"I mean, look, nothing in the league surprises me. This is a strange situation right now. Behind the scenes I have no idea what's going on. Our job is to focus on the basketball. It's not like you've got enough time to sit around all day watching Pardon The Interruption."
This is Stan Van Gundy talking back in March, after reporters asked about rumors that Dwight Howard wants him fired. It's a perfect microcosm of Dwight's larger problem -- that all of Van Gundy's shoulder-shrugging candor exposes Dwight's cryptic bullshit better than Adrian Wojnarowksi ever could. Literally, next to Dwight Howard, Van Gundy keeps it way too real.
"I really don't give a damn about getting fired," he said back then. "All I care about is winning the game tonight, winning the game tomorrow. If they want to fire me, if Dwight wants to fire me – fire me. I really don't give a damn about being fired. If they want to fire me to please somebody -- fire me."
Orlando didn't fire him, of course. Van Gundy gave that interview before the Heat-Magic game, and after the Magic won that game in overtime, Dwight told reporters he wanted to stay in Orlando through the end of the year, and the Magic should "roll the dice" and try to keep him. So Orlando executives met with Dwight as the deadline approached and brought him all his favorite candy, and it worked. Everything seemed great.
But Howard still wanted Van Gundy gone, and still had plenty of leverage with a contract expiring after next season. And that brings us to present day, fresh in the wake of the most uncomfortable interview in NBA History and Dwight Howard putting together one of the more craptastic National TV appearances we've seen from a superstar all year.
The Dwightmare down in NBA history the same way LeBronnukah did, so for posterity's sake, let's pick this apart and break things down from a few different angles.
DWIGHT HOWARD'S FUTURE
A year ago, Dwight Howard was considered one of the two or three best basketball players on the planet, a surefire Hall of Famer, and the ultimate building block for any would-be championship team. Plenty of sober, thoughtful people said this summer that Miami would be better off breaking up the Heatles and trading LeBron for Dwight straight up.
Now... it's not that he's hurt his reputation this year, it's more like he's lit it on fire. In the past six months, Dwight has sold out his teammates, his coach, his agent, Orlando management, and then Thursday he sat there and tried to deflect blame onto reporters for creating controversy out of thin air. Really an outstanding performance all around. If you've got a team with a superstar, adding Dwight still makes sense, but it's a lot scarier now than it would've been six months ago. Would YOU want him on your team? Would anyone still trade LeBron for Dwight straight-up?
He's still a great player, but he's in the middle of his worst season, and all the added scrutiny has made people realize that maybe DWIGHT is the problem. If he successfully gets rid of Van Gundy there's still a good chance he'll ditch Orlando this summer or next, or get traded halfway through next season. More importantly, if there's been any theme to the months-long soap opera in Orlando, it's that Dwight either a) has no idea what he wants, or b) knows what he wants, but doesn't want to deal with consequences of making an unpopular decision. For example, Adrian Wojnarowski speculated Thursday that Howard's exaggerated a back injury the past few weeks to try and grease the wheels for Van Gundy's departure. Would YOU want him on your team?
A few weeks ago Dwight Howard said he wanted to stay in Orlando and compete for a championship, and now he's maybe-possibly faking an injury, the Magic have lost five straight games, and one player talked about the locker room on Thursday and said, "we're split." What a disaster.
The Magic deserve it, though. Their problem throughout the Dwight era has been self-delusion. First it was in free agency year after year, when they convinced themselves that they were only one or two supporting players away from a title. Stan Van Gundy helped perpetuate the myth by coaching his ass off in the 2009 Playoffs and taking Orlando to the NBA Finals, but it's no excuse. That team started Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee IN THE NBA FINALS.
There should have been no illusions about whether that Magic roster could compete for an NBA title over the long haul. But instead of making real changes to the foundation, they made the same mistakes the Cavaliers did with LeBron -- overpaying average role players (Jameer! Rashard!), trading for washed up veterans (Vince! Gil! Hedo!), and hoping for the best. Then with this year's ordeal, their biggest mistake was deluding themselves into thinking it makes sense to ride this Dwight thing out and that they'd magically become contenders somehow.
