Over the next few weeks Orlando Magic Daily will be taking a look at the things that went right and wrong this season as Orlando ended its season with a disappointing first-round loss to Atlanta.
I am a Stan Van Gundy defender. Just have to get that out in the open because Van Gundy has become something of a touchy subject among Magic fans. In the interest of fairness, and to make sure I do not sound so one-sided or blind to the things Van Gundy did wrong. And there is a lot he did wrong which I will touch on in my next post.
But Stan deserves some recognition for what he was able to weasel out of the 2011 team -- in addition to his previous teams.
Consider everything Van Gundy had to coach through this year:
First he had a team that very easily could have succumbed to the problem of more and gotten complacent, expecting a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals as if it was a birthright. The Magic had that blowout loss to the Heat that seemed to color everything, but they started the year 15-4 and looked to be ready to be right in the thick of things. The Magic were rolling, winning six consecutive games to get there.
Then, sickness struck. Norovirus sent Dwight Howard, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus out of the lineup as they struggled to get healthy. The good times were over and the team never seemed to find its rhythm after the sickness struck.
The Magic took this lack of rhythm with them when they went out West and were embarrassed in Portland before finishing 1-3. Something had to change. And we all know something did.
After a three-day break, Smith pulled the trigger on those massive trades that completely changed the direction of the season. This happened not during the break after the West Coast trip but on the day of the first game after the team had been home. The Magic were still 16-9 at that point. Not a horrible record.
Instead of having those practice days to try and instill his philosophy, he was forced to do things on the fly. The Magic lost their first three games after the trades, and then proceeded to win a franchise-record nine games in a row. Orlando may have just been playing loose and free with Van Gundy not expecting much and trying to teach in practice in the moments he could. But you could not argue with the results expecially early.
Otis Smith gave him lemons (pun intended) and Van Gundy tried squeezing them into lemonade.
The Magic hit the All-Star Break at 36-21 good for 20-12 since the trades. It was not quite the rate the team was playing at before the trades, but considering Van Gundy has always been about the details and the foundation for those details are established in training camp. Van Gundy was working very much on the fly and trying to put things in when he can. It put Orlando behind the 8-ball.
The Magic were 36-21 after the trades. It was nowhere near the pace the team set before the nurovirus struck.
Yet somehow Van Gundy pulled something together. It was not much, as evidenced in the postseason, but it was something. Something more than you would think considering the talent that came in.
The big criticism of the Magic after their early postseason exit was that this was a team composed of too many similar stars. Unlike the previous iterations of Van Gundy's teams, this was quite literally Dwight Howard surrounded by four shooters. There were no slashers or very many guys who could get to the basket at will. Jameer Nelson prefers to pull up for jumpers. So too does Jason Richardson -- unless the runway was clear -- and nobody knows what Hedo Turkoglu is trying to do. A healthy Gilbert Arenas might have solved this problem, but he was never healthy enough to attack the basket.
The Magic were 26th in the league according to HoopData in shot attempts per game at the rim -- and unlike the poor free throw shooting, this does include Dwight Howard's attempts. Van Gundy could have done more to get the team shots at the rim, but that comes down to one-on-one play. And if you don't have the players for it, you don't have the players for it.
Despite that, Basketball-Reference still pegged the Magic with an expected 56 wins, good for fifth in the year. This says the team underperformed, because their statistics suggest Orlando should have been better.
Like in the postseason, Van Gundy put his players in the right position. It was the players who largely failed to execute.
Van Gundy took them all to task in his comments following Game Six and really throughout the playoff series. Van Gundy can't diagram the team putting the ball into the basket and expect them to do that. At a certain point it becomes the players getting the job done.
The Magic had no answer without a long, athletic defender to contain Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. Roster shortcomings do not fall on the coach. Van Gundy may have gotten all that he could out of the team.
Van Gundy continues to get criticized for his "oversimplistic" offensive strategy. But I continue to ask what else would you have him do with this roster? What other skills do these guys possess? The only problem Van Gundy had was occassionally going away from Dwight Howard too much to try (futilely sometimes) to get others going. And Van Gundy has never been shy about blaming himself and holding himself accountable when that occurs.
I ask what other coach can get this collection of defenders -- as well as the teams from the past three years -- to play at this high a level? Howard helps or, more properly, IS the defense and the reason for this success. But Van Gundy has utilited his players and Howard in the way that makes them a better defensive unit. Orlando still rated, despite all the changes and even Howard dialing back his aggression going after shots to protect himself from foul trouble, third in the league in defensive efficiency.
I give credit to Howard and Van Gundy for keeping the Magic in the conversation with their defense. Even as the offense sputtered in the playoffs, the defense stayed strong. There are very few coaches who could keep this team floating defensively after everything that happened and hte personnel they had.
Van Gundy kept the defense great.
Photos via DayLife.com.