Howard-Van Gundy saga takes bizarre turn

Howard-Van Gundy saga takes bizarre turn

Published Apr. 4, 2012 2:36 p.m. ET

As surely as the sun rises over the Amway Center each morning and tourists flock to Central Florida’s theme parks every afternoon, rumors are certain to bubble up regarding Stan Van Gundy’s ongoing feud with Dwight Howard and how it affects Howard’s standing with the Orlando Magic.

Really, it’s been a way of life for the city’s lone professional sports franchise — one that has spent more time concerned with the ongoing saga of its star center’s future than its on-court product over the past few months.

So when a report came out Wednesday that Howard has demanded that Van Gundy be fired if the Magic are to have any chance of keeping him on their roster beyond next year, the news wasn’t so surprising.

What was startling, however, was that the Magic, apparently, were complicit with Howard’s overbearing demands. According to the initial report by Orlando TV affiliate WKMG, Van Gundy's ouster was "pretty much a done deal.”

And if it wasn’t already, it certainly is now.

Because what happened at the team shootaround Thursday, in advance of Orlando's nationally-televised game against the New York Knicks, can only be described as absolutely and utterly shocking and will surely spell the end of Van Gundy’s time in Orlando — and maybe sooner than later.

When asked about the latest rumors regarding his star center’s efforts to run him out of town, Van Gundy confirmed that Howard had asked Magic management to fire him, throwing his star player — who vehemently denied the report — under the bus and backing the team into a corner in the process.

“I know he has,” Van Gundy told a group of stunned reporters when asked if Howard had demanded his firing.

Van Gundy’s source? His boss.

“I was told it was true by people in our management," he said. "Right from the top.”

The latest report wasn’t the first regarding Van Gundy’s unstable future, and other rumors of unrest between Howard and his opinionated head coach have made news over the past couple seasons.

But it was the first to suggest the Magic have already decided to ax arguably one of the league’s premier coaches solely to placate their waffling star, and apparently it was enough to send Van Gundy — a pragmatic man who often struggles to keep his lips zipped — over the edge.

So, rather than let Howard stab his coach in the back behind the scenes, Van Gundy broke protocol, ditched the company line and put everything out in the open, for all to see. And I say, good for him.

Van Gundy is clearly tired of letting Howard run the show in Orlando, and if he was going to be fired anyway, he damn sure wasn’t going to let it happen without Howard getting any blood on his hands. So Van Gundy made it simple: “Dwight, if I’m going down, I’m taking you with me.”

As of Thursday afternoon, no official decision had been made regarding Van Gundy’s future, but the bizarre state of the current Howard-Van Gundy relationship has reached its apex, and one has to wonder whether the Magic can even let Van Gundy coach out the rest of the season.

And maybe that’s exactly what he wanted.

"I really don't give a damn about getting fired," Van Gundy said in March, when an earlier report suggested that Howard could have control over his future. "That doesn't concern me in the least. . . . If they want to fire me to please somebody, then fire me. I really don't give a damn."

Van Gundy also knows he won’t have to worry about being out of work long whenever the team ultimately decides to part ways. His dismissal will immediately make him the most desirable out-of-work coach in the league, and he’ll be candidate Nos. 1 and 1-A for any team in the market for a new head man.

He’ll be able to hand-pick from any number of available jobs and put himself in a place where he truly wants to be. Because it’s clear now that Van Gundy no longer wants to — or needs to — be in Orlando.

Even if the team was going to allow him to coach next season — something that seems like wishful thinking at this point — what’s to be gained for Van Gundy by sticking around? It’s clear that, unless Howard is traded this summer, the Magic are in for another chaotic season next year, and Van Gundy and his job security would be challenged, once again, with a hodgepodge roster built strictly to pacify Howard.

The shame is that Orlando will lose a great coach in all of this. Van Gundy has been one of the league’s top coaches since he was similarly pushed out in Miami, and what he’s been able to do in Orlando over the past five years, given the team’s constant battles with turnover and turmoil, is nothing short of remarkable.

Since taking the Orlando job before the start of the 2007-08 season, the Magic have gone 254-128 in the regular season, and only the Lakers (.707), Celtics (.695) and Spurs (.681) have had a higher winning percentage during that span.

Van Gundy led the team to their first NBA Finals in 14 years in 2009 only to lose two starters and gain the shell of Vince Carter the following summer. But even with a new-look lineup, Van Gundy coached the Magic back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

In 2011, Magic GM Otis Smith blew up the roster once again, and despite the massive mid-season shake-up and the emergence of Chicago and Miami as the new class of the East, Van Gundy led his team to its fourth straight 50-win season — the longest such streak in franchise history — and a top-4 playoff seed.

His reward? A lockout-delayed season full of ceaseless distractions as Howard’s future — his criticisms of his teammates and his coach, as well as his public desire to play somewhere else — unfolded on a national stage.

And through some flawed logic, Howard labeled Van Gundy as the problem — not the questionable trades and constant changes to the lineup; not Smith’s dubious long-term signings of second-rate free agents; not Howard’s own shortfalls and distractions both on the court and off.

“It’s not a matter of being committed to me, it’s a matter of being committed to the team and trying to do everything you can to help the team win games," Van Gundy said Thursday of his rocky relationship with Howard. "That’s all I’m concerned with. As far as the other stuff, I don’t think that matters. I don’t need love and support here at my job. I’ll turn to my family for that. I don’t need these guys giving me hugs and pats on the back.”

The next pat on the back Van Gundy receives will probably be a push out the door, but if the spectacle he’s made out of his exit says anything, it’s that a new opportunity somewhere else — and a chance to expose Howard for what he truly is — is just what he had hoped for.

"They haven't told me anything, and they don't need to," Van Gundy said of Magic management Thursday. "I'm the coach right now, and I'm the coach until they decide I'm not the coach. It's 12:02 right now. If they want to fire me at 12:05, I'll go home and find something to do. I'll have a good day."

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner