Thursday, April 30, 2009
Van Gundy's coaching style under fire
By John Denton ESPN.com
Is Stan Van Gundy's coaching style negatively affecting his team's play in the playoffs?
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stan Van Gundy sprang off the Orlando Magic's bench as if he had been shot out of one of those T-shirt guns, flailing his arms and scrunching up his face as though his pregame meal was coming back to haunt him.
The impetus for this particular mini-rant from Van Gundy was Magic forward Mickael Pietrus giving up a blow-by dunk to Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, but really it could have been any of a dozen or so moments from a Magic game.
If this is how the coach reacts to one blown coverage, just imagine what his mindset was as his Magic fell into 1-0 and 2-1 holes against the heavy-underdog Philadelphia 76ers before pulling ahead 3-2 on Tuesday night. In three of the first four games of the series, Orlando either blew or almost squandered a big lead, leading some to wonder if Van Gundy's antics were causing the Magic to grow tighter and sweatier than, well, a Van Gundy.
"Coach Van Gundy has done a great job in Orlando, but he is so hyper," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said recently. "Teams take on a coach's personality, and I think sometimes he gets so animated and so hyper it just makes the team uncomfortable."
Van Gundy's loud, in-your-face coaching style was particularly good for the Magic during the regular season, spurring an otherwise mellow roster to some clutch, cold-blooded victories. Winners of 59 games, the Magic have been among the league's best road teams for two seasons, and twice beat the Lakers, Cleveland, Boston and San Antonio this season.
But it's the playoffs that matter most, and so far Orlando has looked like anything but a dominant team capable of rolling through the Eastern Conference and contending for the NBA crown. A massive offensive slump, due in part to injuries, hit late in the regular season and carried into the playoffs, making a once-formidable inside-out attack look rather ordinary.
And then there's the inability to hold leads down the stretch in this series. Orlando was so good at sealing the deal during the regular season, going 48-4 when leading after three periods and 52-1 when up with the five minutes left in regulation. But in the playoffs, the Magic have at times come apart like a cheap suit. They frittered away an 18-point bulge in a Game 1 loss and saw a similar lead whittled to five before prevailing in Game 2. In Game 4, they needed Hedo Turkoglu's game-winning 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds after blowing a 10-point lead in the final five minutes.
When it gets tough in the playoffs, he will become the master of panic like he did before and he will quit like he did before. When it gets time for his team to go into the postseason and do certain things, he will let them down.
Naturally, the blame for such collapses has fallen at the feet of Van Gundy. He has made himself a target around the NBA by firing off random potshots at Shaquille O'Neal and the New York Knicks brass in the regular season, and now Philadelphia coach Tony DiLeo after Game 5 of these playoffs. When DiLeo lobbied Tuesday night for more three-seconds calls on Magic star Dwight Howard, Van Gundy ranted, "Instead of just trying to play him better I guess they're going to try and get the league to step in and give them something."
Van Gundy's calculated digs have made him as much of a "SportsCenter" staple as Howard's dunks. And he raised some eyebrows around Orlando recently when he was asked who the leader of the Magic was, then pointed a finger to his chest and said "Me."
Now the Magic's early playoff struggles have done the unthinkable and made "The Big Home-for-the-Playoffs" look like Nostradamus, something considered blasphemous in Central Florida where Shaq is still persona non grata.
"First of all, none of his players like him," O'Neal said in March after Van Gundy had tweaked him for flopping on a play in the paint. "When it gets tough in the playoffs, he will become the master of panic like he did before and he will quit like he did before. When it gets time for his team to go into the postseason and do certain things, he will let them down."
Van Gundy has taken the criticism about his coaching antics in stride, admitting in classic self-deprecating style that he is hardly a coach without faults. He even joked last week that his kids played a game in which they tried to think of a person who had a less important job in society than their dad's and couldn't come up with one. Cracked Van Gundy: "They were humorous at first, but then it turned serious. & They finally conceded that at least I don't do anything illegal."
Oddly, despite his success in Orlando, some of Van Gundy's harshest critics have come from inside the Magic bubble.
Howard, the Magic's franchise player, admitted recently on a fan Q&A on his personal Web site that he's often irritated by Van Gundy's rants at him during games. And Howard's caddy, Marcin Gortat -- the backup center, for goodness' sake -- even fired off a shot at Van Gundy, telling a Polish publication recently that "the nature of our coach, he panics very often during games. He's got some behavior which is not good for us. With his gestures he makes us more nervous on the floor."