Even if he stays, Orlando has no flexibility for the immediate future, and we have plenty of evidence pointing to his shortcomings as a superstar by himself. And that's the thing -- Orlando sees it.
They want to love Dwight and make him the face of the franchise forever, but on some level there's backlash for all his mind games, right? Why else would someone tell Stan Van Gundy that Dwight wants him fired? That makes no sense for anyone. It betrays Dwight's confidence and puts Van Gundy in an awkward position all year long. You gotta think that the only reason it happened at all is because someone in management got fed up and had to vent. Even if Orlando's management is officially 100 percent behind Dwight, there are human beings down there who probably struggle staying on message when Dwight is so obviously full of shit. Speaking of which...
THE EXPLICIT RULES OF BUS THROWING
Dwight Howard wouldn't talk before the game. Howard isn't happy. He feels that Stan Van Gundy threw him under the bus with his comments.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) April 5, 2012
Tweets like that you want to keep around forever, just to preserve this absurdity for eternity. For the record: You can't get thrown under the bus after you've thrown someone under the bus.
THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF BUS THROWING
There are plenty of people who blame Van Gundy for this current mess, mostly because it's an unwritten rule that you don't take these things public. For instance, on TNT Thursday night, Shaq was outspoken, blaming Van Gundy for "losing his team" this year.
This demands a few separate responses.
- Shaq is pretty great in interviews, but there's no debating that he's the worst analyst on TV. If Shaq thinks it's Van Gundy's fault, it's not Van Gundy's fault. QED.
- Thursday, Ryan Anderson told Brian Schmitz, an Orlando beat writer, "I love Stan. I think he's a great coach for us." If Orlando's second-best player still loves the coach, are we totally positive that it's the coach who lost the locker room?
- Van Gundy didn't bring this up out of thin air. There were reports floating around all day Wednesday, so reporters showed up Thursday and the first thing they asked about was whether he thought he'd be getting fired. How is it Van Gundy's fault for answering honestly?
Back in March, Van Gundy talked about all the rumors and said, "The rest of it, I'm tired of. Nobody even gives a damn about the results of our games. When I can't sleep, it's either because we played poorly, or I'm concerned about the next game. But no one else seems to care."
He's been dealing with this for a full season now, and I think Thursday he just sorta snapped and threw his hands up. His team's looked awful lately, people are openly speculating about his job security, and he just got tired of it. "It" being the steady stream of bullshit that's been percolating through the media room in Orlando all year. Can you really blame him?
STAN VAN DA GOD
"Look, I mean stuff like that, it happens in the NBA, and when it comes out that one of the highest profile guys in the league has asked for his coach to be fired, it's gonna be a story. But disappointing? I mean ... You'd rather not have it come out, but I'd rather it hadn't rained a couple days ago too. Life goes on."
"The only thing I'm ever uncomfortable with is bullshit."
"It's 12:02 right now, if they wanna fire me at 12:05, I'll go home and find something to do. I'll have a good day."
Two points here, one important, one less so. First, Stan Van Gundy is one of only a handful of NBA coaches that could pull this off, because his reputation speaks for itself. Nobody expects him to sugarcoat anything, and he's proven himself a good enough coach that it doesn't make a difference. He's not the young coach in Miami falling on his sword because he doesn't need to do that anymore. He can say whatever he wants and still get a job the second he leaves Orlando. If he gets fired at 12:02, he'll have an offer by 12:10.
Dwight is the player who's been flexing his superstar's leverage all year, Thursday was the day that Van Gundy decided to flex his. Nobody's done more with less over the past five years, so he's earned the privilege of candor. Coaches get forced out by superstar all the time, but they're not usually as proven and respected as Van Gundy -- that's why this got complicated.
