This week’s drama in Orlando is one of the more bizarre NBA stories I can remember. I’m not surprised that Dwight Howard wanted Stan Van Gundy fired or that the two might not like each other. No, but Van Gundy’s decision to go nuclear and call Howard out at an interview session is pretty unprecedented. Players and coaches often do despise each other but there is a thin layer of civility (at least in front of the public) that tethers everyone to reality. Why and how did this happen? Of course, the public does not have all the information behind the scenes here but I think we have enough facts to a least breakdown this whole affair and draw some reasonable conclusions.
First, let’s breakdown the facts that seem undisputed:
-The Magic seem to have stalled out as a title contender the last few years. They are good but not great and have some bad contracts, notably Hedo Turkoglu (whom they re-acquired and gave up Martin Gortat to do it). Turkoglu is not really tradeable unless you take back another bad or worse contract or he is packaged with a really good player (like Howard). They plenty of other bad smaller deals too (Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson).
-Howard, as a pending free agent before the season, told Orlando he was not going to re-sign and he wanted to be traded, preferably to the New Jersey Nets.
-The Magic decided to hold onto Howard in the not entirely unreasonable hope that the Magic played very well this year he might stay with backup plan that they could also wait until the trade deadline and make a deal at that time if the situation was hopeless.
-Once again, the Magic looked pretty good (but not great) at the deadline. Orlando is limbo since they are good enough to keep him but they are a longshot to win it all. At the deadline, Howard first suggests he should not be traded because he might re-sign, even though all indications are that he will be gone at the end of the year. Some thought Howard was angling to avoid a trade because the Nets were going nowhere this year and he could always sign with them at the end of the season. In that case, the Nets would have Howard and get to keep the tons of assets needed to acquire Howard in a trade. This would be a bit underhanded because Howard’s public statements put pressure on Orlando to keep him when, privately, he likely had no such intention, screwing the Magic out of an ability to get value for him. After much uproar and some unspecified discussions with management, Howard somehow agrees to delay his free agency one more year and the Magic cling to the hope they get hot and knock off the Heat and Bulls and get to the Finals. If not, the Magic go through the same uncertainty with Howard next year.
-Things seem hunky dory enough after the deadline but the Magic struggled to a 5-8 record and Howard missed some time with back spasms. It is at this point, Van Gundy calls out Howard for continually trying to get him fired over the last year.
-This weekend, GM Otis Smith states that, as far as Smith knows, Howard never tried to get Smith to fire Van Gundy.
There are the publicly available facts. Something does seem to be missing here. Players try to get coaches fired all the time. Magic Johnson helped Pat Riley get let go after several titles and the player and the players likely did the same to Van Gundy in Miami. Hell, Jeff Van Gundy spent the entire 1998-99 season being undermined by a management that was openly courting Phil Jackson during the season. So, Stan Van Gundy is obviously not naïve enough to be hurt by Howard’s angling for a new coach. Something had to set off Van Gundy. Either Van Gundy had a goal here or he was just tired and pissed off. It’s hard to think that this was calculated because publicly humiliating Howard probably would not make the team play better or help Van Gundy’s long term situation in Orlando. More likely, Van Gundy seems to have thought he was a goner and he wanted to go down making Howard feel some of the uncomfortable vibe that Van Gundy felt.
I guess, in the moment, what Van Gundy did felt really good. Howard was left standing there with a cheapish grin and an unconvincing denial. But this is a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Van Gundy guaranteed he will be canned at the end of the year regardless and now and future employers may question whether he can deal with temperamental stars. Backstabbing players are a common job hazard in the NBA and creating organizational chaos to put the players in their place is not what any management wants. And it’s not like Van Gundy was in a bad place. He had done a creditable job as coach and would leave the Magic as an above-average coach. Howard might not like Van Gundy but his substantive beef was not underperforming but the inability of Orlando’s front office to bring in the right pieces around him. None of what Van Gundy did will serve the goals of the Magic or SVG’s future.
As crazy as SVG seemed the other day, I was almost more astounded by Smith’s public denials of the statements. Smith said that he had no knowledge of a request from Howard to fire Van Gundy. This statement, while probably honest, leaves Smith in one of two places, and neither is good. Either Howard went over Smith’s head and might’ve also requested that Smith be fired or Smith is lying. Neither situation is a good one for Smith or Orlando. Smith should have declined comment since nothing he could say would make Howard or Van Gundy look any better.
This begs the next question: Should the Magic have fired Van Gundy immediately after his press conference? This is a tough question. The statements and resulting chaos certainly were justification to can Van Gundy immediately. But firing Van Gundy might only put more blood on Howard’s hands. If Van Gundy is quietly fired in the off season, this would be much less jarring to all involved. Howard still seems like a bad guy on some level but not on the same level and the Magic don’t seem like they fired SVG only to keep Howard happy.
Despite this, I would’ve still fired Van Gundy immediately. Once he made public comments that should’ve been left in-house, he lost Howard and compromised everything the Magic’s goal of keeping Howard. Why do anything contrary to that goal now? Sure, Howard will look like a jerk but people will forget all this if he re-signs. The plan was to try to make a deep playoff run this summer to convince Howard to stay. Howard now despises SVG, which makes the playoff run less likely. Instead, they should’ve hired a splashy coach now and hoped to catch lightning in a bottle. The obvious candidate is Larry Brown. Brown is older now and still grates (much like SVG) but almost every Brown team starts hot. It’s a desperate plan but the Magic’s plan has reeked of desperation all season anyway.