The dysfunctional pursuit of eternal happiness is backfiring on the Orlando Magic. It is becoming impossible to like Dwight Howard, who wants so desperately to be liked. The Magic desperately want to keep him, but now he must leave.
It's as if no one on either side of the table thought this mess through all the way to the end. The outcome of Howard's departure is inevitable. He cannot stay in Orlando because A) he appears to hold power over the franchise, and B) more threatening, he doesn't know what to do with the power.
Stan Van Gundy sees it for what it is. Van Gundy is being lambasted because he told the truth. By confirming that Howard wanted his coach to be fired as part of Howard's contract negotiations with the Magic, Van Gundy was making a stand on behalf of all of the NBA's coaches, who have the most difficult job in sports. NFL coaches can fire players, and baseball managers don't have to worry about touches and minutes. Both of those sports have rigid structures that define what a player can and cannot do.
The fluid structure of basketball enables its players to play as they please, and their powers are amplified by guaranteed contracts that make the best players more powerful than any coach. Only three active coaches have proved they know how to win an NBA championship -- San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Boston's Doc Rivers and Dallas' Rick Carlisle -- and that's because it is overwhelmingly difficult for a coach to express authority that he doesn't actually possess. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki could have easily had their coaches fired because they've been making more money and been in greater demand than any coach. The stars who win championships allow themselves to be criticized and coached.
The reason Howard cannot stay in Orlando is because he has taken -- or has been allowed to take -- his power too far. As he considered his impending options as a free agent and the Magic asked him to commit long term, he made it clear that he didn't want to be coached by Van Gundy. Now that Van Gundy has confirmed those events -- having been informed by upper management -- what will become of the next man hired to coach the Magic? It has become a hopeless job. Everyone will know the score. The new coach will appear to have been hired in order to appease and satisfy Howard.
Howard cannot be blamed for not liking Van Gundy, for not wanting to be coached by him, and for wishing he could be coached by someone else. All of that is entirely understandable. Van Gundy can be insensitive to his relationships with his players. He has been coaching the Magic for five years, and anyone who watches their games can see how Van Gundy might exhaust his partnership with Howard, of whom much is demanded in return for his $18.1 million salary.
The problem for Howard -- a problem that now defines him -- is that he claimed ownership, personally and irreparably, of his coach's status.
He had to know it wouldn't be kept secret. When Howard said he didn't want to be coached by Van Gundy anymore, didn't he understand there was a strong chance the story would be leaked? Doesn't everything come out these days? Howard can't be too angry about it because he has been involved in leaking stories himself. His camp has engaged in whispering anonymously sourced reports over the past year.
Knowing that he probably would be held accountable for his involvement in Van Gundy's eventual firing, here is the next question Howard might have asked himself: What happens if the team acts on his request? Let's say the Magic fire Van Gundy and replace him with a coach whose presence helps persuade Howard to sign a long-term deal. And let's say all of this becomes public, as Howard should have been able to anticipate it would. The inevitable outcome is that Howard will have created a world in which he can't succeed.
He is doomed to fail because the new coach will have zero credibility. Unless his name is Phil Jackson, the new coach won't be able to earn respect because of the environment in which he was hired. Everyone will have reason to believe -- it will be naïve to think otherwise -- that the next coach does not have the power to hold Howard accountable and push him hard. There is nothing anyone can say to change the impression that has been created. Everyone in the locker room will understand that the previous coach was essentially fired by Howard. The 11 to 14 players in the locker room apart from Howard will have good reason to view the next coach suspiciously. The trust that is mandatory to win a championship will be impossible to build as long as Howard is viewed as being more important than his team.
The best NBA players have access to enormous power when they approach free agency. But the events of recent years show that they need to be cautious about exercising that power because it can turn into a third rail. LeBron James had the unprecedented opportunity to turn his free-agency declaration into a live reality show, but was that a good idea? He went on TV because he could, and not because it made sense.
Of course, this is one of those gray-area issues, because we all know that players forever have been acting behind the scenes to force the firings of coaches. But I can't remember a star who took ownership of a coach's firing as obviously as Howard has done in Orlando, by packaging it into a high-profile contract negotiation that has been played out in public since December, when news leaked of his demand to be traded.
Think about the grief Magic Johnson earned for his role in the firing of coach Paul Westhead. The title of "coach killer" was a stain on his winning smile, even after Westhead's successor, Pat Riley, helped Johnson earn four more championships.
Howard appears to have no idea of the harm he has created for himself. The last player to exert so much control over his team was Michael Jordan, long after he left the Bulls and Jackson. Jordan was president of the Wizards when he put himself in uniform. Jordan essentially hired Doug Collins to coach him, and he picked the players who played with him. The team performed poorly, and it was not a happy two years. By the end, Jordan's reputation carried so little weight that owner Abe Pollin was able to fire the greatest of all players without suffering backlash.
To take on the responsibility and lose is to ask for all of the blame.
Howard has yet to earn the kind of respect that Magic and Michael earned. It is very sad to think of how badly Howard has managed his career since Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, when he scored 40 points on 21 shots and made his free throws (12-of-16 overall) in the fourth quarter to finish the upset of LeBron James' Cavaliers. Howard would spend the next two weeks sharing the courts of the NBA Finals with Kobe Bryant, one year after he introduced himself to millions of young fans by putting on Superman's cape to win the dunk contest.
But he has spent the last year hijacking his own career in anticipation of what he might do as a free agent. This incident with Van Gundy is part of a trend that has grown to define and overwhelm Howard. He is damned by
If Howard tries to stay in Orlando, then his next coach will be perceived as his puppet. Howard's pledge of loyalty has lost its teeth, and his smile is radioactive.
Of all the questionable decisions anyone has made over the last year of Howard's self-destructive pursuit of free agency, the least deserving of criticism was Van Gundy's decision to confirm the truth. He didn't break the story so much as he refused to deny the harm that was being done. In the bigger picture, he was acting in the best interests of the NBA, a league that is rightly accused of occasionally losing its way.
Consider the NBA at its very best: Nowitzki winning the championship last year, or the Celtics winning in 2008 before losing a Game 7 to Kobe's Lakers in 2010, or the Pistons' 2004 upset of the Lakers, or the titles of Duncan and Jordan. In all of those cases, the best players were respecting the needs of the team more so than their own needs. The pursuit of the larger cause is the ideal that makes the NBA worthwhile. In that pursuit, the role of the head coach is both vulnerable and indispensable.
If you think it through all the way to the end, Van Gundy ultimately was trying to save Howard from himself.
When Howard took ownership of his coach's firing, he was taking the extra step that sabotaged himself. Because he was creating a world in which he could never ultimately succeed. The NBA will survive and go forth because other great players will allow themselves to be coached, and they'll win championships that will inspire millions around the world. But what will become of Dwight Howard?