Second point: "Complicated" isn't quite the right word. AWESOME works better. This got totally awesome once Van Gundy got involved. I've been obsessed with Van Gundy ever since he openly mocked the Miami Heat last year, and then he went and called out David Stern, and ... now this. The man is a feisty little hedgehog in a crumpled suit, and he's nothing short of a national treasure for NBA fans. A fountain of cartoonish spittle, GIF-able reactions, and all kinds of real talk. I just wish he'd been coaching in Cleveland when LeBron was there.
THE PERFECT STATEMENT GAME
"Forget players, anybody in this world. I mean, I'll bet in this group (of reporters) we have at least one person who has an issue with their boss and doesn't maybe like him. Maybe one person. And still works very hard and does a very good job. I mean come on, that's normal, everyday life for everybody. You're playing for your own pride and for your teammates, that's what matters."
Speaking of LeBron ... Thursday was Dwight's version of Game 5 against the Celtics. With the whole basketball world watching to see how he'd respond, Dwight had 8 points, 8 rebounds, 5 turnovers, and 5 fouls. Can you imagine what MJ or Iverson would've done if a coach had publicly embarrassed them like that? Well, uh, Dwight floated around all game, didn't score a basket until time expired in the third quarter, and lost by 20. As statement games go, it was right up there with anything in NBA History.
Dwight's statement paraphrased: "F*** this, I quit."
Laughing on the bench as visiting Knicks fans cheered a 20-point win was just a bonus.
OKAY SO IS THIS WORSE THAN LEBRON?
No. There have been too many fans and writers saying that what Dwight's done is worse than anything LeBron's done, but let's be serious. When the going got tough in Cleveland, LeBron tanked a playoff game, cryptically convinced the team to fire Mike Brown, THEN went on National TV to announce he'd be leaving Cleveland for Miami regardless, THEN held a victory party in Miami where predicted 8 championships, THEN leaked reports undermining his new coach when Miami struggled, THEN completely disappeared in the NBA Finals the following spring. What Dwight's done is bad, but it's more the result of naivete and obsession with maintaining his own popularity. Definitely not the sort of conscious douchebaggery that a) defies a parallel in any sport throughout history, and b) became a defining example of everything we hate about media in the millennial age. Let's not sell LeBron short.
ORLANDO IS PERFECT, REALLY
The thing is, for all the hoopla that's lasted all year, Dwight Howard belongs in Orlando. Back when LeBron went to Miami, that was perfect. As I explained then:
Miami's like the VIP section of American cities....Which would be cooler if we didn't all know from experience that the VIP section sort of sucks. It's full of hangers-on, bland celebrities, beautiful women that aren't interested in sleeping with you, and a bunch of people that are way too impressed by how impressive they are. But as a place to visit and people-watch, or a place for LeBron James to spend the rest of his career? Perfect.
And the same way Miami's soul-crushing emptiness fits LeBron perfectly, who personifies Orlando better than Dwight? Orlando's the four-seed of American cities; there's no real reason for it to exist, and nobody would really care if it didn't, but there's Disney World and nice weather, so it's not that bad. Among American cities, Orlando's nowhere near the worst, nowhere near the best. Among superstars from the past 10 years and the next 10, Dwight's no different.
Orlando's grateful for a superstar they can call their own, with some of the only fans in basketball who'd actually be willing to forgive all this if he eventually stays. Of course he'll probably try to leave, maybe as soon as this summer, and the rest will be history.
But it changes nothing. Dwight Howard is neither the wonderful guy he pretends to be, nor the horrible villain he's been made out to be over the past few weeks. He doesn't have the heart for either role. Dwight's just sort of in no-man's land. Going to Dallas or Brooklyn may seem like a solution, but it'll only exacerbate the problem when he runs into trouble on a bigger, less forgiving stage. And in the end, when we look back on this little chapter in his career, we'll see the writing was on the wall and say, "You know, maybe Dwight belonged with a four-seed all along."