Stan Van Gundy Responsible for Magic's Downfall
In reaching the conference finals two seasons in a row, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has done something many coaches can only dream of doing. It is undoubtedly a great accomplishment, but I'm here to argue that it should have been more, much more.
With the Magic having lost in the Eastern Conference finals to lower-seeded Boston in six games, we should look no further than Van Gundy for Orlando's recent troubles. Just two weeks ago, doing so would have been insane. After all, the Magic were a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs, and looking every bit the premier team in the East, especially with Boston jettisoning the Cavs.
Fast forward a bit and we have a scenario previously unthinkable; Orlando's elimination. In reality though, the Magic's fall from grace has been brewing for some time.
When you dissect this team on offense, everything starts and ends on the three-point line. This season, the Magic broke the NBA record for a single season by making an astounding 841 triples (more than 10 per game). That's a good thing, right? Wrong.
In the modern era, the three-pointer has often become a cop-out for talented players (a la Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter) to roam around from distance, managing to stay behind the line for the majority of offensive sets. In Van Gundy's offense, multiply those effects tenfold. Despite the presence of Dwight Howard underneath, Van Gundy has instituted an offense so predicated on the three -- whether in transition or the half court -- that the Magic often pass up closer or uncontested looks. Just watch Mickael Pietrus or Lewis for five minutes.
As we saw in the Boston series, the Celtic defenders did a marvelous job containing dribble penetration and eliminating open kick outs to the perimeter. For three seasons now, Howard has played under Van Gundy. And even though he's an All-Star and All-NBA player, Howard has never had to consistently assert himself offensively because the Magic always divert to the three. As a result, we can clearly see why he can't consistently beat Kendrick Perkins or Rasheed Wallace in the post ... even without the use of double-teams.
Even in Orlando's Game 4 win, much of Howard's scoring came off of put-backs and dunks. In essence, Van Gundy has set up Howard to fail with an over-reliance on the three, and by not giving enough post touches to his best player down the stretch of games.
But Van Gundy's missteps with this team extend far beyond Superman.
Case in point: Rashard Lewis. A two-time All-Star long known as one of the more versatile scorers in the league with his ability to both hit from distance and score from either the block or off the bounce, the 6-10 Lewis has been relegated to a mere spot-up shooter in Orlando, parking himself 24 feet away from the basket uninvolved in the Magic attack.
What made Orlando so effective during its Finals run last season was its offensive balance. Hedo Turkoglu aside, Lewis was used far more in pick-and-pop situations and in the post with his dramatic size advantage over smaller three's. Now part of the blame unquestionably lays on GM Otis Smith, whose overzealousness to bring in the ball-hawking Vince Carter was a failed experiment from the beginning, but the coach is the coach, enough said.
Van Gundy still had an opportunity to right the ship against Boston by implementing plays for Lewis early and often, but instead completely abandoned it. Such was the case all year long. While the Magic continued to win rather meaningless regular season games, Lewis endured his worst NBA season in years. With the exception of his first two years as a pro, his 14.1 points and 4.5 rebounds this season were the lowest numbers of his career. More important, his 2.5 free throw attempts per game was also the lowest, and his 43.5 field goal percentage is tied for you guessed it ... his lowest percentage ever.
In the playoffs -- particularly against Boston -- Lewis became an afterthought in the Magic offense, averaging just 8.2 points, 1.6 free throws, 17.4 percent from three, and a 33.9 field goal percentage. Now that is bad -- real bad.
Of course some of the blame goes to the player. But in this case, a lot more goes to Van Gundy. Lewis has always been a streak shooter, the type of guy that needs to hit his first couple of shots in order to get his confidence. Van Gundy should know this. Just like with Howard, he should know to run set plays early for him, to get Rashard going right away -- especially with Lewis battling a viral infection early in the series that likely caused him to be fatigued late. These are the types of adjustments coaches need to make at this level of the playoffs.
And what about Jameer Nelson? More specifically, what was Van Gundy doing playing him such a heavy dosage of minutes? After he torched a sedate Raymond Felton and glacial Mike Bibby in the earlier rounds, Nelson was everyone's darling entering the conference finals.
Rajon Rondo, however, quickly changed this sentiment. In beating him in every way possible, Rondo has made Nelson look like the aging point guard Bibby appeared to be in the Eastern Conference semis. Nelson has never been a burner. He's a pace-setter, a strong-willed floor general who can score and moderately facilitate, but can also be scored upon.
In this series, he looked tired, sluggish and outclassed. Nevermind the poor shooting numbers and sub-par scoring ... "guarding" Rondo he was absolutely gobbled up, costing Howard to pick up bail-out fouls and forcing Orlando into the hands of the Celtics. Once again, the player deserves criticism, but the real responsibility falls on the coach.
I'm not sure if it's a matter of stubbornness or lack of adjustments or both, but Van Gundy had to realize he couldn't give Nelson this type of tick and expect to beat a team as deep and balanced as the Celtics. Nelson was most effective this season given manageable spurts. In 28.6 minutes per game, he shot 49.9 percent from the floor, 38.1 percent from three, and dished out 5.4 assists. Translation: Good production from a point guard in an acceptable role on a team of full of scorers.
So what does Van Gundy do? How about substantially increase Nelson's minutes to a robust 35.5 per game against one of the league's quickest point guards. In this series, Nelson's assists stood at a putrid 4.2 per game, while he shot frigid 42.7 percent from the floor and turned the ball over four times a game, while acquiring just one steal throughout the entire series, evidence to the fact that he couldn't keep up or even remotely contain Rondo. Nelson, of course, needed to penetrate the gaps more and put pressure on the Celtics' defense, but then again, when you're playing such heavy minutes (compared to his regular-season average), you're not going to have the same burst.
Van Gundy is generally regarded around the league as one of its better coaches. But with this team's talent along with the dominant fashion in which it disposed of Charlotte and Atlanta, merely reaching the conference finals isn't enough.
The Magic had a really deep bench that should have played more. Ryan Anderson has proved to be a steady spark in a far too limited role, and we saw what type of impact the energetic Brandon Bass had in Games 4 and 5. Bass may just be Orlando's hardest worker and best athlete next to Howard, and yet he didn't see his first substantial role until midway through the series, seeing double-digits minutes in Orlando's two wins before playing just five minutes in Game 6.
Following the Game 3 loss, Van Gundy said that "People, including me, have to step up and take responsibility for the way we played." He couldn't be more right. But now the season is over, and it's too late for Van Gundy to make the necessary changes in his lineup and overall strategy to help Orlando.
Then again, I'm not sure he would anyways.