If things unravel in Orlando, Stan Van Gundy could come available as a candidate to replace Phil Jackson. Here's why the Lakers should give him a close look.
If things unravel in Orlando, he could come available as a replacement for Phil Jackson. Here's why the Lakers should give him a close look.
A few weeks back, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that the Lakers are "intrigued by the prospect of hiring Jeff Van Gundy" if Phil Jackson, as expected and promised, motorcycles into the sunset after this season. JVG is one of the most accomplished head coaches not under contract to another team, so the Lakers' interest in him makes wads of sense. Should they decide not to promote Brian Shaw from within, instead preferring someone with previous head-coaching experience, they could certainly do much worse. Slowly and quietly, though, circumstances may be aligning to make available to the Lakers an even more appealing candidate: Jeff's brother Stan.
Astute readers will observe that Stan already has a gig, as head man of the Orlando Magic. Very true, and indeed his contract runs through the 2012-13 season. But it's not hard to imagine how his time in Orlando might be running out. After reaching the NBA Finals in 2009, the Magic have had two straight seasons of increasing payroll and decreasing success. Last year they entered the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics as heavy favorites, with home-court advantage, but were vigorously bludgeoned. This year they'll be fortunate to get even that far. At 48-29, they sit fourth in the East, far behind the Bulls, Celtics and Heat. A midseason, on-the-fly rebuild involving the departures of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis and the importation of Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas hasn't significantly improved the team.
The organization's linked goals of winning a championship and persuading franchise cornerstone Dwight Howard to sign a contract extension -- he has the right to opt out in the summer of 2012 -- are receding before it. If the Magic's playoff run this season ends in cataclysmic fashion (say, with a loss in the first round or a sweep in the second), NBA protocol pretty much demands that someone get shanked. It could be Coach Stan. It could be GM Otis Smith. It could be both. But if the choice is between the coach or the GM, the coach is usually the one to go.
So let's say this sequence of events, admittedly improbable but not hugely so, unspools as described. Would SVG be interested in coaching the Lakers? Assuming he's interested in coaching anywhere, the answer would presumably be yes. He'd be joining an organization that pays top dollar for talent both of the playing and coaching variety, working for a highly respected GM and one of the best owners in sports and taking over a roster capable of winning a championship right away. On top of which, he has roots in the L.A. area. Stan was born in Indio, about 125 miles east of Los Angeles, and played his high-school ball in Alhambra, an East L.A. suburb.
And why would he make a good hire for the Lake Show? Three reasons, all compelling.
1. He's a great coach. Let's not overthink this. First in Miami and then in Orlando, SVG has taken ordinary teams and developed them into Eastern Conference powers. He's won 65 percent of his regular-season games and 59 percent of his playoff games. In Orlando, his tactical savvy has extracted sustained excellence from a roster consisting of Howard and a rotating cast of youngsters, has-beens and B-grade vets. He's respected throughout the league, not least for an outspoken style that occasionally draws the schoolmarm ire of David Stern, and understands the pressure that comes with coaching a title aspirant. Does SVG deserve some blame for the Magic's underperformance this year? Perhaps a little, but their struggles seem more a product of roster tinkering gone awry than poor coaching. It's difficult to look at the players Van Gundy has managed the last few years and conclude he hasn't elicited the best from them.
2. He knows how to mentor a dominant young big man. Under SVG, Howard has transformed from a raw genetic freak into the thinking man's choice for league MVP. This is important to the Lakers because of one Andrew Bynum. Sometime soon, the Lakers will have to transition away from being a team built around the scoring of Kobe Bryant to one showcasing the talents of Bynum, who at age 23 is their best hope for remaining a championship contender as Pau Gasol ages into his thirties and Kobe, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest enter their late-career decline phases. More than anyone, SVG knows how to develop a big man with Bynum's skillset and how to construct a system around him.
3. He could assist in the recruitment of Dwight Howard. In 1996, the Lakers changed the course of league history by pilfering a franchise center from the Orlando Magic. Could it happen again in 2012? It would take some sign-and-trade juggling, but it could happen if both the Lakers and Howard are interested. Van Gundy and Dwight have maintained a tight relationship amid the Magic's roster convulsions and on-court struggles. If, come 2012, Howard is deciding whether to follow the Orlando-to-L.A. path originally blazed by Shaquille O'Neal, the prospect of rejoining his longtime sensei could sway his decision in the Lakers' direction.
There are a couple things that make SVG a slightly imperfect fit. For one thing, he's never coached the Triangle offense before. As Phil Jackson and his apostles gradually move on, the Lakers one day will install a different offensive system, but it doesn't make sense to do so while they're still trying to win titles with their existing core. Effectively, Stan would need to agree beforehand that he'd preserve the Triangle. If he's willing to defer on that point, he should have little problem executing it game-to-game. He's a smart guy and a ninja when it comes to X's and O's, and he's obviously had to game-plan against the Triangle often enough.
Another thing: his deportment risks a clash with Laker organizational culture. From the ‘70s-honed SoCal swag of owner Jerry Buss to Phil Jackson and his ironic drolleries, the Laker biosphere is defined by its chillness. Not a spaced-out, David-Hasselholff-Versus-Cheeseburger chillness... more like an effortless cool. No one gets heated, and no one ever panics. If you were the Lakers, you wouldn't panic either.
SVG is more or less the exact opposite of this. He comes with three presets: INTENSE, OUTRAGED and BLOOD VESSELS ABOUT TO RUPTURE. His high-volume bellowing isn't going to fly with Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol or (it goes without saying) Kobe. Were he to join the Lakers, SVG would need to rediscover that kick-back SoCal kid inside of him. If that sounds like an easy task, please remember that the team's small forwards are Matt Barnes and Ron Artest.
So there are some countervailing considerations. There will be with any candidate. But of all the names possibly on the Phil Replacement shortlist, SVG offers the most upside and creative dynamism. Shaw would no doubt be the more reliable steward, the guy to provide continuity. Stan Van Gundy, however, is a guy you can imagine taking the roster in brilliant new directions. You can imagine Andrew Bynum winning an MVP award on his watch. Though a different vision of the future, it's possibly one worth gambling for.
Let's hope the Magic, for a moment at least, forget what they have.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.