The Orlando Magic firing general manager Otis Smith made sense. The team rid itself of a person who made questionable moves regarding the roster and ultimately did not get the job done.
The writing was also on the wall for head coach Stan Van Gundy. The team terminating him signifies that priority number one is to keep Dwight Howard on the team. While the franchise center may not have asked Magic CEO Alex Martins to fire Van Gundy, as both have claimed, the poor relationship from the start had obviously deteriorated.
A choice needed to be made—Van Gundy or Howard—and ownership, right or wrong, went with the player.
The Magic are invested in winning with Howard. The front office makes personnel moves centered around whom he will work best with, both on the bench and on the court.
With Howard on the court, the team thrives on teams doubling the center and the ball getting kicked out to a bevy of shooters on the wings. They made the NBA Finals with a similar approach only three seasons ago, and even last season had the third-best record in the conference for most of the season.
Without him, the team struggles to find that space, evident in the playoffs against Indiana. Individually, the talent is mediocre. There are a few solid supporting players, but without Howard the roster is not good enough to contend for a playoff spot, let alone a championship.
The bigger issue is that the team is full of bad contracts that would be extremely difficult to maneuver. Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Glen Davis are locked in to contracts that are not friendly to trade.
So improving the roster will be very hard, with the 19th pick in the first round and the mid-level exception the best options to add some much-needed firepower to the offense.
If it will be difficult to improve on the individual talent on the roster, why not put in a system that will work to get the most out of them?
That’s where Mike D’Antoni steps in.
The 61-year-old coach is known for being an offensive-minded coach who loves to push the ball in transition and shoot from outside frequently.
The Magic is a team that, while Dwight Howard is the centerpiece, actually relies more on its outside shooting.
Putting D’Antoni in charge of the offense really would only tweak the way they got those shots off.
Things with the Phoenix Suns didn’t end up in a championship mainly because there just was not enough size or emphasis put on defense. But when Howard is healthy—which is most of the time—Orlando has the best center in the league who is the only player to win three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards in league history. From the ’07-’08 season to the ’10-’11 season the team was always a top-10 team in defensive efficiency.
New York didn’t end well for D’Antoni, but there were certainly some strenuous circumstances that ultimately cost him his job. In the beginning, there just wasn’t a lot of talent, and the salaries that were acquired in the previous regime would take some time to correct those mistakes.
There were a lot of injuries this past season, which always hurts a team.
The Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony, who is a talented offensive player. But the system that works best for Anthony is an isolation offense as opposed to D’Antoni’s ball movement and shooting offense.
Then when Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin were all on the court together, there were struggles in sharing the ball and not enough practice time for them to gel as teammates.
With Orlando, it is obvious that the team is at its best when it’s moving the ball and shooting three-pointers. They have a star player in Howard, but he isn’t necessarily the focal point of the scoring.
Bringing in D’Antoni would keep the Magic a shoot-first team. Howard would get open for more looks running the pick-and-roll. And if Howard misses games due to suspension or injury then Orlando would still be able to find open looks from beyond the arc—unlike in the playoffs—because the offense would push the ball in transition, resulting in fast breaks and more space.
Also if the team were to bring in D’Antoni, there is an increased chance they could sign Steve Nash with the mid-level exception to run their offense at least for a year.
After Jameer Nelson’s struggle of a season, the Magic organization was rumored to be looking to upgrade the point guard position. Nash was a name often linked to the team. He’s still playing at a high level despite his advancing age, and he flourished under D’Antoni’s system, winning two MVP awards.
He’s also done pretty well in Phoenix the past few years with a roster arguably less talented than the one Orlando has. And with Nelson rumored to be interested in declining his player option and becoming a free agent, point guard could be an even bigger concern for the Magic.
A Nash and D’Antoni reunion in Orlando would be interesting, but D’Antoni also has experience coaching a number of Orlando’s players. He worked with Quentin Richardson, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark in Phoenix, Chris Duhon in New York and Howard himself as an assistant on the USA team that won gold in the 2008 summer Olympics.
There’s no guarantee that D’Antoni is the best coach available or that it will work out in Orlando, but there’s no guarantee with any of the other coaches on the market, either.
There’s no guarantee that Howard will stay (and if he doesn’t then maybe the team should look into a different option for a coach), but he is on the team right now and all signs point to the Magic committing themselves to retaining him.
So with little flexibility, the best way for this team to contend may be to let D’Antoni run his offense with one that already is loaded with sharpshooters and finally give him a defensive presence to rely on.