Stan Van Gundy
We've come a long way, haven't we? Nearly five years ago, you were brought in with the hopes you could lead our perennial bottom-dwelling team to the playoffs.
You were a coach just forced out by the Miami Heat brass due to executive Pat Riley's decision to give coaching another try. We were a city with a franchise that was still reeling from the absences of Darrell Armstrong and Tracy McGrady.
Sure, we possessed potential, as we secured the No. 1 overall pick, Dwight Howard, but our roster was riddled with a poor, elder supporting cast. That didn't stop you, however, from accomplishing No. 1 priority at the time—in your first season, you led the Magic to a playoff berth and a Southeast Division Championship, our only division crown since 1995-96.
It was miraculous! The playoffs! We won the division against the powerhouse Heat!
Who would have thought a roster headlined by 22-year-old Dwight Howard, a recently acquired Rashard Lewis and undersized point guard Jameer Nelson could accomplish these major feats? Well, you did, Mr. Van Gundy.
After all, we didn't just make the playoffs; we were guided to an upper echelon 52-30 record, and the Orlando Magic community advanced to the second round for the first time since 1996, defeating the Toronto Raptors 4-1.
You, Coach Van Gundy, brought the Orlando Magic back to relevancy. Our city hadn't been in the forefront of the NBA since the days of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal on the blue and white hardwood.
But our glorious ride didn't end in the 2007-08 season. In fact, we ran all the way to the NBA Finals the next year. Behind perennial All-Star Dwight Howard and a band of cumbersome contract-carrying role players, the Orlando Magic were finally, dare I say it, a force to be reckon with.
Going into the playoffs that season, the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers were the heavy favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference. But if there was one thing you taught us, it was to believe in magic.
The memorable playoff run began with a demolition of the sixth-seed Philadelphia 76ers. Although, it was expected that we would crush this rebuilding franchise. We were a three-seed. While a humble position, it still meant we owned a talented roster.
Our next challenger was the Boston Celtics, an organization just coming off a championship. The Celts struck fear in the eyes of opponents. The team included three future Hall of Fame starters—sharpshooter Ray Allen, high-octane scorer Paul Pierce and trash-talking Kevin Garnett—and arguably the brightest young facilitator in the game, Rajon Rondo. To label this team dominant was an understatement.
Your Magic didn't back down, however, and took it to the heart of the Celtics. It was a hard-fought series with a surprising victor: The Orlando squad.
While defending champions, the Boston Celtics were not the best team in their conference, however. That title belonged to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. James, at that point, was already starting to hear the rumblings of why there were still no banners in Cleveland. Was he really "The Chosen One?"
James, hungry for a championship, averaged roughly 39 points per contest during the series, dominating the Magic swing-men from the beginning. It didn't deter your disciplined roster, though, and we would be led to the promise land—the NBA Finals.
Sure, we were obliterated by the Los Angeles Lakers, as the Magic went down easily in a 4-1 series, but we accomplished our first Finals win.
The next few seasons were seen as a disappointment. In 2009-10, we would advance all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals to be eliminated by the Boston Celtics. After that disheartening attempt, we would compile two straight first-round losing efforts.
But even with the spiraling downfall, our team, led by you, was still one of the most consistent in the NBA. We'd made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. In addition to leading our team to the playoffs for your entire tenure, you became the seventh-fastest coach to 300 wins and had the sixth-most wins in NBA history through 500 exhibition matches.
Even with these impressive accolades and our continued success in the regular season, your head was placed on the chopping block by a player who you made an All-NBA talent.
Before your arrival, Howard was a center still trying to establish himself among the elite big men. Many, including myself, thought Emeka Okafor, who turned out to be a major bust, was the right selection for Orlando with the first pick in the 2004 NBA draft.
You, however, didn't complain about the cards you were dealt and succeeded in turning this physically gifted athlete into a superstar.
Not only was there a sharp statistical increase, from 17 points and 12 rebounds per night in 2006-07 to 20 points and 15 boards this past year, but the young center was beginning to expand his game by adding a refined post-game.
