Following a wonderful week and a half that saw the Orlando Magic beat both the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, and watch as All-Star center Dwight Howard announce that he was signing an agreement to not waive the early termination option to play for the Magic (or, at least, "play under his current contract") in 2012-13, Orlando has slid since Sunday. A loss to those same Heat, and on Monday night an embarrassing home loss to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in a game that saw Chicago limit the Magic to just 59 points. Again -- at home, no Derrick Rose.
The team is pretty well ensconced at the three seed in the East, set to play the up and down Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs' first round. Pretty good news on paper, until you realize that the Hawks still boast center Jason Collins, who has made a career out of shutting Howard down, and that Atlanta dispatched the Magic from the postseason in the first round last year. On top of that, Howard still refuses to comment on whether or not he'll re-sign a contract extension with the Magic this summer, leaving us all to wonder if the big man isn't just setting us all up for 2012-13 season full of uncertainty and whispered trade demands, especially because this Orlando roster doesn't boast many assets to trade in hopes of improving.
This is all the reason the team badly needs to commit to coach Stan Van Gundy (whose contract runs through 2013, like Dwight's) with a contract extension. Even though they won't. Even though they'll allow Howard to hold the team hostage, ignoring the idea that Stan Van Gundy might be the best coach in the NBA, and that his presence might be the franchise's greatest asset moving forward. Even more than an all-world center with MVP skills who is still a few years away from his prime, because that guy might take off in 2013 for no compensation. Without being as negative about Stan's future in Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel's Brian Schmitz seems to agree with me:
Stan and Dwight have a working relationship, but they aren't buddies.
They are polar opposites.
Stan is confrontational; Dwight is Switzerland.
Stan's fiery style can be perceived as negative; Dwight already is on the record for wanting Stan to change his attitude.
Stan can be a no-nonsense taskmaster; Dwight likes a little more fun and festive atmosphere.
If it would make Howard happier to have a new coach --- happy enough to sign an extension --- how do the Magic fire Stan without making Dwight look like the bad guy who orchestrated his exit?
That's the tricky part. If Stan is forced out after yet another first-round exit, anybody with half a basketball brain will point to the matchup issues with Atlanta (namely, Dwight Howard's inability to score on Jason freakin' Collins) and the fractured few years that Howard's impending free agency created. He will look like the bad guy, which as we saw during this whole trade deadline mess, is the last thing Howard wants.
The typical, last-ditch approach that teams usually take in this scenario is to come to an agreement with the coach during the offseason to part ways. The team hires a "players coach," a "new voice," who will come in full of cheer, preside over a hot start, but then flail a bit as the Magic fail in their attempts to approximate the (say it with me, loudly, because it's the truth) massive overachieving the team has done under Van Gundy's stewardship.
This makes Dwight uneasy, with all the losses and the blood on his hands following Van Gundy's semi-dismissal. This leads to a clumsy, behind-the-scenes trade demand. This then leaves the Magic shopping Dwight in a crummy market, as they tried this year, with Van Gundy's talents elsewhere and a roster full of overpaid and aging complementary parts left over.
Pardon my dismissive tone, but that worst-case scenario doesn't seem worth it, and it certainly doesn't seem far-fetched.
And pardon my talk radio lexicon, but if the Magic grew a pair and sent deserved money Van Gundy's way to commit to him for the next four or five years, it would send quite the message. It would tell Howard that they appreciate Stan's talents in place just as much as Dwight's, and that Howard can't be counted on as a franchise player if he can't be counted upon to take the heat when things don't go right. Howard, of course, wants none of this. Few of us do.
Van Gundy wasn't ranting and raving following his team's demolishing at the hands of Chicago on Monday night, taking responsibility and looking forward to the relatively long time off (just a game on Wednesday and a game on Friday this working week) to ascertain what went wrong against Miami and Chicago. Other than the fact that they lost to "Miami" and "Chicago," which quite a few teams tend to do.
Still, look at this quote about the Bulls, as used by Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen:
"Right now they're the No. 2 offensive team in the league and the No. 2 defensive team in the league," said Van Gundy. "You see those numbers, you're saying [they're a] championship contender."
Those were Chicago's offensive and defensive efficiency stats, heading into Monday night's game. That's an NBA coach -- it seems like just one of 30 -- using the sort of smarter, more telling, per-possession stats that fill up an NBA junkie's Twitter feed all day. Other coaches may use advanced stats, we know they do, but how many respect their team's fans (through the media setting) enough to utilize proper numbers like these on record?
The Magic need to covet Van Gundy, and extend him in the same way they're attempting to extend Howard. This would involve standing up to Howard, though, in a way the Magic just haven't given any indication that they have any interest in.
And Van Gundy, not unlike Howard, might be wise to consider his options here. Considering his talent, perhaps an extension in Orlando might not be the wisest move for his career.
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