The distraction has been there from Day One of the 2011-12 season. It has come and gone, but has always been there. Now with two weeks until it finally, and perhaps mercifully, ends, the pressure will get ramped up. Rumors and speculation have already begun now that the All-Star Break has passed. Decision time regarding Dwight Howard is coming.
There are still games to play before then though. Seven more to be exact before the trade deadline. And there is no telling how many of those any player will be around to play. That is the unfortunate reality of the trade deadline and the unfortunate reality for the Magic.
Now that March 1 has come around and the All-Star Game has passed (along with the threat Dwight Howard would not be in a Magic uniform for Orlando’s big bash), everything has ramped up as the pressure to resolve the situation has increased.
Those seven games will still be played though and each one could become critical for the Magic’s playoff hopes — they are still officially fifth in the conference, but would have home court over the fourth-seeded 76ers, whom the Magic have a 1.5 game edge over for the moment.
Ahead of the firestorm coming the Magic’s way, Stan Van Gundy said before Thursday’s game against the Thunder that he has addressed the team generally and some players specifically about handling the rumors and staying focused on the task at hand. Van Gundy did not say whom he talked to specifically. But, just knowing human nature, he said it must be impossible for the players to put aside the feeling of rejection and just play for as long as you can.
“There is the psychological part of guys feeling like they’re not wanted. I think most guys can handle that, they know it’s part of the business,” Stan Van Gundy said. “I think it’s a lot of it is the life-altering part. You establish a life. Of course, it’s going to be on their mind. I don’t think they can avoid it if they wanted to. I actually think they try to stay away from it — the TV and the newspapers. But everybody they run into, everybody is going to be talking about it. It’s not an easy thing.”
Van Gundy said he could not imagine a job where a person can be uprooted without much warning and told to be somewhere else in 48 hours. It is something that is unlike any other business, really. The worst the team can do to him, Van Gundy said, is fire him. But at least then he still gets to live at home and get paid. He does not have to do anything else.
Whether that makes it harder for Van Gundy to relate to what his players are going through and reach them on this particular topic might be seen on the court if the players do get distracted. The job Van Gundy really has to accomplish in the next two weeks is keeping the focus on the court. The Magic are still playing with the same maddening inconsistency that surely troubles Van Gundy.
What Van Gundy said to his team was to make the court a sanctuary and not worry about the outside stuff. It is easier said than done, but Van Gundy is urging his team to focus on the things they can control. And what Otis Smith or Dwight Howard say and do off the court are not part of that.
“To think that guys aren’t going to think about that stuff with all that going on is not realistic,” Van Gundy said. “My point is it’s out of their control. You’re professionals, and we have good professionals. And you’re competitive people.
“Number one: Take care of what you can control. And number two, the point i tried to make to them, is the time we’re on the court, the practices, walk-throughs, games that’s the only time you can escape from it. As soon as you leave here, you know. There is agents, there is families, the TV, newspapers, everything else, that’s all it’s about. And people [want to know] what’s going to happen and you’re family wants to know. But at least when we’re here, you can escape from it some. Let’s just try and get our minds on basketball and play the game. Again, that’s an easy thing to say and that’s what they should do.”
Precisely, much easier said than done considering how ubiquitous opinions are about Dwight Howard and what will happen next. Van Gundy, in trying to keep the focus on the court and remind his players to do that, is doing about all he can do in that department.
The problem is, the distraction has been constant. While other teams might be dealing with the trade deadline distractions for the first time as trade talks really heat up before the deadline, Orlando has been dealing with them since day one.
Like Magic fans, Van Gundy says his team just wants them to end. Once they do, then the focus can really turn back to the court and playing basketball. And, maybe even then, we will see the improvement in energy and consistency on the court that the team has struggled with all year to this point.
“I think the mindset of our guys is they want it over,” Van Gundy said. “I made a point to one of them yesterday. I said, ‘I know it’s tough, but, come on, it’s always like that at the trade deadline.’ And he said, ‘It has been like that for us since the first day of training camp,’ which was a good point.
“Everybody goes through these trade deadline things, but we’ve been living with it a long time. And Dwight is the most high-profile guy in the league that is available right now or is going to be available at the end of the year. And so that’s going to get played up a lot. To think that is not going to cross guys’ minds and not going to be something they think about and talk about, that’s unrealistic.
“I think for the most part, our guys have handled it pretty well. but that still doesn’t get you to the level of engagement and focus and energy that you need to be at ideally.”