The doubts have ended, and the Magic have begun an overhaul of their basketball-operations department that may or may not help them retain superstar center Dwight Howard for the long-term.
“It’s time for new leadership and a new voice with a different approach to building a championship basketball operation,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said.
Van Gundy’s dismissal and Smith’s departure follow perhaps the most turbulent season in team history, a season that began with a trade request by Howard and was marked by an undercurrent of tension between Howard and Van Gundy and Howard and Smith.
Many NBA observers believed the only chance the Magic had to keep Howard was to let Van Gundy and Smith go. Still, it remains unclear whether those moves will prompt Howard to sign a long-term extension to stay with the team beyond the 2012-13 season, the final year of his contract.
Martins said the team intends to replace Smith before the NBA draft on June 28, and that the new general manager will recommend coaching candidates.
Potential head-coaching candidates include Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw, Golden State Warriors lead assistant coach Michael Malone and former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan.
Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan might surface as dream coaching candidates, but they are considered long shots.
Van Gundy, 51, exits as the winningest coach in franchise history.
Van Gundy and his longest-tenured assistant coaches — Bob Beyer, Steve Clifford, Patrick Ewing and Brendan Malone — compiled a 259-135 regular-season record (for a franchise-best .657 winning percentage) and a 31-28 playoff record (for a franchise-best .525 winning percentage).
"[I] don't really want to comment except to say that I am really proud of what we accomplished over the past five years and I look forward to whatever comes next," Van Gundy said in a text message to the Orlando Sentinel.
A man whose rumpled appearance belies his keen basketball mind, Van Gundy cemented his reputation as one of the hardest-working, best-prepared coaches in the league during his time with the team. In 2009, he guided the Magic to their second NBA Finals appearance in team history.
But he occasionally annoyed veteran players with his demanding expectations, his demonstrative sideline demeanor and his blunt assessments of their play during press conferences.
“I don’t mean this in any way as a negative toward Stan, because strategically he’s as good a coach as I’ve ever been around,” Martins said.
“But there are other parts to the job in terms of relationships and how you go about those relationships, relating to players, relating to everyone. Strategically, we may not be able to find anybody better, but there is another part of the job that I do think that, as we look for a head coach, we’ll be focused on in terms of how the coach relates to his players and other coaches and others in the organization.”
By all accounts, Van Gundy, his coaching staff and their players deftly handled the distractions related to Howard’s uncertain future this past season. The team jumped out to a 32-18 record and seemed like it would cruise to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference standings.
But Van Gundy may have sealed his own fate on April 5.
That morning, with rumors circulating that Howard had asked Magic executives to fire Van Gundy, the tension between Van Gundy and Howard reached a boiling point. After the Magic completed a shootaround to prepare for a game that night, a reporter asked Van Gundy whether he believed Howard wanted him fired.