As the Dwight Howard-Stan Van Gundy debate shows, in the NBA, power lies with those who attract fans
By Jason Reid,
Superstar center Dwight Howard wants the Orlando Magic to fire Coach Stan Van Gundy. We know this from Van Gundy, who was informed of the request by management. If Van Gundy hasn’t already cleaned out his office, he should probably start gathering boxes.
Magic officials announced Van Gundy would remain in his position through the playoffs, which begin in less than three weeks (the Magic is in line for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference). But the Magic is trying to persuade Howard to sign a long-term contract extension after the season. That’s bad news for Van Gundy.
For NBA team owners, choosing between the league’s best player at his position and a coach is an easy call. Here’s a hint: It’s not the guy drawing up plays on a dry-erase board.
To be fair, coaches have a definite role in their teams’ successes and failures.
Strategy, guidance, encouragement and discipline — coaches are responsible for it all. In the NBA, the best of them — Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers — are admired as much for their ability to inspire grown men as they are for making shrewd late-game adjustments.
For the most part, though, coaches are just employees, albeit highly paid ones. Superstar players, on the other hand, are de facto partners of owners. Their salaries exceed the operating budgets of public school districts. Lakers great Kobe Bryant tops the list at more than $25 million per season.
Their presence on a roster enables teams to increase ticket prices and attract the wealthiest corporate sponsors. Superstars bring prestige that helps sell everything from TV contracts to jerseys and hats bearing team logos.
Although Van Gundy isn’t at the top rung of NBA coaches, he’s respected within his field. He led the Magic to the NBA finals during the 2008-09 season (Orlando lost to the Los Angeles Lakers) and has an impressive .646 career winning percentage. Clearly, Van Gundy has had a key role in helping the Magic become a playoff power the past five seasons.
Van Gundy, however, hasn’t won a championship. The ring is the main thing that separates coaches. Players are less likely to challenge those who have won a title. There’s an unwritten understanding that coaches who have reached the highest peak should be followed, no questions asked.
Based on the individual nature of basketball, it’s easier for one player to have an enormous impact on a game. Michael Jordan didn’t need anyone to block for him.
Understandably, teams that have the best players are eager to retain them — and keep them happy. In the rush to please superstars, the authority of coaches often is trampled. And coaches understand how it works.
Former New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni resigned in March in large part because star forward Carmelo Anthony did not like the coach’s style of play.
Before the Knicks acquired Anthony from the Denver Nuggets last season, D’Antoni reportedly expressed concerns about whether Anthony, who prefers to play with the ball in his hands, would adjust to D’Antoni’s point guard-dominated offense.
Knicks officials, however, wanted Anthony, who’s among the league’s most gifted scorers. Voicing any opposition to acquiring Anthony was a silly move on D’Antoni’s part.
The Knicks’ brass needed a high-profile player to put butts in the most expensive seats in the NBA. D’Antoni’s beloved scheme isn’t what Madison Square Garden’s affluent crowd paid to watch.
And with Anthony making many clutch shots, it’s working out just fine for the Knicks. They are 11-3 under interim coach Mike Woodson.
The superstar’s supremacy may be accelerating, but it’s far from new. One of the NBA’s most celebrated superstar vs. coach battles occurred more than 30 years ago. Just two seasons after leading the Lakers to the 1979-80 NBA title, Magic Johnson, who would become one of the sport’s transcendent superstars, requested to be traded. Johnson, who thrived improvising in a fast-break attack, was fed up with Coach Paul Westhead’s methodical half-court offense. One of them had to go.
Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner, chose wisely: Westhead became unemployed. Johnson led the team to four more championships. The Hall of Famer’s efforts helped the Lakers become the NBA’s most valuable franchise.
In Orlando, owner Richard DeVos and Magic management have been roundly ripped in the media for catering to Howard (the former team president abruptly resigned/was forced out in December after allegedly drunk-dialing Howard and pleading with him to stay). The perception is that they’ve permitted Howard to hold them hostage in the hope he’ll ultimately choose to stay with the only team for which he has played during his eight-year career.
It’s true. Howard might as well carry a mask and ransom note in his game shorts. He’s definitely sticking it to the Magic.
They may seem clueless, but DeVos and his top officials are doing what they have to do: playing by Howard’s rules. They could wind up getting burned if he still walks after they grant all his wishes, but at least they’re in the game.
DeVos is still smarting from the body blow he absorbed after Shaquille O’Neal left the Magic in 1996. O’Neal went on to lead the Lakers to three NBA titles and won another with the Heat.
The Magic has already lost a once-in-a-generation player. DeVos would rather not see another future Hall of Famer walk on his watch.
Even though most owners won’t admit it, they’d probably do exactly what DeVos is doing. In a star-driven league, having stars on your team is a must. Owners can always find another coach.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.