Stan Van Gundy’s Player Management Folly

Please, Stan, we want some more.

The past four years for the Orlando Magic have been good. They have once again found success within their division, finishing first in the Southeast the previous three years, and within the conference, winning it outright during the 2008-09 season and making it to the conference finals last year. In fact, the past four years have accounted for one third of the total number of playoff appearances that the organization has made since its inaugural season in 1989-90. However, where many can find success when looking at the Magic and what they have accomplished of late, others see nothing but the glaring shortcomings of this team. They lost in the finals to the Los Angeles Lakers and looked completely dumbfounded and lost in the short five game series, that is except for Hedo Turkoglu who left the team after their finals run. The following season, matching the same 59-23 mark of the previous year, Orlando lost to the aging Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Is this team really as good as people think it is?

The Magic are easily one of the more talented teams in the league. They have paid their players well to keep it that way with a payroll around $93 million for the 2010-11 season. That is one of the highest in the league and well over the cap which is set at $58,044,000. Their payroll also sets them squarely into luxury tax parameters which is set at $70.3 million for the coming season. Yes, the Magic are paying a high price to remain competitive. It seems, however, that they are not getting what they paid for. Much of the money they have spent to keep players from going elsewhere or in acquiring talent is going to waste. This is especially true for players such as Brandon Bass, Marcin Gortat, and J.J. Redick. For them, it has been a hard knock life with Orlando. It has been said countless times that players should not complain about minutes on a winning team. A win is a win for everyone involved. Yet, during the regular season, more minutes for these players could translate into more wins for everyone.

Last season, Brandon Bass’ role on the Magic was limited at best. Sophomore Ryan Anderson played in more games, 63, and logged more minutes, 910, than Bass. Bass appeared in 50 games and totaled 648 minutes played. This is the same Brandon Bass who had four prior years of NBA experience before last season. Two of those years were spent with the Dallas Mavericks. During his stint in Dallas, Bass bourgeoned into a more than viable scoring and rebounding threat. Though being considered undersized for a power forward, he makes up for it with strength, determination, and hustle. All of these qualities were on full display in Dallas where he totaled 3131 minutes in 160 games in his two year stint. So when the Magic snatched up Bass, who was an olive branch from the Mavericks as Gortat had signed an offer sheet with them, it was assumed that his rise would continue alongside the likes of Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. Stan Van Gundy, for some reason, had other plans (or none at all) for Bass. Bass has yet to log any minutes alongside Lewis at the forward positions on the floor at any time.

Generally speaking, major free agent acquisitions are brought in to play not sit. Why would Van Gundy refuse to use such a talent and relegate it to the bench? According to Van Gundy, Bass did not effectively work within the system that he had in place in Orlando. If one has ever watched a Magic game it is clear that any “system” begins and ends with Dwight Howard or a three-point shot. That is really about it. All post play goes through Howard, if he is double teamed then he is to kick the ball out (that is if he does not force up a poor shot) to the wing so that an open shot can be found. This strategy would appear to work if one looks at their record but it is easily susceptible do defeat as shown by the Lakers and Celtics in recent playoffs. In each series, Howard was rendered useless as he was constantly in foul trouble and the Magic’s frontcourt was rendered utterly useless especially when Van Gundy continually chooses to employ Lewis at power forward when he is overmatched by players such as Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett. Brandon Bass would be much better used against such players and especially those who back them up such as Lamar Odom and Glen Davis. Yet, Bass still rode the bench while earning $4 million to do so.

For the coming season, Bass hopes to earn more playing time, but does he really need to prove his worth? Did he not do that on the Mavericks? It is up to Van Gundy to look past his shortsightedness and give Bass more minutes. Yes, Bass is watching more tape and correcting some small mistakes but is that really enough to keep a player out of the lineup for such a time especially when the team could have used him most? No. Honestly, it should not surprise anyone if Van Gundy still does not give Bass anymore opportunities than he did last season. Van Gundy has floated the idea of playing Lewis at small forward more this year, something that is long overdue, so this is where any extra playing time would lie for Bass. Not much outside of that, though. It seems that the truth of the matter is that Bass simply is not one of Van Gundy’s “guys.” Bass rides the bench because of this not because of a system.

Keeping Bass company on the sideline is Gortat. One has to feel bad for Gortat. He does not want to be in Orlando and made it very apparent when he signed the offer sheet from the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2009. Now, Gortat is probably the most highly paid backup center in the league as the Magic matched the Mavericks offer sheet worth $34 million over five years. It is understandable that Gortat does not get much playing time backing up Howard but he does deserve more than he gets, especially at that price. Nor does anyone think that he is capable of much more than playing spot defensive minutes while Howard rests or sits due to foul trouble. He wants to play a bigger role on the team but those requests fall on deaf and disinterested ears. Those deaf ears obviously do not recognize that Gortat is a far more versatile player that Howard is, though Howard is working to improve his game with Hakeem Olajuwon as his mentor.

