The Magic fired coach Stan Van Gundy and split with general manager Otis Smith on Monday, the culmination of a season in which Orlando was ensnared in a long-running soap opera with Dwight Howard and made another first-round playoff exit.
”It’s time for new leadership and new voices,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a statement. ”The disappointment of getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs these past two seasons played a primary role in our decision, as we feel our momentum towards winning a championship has paused.”
Smith and Van Gundy’s problematic relationship with Howard weighed down the team all season after the All-Star center requested a trade.
Orlando went 37-29 in the regular season but was eliminated in five games by Indiana after a rash of late-season injuries that included back surgery for Howard. Orlando went 5-12 without him.
In early April, Van Gundy said top-ranking team officials had told him that Howard had asked management to fire Van Gundy as a condition for the center signing a long-term contract beyond 2013. Howard denied it.
Van Gundy coached the Magic for five seasons. He finished with a 259-135 record, going 31-28 in the playoffs.
Smith departs after six years. He was the architect of Magic teams that made it to the playoffs in each of those seasons, winning the Eastern Conference title in 2009.
The day after the Magic’s season ended with the loss to the Pacers, Smith said that he needed a few days to decide if he wanted to return, calling it a ”50-50” chance.
Van Gundy said at the time he wanted to come back and was hoping the ultimate decision would be about performance solely.
”When you’re talking a professional relationship, what matters – at least to me – is the results,” Van Gundy said. ”I don’t care if it’s a business relationship where two people at work are driving a business to make money, or if it’s a sports relationship, where the object is to win games.
”Those kinds of professional relationships should be based on results, not on do we like each other or whatever. So to me, the relationship was great. There’s a lot of wins and everything else.”
But both have acknowledged that this season was trying not only for the players but the organization as a whole.
”This season, and we’ve been digesting it all year, has been the longest, shortest season that we’ve had,” Smith said. ”But it’s something that you have to go through. Most sports franchises at some time go through a little bit of uncertainty and this is our time.”
Howard alluded to the strain in his relationship with Smith that dated to the previous summer. Howard said he and Smith didn’t speak at all for a week after he made his trade demand. The pair eventually did sit down to talk. Howard promised to keep private future dealings between himself and Smith.
Still, stories swirled all the way up to the trade deadline in March. Howard said he had given up his opt-out clause and would remain under contract through the 2012-13 season. Smith said at that news conference that had Howard not opted-in, trading him was a scenario he and upper management had laid out.
Smith certainly had success since becoming general manager in 2006, but he was no stranger to criticism. He signed Rashard Lewis to a six-year, $118 million contract in 2008, making the forward among the five highest-paid players in the NBA. The move contributed to the Magic’s payroll ballooning to the second-highest in the league.
Smith also raised questions the following summer, after a loss in the NBA finals, when he traded Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee to New Jersey for Ryan Anderson and 33-year-old Vince Carter. He also chose to not match an aging Hedo Turkoglu’s contract offer from Toronto.
Carter never really panned out and he was traded in December 2010 with Phoenix in a deal that brought in Jason Richardson and Earl Clark, but also the return of Turkoglu and his weighty contract from the Raptors.
Smith drew even more flak for a deal with Washington in which Lewis was traded for oft-injured Gilbert Arenas, who was in the middle of a $111 million guaranteed contract. His time in Orlando was also short-lived. The team used the new amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement to waive him and wipe his contract off their books.
Van Gundy was a fiery presence during games. He was not a favorite among referees and was annually among the coaches with the most technical fouls. In a March 2011 Sports Illustrated poll of NBA players, Van Gundy was voted the most annoying coach in the league by a wide margin.
Howard often joked about Van Gundy’s grumpy demeanor on the floor, but also acknowledged it was at times counterproductive.
This past summer, Smith met with Van Gundy and pledged to make improvements. The coach conferred with a Stanford psychology professor on becoming a better leader. There was surely one positive result – Van Gundy had just one technical during the shortened season.
Van Gundy arrived in Orlando in the summer of 2007 following the Magic’s failed attempt to hire Florida coach Billy Donovan. Donovan had second thoughts days after signing his contract and eventually went back to Florida. The Magic scrambled and wooed Van Gundy, who was in line for the Sacramento job but called Orlando his first-choice.
Then troubles reached the basketball court – first with Turkoglu’s facial fracture surgery and then Howard’s back surgery. Turkoglu returned in time for the playoffs but Howard missed the final 17 games of the season, including the entire series against the Pacers.