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Magic's fate now rests with Howard
Two months ago, Magic center Dwight Howard sat at a podium at the Amway Center, with CEO Alex Martins to his right and GM Otis Smith to his left, and reveled in nearly an hour of praise for his decision to waive his early termination option and stay in Orlando for one more season.
Shortly after the announcement, head coach Stan Van Gundy blindsided Howard, the team, the fans and the media when he deviated from the team's pro-Howard script and told reporters in no uncertain terms that his star center — the man upon whom so much praise was heaped just weeks earlier — had asked to have him fired.
It was the beginning of the end for Van Gundy, who essentially signed his own pink slip during the brief post-practice interlude, and now, in the wake of a 4-1 first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, the team has made the inevitable official.
The Magic fired Van Gundy on Monday afternoon in a move that had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with the unlikely proposition of keeping Howard in Central Florida. The team, desperate to stay in their star's good graces with the future of the franchise on the line, tried their best to make some sense of a situation and a decision that defies all logic.
"Stan is one of the best strategic coaches in the current NBA, but the job requires more than that," Martins said, this time at the podium all by himself. "It's time for new leadership and a new voice with a different approach for building a championship operation."
But if you read Orlando's press release notifying media of the move, you'd wonder what, exactly, was wrong with the status quo.
The Magic dedicated more than 250 words to Van Gundy's accomplishments during his five-year tenure in Orlando, essentially highlighting all of the reasons he should have stayed — and all the reasons some other team will be incredibly lucky to have him.
Van Gundy made the playoffs in each year with the Magic and won at least 50 games in each full regular season. The last 50-win season and playoff series win in Orlando before Van Gundy took over came in 1995-96, when Brian Hill was in his first go-around with the Magic and Howard was 10 years old.
Overall, Van Gundy was 259-135 in the regular season, won three division titles and 31 playoff games — both more than every previous Magic coach combined — and reached the franchise's second-ever NBA Finals in 2009. Since Van Gundy took the reins, Orlando had the fourth-most wins in the NBA, trailing only the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs.
But that, apparently, was not enough to keep his job.
"Making the playoffs is not good enough and getting knocked out in the first round the last two years is unacceptable," Martins said, ignoring the decade-plus of futility that led to Van Gundy's hiring. "We simply came to the conclusion that we are not on the right track."
" . . . (Stan's) as good a coach as I've ever been around, but there are other parts to the job in terms of relationships, how you go about those relationships, relating to players and relating to everyone. Strategically, we may not be able to find anybody better, but there's another part of the job."
The "other part" of the job — at least in Orlando — is keeping Howard happy, and in the end, that's where Van Gundy, who doesn't kowtow to anyone, screwed up.
Howard doesn't want to be pushed around by the high expectations of a demanding coach or to be exposed as a whiner, Van Gundy wasn't afraid to do either of those things, and in the end he pushed Howard's buttons one time too many. So the Magic fired the best coach in franchise history because they didn't like him — or, more precisely, because Howard didn't like him — and that will remain the case regardless of how Orlando tries to spin the narrative.
"I don't think it's a surprise that there were challenges in the relationship between Dwight and Stan, but let me say, in no uncertain terms, that Dwight did not want to be part of this decision," Martins said, choosing his words with the utmost care. "He did not want to make this decision; he never asked me to make this decision. Yes, their relationship was a challenge, but Dwight Howard never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy."
Regardless of what the Magic say, though, this wasn't a move that had to be made because Van Gundy was some sort of generally unlikable grump. Van Gundy is a good man, and there is no evidence of widespread contempt for Stan in the locker room. If there is, it's certainly no wider than the chasm Howard created between himself and his fellow teammates as he dragged them by the hair all season.
There was no complaining about Van Gundy's personality or rocky relationships with players when Howard still had a few years left on his contract and they were playing in the Finals three years ago. And Van Gundy was the same outspoken, back-breaking, hard-nosed coach then that he is today.
The only thing that's different is that Smith blew up the roster three times — he and the team also decided to part ways Monday — Howard was a selfish, petulant, waffling baby for a season, and then he got hurt, and the team, predictably, struggled as a result. Van Gundy is a great coach, but, goodness, he's not a miracle worker.
The most potentially embarrassing part about all this, of course, is that even though Martins and the Magic fired Van Gundy at Howard's behest — or at the very least, at the urging of someone else, who was acting on behalf of Howard — they still don't even know yet if it's enough to keep Howard in town.
"Dwight Howard has been a critical part of this franchise for many, many years, and we've been in discussions with him and his representatives about his future with us, but I think the decision's up to Dwight now," Martins said Monday. "I think Dwight needs to decide where his future lies."
Back in March, when Howard agreed to forgo his early termination option, he thanked the Magic for "rolling the dice" by not trading him, and now they've taken it a step further. By taking the risk and firing Van Gundy, the Magic have lost a great coach. Now it's on Howard to make the Magic's gamble pay off.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner