When the Orlando Magic fired head coach Stan Van Gundy in an attempt to appease Dwight Howard, a lot of wannabe devil's advocates tried to call the move something other than what it was: an absolutely stupid move borne of shortsightedness and ignorance.
The devil's advocates thought they sounded smart when they insisted that the Magic had no choice but to dismiss Van Gundy. It would be more difficult to replace the best center in the NBA, they reasoned, than one of its best basketball minds.
The flaw in that logic was that there was no way Howard would even be in Orlando this entire season, and that firing Van Gundy solved nothing. As I wrote back in May, all the Magic accomplished by getting rid of Van Gundy was assure that they would go from having both a top five coach and a top five player to having neither in a mere four months.
While it is true that a star player has a greater impact on a team in the here and now, an elite coach has a greater impact on a franchise in the long-term. Doc Rivers has coached teams of multiple iterations that exceeded expectations in Boston (and in Orlando before that), with Paul Pierce being the only key player who preceded him at either stop. Jerry Sloan helped make the Utah Jazz winners for more than two decades, and his stepping down did not keep Deron Williams in Salt Lake City. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach won championships with multiple playing styles and disparate stars.
With Van Gundy at the helm, the Magic could have felt confident about developing a solid core around Maurice Harkless, Arron Afflalo and the three coming first-round draft picks. Instead, they are rolling the dice with a raw rookie in Harkless, an unspectacular veteran in Afflalo and a bundle of mid- to late first-round picks (all are lottery-protected) guided by a rookie coach in Jacque Vaughn.
Despite the accepted logic, a team should typically side with the coach over the player in a feud, except under two conditions. First, the team must be sure that axing the coach will assure that a player can be kept long-term. Second, the player has to be one of those once-in-a-generation players who all but guarantees his team will win a championship at some point. Examples include Michael Jordan and Doug Collins, and Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead.
Howard, for all his immense skills, fulfilled neither of those criteria. Anyone who thought dismissing Van Gundy would keep Howard in Orlando had simply smacked off the first tree in the forest and decided not to keep walking. Now Howard is in Los Angeles and Van Gundy is a free agent.
At least one thing hasn't changed. The Magic are still a mess.
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