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Zimmerman: It’s not you, NBA coach, it’s them

Stan Van Gundy is a great NBA coach.

He’s a brilliant basketball mind who took a defensively dysfunctional organization and turned it into an efficient winning machine. His five-year stint with the Orlando Magic was easily the most successful coaching tenure in franchise history, with a Finals appearance in 2009 accentuating a 259-135 regular-season record.

Now, Stan Van Gundy is unemployed because the culture of coaching has transformed to accommodate the ever-growing trend of players demanding more respect than those they should call their bosses.

To say the position of NBA head coach is in a state of flux would be like calling Kobe’s shot selection a bit excessive. Of the 29 coaches currently employed by NBA franchises, only three began in their current roles before 2008, with just one, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, starting prior to 2000. Aside from Popovich, and possibly Boston’s Doc Rivers, it’s ridiculous to even attempt to make a case for any current head coaches as future Hall of Famers.

This is disheartening. Basketball has skyrocketed in global popularity and, like any growing sport, has evolved to become scientifically analyzed and produced. Coaches and players fluidly understand certain facets of the game that just didn’t exist 25 years ago. With the game becoming visibly more skilled at every level, the NBA coaching fraternity should consist of 30 of the most qualified people in the world.

The problem is, this isn’t the case. Out of the NBA writers I follow on Twitter, I could easily pick five that I would choose to serve as head coach for my team over a multitude of current leaders. These include people who didn’t play organized hoops past high school, which is irrelevant. The argument that these guys haven’t been there before and couldn’t guide a group of professional athletes is antiquated at best.

Coaches are picked through a type of “old boys” club that promotes nepotism and perpetuates the cycle of promoting former NBA affiliates unsuited to fill the role. It’s why we’ve seen mind-numbing substitutions and even more ludicrous quotes coming from guys in charge of playoff teams. That can’t happen at the highest level of any sport.

The root of the issue is money. As the battle to become a “max-contract player” wages on, those already in that upper echelon of salaries or those who feel deserving of greater recognition take it upon themselves to demean their bosses and stage verbal coups. Those in higher management are afraid of alienating star players–their moneymakers–and often force coaches onto the most uncomfortable of islands. How can a guy possibly do his job with the looming threat of a rebellious star constantly looming over everything?

This past season’s Dwight Howard saga was brutal for me to endure as a Magic fan, but nowhere close to as painful as it must have been for Van Gundy. Dwight’s appalling lack of respect for his coach–who I believe transformed Howard into a dominant post defender–ultimately led to the coach’s demise. Van Gundy is a hard-ass, a no-nonsense basketball disciple who refused to give in to constant outside pressures. He went about his job, coached his team the way he thought it should be coached and managed to get the Magic to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, with or without Howard. As a reward, he got canned.

Star culture won’t budge without a dramatic change in player accountability. In an ideal world, every one of the 30 franchises would routinely and sufficiently punish players who refuse to adhere to a coach’s philosophy. That doesn’t mean that players shouldn’t have a say; they should just handle themselves professionally and with cautious candor. Without this radical alteration, coaching positions will continue to be occupied by multimillionaire babysitters who succumb to their leading scorers instead of teaching the game of basketball. I don’t want to be a part of that world anymore.

This is possibly an exaggerated rant in the wake of Orlando’s recent decision, but basketball fans can’t possibly like the direction in which things are headed. People like Vinny Del Negro and Mike Brown are in unbelievably high-profile positions on teams that should be regular contenders. There’s something wrong with that.

Bring coaches back. Basketball misses them.

Zach Zimmerman may or may not own a Dwight Howard jersey. Ask him to show you his wardrobe at zachz “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter “at” Zach_Zimmerman.

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