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Shaun Powell

Jameer Nelson (left) and the Magic didn't quit on coach Stan Van Gundy (center) in the first round.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Magic go down fighting in Van Gundy's potential swan song

Posted May 9 2012 8:20AM

INDIANAPOLIS -- Not a single Magic player who didn't recently undergo back surgery tried to get Stan Van Gundy fired these last few weeks, as good a parting gift as any.

Usually, in these situations, when a coach is wearing a blindfold with a cigarette stuck between his quivering lips, the troops call it quits. They loosen the shoelaces, kick back, shuck responsibility and let the poor guy stumble on his own. They know how this will end, and how he'll take the blame anyway, so they don't even bother. Dead coach walking.

But the Magic, they played like they cared about Van Gundy and his plight and whether he was coming back. Which he isn't, of course, but that's beside the point. If there was indeed a mutiny against Van Gundy this season, the dissidents could most likely fit inside the can of diet cola he likes to sip. Provided one of them doesn't hurt his back (wink-wink) in the process.

"I love playing for Stan," said Ryan Anderson, the league's Most Improved Player. "I think he's a great coach. Yeah, he's tough, and he gets on you sometimes, but when he compliments you it's genuine. These guys really battled for him. He had us playing hard and gave us great confidence."

That is true. Anyone who saw the way Orlando hustled against overmatched teams would agree. That's all fine and swell. And yet, whether a coach stays or goes doesn't depend on the opinion of a role player or a sixth man or the third-string center. This league is about stars and keeping them happy. One voice carries more weight than several.

Therefore, should the Magic release Van Gundy from the final year of his contract, as expected, his otherwise respectable tenure unraveled because of one big problem: He could no longer connect with Dwight Howard if, as Van Gundy said, Howard tried to get him fired.

Van Gundy and the Magic drifted into the postseason darkness Tuesday, finished after five games against the Pacers, who took full advantage of Howard's absence. The Magic and Jameer Nelson (27 points) pushed hard in Game 5 before running out of steam in the fourth quarter and falling 105-87. A potential future employer for Van Gundy will take note of how the Magic did the best they could, given the circumstances, which will reflect well on him.

Just as well, they'll also notice how Van Gundy had a bad relationship with Shaquille O'Neal in Miami and a dysfunctional one with Howard after five years together. They'll rightly wonder if he can relate/suck up to superstars, who tend to be divas. Because in the NBA, that's a big part of coaching, maybe even bigger than the clipboard and all-night film sessions. Relationships, if they fail, are never the player's fault. Even if they are.

As usual, Van Gundy maintained an air of defiance about his job status after the game, because the man doesn't do phony very well, which makes him endearing and also what got him in trouble in the first place.

"I want to come back," he said, and of course there was a "but," this being Van Gundy.

"But it's not up to me. They'll make a decision when they're ready. As for speculation, I mean, who gives a damn? I'm not going to worry about it. If they want to make a change, make a change."

He gave props to his assistant coaches, which is a sure sign a coach is feeling heat, and disagreed with anyone who termed his issues as off-the-court problems.

"My family life is fine," Van Gundy deadpanned. "My wife likes me, some days."

In a sense, maybe he'd be better off somewhere else. The Magic have been in a free-fall ever since reaching the NBA Finals three years ago, and there are worrisome personnel issues. Besides Anderson, is there a player on the roster not named Dwight Howard that anyone would want? Plus, nobody's sure about Howard and whether he'll want to stick around after next season, the last on his deal. It's all strange and unsettling, this team and the season it just endured.

Make no mistake, there's no need to cry for Van Gundy. Sometimes, when a coach steps away and takes a year or two off, he becomes a better coach, at least in the minds of folks who forget how his last job ended.

As for the Orlando job, it could go to Brian Shaw, the lead assistant on the Pacers' bench, who had solid relationships with Kobe Bryant and Shaq with the Lakers. Or Nate McMillan, the former Blazers coach who also knows divas, as an assistant coach on the Olympic team.

Yes, the tricky task of learning the proper way to cuddle up to Howard will be some other coach's problem. If this is indeed the end for Van Gundy, his final memory of coaching the Magic won't even include Howard.

"Our guys gave everything they could over these last few weeks," he said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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