Now after easily one of the most tumultuous seasons in their history, they made the first in what promises to be a huge off-season shake-up
The Magic fired coach Stan Van Gundy on Monday and agreed to part ways with general manager Otis Smith, severing ties with two of the architects of one of the most successful runs in franchise history.
Smith and Van Gundy's relationship with Howard was the centerpiece of drama the team faced all season and following their second straight first-round playoff exit, CEO Alex Martins said the shift was warranted.
"It's time for a new leadership and a new approach," Martins said at a news conference to discuss the moves. "We simply came to the decision that we were not on the right track,"
Martins wouldn't go into many specifics about what he is looking for in replacements, saying only that he and ownership want to fill the general manager post by June's NBA draft.
He said he would sit down with ownership on Tuesday to begin ironing out the details of both searches.
Phone and text messages left with Van Gundy and Smith by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Orlando went 37-29 in the regular season but was eliminated in five games by Indiana after a rash of late-season injuries that included back surgery for Howard. Orlando went 5-12 without him.
Martins said those consecutive first-round playoff exits were "simply not good enough."
In early April, Van Gundy claimed top-ranking team officials had told him that Howard had asked management to fire Van Gundy as a condition of the centre signing a long-term contract beyond 2013. Howard denied it.
Martins addressed that dispute directly, saying "At no time during that time did Dwight ask me to have Stan fired."
With a relationship with Smith dating back to the Magic's inaugural season when Smith was a player and a five-year relationship with Van Gundy, Martins also called Monday "the most difficult day of my career."
Both Smith and Van Gundy are under contract through next season and both of their contracts will be honoured. The current assistant coaching staff has also been offered the opportunity to stay on for now.
Van Gundy coached the Magic for five seasons. He finished with a 259-135 record, going 31-28 in the playoffs.
Smith departs after six years. He was the architect of Magic teams that made it to the playoffs in each of those seasons, winning the Eastern Conference championship in 2009. But he also made several questionable moves, including trades for Vince Carter and Gilbert Arenas that failed to work out long-term.
The day after the Magic's season ended with the loss to the Pacers, Smith said that he would need a few days to even decide whether he wanted to return to that position following the tough year, setting it as a "50-50" chance.
Van Gundy said at the time he wanted to return and was hoping that the ultimate decision would be about performance solely.
"When you're talking a professional relationship, what matters — at least to me — is the results," Van Gundy said. "I don't care if it's a business relationship where two people at work are driving a business to make money, or if it's a sports relationship, where the object is to win games."
But both also have acknowledged that this lockout-shortened season was trying for everyone involved.
"This season, and we've been digesting it all year, has been the longest, shortest season that we've had," Smith said. "But it's something that you have to go through. Most sports franchises at some time go through a little bit of uncertainty and this is our time."
Martins said that ideally the Magic's next coach will have a championship pedigree, though acknowledged that the search wouldn't exclude assistants or others who have experience. He said the same was true for the general manager position.
Martins was effusive in his praise as Van Gundy as a "great strategic coach," but acknowledged that one of the factors they want to see in a new coach is someone who is great at building relationships with players.
"Strategically we may not be able to find anyone better," he said.
Howard often commented about Van Gundy's grumpy demeanour on the floor, saying it was at times counterproductive for the team.
This past summer Smith met with Van Gundy and he left that meeting pledging to make improvements. It included him meeting with a Stanford University psychology professor for advice on how to be a better leader.
And it seemed to work, with Van Gundy incurring just one technical during the shortened regular-season, a low during his Magic tenure.
But it wasn't enough to save his job.
Now the attention shifts to Howard, who remains in Los Angeles recovering from his surgery.
Martins said team officials continue to be in dialogue with the all-star, but hasn't yet gotten an answer on whether he would like to stay beyond next season when his contract expires.
After a season spent in limbo before Howard finally opted into the final year of his deal, Martins has said the team won't repeat the same ordeal. That at least leaves open the possibility the Magic could trade him at some point should Howard not agree to sign long-term.
"I think the decision is on Dwight now," Martins said. "Dwight needs to decide where his future lies."
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