In a move anticipated by just about everyone, the Orlando Magic have relieved coach Stan Van Gundy of his duties -- a line used in the team's press release that could have applied even when Van Gundy was coaching the team. In more surprising news, the Magic and GM Otis Smith have "parted ways." Smith may or may not have been fired, and if the former is true, it's a bummer of a fallout considering he appeared to adhere to the company line, which meant doing just about anything to keep All-Star center Dwight Howard happy.
There is no question that Howard is to blame for this mess. Smith's personnel misfires — wasting a lottery pick on Fran Vasquez, signing former forward Rashard Lewis to a contract that looked as legendarily bad the day of its inception as it does five years later, attempting to stay afloat by bringing in Howard-approved rotation parts at too high a price — certainly hamstrung the Magic on the court and in the payroll ledger. Howard, though, made sure the team was a living and quacking lame duck once he declined to sign a contract extension (claiming on record that he didn't know one was available, telling lies with a very telling lie) during the 2010-11 season, while complicating things even further with his will-he/won't-he trade demands during this season.
Orlando, frankly, made the right choice in dumping one of the league's finest coaches even if only for a last-ditch attempt to keep an immature and mercurial center. Though pandering to Dwight's whims won't guarantee he'll lead a team to a championship, much less stick around once his contract expires after the end of the 2012-13 season, the other way wasn't going to work. At least not with Van Gundy demanding Howard take responsibility for leading his team. And, at best, hiring a coach as demanding as Stan could kick in some guilt mechanism that turns his attitude around. So who do the Magic turn to?
To start, the team has to figure out if it is as sick of Dwight Howard as the rest of us are.
Though Howard famously demanded a trade prior to the 2011-12 season, he backtracked completely in the hours leading up to the trade deadline out of fear that he wouldn't come off as likable in the wake of a deal (smooth move there, big man), and more significantly the chance that he would be sent to a team (Houston, the Lakers) that he didn't want to play for. As a result, Howard signed a document guaranteeing he'd waive the termination option he had on the last year of his contract -- though he dismissed calls by local media to sign a contract extension that still remains on the table. Same as it ever was, as if we couldn't tell.
With SVG and Smith gone, do the Magic finally sign off on dealing the guy, destination be damned? Most teams are fearful of giving up too much to acquire a player who could leave as a free agent after next season, especially when the trading partner would likely be asked to take on one of Orlando's more onerous contracts. As the offseason wears on, though, teams can talk themselves into anything. We've seen it for years, and there will be options on the table for Orlando's new GM to move Howard. That call, though, has to come from the top — and Magic owner Rich DeVos has long been giving his GMs orders to win now and plan later.
There's no doubt the franchise is sick of Howard's machinations and destructive ways, but with no obvious trading partner on the table (even if the Lakers flame out, would Los Angeles even dangle the younger Andrew Bynum for a player in Howard that has made it clear — weirdly — that he doesn't want to play with Kobe Bryant?) and a Magic roster that will be a bear to try and break up (there are too many tough contracts to move, even while using Howard as bait), it looks as if the team will have to attempt to give retaining Dwight one more try.
Then, as it was when Van Gundy squeezed every last drop out of the rosters Smith gave him, hiring a great coach becomes paramount.
Rumors abound that Indiana Pacers assistant (and former Magic guard) Brian Shaw could be that guy. Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick said as much on Twitter on Monday afternoon, and the one-time Phil Jackson would-be successor certainly has the pedigree and know-how to work as the lead man on a championship team. Amick also reported that Golden State defensive guru (stop laughing) Mike Malone could be in the running. Malone is less of a flashier name, but his defensive acumen is widely respected, and he recently interviewed for the top post in Charlotte.
Both names would demand just as much from Howard as Van Gundy, and if the Magic are going fully in the tank for their superstar, you might see them decide to go for a coach with a more lilting approach. That said, even someone as oblivious and self-absorbed as Howard knows that he's the cause of this upheaval, even if he complains to associates about Van Gundy publicly detailing Howard's request that the team fire Stan last month. He could feel a pang of guilt and actually attempt to lead a Magic team and back off personnel requests.
Even with Howard's influence, everything starts at the top for the Magic. Their decision on Dwight will change the way they look at hiring the next personnel boss, and the team's next coach. If ownership is sick of Howard, and convinced that they can't keep him past 2013, then they'll go for an expert at cleaning house, like former Pacers and Knicks GM Donnie Walsh, and a head coach who will attempt to be as much of an asset as Stan Van Gundy was — while potentially trading Howard this summer so to avoid another season like this.
Van Gundy is out, though, which might be a clear indication that the Magic are still being swayed by the lure of Dwight Howard putting pen to paper on a contract extension.
In the interim -- enjoy your summer, Stan and Otis. In two completely different ways, you've fully earned your respective vacations.
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