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When the Orlando Magic originally hired Stan Van Gundy as their new head coach in the summer of 2007, as a fan, I didn’t know what to think. To be honest, I knew more about the Magic’s initial coaching hire that offseason, Billy Donovan, than I did about Van Gundy.
Donovan was just coming off his second consecutive national championship at the University of Florida. All I knew about Van Gundy, at that point, was that “he wanted to spend more time with his family” after resigning as head coach of the Miami Heat in the 2005-2006 NBA season after 21 games. Or something like that. I honestly didn’t know if Van Gundy was the right hire or not for the Magic, or if he was a good coach to begin with.
But after five seasons with Orlando between 2008-2012, in which Van Gundy compiled a .657 winning percentage, 31 playoff wins, four 50-win seasons, three Southeast Division titles, one Eastern Conference title (and NBA Finals runner-up), I came to find out that not only was Van Gundy the right hire for the Magic but that he was, or “became” to put it more accurately, one of the best coaches in the league.
As a fan, and later as a writer, I learned a lot from Van Gundy. He helped me better understand the nuances of basketball like never before in my life.
I learned the value of the stretch four
Who would have thought power forward Tony Battie suffering a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder before the start of training camp for the 2007-2008 NBA season would have a profound impact on the Magic?
Without a traditional power forward to pair next to Dwight, Van Gundy made a choice to start Rashard Lewis — Orlando’s prized free agent signee that offseason — at the power forward position, despite the fact that he was previously a sweet-shooting small forward with the Seattle SuperSonics.
It turned out to be, arguably, Van Gundy’s most innovative concept.
Up to that point, the league had never seen a power forward shoot an extreme volume of threes with proficiency. Yet here was Lewis, shooting three-pointers at a dizzying rate while players and coaches around the NBA were trying to adjust and adapt. Even a player like Dirk Nowitzki, early on in his career with the Dallas Mavericks, didn’t come close to attempting the amount of three-point shots per game that Lewis did.
With Van Gundy turning the league on its head and opposing teams trying to solve the stretch four puzzle, a new golden era of Magic basketball began.
With Lewis stretching the four, three things happened for Orlando. First, the Magic’s pick-and-roll attack became very difficult to defend. With opposing power forwards not accustomed to defending a stretch four on the perimeter, on many instances, Lewis found himself open behind the three-point line as Orlando’s ball-handlers executed pick-and-rolls. Second, with Lewis spreading the floor, Dwight got plenty of room to operate in the post. Third, and lastly, with Dwight doing damage on the low block, any double-team had the potential of resulting in a wide-open three-point shot for Lewis.
In essence, Lewis proved to be a vital part of the Magic’s ecosystem offensively.
I learned the value of the three-pointer
With Lewis as the head of Orlando’s fleet of three-point shooters, Van Gundy’s strategy became clear. Use the most dominant interior presence in the NBA (Dwight) to create open looks for Lewis and others on the perimeter. From there, Van Gundy utilized one of the most efficient shots in basketball (the three-pointer) to construct great offenses for the Magic. Not only that, but Van Gundy barred the long two (the most inefficient shot in basketball) almost entirely from Orlando’s playbook.
Critics of the “live by the three, die by the three” approach still remain. However, that didn’t deter Van Gundy from realizing the value of the three-point shot and firmly integrating it into the Magic’s offensive identity.
I learned the value of defense
Not only did Van Gundy leverage Dwight’s talent on offense to fully utilize the three-pointer, but Van Gundy helped mold Dwight into a once-in-a-generation type player defensively. With Dwight at his disposal and anchoring the defense, Van Gundy built one of the league’s best defenses that consistently put the Magic in a position to win games.
Despite the volatile nature of the three-pointer, which transformed Orlando into not only one of the most potent offensive teams in the NBA but also one of the most unpredictable at times, the defense was the Magic’s North Star. Its constant. Orlando’s success defensively was entirely predictable because it was entirely controllable. Van Gundy demanded consistent execution, energy, and effort on defense. And he usually got it.
Defense was Van Gundy’s currency in all aspects. For the players, it netted them playing time. For the Magic, it netted them wins.
I learned the value of the pick-and-roll
Throughout Van Gundy’s tenure with Orlando, he never had a great perimeter player at his disposal. He never had a LeBron James, a Dwyane Wade, or a Paul Pierce to throw out there to get the Magic a bucket when they needed it the most, particularly in crunch time. The closest that Van Gundy ever had to an established scorer was Vince Carter. But the Carter that Van Gundy and Orlando needed in the playoffs never materialized.
Instead, Van Gundy circumvented the issue by utilizing the pick-and-roll to great success with Dwight serving as the anchor. Guys like LeBron have the athleticism to create shots for themselves seemingly at will. For players like Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu, that’s not the case. They needed a little help. With Dwight setting screens and the Magic’s shooters maintaining proper spacing on offense, Nelson and Turkoglu got that help, which allowed them to create for themselves and others offensively.
Although Nelson and Turkoglu had the tools to be shot creators, Van Gundy gave them the equipment needed to succeed. In this case, the pick-and-roll. It’s what turned Hedo Turkoglu into the league’s Most Improved Player in 2008 and a household name overnight during the Magic’s 2009 Finals run. It’s what turned Jameer Nelson into an All-Star in 2009.
It’s what, along with their emphasis on three-point shooting and defense, became a critical part of Orlando’s identity.
I learned the value of a great coach
Yes, Van Gundy had his flaws. He wasn’t infallible by any means. He was stubborn. He was demanding. He was overly negative at times and relentless with his coaching style, though he learned to loosen up a bit over time during his stint with the Magic — acquiescing to Dwight’s wishes to be more positive and changing his sideline demeanor.
But at the end of the day, Orlando was almost always well-prepared, well-coached, and Van Gundy almost always knew how to maximize the talent he had at his disposal. The Magic usually overachieved rather than underachieved and that spoke to Van Gundy’s coaching acumen. In retrospect, Orlando pushing the Indiana Pacers to the limit in their five-game series in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, without Dwight mind you, can be seen as the last of Van Gundy’s many coaching masterpieces in the SVG-Dwight era.
For five years, the Magic were fortunate to have Van Gundy as their head coach and the same will be said for the next team that hires him.