“Do you approve of the job Rob Hennigan is doing as the General Manager of the Orlando Magic?”
It's an appropriate and relevant question, don't you think? And besides, 2016 was an election year - approval ratings were all the rage.
Honestly, if you would have asked me this question at this exact time last year, I'm very confident my answer would have been considerably different than it is today.
I thought Rob, all things considered, did an admirable job with the Dwight Howard situation. It's hard to argue he wasn't the clear winner of that trade. The Magic were able to net four starters (Vucevic, Afflalo, Harkless, Payton) in that deal, two of whom are still with the team (and of course, Afflalo turned into Fournier). Another draft pick is still waiting to be compensated from this deal as well. That haul is certainly not an NBA Murderer’s Row of talent, but when considering that literally everyone else in that deal failed to stick with their respective franchises longer than two years (Bynum, Howard, Iguodala, etc.), I still consider the deal to be a win for Rob and the organization.
He he also made a great deal at the Trade Deadline in 2013, sending fan favorite J.J. Redick and his expiring contract to Milwaukee for Tobias Harris. The Bucks got Redick for about 40 games before he headed West to L.A., but the Magic were able to get a former lottery pick still in his early 20’s and eager to show his new organization he could play. Fast forward a year or so and again Rob was able to flip a veteran shooting guard for a young asset, this time it was on draft night in 2014 when he sent Arron Afflalo back to Denver in exchange for Evan Fournier.
Sure there were a couple of head-scratchers and hiccups along the way. Ryan Anderson was sent packing as part of the complete organizational rebuild, the signing of Channing Frye was a bit puzzling to some. But for the most part, with assets such as Fournier, Harris, and Vucevic acquired via trades, as well as draftees Oladipo, Gordon, Payton, and Hezonja, Rob Hennigan had built his foundation. His group was still a ways away from legitimately competing when they reached the end of December in 2015, but they had shown small margins of improvement in each season of the post-Dwight era.
Rob preached long-term sustainability and the organizational desire to compete regularly; for decades, not just for a year or two. A lot of people bought this idea, I know I ate it up. But then the calendar turned and all of a sudden, everything changed....
I don't intend for this to be a conspiracy theory or “who done it” piece. I recognize that there's a very good chance someone higher up in the front office is pressuring Hennigan to make certain deals (and has been for some time now). I realize that a lot of Magic fans assume this figure is Alex Martins.
I’m not saying that I dismiss the notion of Martins overstepping his domain, not in the least. I just don't like to dwell on the unknown. Speculation doesn't make for great conversation. I know what’s on the surface, and that's the fact that Rob Hennigan is by title the GM. Therefore, rather than harping on the unprovable (meaning, who’s really in charge of making moves in Orlando’s F.O.), I prefer to simply run-down in a reasonable fashion what has been a trying calendar year for Orlando’s General Manager.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, the Magic were sitting pretty at 19-13 and smack in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They had posted a 10-5 month of December, and the years and years of the slow yet sustainable growth model were just beginning to possibly pay dividends. So “what ha-ha-happened was....”; well, 2016.
February 16th, 2016 - The Orlando Magic traded F Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for G Brandon Jennings and F Ersan Ilyasova
When I heard this deal announced on the radio, I immediately pulled off the road. No joke, no writer’s hyperbole. My focus at work around last season’s trade deadline was pretty poor to say the least, I was constantly on my phone checking social media, waiting for any kind of news to break. I didn’t think it was impossible that Harris could be dealt last season, but I honestly thought he was fairly safe.
So anyway, there I was on the side of the road (only because I was positive the radio host explained the deal wrong, he had to forget a few pieces). I immediately got on my phone to confirm that Stanley Johnson was included in the deal coming back to the Magic along with Jennings and Ilyasova. Nope, not Johnson. Okay, but the deal has to include Detroit’s 1st round pick next year, it had to. Nope.
That’s right, the Magic traded Tobias Harris for two veteran EXPIRING contracts. This was the beginning of the end of the 2015-16 season. The Magic had a miserable January of 2016 (2-12), but still had an outside chance of making the playoffs (depending on who you asked, I certainly didn’t think so). In what reeked of a panicked, impatient, hack of a deal, the Magic mortgaged a piece of the future and instantaneously tried to turn the dial forward on their rebuild.
