Within the Orlando Magic, there were those suspicious of the possibility that Dwight Howard could've played the past two games with so-called back spasms, sources told Yahoo! Sports. Only Howard knows his threshold for pain, but everyone else knows this for a fact: His threshold for criticism is far less, and the possibility of becoming the bad guy for Stan Van Gundy's eventual dismissal troubled him far more.
Howard has been calling for the firing of Van Gundy since the summer of 2011, a source close to the coach said, and those demands have included the dismissal of general manager Otis Smith, too. The Magic locker room has been divided for most of the season – most siding with Van Gundy, some with Howard, sources say – and it had reached a critical mass with Howard sitting out losses this week to Denver and Detroit.
"The organization has allowed Dwight to set up the coach," a league source close to management and the coach said. "They have to have a reason to blame someone. If they win, and he gets fired, everyone will know it's on the player. Losing gives everyone the out when the season's over, especially Howard."
So Van Gundy walked into Thursday morning's shoot-around, a fresh batch of reports surfacing that Howard wants him out, with a decision made in his mind: No more lying. Van Gundy was done playing make-believe. He was done dodging, denying and, yes, lying. He told the truth.
"The only thing that I'm ever uncomfortable with is bull-[expletive]," Van Gundy finally said.
This set off a surreal scene, when an unsuspecting Howard strolled over to his coach, thinking he had dismissed the stories with the organization's running lie. Only, Howard found out that Van Gundy had liberated himself, told the truth, and left Howard stammering with his empty, embarrassing denials.
Van Gundy had a plan here. He understood that these Magic, losers of four straight, couldn't go on this way. He wanted it out there: Yes, I'm gone. So stop tanking. Stop trying to get me fired. When the season is over, you'll get your wish. For now, let's play. Let's try to win.
"It was that," a source close to him said, "or they just fire him, and it's over."
Van Gundy walks away with several millions of dollars if he gets fired. He's no hero here, but he is an honest man on the matter. Ownership has completely lost control here. Privately, Van Gundy believes that ownership gave Howard the power to fire him once he agreed to opt-in for the 2012-'13 season. Howard was as good as gone to New Jersey, had sent word over and over, and backed out in the last 24 hours before the trade deadline.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Van Gundy, Howard were on collision course ]
For the first time, Howard realized that he was driving down LeBron Street, realized the criticism that was coming his way for forcing a trade, and he hit the brakes. He slammed it into reverse, turned around and did the one thing that could give him instant gratification: Stay one more year, get a standing ovation in Orlando, and restart this circus next summer.
For the Magic, it is far more important to keep Howard over Van Gundy. It doesn't matter that Howard will someday regret pulling this power play. It doesn't matter that Howard hadn't accomplished much significant until Van Gundy arrived to coach him, push him, and help make him a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, an NBA Finalist. Van Gundy is great, but you have to pick the star over the coach. Always. Still, you don't do it this way. Unless Howard decides to sign his five-year extension, he doesn't get to fire one of the NBA's five best coaches. If he signs, well, that changes everything. That's business.
Yet, Howard doesn’t have the courage of convictions, and that got exposed Thursday when he couldn’t simply stand there and say, 'Yes, I’ve told management that I want someone else coaching the Magic.' It would’ve been liberating for Van Gundy, the locker room, the franchise, but it wasn’t surprising Howard remained silent, because ownership has created a culture where they’ll constantly cover for him. If he was willing to stay five more years, well, these are flaws that you’d live with for the best center on the planet. That’s basketball. That’s business.
When Stan Van Gundy walked out of that shoot-around on Thursday morning, several of his closest confidants believed he would be fired before the Magic met the New York Knicks on Thursday night. He didn't care. The truth set him free, and he had to admit to some associates, it felt pretty damn good.
This is a star league, and Howard had always believed that he needed to leave Orlando to have the stage, the platform, to be the biggest in the world. Well, he finally had it on Thursday, and he stood there, stunned, stammering and waiting for someone to save him. Everyone could've lived with this unpleasant truth, this behind-the-scenes reality, but Dwight Howard had to keep playing make-believe in the Magic Kingdom. He finally drove back down LeBron Street, pedal to the floor, and there's no turning back now.
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- Stan Van Gundy