Antagonizing Shaq comes with the job

Adrian Wojnarowski
The Vertical

When Stan Van Gundy called out Shaquille O'Neal for flopping, he understood the consequences. Perhaps, he welcomed them. Shaq would rip him and rip him hard. He'd get personal. The Orlando Magic coach knew Shaq would eviscerate him and leave him looking like the fool.

So yes, O'Neal responded on Wednesday, calling Van Gundy a "nobody," a "frontrunner" and a "master of panic" in the playoffs. Yes, Stan Van Gundy knew how Shaquille O'Neal felt about him and he still leaned into a high inside fastball.

"He definitely knew that Shaq doesn't care for him," said a coach who has worked with Van Gundy. "He also knows that Shaq does this to every coach he's ever played for. At least Shaq did it out in the open this time and not behind Stan's back. That's what he did when he played in Miami for him.

"I mean, Shaq ripped Pat Riley and Phil Jackson after he was done playing for them. That's what he does."

As Van Gundy volunteered his critique of Shaq's flopping after the Magic's victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, the source of his motivation wasn't his old Miami Heat center. It was Dwight Howard, his guy.

Van Gundy had listened to Shaq's relentless ripping of his young center, and decided to make himself the easy target for O'Neal. He'd take the hit. Shaq has been obsessed with Howard. He hates that Howard's a young center in the city where O'Neal started out in the league, and hates that Howard wears a Superman cape, and hates that, well, Howard's the next big thing.

So, yes, O'Neal's been cruel in his dismissals of Howard. Perhaps Van Gundy started to see that it wore on Howard, that it had gone beyond comical to uncomfortable. Howard's a nice kid and he won't fight back.

"I respect my elders," Howard said Tuesday, refusing again to return fire on O'Neal. He was half-joking, but make no mistake: Howard has never been sure what to do with Shaq's animus. He isn't sure what he did to make O'Neal so angry with him.

Howard's a hard kid to dislike, but Shaq has gone to needless lengths with his criticisms. Van Gundy had to stand up for Howard. That's his job to protect his young star and he did it. Now, it's no longer Shaq vs. Howard. It's Shaq vs. Van Gundy.

"One thing I really despise is a frontrunner," O'Neal said Wednesday. "I know for a fact he's a master of panic and when it gets time for his team to go into the postseason and do certain things, he will let them down because of his panic. I've been there before. I've played for him."

Van Gundy did a terrific job in Miami, but his authority was compromised the moment Riley made that move for O'Neal. Riles wanted to coach again, and Van Gundy knew it. The Heat emperor made it clear to O'Neal that he reported to him, never Van Gundy. Shaq has always sold himself as the dutiful son of a military man, but he's seldom respected authority. Eventually, he undermines everyone.

This isn't about Shaq and Van Gundy, as much as it's about Van Gundy and Howard. Under Van Gundy, the Magic's young center has made extraordinary progress as a defender, a rebounder, a presence. Too many coaches spend too much time over-praising their young stars, fearful that public challenges and rebukes will cost them favor with the player and, ultimately, their job.

In Orlando, Van Gundy has had management's backing and that's meant everything to the way he has been able to coach Howard. He's been hard on him. Nothing's ever been enough for Van Gundy and it's driven Howard to become better and better.

Shaq keeps saying that Howard hasn't done anything, that he doesn't deserve his respect and maybe that's so. Deep down, Shaq knows that Howard is a far more athletic specimen at 23 years old. Howard will win titles, and he'll do it without tearing apart the accomplishments, the character, of those who'll play with him and played before him.

"There's no winning this war for [Van Gundy] with Shaq," the coaching source said Wednesday night. "For the people covering Shaq, this is him being funny. Stan can't win this one."

Where it matters most, he already has. Maybe everyone else is laughing at Stan Van Gundy, but he still did something that no one could do for the Magic: He stood up to Shaq, and stood behind Dwight Howard.