But understand this about Van Gundy: His nervousness, fiery intensity and passion burn just as hot in a February game against Sacramento as they do in the pressurized playoff cauldron. Some of his most scathing postgame critiques have come after lopsided victories. With him, winning and losing isn't just equivalent to living and dying; it's a possession-to-possession pursuit of perfection.
"I'm aware of what's been said and I do evaluate it, but it's not wrong all of the time," Van Gundy said. "I think I do some things that are very, very good for our team as well. And there are times that I do things that aren't good for our team.
Even backup center Marcin Gortat is chiming in on SVG.
"I'm not holding myself up as someone who doesn't make mistakes and that everything I do is great," Van Gundy continued. "That would be foolhardy, and it wouldn't be the attitude that you would want the players to have. As far as me, I think I know who I am and I'm self-aware. But the ultimate judgment of if I'm any good or not goes to other people, and I don't have time to sit and worry about that."
Van Gundy is, in fact, highly critical of himself. No one takes losses harder than he does, and he usually falls on his sword well before being pushed by message-board posters or the media. Magic general manager Otis Smith purposely avoids Van Gundy after games, and noted "Stan does a pretty good job of beating himself up."
Van Gundy admitted that he's fine with the criticisms, because some of it actually is right on the mark.
"At times, the criticism isn't valid, and sometimes it is valid," he said. "You hate to admit it sometimes, but I think a lot of things said about me over the years have been true, but they're not the whole picture. You cant blow off criticism completely. Sometimes I read stuff by people about me and I say it's [garbage]. But some of the criticism -- and I know too that some of the good stuff is [garbage], too -- isn't the whole picture of me."
Good or bad, Van Gundy's sideline histrionics are no act; they are very much a learned behavior. His father, Bill, was a small-college coach for 42 years and was a raging, vein-busting coach along the lines of Bobby Knight. And younger brother Jeff, now an analyst with ABC, seemed to carry the weight of coaching in New York and Houston in the dark bags under his eyes.
For the Van Gundys, coaching is a way of life. Stan, 49, and Jeff, 47, filed scouting reports for their father when he was away from coaching briefly in 1971 after brain cancer; Stan was a seventh-grader and Jeff was in the fourth grade. Their family vacations were to Final Fours, and one of Stan's greatest memories even today was spending a week at a coaching clinic as Pete Newell's personal gofer.
"We're living proof that insanity is inherited," said Cindy Van Gundy, Stan and Jeff's mother. "Basketball has been very good to this family."
And Van Gundy clearly has been very good for the Magic. In two seasons, he's taken the franchise to 52 and 59 wins and consecutive Southeast Division titles. In April 2008, he helped the Magic win their first playoff series since O'Neal defected from Orlando to Los Angeles in 1996. And his hard-driving ways have brought the best out of Howard (2009 Defensive Player of the Year), Turkoglu (2008 Most Improved Player) and Jameer Nelson (first-time All-Star in 2009).
Still, some in the Magic organization worry that their coach burns too hot on a daily basis and eventually his message will grow old and its impact will weaken. And even if he doesn't lose his effectiveness with his team, can he maintain this intensity and keep ruffling so many feathers around the league over the long term?
Magic president/CEO Bob Vander Weide isn't your typical stuffed suit who treats ownership of an NBA team as a business opportunity. He often plays pickup basketball after practice with Magic director of player development Morlon Wiley, a former NBA player. And during Magic home games, Vander Weide sits a half-dozen seats away from Van Gundy along the bench.
Vander Weide knows basketball and is dialed into his team. In his eyes, Van Gundy is hardly a coach who panics or incites nervousness among players. The coach's actions are genuine and passionate and done in the name of winning, Vander Weide stressed.
"With Stan, it's all out there. Yes, he runs hot. He may sometimes be a little loose-tongued, but we've had a lot of different coaches in here, and I don't think I've ever been around somebody who wants to win so much," Vander Weide said.
"I don't see panic, but I hear the word being used by [O'Neal and Barkley]. I'm sitting pretty close these days to what Stan is doing in games and I don't see panic. I see intensity, frustration, the need to execute better, but it doesn't feel like panic to me. That feels like a guy who is intensely active in making sure plays are run correctly and games are won. That's what you should want in a coach."
John Denton is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.