Denton: Plenty of Challenges for Stan This Season

By John Denton
March 17, 2012

ORLANDO – Informed earlier in the week that ABC/ESPN analyst Jon Barry had selected him as his top Coach of the Year candidate because of the way he’s guided the Orlando Magic through the rockiest of seasons, Stan Van Gundy picked apart the selection the way he would an opposing team’s game plan.

It started off with Van Gundy being as self-effacing and modest as ever. But the time he was finished analyzing the subject, Van Gundy turned reflective, introspective and deep in thought about all the Magic have had to navigate through this season.

``I would say that’s very nice of Jon, but it also shows that he isn’t the top analyst. (Brother Jeff Van Gundy, also an analyst) would be smart enough to not pick me as the Coach of the Year pick. We haven’t played well enough for anybody to say that,’’ Van Gundy said. ``There would be a lot of guys I’d put ahead of me and one of them I’m coaching against (Sunday) night.’’

Sunday night’s coaching foe is Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, one person who might be able to relate to the off-court sideshow that Van Gundy has had to deal with all season while somehow guiding the Magic (29-16) to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-most wins in the NBA.

Spoelstra, whose Heat come into Sunday night’s nationally televised showdown against Orlando at 32-11, had to figure out how to incorporate LeBron James and Chris Bosh in with Dwyane Wade the past two seasons. Van Gundy’s mission this season was to keep the Magic on track all while franchise player, Dwight Howard, had demanded a trade elsewhere just before the season. The daily rumor mill and the trade talks hung over the Magic for the past four months, distracting the team’s focus and making it nearly impossible to remain consistent from night to night.

Even the usually locked-in Van Gundy exploded last week when one frivolous rumor suggested that the Magic might be willing to fire their coach and their GM to appease Howard. ``If they want to fire me, I don’t give a damn,’’ Van Gundy infamously cracked.

Now that the trade deadline has passed and Howard has waived the opt-out clause in his contract and will (in theory) be with the Magic through next season, Orlando is breathing a sigh of relief. Just don’t expect Van Gundy to share in that relaxation after enduring what he feels is one of the most difficult stretches of his coaching career.

``Certainly in my NBA coaching career, there’s no question about it (being his most difficult year in coaching). For a lot of reasons, really,’’ Van Gundy admitted. ``Every year has its challenges and you learn to deal with them, but this has been the most challenging year ever.’’

With the NBA season shortened to 66 games and full practice days virtually eliminated because of the NBA lockout, Van Gundy has openly despised not being able to work with his team in drills and full-contract practices. Earlier in the year he said he felt like an AAU coach in that he has to ``show up for the games, travel to the next city and coach again in the next game.’’

But the lack of practice time is nothing compared to what the Magic dealt with regarding the uncertainty with Howard. Van Gundy hated that the breathless coverage and day-to-day focus was on the fate of one player instead of the team. And Van Gundy commiserated with other Magic players, telling them he could understand how their focus might stray knowing that they could be traded at any time.

Cracked Van Gundy just prior to the trade deadline: ``It’s hard to focus on becoming a better team when you are constantly wondering if you are leaving the team.’’

And for a coach who pours everything into games, a coach who dies a little with every loss, Van Gundy was most perturbed that there would seem to be more attention on Howard’s future than whether the Magic won or lost on a given night.

``The challenge here has been focus and trying to stay focused on winning basketball games and focusing on `team.’ Team has been a real challenge, but our guys have done a pretty good job of handling it,’’ Van Gundy said. ``From the outside, it hasn’t been about team at all and it’s just been about one guy. That makes it very challenging for the team and in the locker room because that’s not what it should be all about. But our guys have done a good job overcoming that, particularly in the last couple of weeks and I don’t know why. It should have gotten worse, but maybe guys just got used to it.’’

The Magic enter Sunday’s game having won four of the past five games. In the days leading up to the trade deadline, with trade rumors swirling almost on an hourly basis, the Magic whipped Chicago, Indiana and Miami – three of the best teams in the East. Up next are rematches against Miami (Sunday night on the road) and Chicago (Monday night at home). But the Magic can take solace in knowing they have already won two of three meetings against the Heat this season.

Quite possibly one of the reasons that the Magic have stayed on track this season is because Van Gundy hasn’t derailed things with his fiery temper and perfectionist ways. Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith talked to Van Gundy about toning down some of his sideline histrionics this season because of the effects those actions have on the players. Van Gundy has done just that, remaining relatively calmer on the sidelines and he has yet to pick up a technical foul all season.

``Some people say (he’s calmer) to me and I’m glad to hear it. It’s been a conscious thing where Otis and I sat down and talked,’’ said Van Gundy, who joked that he might go on a mini-rant soon so that he can get another free Ruth Chris dinner out of Smith. ``Otis is always good for me, talking to him, because I have a lot of respect for him and his perspective is good for me. What he said is in practice and in the locker room do what you do, but he thought at times in games my message was being obscured because guys were so frustrated with my demeanor on the sidelines. There are still times when I get upset, but a lot less. I haven’t throw a water bottle or anything like that.’’

``The thing I’ve done to the extreme is staying off the officials. I still say some things, but it’s not the constant baiting of officials that I have done in the past,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``We tried to address that with the team, too. We’ve had our games where we’ve lost it – at Indiana and we won – but overall we’ve been better and I’d like to think that part of that is I’m not adding to (arguing with officials). I’m nowhere near perfect, but those are things that I’ve tried to address.’’

Much of Van Gundy’s drive come from that push to be perfect – something he picked up from his parents when he’d bring solid schoolwork home and they’d want to know why it wasn’t better.

Sure, the Magic have been solid all season, beating teams like Miami (twice), Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers, but Van Gundy is convinced this team has greatness in it. Hopefully, he said, now that the trade deadline has passed and the Howard saga has been quelled for the time being that the Magic can achieve the levels of focus and consistency needed to contend for a NBA title.

``Record-wise, we have to be fairly pleased with where we are considering what’s gone on around here,’’ Van Gundy said. ``I don’t want to be too negative, but I don’t think our focus has been too great and we haven’t been too focused on getting better all of the time. But what we have been sometimes is resilient in games and over the course of the year. We’ve had some brutal losses – two to Boston and at Charlotte – but we’ve bounced back. So there are things I’m really happy about. I just want us to be more focused on an everyday basis to try and become the best team that we can.’’

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

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