BOSTON — In a public quarrel between an NBA player and an NBA coach, the player will almost always win. Stan Van Gundy surely knew this, which is why he seemed unsurprised on that April day when he disclosed that a source in the Orlando Magic front office had informed him that star center Dwight Howard wanted him fired. Van Gundy was just as unmoved Monday, when the team dismissed him, along with general manager Otis Smith, in a purge that was long in coming.
There are few things as disappointing as when a team parts ways with its franchise player or coach simply because the relationship has become untenable. With so many adults in the room, someone should be able to step up and remind everyone that if they can get past their hurt foo-foos, they will all be better off staying as is.
The Magic were beyond that point with Van Gundy and Smith. More accurately, the Magic were past that point with Smith, whose questionable moves outweighed his good moves in six years as the team's top executive, and Howard was past that point with Van Gundy, who was known to be demanding of all his players, regardless of star power or contract size.
It was going to be awkward for Howard and Van Gundy to coexist next season, if Howard stayed true to his promise to opt in for the final year of his contract and to return for another year under the irascible coach. Their relationship was a constant source of intrigue even before a Diet Pepsi-sipping Van Gundy made his famous declaration, minutes before Howard wandered over to the media scrum, unaware of the ambush into which he was walking. The last time Howard suited up for a team coached by Van Gundy, the center shuffled off the court in Philadelphia, hunched over with a herniated disk in his lower back.
Howard and Van Gundy's relationship should not have ended this way, but neither will be adversely affected to a great extent. Van Gundy will get another job quickly, because he remains one of the top X's and O's coaches in the NBA. Any team that needs a schematic boost — the Los Angeles Clippers leap to mind, but knowing that franchise they will wait until right up to the June 1 deadline to decide whether to pick up Vinny Del Negro's option for next season — should call Van Gundy's cell phone today, but his reputation for grating on players will be a consideration. Van Gundy was the runaway winner in a Sports Illustrated poll this season that asked NBA players which coach they would least like to play for.
Doc Rivers of the Celtics and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs have shown during these playoffs that knowing the game is not enough to make a quality coach. Rivers and Popovich have had to balance minutes for their players due to injuries, age or both, and not surprisingly their players swear by them. A large portion of the Magic's players supported Van Gundy, too, according to reports, but the most important one seemed to be at odds with the coach on many of the important things.
Like Van Gundy, Howard will land on his feet, to say the least. He is up for a big payday whenever he decides to test free agency, but if he re-signs with Orlando he would be in for another two or three years of rebuilding under a new coach and GM. Howard's reputation has taken a hit, but all 30 teams would still take him in a heartbeat for the right price.
The Magic, who made a surprise run to the NBA Finals only four years ago, soon could go from having one of the five best players and five best coaches in the NBA to having neither. In the battle between this particular player and this particular coach, neither one lost. The only loser in this is the Magic.
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