The doubts have ended, and the Magic have begun an overhaul of their basketball-operations department that may or may not help them retain superstar center Dwight Howard for the long-term.
The Magic on Monday announced that fired Van Gundy and that they and Smith agreed to part ways, ending Van Gundy’s five-year tenure as head coach and Smith’s six-year stint as GM.
“It’s time for new leadership and a new voice with a different approach to building a championship basketball operation,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said.
Van Gundy’s dismissal and Smith’s departure follow perhaps the most turbulent season in team history, a season that began with a trade request by Howard and was marked by an undercurrent of tension between Howard and Van Gundy and Howard and Smith.
Many NBA observers believed the only chance the Magic had to keep Howard was to let Van Gundy and Smith go. Still, it remains unclear whether those moves will prompt Howard to sign a long-term extension to stay with the team beyond the 2012-13 season, the final year of his contract.
Martins said the team intends to replace Smith before the NBA draft on June 28, and that the new general manager will recommend coaching candidates.
Potential head-coaching candidates include Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw, Golden State Warriors lead assistant coach Michael Malone and former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan.
Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan might surface as dream coaching candidates, but they are considered long shots.
Van Gundy, 51, exits as the winningest coach in franchise history.
Van Gundy and his longest-tenured assistant coaches — Bob Beyer, Steve Clifford, Patrick Ewing and Brendan Malone — compiled a 259-135 regular-season record (for a franchise-best .657 winning percentage) and a 31-28 playoff record (for a franchise-best .525 winning percentage).
"[I] don't really want to comment except to say that I am really proud of what we accomplished over the past five years and I look forward to whatever comes next," Van Gundy said in a text message to the Orlando Sentinel.
A man whose rumpled appearance belies his keen basketball mind, Van Gundy cemented his reputation as one of the hardest-working, best-prepared coaches in the league during his time with the team. In 2009, he guided the Magic to their second NBA Finals appearance in team history.
But he occasionally annoyed veteran players with his demanding expectations, his demonstrative sideline demeanor and his blunt assessments of their play during press conferences.
“I don’t mean this in any way as a negative toward Stan, because strategically he’s as good a coach as I’ve ever been around,” Martins said.
“But there are other parts to the job in terms of relationships and how you go about those relationships, relating to players, relating to everyone. Strategically, we may not be able to find anybody better, but there is another part of the job that I do think that, as we look for a head coach, we’ll be focused on in terms of how the coach relates to his players and other coaches and others in the organization.”
By all accounts, Van Gundy, his coaching staff and their players deftly handled the distractions related to Howard’s uncertain future this past season. The team jumped out to a 32-18 record and seemed like it would cruise to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference standings.
But Van Gundy may have sealed his own fate on April 5.
That morning, with rumors circulating that Howard had asked Magic executives to fire Van Gundy, the tension between Van Gundy and Howard reached a boiling point. After the Magic completed a shootaround to prepare for a game that night, a reporter asked Van Gundy whether he believed Howard wanted him fired.
"I know he has," Van Gundy answered.
Asked how he knew that to be true, Van Gundy responded, "I was told it was true by people in our management. So, right from the top."
Howard was standing in a nearby corridor, out of earshot, unaware of the bombshell Van Gundy had dropped. The All-NBA center, eager to dismiss the rumors, approached Van Gundy, put his arm around the coach and ridiculed the television reporter who had reported the story.
Van Gundy eventually walked away, and reporters peppered Howard with questions about Van Gundy’s claim.
Martins said Monday that Howard “never asked me to make this decision.”
“Yes, their relationship was a challenge, but Dwight Howard never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy,” Martins added.
Still, early April’s episode infuriated Howard.
He would play two more games under Van Gundy, including a dramatic win in Philadelphia in which he experienced persistent back spasms but scored 20 points and collected 22 rebounds.
Howard ultimately aggravated his back again during a team practice, leading him to seek a second opinion from spine surgeon Robert Watkins Sr., and Howard never played another second for Van Gundy. On April 20, Howard underwent surgery in Marina del Rey, Calif., to repair a herniated disk and remove disk fragments. Howard remained in the Los Angeles area to rehabilitate his back and did not join the team for any of its playoff games.
Magic players clearly did not give up on Van Gundy or on each other. Even without Howard and without injured starting small forward Hedo Turkoglu, the Magic beat the Sixers at Amway Center on April 16, nearly beat the Boston Celtics in Boston on April 18 and pushed the Utah Jazz to overtime in Salt Lake City on April 21.
