Nothing is certain for the Magic right now. Nothing.
The whole roster is in flux, the whole front office seems in flux. Nobody knows what is going to happen.
That makes Stan Van Gundy's job that much harder. How do you coach a team that nobody is quite sure will exist tomorrow? How do you coach a team when the linchpin of the offense and the defense could be playing somewhere else at any moment? How do you prepare for a season -- with less time to do so no less -- when the whole point of preparation could collapse at any moment?
These are questions Stan Van Gundy surely does not want to answer or think about, but questions that he must provide answers for before moving forward with the season.
By all accounts, Van Gundy is deflecting the Dwight Howard questions and moving on with preparing his team for the 2011-12 season. Van Gundy is practicing and running the team through its paces as if there were not some overwhelming and enormous press coverage of a single story relating to the Magic. It is his job to make the 2011-12 Magic the best team it can be. But those little voices (the media and fans) are going to be trying turn his and the team's attention away from the court and onto the individual Dwight Howard concern.
It is going to be a difficult fight for Van Gundy for sure. And the best coach in the team's history will have his toughest task yet as the head man for the Magic. How do you keep a team together when it is almost certain to be broken up?
Win, that is how.
No doubt the pressure is ramped up all around the Amway Center. Everyone is doing just about all they can to convince Dwight Howard that Orlando is a place where he can win championships and build a strong legacy (that includes some marketing opportunities).
And Stan Van Gundy is at the brunt of it as much as anyone. Otis Smith has replaced the players surrounding Dwight Howard dramatically during the last two years, the one thing he has not tried is the coach. Van Gundy has to recognize that if his team does not show improvement that the day he has long said was inevitable is coming.
The question remains whether Van Gundy will still be with the team moving forward both immediately and long term. Can Stan Van Gundy win a championship with an elite roster and can Stan Van Gundy bridge two eras of Magic basketball successfully? These are two questions Van Gundy has to answer. And it is something the Magic need to consider when they assess the future of the franchise, as Danny Nowell of MagicBasketball.net pondered last week.
"At his only other professional head coaching stop, Van Gundy took over a Heat team that was in a weird place. This was before Dwyane Wade was really Dwyane Wade (who, despite a strong postseason, posted just a 17.6 PER on the year), and what little talent the Heat had meshed so poorly the team had won 25 games the year before. In Van Gundy’s first year, the Heat — just to recap, with a rookie star and only one other player whose PER was higher than 17 — won 42 games and gave the team with most wins in the league, the Pacers, a bear of a second round series. This is Van Gundy’s most “rebuilding” year and, given that the Heat were just two seasons away from a title afterward, I think it’s safe to call it an unmitigated success.
"As the coach of the Magic, Van Gundy has demonstrated two things that I think would make him an ideal coach for a rebuilding team: a commitment to defense, and a willingness to play unorthodox ball to cater to his players’ strengths and limitations. Young players (remember those?) were developed as role players and given increased responsibilities as their skills developed, and under Van Gundy, this development has been rapid. Think about the fact that Courtney Lee went from being a non-lottery pick who was a spot player to having a play drawn up for him to beat the Lakers in the Finals — this is a coach who knows how to bring players along while negotiating their growing abilities and roles."
There is no doubting that Van Gundy is a strong coach. And he would be able to adjust his game plan and strategy successfully to fit a rebuilding team. He would probably do well with it too, because he is, you know Stan Van Gundy.
Van Gundy does a great job challenging his players and putting them in posititions to succeed. It is yet to be seen whether he can get over the top and win the title -- Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers outcoached him brutally when he was on the doorstep, but only a Dwyane Wade injury allowed Rick Carlisle to eke by him while he was coaching in Miami.
I do not know how much a change of coach -- especially mid-season or before the season -- would affect Dwight Howard's ultimate decision. Uncertainty is no way to convince a star to stay -- really, only winning is.
Van Gundy has done some amazing things for the Magic. In four seasons as head coach, he has not finished with fewer than 52 wins and has guided the team to the Finals in 2009. All the time it seemed as though his teams have over achieved and Van Gundy found a way to get the most from his team. As expectations raised, maybe the team did not live up to the lofty goals. they certainly have not achieved what Van Gundy believes they can -- and still believes they can.
There is no reason to question faith in Van Gundy right now. But he certainly has a lot of pressure to succeed with whatever team he is given this year. But short of Dwight specifically asking that Van Gundy get fired, the team will have to consider whether Van Gundy survives the Dwight Howard era. It might depend on the roster after Howard -- if Howard is traded. If there is a chance it can still win, Van Gundy certainly seems like the coach to try it out. If the team goes for a bigger rebuilding project, Van Gundy's tenure in Orlando might be coming to a close.
No doubt handling the distractions this year will be Van Gundy's greatest challenge. He has his focus squarely on the court (at least he says he does) and he is preparing this team for 2011-12. The season will be extremely challenging, the most challenging season of Van Gundy's tenure in Orlando.