What shocked me about this deal was how many Magic fans immediately following the trade defended the move. “This deal opened up opportunities for Aaron Gordon” some said. “This deal opened up so much cap space for Free Agents” others said. Why couldn’t Harris and Gordon play together in the same lineup again? How many top tier Free Agents have signed with the Magic again? Maybe two or three in a few decades?
Harris was not a perfect player at age 23, but he was an above average NBA player on a roster with not many of those. Regardless of how you felt about Harris, you have to recognize that the organization literally gave him away, right? Gave him away. The Magic went 12-18 to finish their post-Harris 2015-16 campaign and missed the playoffs anyway.
May 12th, 2016 - Head Coach Scott Skiles stepped down from his position
May 20th, 2016 - Orlando hired Frank Vogel as their new Head Coach
Well, this turned out be a blessing in disguise. But at the time, Skiles’ shocking departure just exemplified the dysfunction that was plaguing the Orlando Magic at the time. Questions about the Skiles hiring, specifically skepticism about who was really responsible for wanting him in Orlando to begin with, had been hanging over Rob Hennigan from the get-go. Did Skiles push for Jennings and Ilyasova to be brought in? Did someone in the Front Office above Hennigan pressure him to hire Skiles? How much control and decision-making power did Rob Hennigan truly have as General Manger of the Orlando Magic?
Then the Indiana Pacers decided to go in a different direction with their head coaching position, and within a week or so, Frank Vogel was at the helm in Orlando and all was very well in the world. See, proof that 2016 wasn’t all bad for Rob.
June 23rd, 2016 - The Orlando Magic traded G Victor Oladipo, F Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to lottery pick (#11) Domantas Sabonis for PF Serge Ibaka
I didn’t pull off the side of the road for this one. Okay, I didn’t even see it play out live. I had a plan. I was putting my daughter to bed, she takes a while to wind down. I had the draft, which I religiously watch by the way, paused and ready to go when I was finished. But during a bedtime story, my phone started blowing up. So yeah, I caught a peak and was honestly decently pleased that the Magic acquired Ibaka. I had no idea what the organization gave up.
Victor Oladipo AND a lottery pick? How? Why? I get it, you’ve got to give up something to get something. But like Harris, I though Oladipo was pretty safe. And like Harris, Oladipo was no perfect player. Still, he had shown improvement in every season he was on the Magic. He had slightly improved his outside shooting, cut down considerably on his turnovers, shown consistency on the defensive end. He was a pretty good player on a team without a whole lot of talent, and he was sent away.
So as I was pulling up basketball reference and weeping, err, confirming what I already knew about Ibaka’s significant career regression in all numbers related to athleticism, I then noticed - wait, he’s an unrestricted free agent next summer too!
Oh yeah, and the Magic threw in a lottery pick in the deal for good measure? Oladipo for Ibaka straight-up would have been pretty lopsided in favor of the Thunder, but throw in Sabonis (and Ilyasova, who by the way, was recently moved for Jerami Grant) and this trade was highway robbery by Oklahoma City.
By the way, I’m thoroughly convinced that Orlando only selected Sabonis for the Thunder, and that it would have been someone different if the Magic kept the pick. It sure seems to me like the Magic probably had a soft promise in place with Deyonta Davis, which probably caused some other teams to move on from him. Coincidentally, Davis ended up slipping to the Second Round (even though he was a projected lottery pick).
The Harris deal reeked of panic, the Ibaka deal stunk of desperation. I think the organization realized that the “prized” Free Agent Class of 2016 was not going to turnout to be as deep as once thought of, but the organization wanted to secure a veteran presence regardless. The real dreadfulness of this move won’t be realized until next summer; that is if Ibaka decides to leave Orlando and the organization is again left with nothing in return for a foundational piece (Oladipo).
July 4th, 2016 - Orlando rescinds their previous qualifying offer to C Dewayne Dedmon
This move flew quietly under the radar last summer amidst all the other free agency hoopla, but it really drove me nuts. Make no mistake, in a limited role, Dewayne Dedmon was superb at what he did. He was a rim-protector, a dominant rebounder, and a legitimate pick-and-lob guy.
For me though, it’s not even about Dewayne Dedmon on the court. Instead, I still can’t bring myself to comprehend how the organization would let him go over literally ONE million dollars. In other words, the team wasn’t willing to keep him for about 1.5% of the salary cap. I mean, someone has to sit at the end of the bench. Remember, Bismack Biyombo had agreed to join the Magic at this point, even though he couldn’t officially sign until July 7th. Still, even with Biyombo on the roster, to let a guy go over pennies is really poor management.
