Van Gundy: Culture change caused Magic’s fall

Reuters Pictures/DayLifeEver since Rob Hennigan took over the Magic’s general manager, he has spoken very clearly about his desire to establish a culture and a franchise that fans can be proud of and relate to. He wants to build something sustainable that will ultimately deliver a championship to Orlando.

It is admirable and it is absolutely what the Magic should do in the wake of the Dwight Howard trade. Orlando has to re-establish what it wants to do and restart the rebuilding process. It is going to take patience to get back to the level the Magic were at from 2008 until 2010 or 2011, but it is possible with the right pieces and a patient approach.

It feels like Orlando is moving in the right direction with this overarching view of the franchise and its future.

Here, it might be best to take a moment and pause and reflect how the Magic got to this point. I mean, how did they really get to this point where a complete rebuild is absolutely necessary.

For all the talk of process and rebuilding the culture, didn’t the Magic have that already? Wasn’t this a team that had an upward projection and stunned many by breaking through to the Finals in 2009? Wasn’t this a team that had a 33-8 closing kick to the 2010 season and were a couple close losses away from a second straight Finals appearance?

Orlando’s culture was not quite as all-encompassing as Rob Hennigan envisions during the Stan Van Gundy era. There was a de-emphasis on the Draft and a spending model that was all about winning now. But things were not all bad. After all, the Magic still had the flexibility to make two major deals in December 2010 to change the direction of the franchise.

The Magic had a healthy culture and a winning tradition, as the Magic continually point out as reasons for hope for a rebound and return to the top. Again, why did things fall apart.

The story of the Magic’s fall is still being written for public consumption. Likely, Magic fans will not know the whole answer to that question. But we are piecing together publicly why Dwight Howard soured so much on the Magic and things completely fell apart.

Another piece or theory came down from former head coach Stan Van Gundy, who was on 740 AM in Orlando with the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi:

“What happened, to sum it up — and I think, and I have with both the players and the media, I’ll take my share of the blame and, in my mind, management should take theirs — we had developed, over the years, a very good atmosphere around our team. It was team-first, it was about hard work and preparation and I thought that we did things the right way. Otis and I were on the same page in terms of the culture we wanted to create and everything else. And the Dwight thing was so big, and it should have been in one way — this is your franchise player and the whole thing — but in an effort to make Dwight happy and everything else, we compromised a lot of our culture and values that we had before.

“I think that is always a mistake. Once you compromise those things, everything is going to go south. And that is exactly what happened to our organization. It was no longer a team-first thing. It was no longer about trying to win games and what was best for the organization. It was inevitable that things would not go as well.”

Culture, there is that word again. It is a big buzzword in the Magic office right now. Orlando is trying to change its culture and the way it will build its organization in the future. it has seen three star players embrace Orlando and then exit bitterly, leaving destruction and rebuilding in its wake. That is not easy for a young franchise like the Magic to continually go through. So sustainability is the other buzz word.

What Van Gundy seems to be intimating in this statement is that Orlando had that. The team had a winning culture and enjoyed playing together and, most importantly, were winning together. Dwight Howard’s free agency and the power he tried to exert within the franchise likely changed things.

AP Photo/DayLifeI have always said the Howard era could have been saved until the trades of December 2010. As we can clearly see now — three-fourths of the players acquired in that trade are gone and Orlando was reportedly trying very hard to get rid of Hedo Turkoglu too — that was an awful trade. Orlando traded away all its tradeable assets at the time — Marcin Gortat and Vince Carter specifically — for, really, nothing. Certainly not the same level of production. The results speak for themselves.

It is unclear whether this is where the culture change within the Magic occurred. It very well may have happened earlier. Van Gundy could even be referring to the breakup of the 2009 Finals team. Whatever the case, the culture did change and the Magic did fall.

Orlando could clearly see this, even if Otis Smith could not, in December 2011. Orlando signed Glen Davis, supposedly one of the players on Dwight’s rumored list, and Jason Richardson, a client of Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan. Orlando seemed clearly to be appeasing to Dwight Howard, this was quite clearly something that was not tenable.

Then you hear Van Gundy say the Magic really changed once Bob Vander Weide was fired after his bizarre incident with Dwight Howard. The way the Magic were structured was Alex Martins ran the business side of the franchise and Otis Smith ran the basketball side. Both reported to Vander Weide. When Vander Weide was fired, Martins was promoted to his job and seemingly took over the whole organization.

Van Gundy characterized Martins as someone without basketball knowledge and a “naivete” about how to run the team. Whether that is true or not, maybe only Van Gundy and those who have worked with Martins truly know. Martins is an extremely saavy business person. It is hard to tell how much of a hand Martins had in basketball decisions. However, there were several rumors at the time that Martins nixed deals Smith had set up to trade Dwight before the trade deadline and even as far back as December.

Any culture change that could happen in Orlando also means there needs to be a change, or at least a recognition of their role, from the front office.

Again, we do not know the whole story. But as Orlando moves forward, the franchise needs to learn from its mistakes and receive these lessons and criticisms as a chance to learn.

Rebuilding and establishing (or re-establishing) the culture is certainly the first step for Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn as they set out on this process. This was a culture that was largely lost in an extremely costly manner in the vain pursuit of a championship and in the efforts to appease a star player.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily