Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
For Billy Donovan and Stan Van Gundy, it’s a tale of two stories for two head coaches that are in two different positions right now. While the Florida Gators are currently undergoing a rebuilding phase after winning back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball national championships in 2006 and 2007, the Orlando Magic are enjoying an era of prosperity not seen since the mid-’90s when Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal were household names. It’s no secret that Donovan and Van Gundy will forever be linked in Orlando lore after the drama that unfolded in the summer of 2007. Long story short, Donovan accepted then declined the Magic’s offer to become head coach after Brian Hill was fired and as a result, Van Gundy ended up with the job. The question is, how did we get here? How did Orlando become a powerhouse in the NBA?
Look no further than the man that “replaced” Donovan.
There’s no doubt that other people should be credited with returning the Magic to prominence, including the DeVos family (for paying the luxury tax), general manager Otis Smith, and others. But at the end of the day, Van Gundy is at the epicenter of this era. Van Gundy is defining the narrative that is unfolding in Orlando and it’s an interesting one, to say the least.
Laying the Foundation
Looking back at the Magic’s off-season in 2007 is fascinating because the events that occurred, at the time, were franchise-changing. The hiring of Van Gundy. The passing of a venue plan by the City of Orlando to fund a new arena. The signing of Rashard Lewis (and Marcin Gortat, too). And topping it all off, the Magic awarding Dwight Howard with a five-year contract extension.
But let’s go back to Lewis because he is a player that has had his career defined, somewhat, by Van Gundy. Many people forget but when Lewis was acquired by Orlando, almost everyone thought he was going to be the team’s starting small forward. That’s the position Lewis played in Seattle, at an All-Star level no less, and naturally, it was perceived that he was going to continue to play at small forward with the Magic. But a few days before training camp started, Orlando found out that Tony Battie needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and it was realized, eventually, that he would be forced to sit out the entire 2007-2008 season. The kicker is this: there was a chance Battie could have started at power forward for the Magic at the beginning of the regular season. At Lewis’ press conference when he was formally introduced by Orlando, Van Gundy said it himself that he felt Lewis was a small forward. However, with Battie sidelined for the year, Van Gundy’s hand was forced because the Magic’s options at power forward were limited. As such, Van Gundy made a decision — it would be one of many — that ultimately helped vault the Magic to the league’s elite.
Van Gundy started Lewis at power forward.
Playing at power forward wasn’t entirely a foreign thing for Lewis, given that he logged 14% of the Sonics’ total minutes at that position in his final season with the team in 2007. Starting at power forward … well, that was a different story. The main concerns that came with the prospects of putting Lewis at power forward was his ability to defend and rebound at the position but Howard, the NBA’s best defender and rebounder, and Van Gundy’s defensive schemes helped to mask some of those weaknesses. Ultimately, though, Lewis deserves a majority of the credit for making strides and developing the ability to defend the power forward position and, in the process, become a good defensive player.
With Lewis settled in and good to go at power forward, the next thing on Van Gundy’s agenda was to figure out the best way to utilize the unique talents of a 6’10” small forward that had been used primarily as a spot-up shooter in Hill’s offense. That player, of course, was Hedo Turkoglu.
Via Synergy Sports Technology:
|P&R Ball Handler||2006-2007||10%||101||1.00||95%||Excellent|
|P&R Ball Handler||2007-2008||25%||403||1.06||95%||Excellent|
|P&R Ball Handler||2008-2009||30%||410||0.88||79%||Very Good|
|Spot Up||2008-2009||24%||329||1.09||68%||Very Good|
*points per possession
What’s interesting is that before it was decided upon that Lewis would be the starter at power forward, no thanks in large part to Battie’s injury, some thought there would be a logjam at small forward (Trevor Ariza, Lewis, Turkoglu) and that Turkoglu may be the odd man out in the rotation for whatever reason. Looking back, of course, that wasn’t the case and Turkoglu remained the starter at small forward since he was a better fit in Van Gundy’s offense than Ariza.
So, with two 6-10 forwards at his disposal paired with Howard, Van Gundy unleashed a nightmare frontcourt to the rest of the league.
Reaping the Benefits
Questions that the aforementioned alignment — Turkoglu at small forward, Lewis at power forward, and Howard at center — may or may not work were quickly answered after Orlando started the 2007-2008 regular season with a 16-4 record, which included wins against the Boston Celtics (2008 NBA Finals winner) and the Los Angeles Lakers (2008 NBA Finals runner-up but a team that still hadn’t acquired Pau Gasol, at that point).
With Lewis at power forward, the Magic created a distinct identity on offense that has defined the team for the past several years. The 4-out/1-in offensive scheme. It is a strategy based on the idea of having an inside-outside combination, in which defenses are forced to pick their poison between the great inside player and the great perimeter player. Historically, many teams in the NBA have had success with that philosophy on offense (like the Houston Rockets in the mid-’90s) and Orlando is no different in that regard.
With Turkoglu at small forward, Van Gundy opted to put the basketball in his hands and made him an unexpected playmaker for the Magic. The newfound level of responsibility and trust invigorated Turkoglu and made him an oddball sensation among Orlando fans almost overnight. All of a sudden, Turkoglu became the Magic’s go-to player late in games and he delivered more often than not, hitting game-winning shots and adopting the “Mr. Fourth Quarter” moniker due to his ability to step up his production in crunch-time (even if he was inefficient in doing so). As a result, the 3/5 pick and roll with Turkoglu and Howard seemed to somewhat define the Magic’s identity.
With Turkoglu and Lewis wreaking havoc, Orlando’s system became so confounding to stop because of the myriad of matchup problems it created for opponents. At the apex of the Magic’s lineup quirkiness, Turkoglu and Lewis served as the ying to Howard’s yang (Jameer Nelson, too, but to a lesser extent) and filled niche roles both old and new. Turkoglu was the point forward, Lewis was the stretch four, and because both players operated around the perimeter, they made life extremely difficult for opposing defenses trying to combat what each of them were doing offensively. Last year in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers found out the hard way.
Maintaining the Success
Even though one of the main characters in the story has changed with the arrival of Vince Carter this year, Orlando hasn’t missed a beat and that’s a credit to the system Van Gundy has installed. Knowing that Howard is the unequivocal anchor on offense and defense, Smith and Van Gundy have done an excellent job of fine-tuning the roster to not only maximize the talents of almost every player on the Magic but to take advantage of the wealth of information the statistical revolution in the NBA has revealed the past few years.
Van Gundy is a head coach that is very receptive to the numbers and Orlando has benefitted from that fact. For example, it’s widely accepted that the most efficient shots on offense to take is the free-throw, layup, and three-pointer (specifically, from the corners). It’s no coincidence, then, that the Magic have the fewest field-goal attempts from 16-23 feet and the most three-point attempts compared to the rest of the league. Why? Because long two’s are generally the most inefficient shots to take. On the flip-side, Orlando’s defense is intentionally structured to allow long two’s and limit the same shots an offense should be looking for — free-throws, layups (or dunks), and threes. That’s why Van Gundy neglects the offensive rebound, because he’s more concerned with the Magic’s transition defense and wants to prevent opponents from getting those types of shots on fast breaks.
All of this simply means that, for Van Gundy, there is a method to the madness and it’s why the Magic are in a position to compete for championships for the foreseeable future.
Largely because of Van Gundy.