Posted Apr 6 2012 12:47AM
They need a timeout from each other. Not a 20-second and not a full, either. A permanent.
There. That's it. Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard have been together five years and sometimes that's just too long for two strong personalities to stay in a foxhole together. Sometimes, a coach just gets tired of pacifying the star player. Sometimes, the star player just gets tired of the coach's system and the sound of his voice. If you didn't suspect this all season, you were convinced last night against the Knicks, when Howard didn't just mail it in, he passenger-pigeoned it.
Maybe both are right and both are wrong in this situation. Maybe there are no "bad guys" or "sympathetic figures" and maybe the coach didn't turn dumber or the star player more diabolical. Maybe they just don't see eye-to-navel anymore. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that happened. Actually, it happens all the time. Deron Williams, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing, the list is longer than the day the Magic just endured.
Like a grumpy old married couple arguing about the small stuff, maybe Van Gundy and Howard just grew apart and the Dwama over Dwight's contract provided the final pull needed to separate the two for good. That's what we know after an eight-hour stretch that can only be described as ... uncomfortable.
The solution? You know what's coming. The Magic will whack Van Gundy this summer, not just because Howard wants it done, but perhaps Van Gundy, too. And that's if it doesn't happen in the next five seconds, considering how often and willingly Van Gundy sticks his chin out and double-dares the Magic by saying, "if they want to fire me, fire me."
When it happens, then the Magic can find someone else to start fresh with a franchise player who has the franchise in a headlock. Because, until he signs an extension, Howard holds the sledgehammer and there's little the Magic can do unless they boot him too, or find another 7-footer who eats rebounds and blocks shots for lunch.
Look, Van Gundy is a solid coach and a refreshingly honest one; those are his strengths. He didn't do himself any favors, though, by outing his All-Star and spilling company secrets during a mad morning -- or was it a morning of madness? -- when he publicly said he was told "right from the top" that Dwight wants him fired. If that wasn't enough to make you squirm, seconds later he felt a half-embrace from Howard, who had no idea the coach just kneed him in the groin.
But Van Gundy's real failure was his inability to reach through to the one player on the roster whose opinion means anything, the player who helps him win games. Yes, Howard can be a diva who won't grow up, but isn't that why they pay millions to coaches in the NBA? To deal with these sort of players? And why there's a waiting list of coaches desperate to give it a try, because only 30 such jobs exist? Who's to say Van Gundy, who also had a falling out with Shaq in Miami, won't find a bigger headache in his next stop?
As for Howard, his image gets whacked, for whatever that's worth. He certainly won't suffer financially from his fractured relationship with Van Gundy, but we now know he's far from the innocent, video games-playing jester he sometimes pretends to be, either. Howard had eight points (going nearly three quarters without scoring) and eight rebounds against the Knicks just hours after that morning practice, a total cop out. He assumed the role of the pouting professional who put his bruised ego ahead of his teammates. He committed the sin of laying down -- which doesn't make him unique -- and then punctuated it with a silly clowning of Knicks fans who were giving the Magic the business on their own court in the 16-point rout.
"Next question," said Dwight, refusing to address the latest Dwama, and blaming his poor night on his recent injury.
What's really sad is Van Gundy and Howard have been good for one another. That's what's lost here. Howard's rebounding and scoring and defense all improved once Van Gundy became his coach. Also, Howard helped Van Gundy become rich and is the main reason Van Gundy will find another job in five seconds or less, after the Magic put him out of his misery.
"Dwight will go out and play, and I'll coach, and that's the understanding," said Van Gundy, speaking about the final 11 games of the season.
But expect those 11 games to be just as uncomfortable as the previous 11 hours.
Van Gundy is good coach who's a lot more sensitive than he wants you to know, who threw his best player and possibly his boss under a Trailways because he refused to "BS" the media. Howard is the best defensive player in the game who acts like a kid and -- if Van Gundy and our strong hunch is correct -- demanded his coach's head as a condition for his return next season.
These two don't deserve one another, and they'll get their wish this summer.
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Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
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