One of the most valuable free agents in the NBA this summer stands 5-8, has never played in an NBA game, and, while he still has a strong handle, he's in his early 50s. Stan Van Gundy might not fit the traditional mold, but in terms of individuals on the market who can help teams, he is near the top of the list.
The Orlando Magic fired Van Gundy Monday after five years at the helm, during which the Magic won 65.8 percent of its games. Among available active coaches--discounting, for now, the retired Phil Jackson--Van Gundy has far and away the best winning percentage at .641. He and Jerry Sloan (.603) are the only coaching free agents who have won more than 60 percent of their career games; next on the list is his brother Jeff, at .575.
Now obviously, Van Gundy has enjoyed certain advantages. In both of his coaching jobs, he's had the benefit of star talent--Dwyane Wade and later Shaquille O'Neal in Miami, and Dwight Howard and Orlando. Van Gundy's career record would look a lot different had he taken the Sacramento Kings job he nearly took in 2007 rather than waiting for the Orlando coaching position to come open when Billy Donovan returned to the University of Florida.
I think one of the greatest testaments to Van Gundy's coaching ability came during his last stand with the Magic, when he did not have Howard's services after back surgery. Orlando was clearly outmatched against the Indiana Pacers, yet stole Game 1 on the road and forced overtime in Game 4 with a solid gameplan, strong execution and the outside shooting that has become a Van Gundy trademark.
Last summer, while speaking to coaches at a camp during the NBA lockout, Van Gundy was able to lay out his basketball philosophy, confirming what we suspected from watching the Magic play: Van Gundy's vision of the game is strongly rooted in statistical analysis. Most obviously, that means belief in the three-pointer as an offensive bedrock.
"We think it helps our center and we think it helps our point guard in penetrating if we can spread the floor out," said Van Gundy, as quoted by the Orlando Sentinel. "The numbers think that’s a better shot than the mid-range. And the other reason is, that’s who we have."
That wasn't necessarily the Magic's talent when Van Gundy arrived. In 2006-07, when Orlando went 40-42 under Brian Hill, the team shot three-pointers at a rate more than a quarter below league average. During Van Gundy's first season, the Magic's three-point attempts more than doubled. Part of that was adding Rashard Lewis in free agency, but Lewis had primarily played small forward in Seattle. Moving Lewis to power forward when Tony Battie was lost for the season with a shoulder injury made Orlando a different--and better--team. Before the stretch four came in vogue, Van Gundy saw the benefit an additional floor spacer could provide to Howard in the post and the entire offense. The Magic improved from 22nd in the league in Offensive Rating to sixth.
Van Gundy's track record is even stronger at the defensive end of the floor, where his Orlando teams finished in the top five in Defensive Rating each of his first four seasons at the helm. (This year's team, with virtually no size outside of Howard, slipped to 14th.) Van Gundy's defenses are in the best tradition of mentor Pat Riley, his brother and Tom Thibodeau, another adherent to the same school of thinking. With Howard to protect the paint, the Magic played solid position defense and were effective against the pick-and-roll.
We can quantify Van Gundy's understanding of good shot attempts at both ends of the floor. Hoopdata.com tracks an expected effective field-goal percentage for each team based on the percentage of shots they take from the five locations Hoopdata breaks out: at the rim, 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, 16-23 feet and threes. These figures are multiplied by the league average efficiency from each spot to generate the expected performance, which is to some extent independent of talent. Orlando's expected eFG% on offense ranked second in the NBA behind the Denver Nuggets; on defense, the Magic ranked fifth, trailing Philadelphia, Phoenix, Utah and San Antonio. In 2010-11, when a healthy Howard was discouraging shots at the rim, Orlando was tops on defense and second on offense.
All of this suggests Van Gundy will be a major addition whenever he returns to the sidelines. However, I do think it's important to find the right fit. Because he's a quick-witted, fun interview, Van Gundy hasn't gotten lumped in with the league's great screamers, like Doug Collins and Scott Skiles in terms of coaches that burn out their players. There is evidence to suggest that his constant nit-picking has grated on players besides Howard, whose rocky relationship with Van Gundy led him to ask the Magic front office to make a change.
Last month, Sports Illustrated released the results of a player poll asking which coaches they would most and least like to play for, conducted at the start of the season. Van Gundy topped the latter category, getting 22 percent of the votes. He also finished eighth among coaches players would most like to play for, which sounds about right to me. Where players stand on Stan depends on their motivation. With a few notable exceptions, everyone in the NBA wants to win. A smaller percentage of players truly wants to put in the work to be elite. Most would rather take shortcuts and live with their shortcomings rather than constantly be reminded of their mistakes.
If Orlando players truly tuned out Van Gundy, it wasn't really evident from their play at the end of the season, at least after they got Hedo Turkoglu healthy and had some semblance of a normal lineup. So I'm not sure he should be considered the kind of short-term fix coaches like Collins and Skiles historically have been. I do think Van Gundy needs buy-in from his star players to be most successful.
That's what makes the Los Angeles Clippers an intriguing possibility to me. I could see Chris Paul clicking with Van Gundy, even though he will have the same kind of leverage as an impending free agent Howard did in Orlando. Van Gundy's half-court style and desire to space the floor could elevate Paul's game beyond where it already is, and Paul worked well with a demanding coach in Byron Scott with new Orleans. Of course, that would require the Clippers to let go of Vinny Del Negro and shell out the kind of salary Van Gundy is going to command on the open market.
From a strategic standpoint, Van Gundy would be a terrific fit for a Portland team with assets in need of a sense of direction. Van Gundy could take the Blazers' defense to heights it never reached under Nate McMillan. At the same time, I wonder if Van Gundy's negativity might be seen as an extension of McMillan, especially by contrast to interim coach Kaleb Canales.
Depending on what happens the rest of the summer, Van Gundy may be better served to take a season off and revisit his options in 12 months. The other open jobs--Charlotte and Washington--don't look especially appealing to a coach who wants to win now. Van Gundy will still be coveted this time next year.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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