The team won the first game of its playoff series against the Indiana Pacers and lost the critical fourth game in overtime. Orlando lost the series in five games.
The playoff exit was the Magic’s second consecutive first-round defeat, and although the result may have been different if Howard had been healthy, much of the blame for the roster fell on Smith, 48.
Martins said he met with Smith on Monday and that Smith was uncomfortable with the idea of firing Van Gundy. Then, according to Martins, both he and Smith decided it would be best to part ways.
Smith did not return messages from the Sentinel on Monday.
A former Magic player, Smith served two seasons as the team’s director of player development before he and Dave Twardzik essentially served as co-GMs during the 2005-06 season. Their first big decision turned out to have disastrous consequences. They used the 11th pick in the 2005 NBA draft to select 6-foot-10 big man Fran Vázquez from Spain; Vázquez chose to remain in Europe and has never signed with the Magic.
Smith was promoted to the general manager’s job on May 3, 2006 and was promoted again to president of basketball operations (while retaining the title of GM) on July 28, 2010. His tenure was marked by aggressive moves that were bankrolled — often at substantial cost — by the deep-pocketed DeVos family.
In the 2008 draft, he used the 22nd overall pick to select Courtney Lee out of Western Kentucky, and Lee would go on to start 42 games as a rookie that regular season.
That year, after All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson suffered what appeared to be a season-ending shoulder injury, Smith engineered a three-team trade that brought veteran point guard Rafer Alston to the Magic.
Alston provided a needed jolt and critical experience, and with Alston starting at the point, the Magic upset the defending NBA champion Celtics in the conference semifinals and stunned LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals to reach the NBA Finals, where the team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Smith didn’t stand pat after the Finals loss to the Lakers.
With Turkoglu facing free agency and Nelson returning from injury, Smith chose not to re-sign Turkoglu and traded away Alston, Lee and Tony Battie to the New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.
Howard was stung by the trade of his good friend, Lee, and his mentor, Battie.
Anderson proved to be a steal, and Lee’s career has lost traction since.
But Carter was supposed to be the go-to scorer the Magic lacked, and he fizzled in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals.
On Dec. 18, 2010, Smith traded Carter away in one of two blockbuster trades.
Those trades came to define Smith’s tenure.
The Magic also obtained Gilbert Arenas, Smith’s close friend, for Rashard Lewis.
Although the Magic went on a winning streak shortly thereafter, both deals arguably failed for the long term.
Richardson has been a good locker-room presence and has hit several key late-game shots, but he has not been a reliable go-to scorer. Worse, Turkoglu has been up-and-down in his return, and his expensive contract is fully guaranteed for 2012-13 and partially guaranteed for 2013-14, while Carter’s was only partially guaranteed for 2011-12.
And Gortat, an agile center adept at running the pick-and-roll, was a valued asset in a league devoid of quality centers. He might have garnered a greater return in another trade.
Although the Lewis-for-Arenas deal opened playing opportunities for Anderson and Brandon Bass, the deal has, on balance, turned out badly for the Magic.
Arenas was hobbled by a leg issue that should have caused the Magic concern from the outset, and he never adjusted to a backup role.
The Magic waived him via the amnesty clause last December, but the team wound up owing him $62 million over three seasons.
In the meantime, the Magic have almost no salary-cap flexibility in the short term.
During the summer of 2010, Smith signed Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon to long-term deals, and neither player has met expectations. Last summer, Smith signed Glen Davis to a four-year deal and re-signed Jason Richardson to a four-year deal.
Smith’s eventual successor will be hamstrung by those contracts.
But although Smith’s tenure perhaps lacked long-term planning, he never shied away from making bold moves.
“Until we go all the way down, how can you condemn me?” Smith said in during an interview with the Sentinel in January. “For what? Trying? Condemn me. If trying is a sin, then I have sinned a lot, because I'm never going to stop trying. That's not my makeup.”
Now, the Magic will seek some definitive word from Howard about his future intentions, although it would seem that Howard will want to see who the team hires as its coach and as its GM.
Martins said team officials have been in contact recently with Howard and his representatives about what Howard wants for his own future.
“But I think the decision’s up to Dwight now,” Martins said. “I think Dwight needs to decide where his future lies. It’s been well-documented as to what our desires are. Now Dwight needs to decide what his are.”
email@example.com. Sentinel staff writer Brian Schmitz contributed to this report.
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