Well — Dwight won.
The Orlando Magic have announced that they’re firing head coach Stan Van Gundy and that general manager Otis Smith will “part ways” with the team. Only two weeks ago, the Magic were a playoff team, but their 4-1 defeat at the hands of Indiana pretty much sealed the deal. It’s even better that those losses came without Dwight Howard, who sat out the series due to back surgery, because it makes the import of the firing all the more obvious: the Magic chose Dwight over Stan.
It’s no secret that Van Gundy and Howard were in a power struggle for the team. It’s also no secret that Howard strung the Magic along for months and months while he considered whether he would leave in free agency. But throughout the whole process, the Magic haven’t so much as slapped Dwight’s misbehaving hand; Van Gundy’s firing only reaffirms that the Magic have bet the franchise on their charismatic, petulant, and enormously talented center.
What’s remarkable is how much control Dwight seems to have. Rarely does a player get this much sway in a team’s fortunes. Cleveland gave it to LeBron, and Kobe more or less has it in Los Angeles, but even Chris Paul was eventually traded by the New Orleans Hornets when it was clear things wouldn’t work out. By holding on to Dwight and firing Van Gundy — one of the better coaches in the NBA — the Magic are admitting that under no circumstances would they trade Dwight Howard, even if that means risking his departure for nothing in free agency. Dwight runs the show in Orlando; everyone else is just playing along.
Can this work? I mean, it hasn’t yet, not quite — the strategy of planting Howard in the post and surrounding him with three-point shooters got the Magic to an NBA Finals in 2009, but that was during a career-year from Jameer Nelson, which turned out to be a severe aberration. Without Nelson playing at an All-Star level, the formula has never been good enough. As annoying as he is, Dwight Howard has as much talent as basically any big man to ever play the game of basketball, and he’s a paradigm-shifting defender. At the same time, he has reportedly disgusted whole groups of teammates with his behavior. The parallels between LeBron James and Howard are remarkable; like Howard, LeBron had difficulties with teammates and coaches, and like the Cavs, the Magic cleaned house in hopes that it would keep their star around.
Will it? Probably not, because the Magic still have to hire a coach and a GM, and then they’ll find out that the problem wasn’t Stan’s relationship with Howard: the problem is, Howard doesn’t want to be coached.
Also, expect Van Gundy to get a call from the Knicks soon.