Van Gundy has stated that he is not discouraging Gortat’s interest in becoming more involved on the offensive side of the floor but when he has only played an average of 13 minutes per game over the last two seasons Van Gundy’s statement can only be seen as hypocritical. Van Gundy is strangling his talent. Per 36 minutes last season, which it takes Gortat around three games to play, he was second on the team in field goal percentage at 53 percent, second on the team in total rebounding at 11.3, and he was second overall in defensive rating at a mark of 99. Howard led all the categories mentioned but played a considerable amount more with an average of 34.7 minutes a game. These are good numbers and probably the reason that Orlando wants nothing more from him that to defend, rebound, and run the floor. To not want a player to achieve his full potential defeats the entire purpose of having him on the team. Gortat can score, he proved it this summer while playing for the Polish national team and he proved it when he helped the Magic climb back into their series with Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. In that series he looked better than Howard in the short spurts that Van Gundy chose to play him. Gortat was the fifth highest paid player on the Magic last season and played only 1088 total minutes during the regular season. Only Ryan Anderson, Bass, and Anthony Johnson played fewer minutes than he did.

J.J. Redick has slowly seen his playing time improve after finding himself out of favor in Orlando a few years ago. The team and Van Gundy may have finally realized what they have since they matched the Chicago Bulls’ offer sheet for Redick this summer. Redick now finds himself a member of the Magic for the next three years to the tune of $19 million. Despite this, one really does not get the perception that he will be utilized as much as he should be. As with Bass and Gortat, it looks like Redick will have to prove that he can perform to Van Gundy’s imaginary and intangible player standards before even more minutes are allotted to him.

Last season, Redick played in all 82 of Orlando’s regular season games and all 14 of their playoff games. This was the first season that Redick had played more than 64 games. With his knack for three-point shooting, he has shot 39 percent for his career and just over 40 percent last season, it is surprising that he is not featured more in the offense especially since the Magic selected him 11th overall in the 2006 NBA Draft. Orlando lives and dies by the three night in and night out. With Redick on the court, the Magic have a much better chance of living. To go along with his long range shot, Redick has added improved passing to his game now that he sees more minutes and averages two assists per game. With minutes come production. Somehow Van Gundy has neglected this fact.

Redick, at times, seems like the only legitimate scoring option for the Magic when Howard is in foul trouble and the oft injured Jameer Nelson in unavailable. Rashard Lewis is an overpaid (he earned $18,876,000 last season, the highest on the roster) shell of his former Supersonic’s self who has seen his numbers decline each year in Orlando. Yet, Van Gundy continues to use him as a main scoring option along with the aging Vince Carter who averaged 16.6 points per game which was his lowest per game average ever. Maybe with Carter in a contract year his production will increase. At 33 years old it is doubtful. Redick is the Magic’s shooting guard of the future and there is no better time for the future than now.

But I like my mock turtlenecks...

Otis Smith, the Magic’s General Manager, has burned a lot of bridges around the league to steal and weasel players from the grasp of other teams. Now, he must be content with watching them ride the pine (padded folding chairs rather). Last season these three players (Bass, Gortat, and Redick) earned a combined $12,693,408 to basically not play. That number will only increase this season with Redick’s new deal. If Orlando keeps matching huge offer sheets to keep players on their bench they will reach a serious impasse. They have more depth than anyone talks about and it is time that Stan Van Gundy finally acknowledges that and expand his rotation. Hopefully the new collared shirts that Van Gundy will have to wear this season will not restrict the blood flow to his brain so that he can see what must be done to minimize wasted talent.

Orlando likes to shell out massive contracts for little, if no, return and it is no one’s fault but their own. It makes no sense to pay good and talented players to ride the bench for the majority of games. Yet, that is exactly what Stan Van Gundy does. It makes one wonder if he actually knows what he has on his roster. The obvious answer is that he does not. If he did then he would play a deeper rotation and utilize effectively all the skill that the front office has paid handsomely for. Rather that continually making snide remarks about the Miami Heat (he is probably still bitter about the way in which Pat Riley dismissed him), Van Gundy needs to realize that he must play is role players if he ever wants to feel what it is like to be a champion. If he does not do that, then his days as a head coach in Orlando should be considered numbered. Not many teams can keep the competitive edge that the Magic have shown of late but if they do not translate that into some kind of meaningful victory then all they have worked for will be forgotten to all but the few steadfast Orlando fans and NBA records keepers.

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2 responses to “Stan Van Gundy’s Player Management Folly

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