Gosh, who’d have thunk it?
Before zeroing in on the Magic, I should note, in fairness, it’s hardly the NBA’s only dysfunctional organization.
Actually, as a former GM noted the other day, dysfunction is the rule, not the exception.
Take the Lakers.
They’ve been as sharp as anyone despite a sibling rivalry between Jim and Jeannie Buss, with father Jerry supporting Jim and former coach Phil Jackson supporting Jeannie, backed tacitly by Kobe Bryant, who all but shared a brain with Phil at the end.
The Trail Blazers are a monument to dysfunction looking for their fourth GM in four seasons as owner Paul Allen, surrounded by bloodless, Seattle-based Vulcan Corp. lieutenants, moans about losing money.
With a $13 billion personal fortune, five times that of Mark Cuban, who lost tens of millions and never uttered a peep, Allen spearheaded the movement to prolong the lockout to force a Draconian agreement on the players.
Unfortunately, no labor deal could make up for the team’s fall after years of corporate second-guessing and infighting in the wake of the injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy.
Take Atlanta, please.
As promising as the Hawks are, or were, the search for an owner continues after eight years of being bought, sold and seeing the new owners sue each other.
If Orlando’s organization isn’t as screwed up as the Trail Blazers and Hawks, the Magic is the one with the superstar center whose next move will reconfigure the NBA’s balance of power.
Yes! It’s just like their last superstar center, Shaquille O’Neal, who reconfigured the balance of power from his departure when he left to join the Lakers in 1996 to his last title in Miami in 2006.
The Magic organization isn’t as much dysfunctional as lame, with the DeVos family casually monitoring the goings-on from Michigan.
The man on scene was son-in-law Bob VanderWeide from the early years when Shaq and Penny Hardaway took them to the 1996 Finals… to the lost years after losing Shaq… to their rebirth, after lucking into another No. 1 pick who became the game’s best big man.
The Magic didn’t screw things up with Howard, a unique guy with joy in his heart, a warrior ethic on the floor, a stubborn streak off it, and few clues in general.
The organization has been looking down the barrel of this cannon for years as Dwight signaled he was leaving as soon as his deal ran out.
The one the Magic screwed up was Shaq, who, for all his distress about being a whale in a goldfish bowl, wanted to stay, having built a mansion there—which he returned to every summer after leaving town—and moving his mother and sisters there.
Showing that ownership involvement doesn’t solve everything, paterfamilias Rich DeVos ran that negotiation personally.
Conservative and idealistic, his priority was running a principled organization. To him, that meant avoiding an unseemly bidding war, noting he told Shaq, “I want your heart, not just your body.”
DeVos also wanted to keep the price down, noting he would have to give Penny Hardaway, then ownership’s fair-haired young player, just as much in a year.
Unfortunately, that meant lowballing Shaq, starting with a four-year offer, increasing it only as the Lakers increased theirs.
At $99 million, Shaq turned the Lakers down–since his priority was getting more than Alonzo Mourning’s $105 mill.
The Lakers sent Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver—with the rest of the West going “No! No!” as GM Stu Jackson signed off–enabling the Lakers to offer $117 million.
The Magic, which could offer anything it wanted, matched the $117 million, pointing out its enhanced value with more up front and no 8% state income tax, like California’s.
Shaq, who obviously wanted DeVos’s heart as much as his money, bolted, turning out the lights on their four-year party in Orlando.
Amazingly, as Portland was once faced with an excruciating choice between a big man and Michael Jordan and years later, another one between Oden and Kevin Durant, the Magic is once again looking at losing the game’s top center.
Unlike O’Neal, Howard’s first instinct is to go.
It’s also Dwight’s second, third and fourth instinct. We don’t know if he has any desire whatsoever to stay… but to date, he has turned down all extension offers.
With Magic officials understandably strung out, VanderWeide admitted to having had a few glasses of wine at a party before placing a late-night call to Howard.
Howard’s people said VanderWeide had called in the early hours of the morning, under the influence, begging Dwight to say.
In any case, VanderWeide then resigned.
His replacement, Alex Martins, wasn’t a family member, but a long-time Magic retainer who worked his way up from team publicist.
With Howard’s family and friends in Orlando recoiling from the negative publicity, Dwight did a 180 at the trade deadline, opting in, with the team claiming that otherwise it would have traded him to the Lakers.
Amidst the rejoicing and talk of loyalty in Orlando, Coach Stan Van Gundy noted the whole thing would start over this summer.
It turned out even that was too optimistic, starting over within weeks.
Van Gundy had already spent four seasons dealing with Howard’s immaturity to help him realize his potential.
When Van Gundy arrived, Howard’s repertoire consisted of dunks. Now he shoots jump hooks with both hands, knocks down the occasional mid-range jumper and has been the Defensive Player of the Year the last three seasons.
Dwight fought Stan Van Gundy every inch of the way, as when he criticized the coach’s game plan after the Magic fell behind the Celtics, 3-2, in their second-round series in 2009.
This was taken as a death knell… whereupon Orlando won Games 6-7, then upended LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the East Finals, before the Lakers took the Magic out in five games.
The Finals turned on Game 2 in Staples Center where Van Gundy diagrammed an inbounds play that sucked in Bryant, who chased the ball and lost his man, Courtney Lee, who then missed the layup that would have tied the series, 1-1, going back to Orlando.
“Just a hell of a play by a hell of a coach,” said Bryant.
Unfortunately for the Magic, that was as good as it got.
The Lakers then polished them off.
GM Otis Smith let Hedo Turkoglu walk because he wanted too much, and traded for Vince Carter, then took Turkoglu back—making $9 million per—to get rid of Carter.
Amazingly, they continued on their improbable way with Dwight continuing to roll his eyes at Stan and the team winning 59 and then 52 the last two seasons.
Despite this season’s din of distractions that saw them start 12-9, they were 22-13 at the trade deadline when Dwight did his U-turn.
After that, things went back to normal, with Dwight and fellow co-captain Jameer Nelson making a show of not joining the huddle in a March 28 wipeout in New York.
Now with everyone focused on changes Dwight would need to stay, it wasn’t forgotten like all his other displays of insubordination.
Finally, Van Gundy, noting he hated BS more than anything, said someone at “the top” of the organization told him Howard wanted him fired.
Van Gundy has since been pilloried for not keeping Howard’s secret and hurting Dwight’s feelings.
Van Gundy, undone by O’Neal in Miami—prompting Shaq, now a TV commentator to note he couldn’t discuss details of their relationship—took this job determined to do what he thought best and let the chips fall where they would.
It was remarkable that Stan, the no-BS guy, took Dwight’s this long, and the only reason they accomplished as much and lasted as long.
Van Gundy and Otis Smith are now dead men walking, with Howard yet to show he won’t put them through this all over again next season.
The answer is clear, if painful: Trade him this summer unless he extends.
Not that they’re the only franchise like this, but the Magic didn’t get here by knowing which way is up.