Do you second guess your decision a bit when an organization like San Antonio quickly scoops Dedmon up? They kind of know what they’re doing, correct? I think I would take Dedmon for $3M/year over Biyombo for $17M/year without question. Oh well....
July 7th, 2016 - Orlando officially announces the signings of C Bismack Biyombo, PG D.J. Augustin, and F Jeff Green
A few days after cutting bait with Dedmon, the organization was officially able to announce their free agent signings post-moratorium.
I distinctly remember watching Biyombo in the playoffs last year with Toronto plucking rebound after rebound off the glass and thinking, “Man, how much money is this guy making for himself this summer?” I think we were all thinking that, right? I mean, that block he had on LeBron, where he met him at the rim right at the apex of LeBron’s drive to the basket, what a lasting image.
Of course, it was all just a fleeting moment. Biyombo, to his credit, took advantage of an opportunity (remember Jonas Valanciunus went down with an injury during Toronto’s playoff run against the Heat) and ran with it. Surrounded by shooters/scorers like Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Patterson, etc., Biyombo was actually in a pretty good situation. But it’s not like NBA organizations were going to fall for the sudden spike in production, correct? He was still just the solid 18-23 MPG back-up center that he’d proved to be throughout his career.
I had a sneaky suspicion that Orlando was going to be the organization to buy into the Biyombo postseason hype. They were going to have cash available, they desperately wanted a rim-protecting center. Frank Vogel had already been successful in the past with a non-threatening offensive center in Roy Hibbert. In theory, it made sense. But man, I did not want it to happen.
Biyombo absolutely has been a dominant rebounding threat in his NBA career, there’s zero doubt about that. He’s also a legitimate interior defensive threat. I’m not dogging on him about his lack of an offensive arsenal, I promise I’m not. That’s never been a strength of Biyombo’s, and that’s perfectly fine.
I just have a problem with the money. It’s not my money, why should I care, right? I don’t know; $17M per year for Biyombo just doesn’t feel right, even in this new NBA inflated salary cap climate. I don’t care if other teams were throwing crazy money at Mozgov, Plumlee, Marjanovic, etc., that doesn’t mean Orlando had to.
To recap, I didn’t (and still don’t) have a problem with Biyombo the player. I have a problem with Biyombo the $17 million dollar player, especially when the organization refused to pay Dewayne Dedmon or Kyle O’Quinn less than $3M per year in the past to provide the exact same services and numbers.
Well at least all that cap space Hennigan cleared by trading away Tobias Harris was turned into something positive last summer. Welcome to Orlando Jeff Green, Jeff Green ladies and gentleman!
Rob’s most significant tactical mistake of 2016 was clearing space via the Harris trade to make room for veteran difference makers who were supposed to sign with Orlando in the summer of 2016. Two problems with that approach. First, if you looked at the list of available free agents, one could have reasonably determined pretty quickly that most of the available free agents were either restricted and likely to return to their organization or looking to compete for a championship and highly unlikely to sign with Orlando. Secondly, if you take a more holistic approach and look back at Orlando’s history of signing top tier free agents in general, it’s clear the organization has been highly unsuccessful (maybe three or four top free agents have signed with Orlando in 25 years) in getting guys to come to Central Florida.
To be fair, signing D.J. Augustin was a pretty quality move. Augustin had a very nice year in Denver last year, and he brings a lot to the table for the Magic: veteran leadership, shooting, balance, etc. Credit where credit is due here, not bad; Augustin is a nice compliment to Payton.
So there’s the rundown of Rob Hennigan’s 2016, pretty eventful. I realize there were some other smaller, less-significant moves that were made as well (trading away Channing Frye - who went on to be a significant role-player for the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, deciding not to re-sign Andrew Nicholson, trading for Jodie Meeks, trading for C.J. WIlcox).
The new year will be here soon; we will come to realize shortly if the upcoming calendar year is kinder to Orlando’s GM, or if the Magic ownership group decides to ultimately go in a different direction with the General Manager position all together. In 2017, the Magic very well could be headed, under a new managerial regime, into a “re-rebuild” phase two situation.
Rob got the organization through the Dwightmare, and he dealt for some promising young players along the way. But his proverbial star has faded in the last year, something clearly changed in his (or someone else’s) philosophy for how to build this team. And like a lot of other GM’s in professional sports that have come before him, Hennigan may not get the chance to see this organizational rebuild through.