Denton: Magic Decide To Go In Different Direction

By John Denton
May 21, 2012

ORLANDO – Scouts and fans sitting courtside used to marvel at Stan Van Gundy’s ability to decipher Xs and Os and alert his Orlando Magic to every intricate detail of a play the other team was about to run just by looking at the alignment.

A workaholic who would study hours of game film, Van Gundy regularly had his team as prepared as possible to play. And that preparedness paid off for the Magic over the past five years in the form of a .641 winning percentage, five straight playoff berths and a run to the 2009 NBA Finals.

But it was Van Gundy’s inability to relate to his players on a personal level, specifically with superstar center Dwight Howard, that ultimately led to his undoing as coach of the Magic.

The same could be said on some levels for President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Otis Smith, whose tough-love style works for stretches, but showed signs of strain the past two seasons. Both Van Gundy and Smith were informed on Monday that they were being relieved of their duties with the Magic. After a long run of success in Orlando, Van Gundy and Smith lost their jobs because the Magic were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past two years and they didn’t relate to players as well as the franchise expected.

Van Gundy’s basketball-centric relationships with his players and Smith’s no-nonsense approach had great success initially, but ultimately the DeVos family and CEO Alex Martins decided the franchise needed to go in another direction.

``Stan, in my opinion, prepared our team as good as any coach that I have ever been around in 25 years in the business. But I also think that there’s another side to coaching,’’ Martins said. ``Did a lot of people get in disagreements over the course of the last five years about style? Sure, but that’s what happens in this business.

``But the most important part is that we feel that strategically (Van Gundy) was outstanding, but we were looking for more out of our head coach and out of our basketball operations (with Smith), particularly over the last two years,’’ Martins continued.

Van Gundy said via text message on Monday night that he was proud of the success that the Magic had over the past five years and he raved about working hand-in-hand with smith to make Orlando one of the NBA’s powerhouse teams for several seasons.

``I am very proud of what we all accomplished over the past five years and I look forward to whatever will come next,’’ Van Gundy said. ``The Magic lost a great man in Otis Smith. I am honored to have worked for someone of such high character and integrity.’’

Martins stressed that Howard, who had a well-publicized dispute with Van Gundy in early April, didn’t factor into the personnel changes made on Monday. Howard had surgery last month to repair a herniated disc and has remained in Marina Del Ray, Calif., during his rehabilitation. Martins said that during his time as CEO that Howard had never asked him to fire Van Gundy or Smith.

``I don’t think it’s any surprise that there were challenges in the relationship between Dwight and Stan. But let me say in no uncertain terms that Dwight did not want to be a part of this decision, did not want to make this decision and he never asked me to make this decision,’’ Martins said. ``Yes, their relationship was a challenge, but Dwight Howard never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy. Over the time that I’ve dealt with Dwight Howard, particularly over this last year, he never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy.’’

Smith, a member of the original Magic team in 2009, became the team’s general manager in 2006 and was promoted to President of Basketball Operations in 2010. Under Smith’s leadership, all six Magic teams made the playoffs, four won at least 50 games and three won Southeast Division titles.

But many of Smith’s moves the past two years failed to pan out. He traded Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas, who was released prior to the season via the amnesty clause. Smith’s signing of Chris Duhon and drafting of Daniel Orton didn’t work and the decision to reacquire Hedo Turkoglu has yet to pan out for the Magic.

Those moves – and also trading center Marcin Gortat – left the Magic shorthanded along the frontline and bereft of an explosive wing player who could create offense. The Magic were eliminated in six games in the first round last season by the Atlanta Hawks and lost in five games this season to the Indiana Pacers.

``Their record cannot be questioned and their success was well-documented. But we’ve determined that our basketball operation has not gone in the right direction over the last two years. It’s time for new leadership and a new voice with a different approach to building a championship operation,’’ Matins said. ``Making the playoffs is simply not good enough and getting knocked out in the first round the last two years is unacceptable. These decisions were not made lightly or based on one single factor. There were a number of factors over the last two seasons that went into these decisions. We simply came to the decision that we’re not on the right track.’’

Martins said he notified all of the Magic’s players simultaneously of the personnel changes on Monday. Martins said that notifying Smith – who he’s known for 23 years – and Van Gundy that they were being relieved of their duties was especially difficult to do.

``I’m sure it’s a lot more difficult for them because no one likes to be relieved of their duties, but like I’ve told everyone over the last few hours that this is the most difficult day of my career,’’ Martins said. ``It’s incredibly hard to relieve someone of their duties. The conversations that I had with Stan and Otis are two of the most difficult conversations that I’ve ever had to have. I had great personal relationships with both of them.’’

As for the future, Martins said the Magic will have a new GM in place by the NBA Draft on June 30. That GM will have a major say in who the next coach will be, but ultimately the decision will be made by the DeVos family. Hiring a GM and a coach with championship experience will be of the utmost importance, Martins said.

Some of the prominent coaches available are Nate McMillan, Mike D’Antoni, Kurt Rambis, Indiana assistant Brian Shaw, Golden State assistant coach Mike Malone and Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing. Some executives available are Donnie Walsh, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry, Kevin Pritchard and the Magic’s Adonal Foyle.

Of pressing concern to most Magic fans is the status of Howard, who waived the opt-out clause in his contract in March so that he could remain with the Magic. It is uncertain whether or not Howard wants to remain in Orlando and Martins said those talks have been ongoing for some time now. Ultimately, Howard must decide where he wants his future to be, Martins said.

``Dwight Howard has been a critical and important part of this franchise for many, many years. We’ve been in discussions with his and his representatives about his future with us. But I think the decision is up to Dwight now,’’ Martins said. ``Dwight needs to decide where his future lies. It’s been well-documented as to what our desires are and now Dwight needs to decide where his are.’’

Martins said the Magic are determined to get the franchise back on the right path to winning a championship.

``We’ll definitely go GM first and we will have input on the next coach, but the GM will drive the process,’’ Martins said. ``We’ll ask them to bring us a list of finalists and we will participate in that process. But make no mistake about it, these decisions are made by the DeVos family. They will be integrally involved in the process of hiring our next general manager and our next coach.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com

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