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Thursday, May 24, 2012


Departures open up intriguing possibilities for Magic

NEW YORK — OK, now what?

In a move that caught just Jeff Van Gundy unsuspecting, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith became unrestricted free agents Monday, having been sent to the canning factory for jobs extensively done poorly.

That makes three exiled execs in one season. Let's not forget that CEO Bob Vander Weide got the boot earlier. The son-in-law of owner Rich DeVos made an admittedly under-the-influence decision in a December phone plea to Dwight Howard, trying to get him to stay.

The NBA . . . where drunk-dialing happens.

Flaunting Howard, still the NBA's glossiest centerfold despite a freshly repaired back and a provisionally scarred image, the franchise, nonetheless, has ended up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.

For assorted reasons, some perfectly legit excuses, the Magic — beloved, fledgling finalists in 2009 (lost in five to the Lakers) and conference contestants (lost in six to the Celtics the next season) — have been bounced from the playoffs twice in a row (Atlanta, Indiana) in the first round.

Now what?

Will Howard be harpooned next by the DeVos family and CEO Alex Martins or will the new front office sage be allowed to make that critical call with or without the help of his coaching choice before cleaning up the rest of the mess?

Depends on whether the powers-that-be want the incoming executive to be a puppet or a marionette. Donnie Walsh officially comes off the Knicks' books June 30, but has been given permission to be interviewed by other teams.

If Walsh, as well as Danny Ferry, Billy Knight, Jim Paxson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Chris Mullin, rising free agent Rick Sund or anyone with any presence and pride, weren't assured a strong say regarding Howard's situation, for starters, I can't believe he'd have any interest. As you might recall, he endured that misery working for the insufferably demeaning James Dolan.

Rich (owner) and Dan (chairman) DeVos are more disposed to allow the (alleged) basketball experts to make basketball decisions. Of course, they might feel a lot different today in light of how much Smith cost them in terms of obscene salaries, both paid off and currently owed ($67 million for 2012-13) and mostly worthless assets.

On the other hand, if father and son permitted a novice like Smith (Golden State's former community relations director) to squander fortunes on Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon, the prospects of installing a real specialist, someone responsible for making the Pacers a consistent winner and returning the Knicks to respectability, would greatly excite them.

Howard, too.

Should Walsh show up, it might give him serious pause to contemplate staying past the one season he has left on his contract.

And why not keep Howard? Say whatever you wish about the guy . . . he's hurting' and he's high maintenance, but he's also the only signed and sealed roster resident worth anything on the open market.

* * *

Let's switch gears. What about the Lakers? In view of the Magic's upheaval and Los Angeles being bumped off in five by the Thunder, might Jerry and Jim Buss again enter the equation regarding a possible swap of Howard for Andrew Bynum?

Here's something else to throw out there: Could Phil Jackson be financially romanced to coach Howard?

If not, maybe he'd find it fascinating to manage a front office and roster for the first time? If so, would he appoint Brian Shaw as coach?

Another highly conceivable candidate, could he shake free from Milwaukee (one year left), is Scott Skiles, who also played in Orlando and remains a DeVos family and local fan favorite.

That brings us to the Nets. Does the Magic's transformation benefit, damage or further delay their pursuit to pair Howard with Deron Williams in Brooklyn, and/or impair their chances to re-sign their floor leader?

The biggest fear of the Nets throughout their agonizing negotiations with the Magic, I submit, is that someone experienced like Walsh would be hired and put the kibosh to trade talks.

The first priority, naturally, is to get fair compensation for your prized possession.

Regardless of who ends up in Amway Alley, ain't no way, no how I let Howard hold the franchise hostage again, only to kick the carcass down the road with his last minute opt-in option.

Give me the simpler times in Orlando, when all you had to worry about was a Penny Hardaway mutiny.

Forget the Nets; our greatest fear should be that the geniuses at ABC and ESPN will put Jeff and Stan Van Gundy alongside each other. If that happens, David Stern will be compelled to opt out of the league's TV contract and return to NBC.

Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.

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