Sure, one can easily say natural maturation had a large part to do with Howard's increase in dominance, but it is hard to fight the fact Howard greatly improved under your watch.
But even with everything you have done for the center, Dwight Howard put you and Otis Smith on the hot seat this season.
Did you have a decrease in success from earlier in your tenure? Absolutely, but there are many franchises still struggling to stay afloat in the association. You were our best coach and were wrongly singled out by Howard in our losing efforts.
This would ultimately cost you your job as coach of the Orlando Magic. But your legacy will live on, as you were undoubtedly our best coach in franchise history. The amount of success we experienced in such a short amount of time is the perfect testament to how valuable you were to the fans, franchise and city.
It is just a shame the Orlando Magic couldn't clearly see that.
On May 21, 2012, the day you were canned, Magic CEO Alex Martins had this to say in a statement on the matter.
"They both (Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith) brought die-hard dedication and an unmatched work ethic on a daily basis. Their success is well documented, as the Orlando Magic has had the fourth best record in the NBA over the last five years, and entering the playoffs this year the third most playoff wins over that period of time. The disappointment of getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs these past two seasons played a primary role in our decision, as we feel our momentum towards winning a championship has paused. We wish Otis and Stan all the best, and we look forward to taking the next step towards winning that championship."
The first half of that statement sounds like an introduction to a first-round Hall of Famer. What franchise in their right mind would fire a coach with that impressive of a resume?
A franchise driven by a player.
In addition, Martins says that our failure to capture the elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy this season was a one of the major reasons why you got canned. But were we actually in contention to win the championship?
After all, we were a sixth-seed without our best player, who was recovering from a herniated disk surgery in Los Angeles. If this was the test for Van Gundy to keep his job, I believe any coach in the league would have failed to live up to these lofty expectations.
This sounds like an excuse for the brass to fire you in hopes to appease their star.
In the next few paragraphs, I will bring up two separate points that are pretty harsh on the Dwight Howard debacle, but they are completely just my opinion.
The first is the total change in the way franchises are run since the days of Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and even Michael Jordan. Gone are the days when the coach is respected as the boss and the brass is given the sole responsibility of personnel changes. Now, the players have complete control of an organization. Actually, let me rephrase that.
Superstars have complete control over their respective organization.
If you want to make a trade, the GM must alert the franchise player. If they are determining the future of the coach, the star must be involved in some fashion.
The sad thing, though, is that the NBA is the only league this backwards.
This is a crisis the NBA must get control of. Now, with both Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy fired from the Magic, Orlando should just promote Dwight Howard to Head Coach/GM/Star. It seems like the logical solution.
While many are quick to put the blame on LeBron James for his persistent nagging for the Cavaliers to acquire a second star, much like Howard, we should actually "Dikembe Mutombo wag" at the new players gaining this vast power.
It would include players like Chris Paul and the aforementioned Howard, who had the New Orleans Hornets and Orlando Magic in the palm of their hands. These players didn't have to let their true emotions out at press conferences, as they could just alert the powers that be of their demands.
And that brings me to my next point—honesty.
During the season, executives from across the association have witnessed the constant whining and griping of the Magic center. From being dissatisfied with the roster to supposedly desiring the firing of his coach and GM, Howard has not shown his best virtues and qualities this season.
However, the one thing about his recent behavior that has a few up in arms is his persistent denial of his true emotions to the media. At least LeBron James was completely honest on his intentions when he wanted to leave Cleveland. Heck, James did a one-hour special on ESPN in front of millions to announce his decision to take his talents to South Beach.
Howard can't say the same.
Mr. Van Gundy, you, however, can. Many times during the season, including this infamous interview, you labeled the rumors of your likely termination as "B.S." You weren't worried about. You were so honest you even discussed Howard's discontent with you to the press.
Much like the "good guy," the "honest guy" seems to come in last once again, as you are unemployed and Howard is racking up the millions.
In the end, Mr. Van Gundy, Orlando can't thank you enough for all you have done. You have restored the Orlando Magic franchise and brought this once lowly organization back to relevancy.
Thank you, Mr. Van Gundy, for your major contributions.
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