundy’s firing, but if the past is any indication of the future, Van Gundy will be back on his feet in some capacity sooner rather than later. I dare say the Indiana series showed me that the success in Orlando had a bit more to do with the magic of Stan Van Gundy than I initially gave him credit for and the Magic’s shortcomings a bit more to do with lack of personel than something more personal.