Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/22/12
The Orlando Magic didn't just bet everything Monday on the idea that there's more value in retaining Dwight Howard than in keeping Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith. The Magic also wagered that massive talent accompanied by an out-of-control ego outweighs order and leadership in the battle for an NBA championship. There are no easy answers when a player's greatness comes with an off-the-court price, and the Magic, forced into a predicament that Howard created and Van Gundy made public, probably did the best they could. This is their best shot to try and get their world-class center to sign a contract extension. Van Gundy was already a dead man walking. But even if this works and it's a big "if" and Howard opts to stay in Orlando, there are no guarantees he'll win a championship before whatever team Van Gundy decides to coach next. Giving stars a say in how to run a franchise can work. But it can also backfire spectacularly. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille ONeal couldn't stand one another, and the result was Shaq getting shipped to Miami. Both men went on to win a championship without the other, and Kobe got two of them. But there's no telling how many they would have won how epic their run might have been had their egos allowed them to play together. The Miami Heat are still trying to turn the Big Three into a title because they're fighting the complications that came when those stars forged a pact that changed the league. Peyton Manning got a head coach in Tony Dungy who gave him ultimate control of the offense and a lot of say with the team, and Peyton got his Super Bowl ring. But Tom Brady and his control-freak head coach have three, and Peyton's little brother and his iron-fisted head coach have two. Giving in can work. But working with a star not for him often works better. Yes, Magic Johnson forced out Paul Westhead and went on to glory. But he also had the good fortune of turning the Lakers over to Pat Riley, a man who turned out to be one of the greatest coaches of all time, to say nothing of Magic being one of the three greatest basketball players ever to walk the earth. Howard is good, but he's no Magic, not by a long shot. In most cases, stars need to play, coaches need to coach and general managers need to build teams. It wasn't too long ago that Kobe Bryant wanted to trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd. Many of the Magic's moves like bringing back Hedo Turkoglu and bringing in Gilbert Arenas were disasters done to appease Howard. The fact is that Van Gundy is a superb basketball coach, and his focus on defense helped Howard evolve into one of the game's finest players. That he was fired comes as no surprise to anyone. He all but sealed the deal when he announced in April that he knew for a fact Howard wanted him gone. There was something liberating in that move, particularly when an unsuspecting Howard walked into a media ambush just after Van Gundy dropped his news. Most of the pushback and control stars exert over those who supposedly manage them happens in private. Van Gundy had none of that he knew his team's best chance was with him running the show rather than Howard and so he went public. Or maybe he knew his star had already done him in and he went down fighting. Now he's gone, and Howard is left with a team that will seemingly cater to his every whim. He is a great basketball player, but he's not good enough, mature enough or self-aware enough that he should be dictating terms. The odds are there's no future Pat Riley waiting in the wings to take over for Van Gundy. The Magic have waded into difficult territory here. Betting on talent and ego at the expense of genuine oversight is a risky proposition. Actual coaching matters, especially when it's also great coaching. Boundaries matter. Even talent even the greatest of talent needs some structure in which to unlock its magic. It's worth noting that LeBron James, now a three-time MVP, wasn't exactly without influence in Cleveland. He never forced anyone out, but most every one of his whims were catered to. His entourage was integrated into the rhythm and culture of that franchise. He called himself the Chosen One and he was treated by the Cavaliers like a savior right until he departed, burned-bridge style, via The Decision. His was the strongest force of personality and influence there, and it did not end well for anyone, LeBron included. That's why we rarely see teams win championships without at least one strong presence in the head coaching or general manager's job. That's even more true in the NBA, a league where the temptation to give into stars' every need is stronger. So it takes a particularly strong and wise owner to resist. Michael Jordan had and needed Phil Jackson. So did Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. The Spurs have Gregg Popovich, a small market and even smaller egos and four championships. Speaking of Jordan, the greatest player on earth has shown himself to be as bad in the front office as he was good on the court. Turns out that fact first emerged 25 years ago. In 1987, Jordan pushed the Bulls to draft North Carolina star Joe Wolf. They didn't and instead opted for a guy named Horace Grant. A year later His Airness was furious when Chicago traded his good buddy Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. Jordan fumed, but as a result of not getting what he wanted he got the help he needed to win the first three of his six championships. The list is long of players wanting the wrong things and the fact is this: Players mostly should play, coaches should coach and GMs should manage. Some stars never learn that lesson. Now that Howard has been allowed to force out one of the NBA's best coaches and, yes, a mediocre general manger odds are he'll never learn it. Dwight Howard is very good, but he's not Michael Jordan and he's not Magic Johnson. Now we'll just have to wait and see which kind of meddler he turns out to be: one best to be ignored, or one who gets lucky enough to see it end with a championship. You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.
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