AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
I’ve gone on the record this season saying that I thought Stan Van Gundy was a valuable part of the Orlando Magic and also, recently, that they should fire him sooner rather than later. It occurs to me that these two positions maybe don’t make sense.
My thinking is as follows.
Either with Dwight locked up long-term or without Dwight at all, Van Gundy is as good a coach as you’ll find. But if the Magic must choose between Dwight Howard or his coach, they ought to go with Howard. I’m not rock solid in this belief because Howard has either caught a serious case of impetuous belle-of-the-ballism or has learned a very good impression of it, but I’ll try and flesh out my hunch that the Magic would be better off giving Van Gundy his walking papers.
The evidence suggests two things about coaching in this league: it matters more than the casual fan thinks and that it matters less than obsessive basketball bloggers think. I believe very much that the NBA is a coaches’ league, but I also think Scott Brooks helms the league’s best team. Look, you want Popovich or Thibodeau on your sidelines, sure. But there are relatively few coaching “geniuses” to be had and in our rush to fetishize technical wizardry, we forget that Doc Rivers used to be a punchline and that Avery Johnson took a team to the Finals.
The science of coaching fit is no more exact than that of player fit — coaches develop their skills and many do better with a certain type of team than others. Any rational observer agrees Van Gundy is the sort of coach who could fit most any roster and that most alternatives are weaker in a vacuum.
But the Magic aren’t facing a vacuum, they’re facing a choice: do you want to keep the league’s best center or a top-tier coach? It seems clear, given how talent is distributed between the player and coach pools around the league, that Howard is the easy choice here.
Most of the Magic fans or writers I’ve heard from, including smart fans I listen to and Magic Basketball’s own Nate Drexler, have expressed that they would rather see Van Gundy develop a roster than have the franchise continue to operate in the maddening limbo of the past couple seasons. Jettison Howard, they say, and get back to prominence by building Van Gundy’s team.
But this is a false dichotomy, isn’t it?
It’s fairly rare to be given a known quantity in the league and the Magic have a player who, more or less, guarantees playoff positioning and a national profile. Would Stan Van Gundy win a championship with the Sixers? Would the games even be on ESPN? Even rosters that are intelligently and responsibly built don’t usually get the opportunity to acquire a marquee talent and the Magic are more likely to stay near the top of the league by finding a coach who fits what is currently in place.
In a sense, I agree with others: I would like to see Van Gundy in place for a long time and it would be more interesting to root for a patient organization that values development. But the reality is that there is almost no organizational impetus to stick with Van Gundy.
Of course, this is pretty dangerous for the organization. What they’d be doing, essentially, is caving in to a player who seems unable to know what he wants and increasingly driven by a pretty juvenile self-centeredness.
It’s difficult to say what isn’t working with the Dwight/Van Gundy partnership except that Van Gundy pushes Howard out of his comfort zone and does not seem the type to cater to individual desires. I don’t have a lot of interest in trying to get inside players’ heads, but it sure seems like a player with Howard’s skill-set would want to stick with the coach that took him to the Finals.
Despite my railing against the perception of Howard as an offensive non-entity, his presence is still worth more than his production on offense and the team is built around that reality. I’m not sure whether Howard thinks he ought to be, or is capable of, dropping 40 points a game on post-up sets. If that’s the case, the organization has a rocky couple years on its hands. You don’t want a coach who caters to Dwight’s worse impulses, but Dwight seems not to want a coach who restrains his impulses.
All of which is to say that I think Howard, as an elite talent at the league’s thinnest position, is worth more to the organization than a particular coach can be, but that Howard’s unpredictability has the Magic in a bind. In the short term, keeping the player makes more sense than keeping the coach. If Dwight is asking for a blank check, though, getting rid of Van Gundy would be a huge blow to the Magic’s ability to compete.
I think I speak for all fans and observers of the Magic when I say that while I don’t envy the team making a choice between a superstar player and a cornerstone coach, the front office’s track record of smart and balanced decision making gives me the utmost faith that everything will work out for the best. Not.
I hate this season.