This Orlando Magic team suffers from an identity problem. It extends beyond the standard peaks and valleys of an NBA season, where players have highs and lows within their given system. In Orlando, minutes are in flux – players are unsure of their roles, and they seem to passively fear retribution from someone higher on the totem pole.
This lack of direction is deep-seeded and flows from the top down. No one is "safe", as evident by the trading of former cornerstone Tobias Harris, and the shopping of second overall pick Victor Oladipo.
For anyone watching the team. there are long stretches in-game where it’s easy to wonder, "what’s the plan here?" The answer to this riddle is complex, and it lies within the mind of someone with much more basketball intelligence than we will ever posses. To understand where this franchise is heading, we must examine the big picture as it’s viewed by the man who runs the show.
Rob Hennigan has been praised as a basketball savant since his days as a player, both in high school and at Emerson College where he finished his career as the program’s leading scorer. His cerebral approach to the game – running an offense, reading screens – always seemed to catch the eye of his coaches.
It was no surprise when the San Antonio Spurs offered him an internship straight out of college, or when the Thunder came knocking with an offer of a larger role four years later. He would serve as "director of college and international player personnel", a formal title that translated to Hennigan watching around a hundred games a year. He traveled from basketball meccas to run-down gyms across the globe, finding gems such as Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden.
The next logical step would be a job as general manager, and the Magic would give him that chance. At age 30, Hennigan became the youngest general manager in the NBA. Unlike San Antonio and OKC, however, the situation was far from stable.
What a Mess…
Hennigan took over the Magic at the heat of the Dwightmare. His steadfast, calming personality was welcomed in the wake of that chaos. Exactly a month after the firing of head coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith, Hennigan found himself sitting at a podium answering questions about how he would clean up their messes.
His solution was holistic and new-aged, far from the conventional wisdom that the fan base was used to seeing. Under the Smith-Van Gundy regime there were stars and max contacts, high-flying offense and skilled shooters. Magic fans were used to winning. Hennigan’s plan was to blow up the team – to skip the years of decline and go straight for a hard reset. He wanted to put down the horse instead of watching it limp around the stable.
But first, he would need to draft.
Just seven days after that introductory press conference was his first shot to prove himself, the 2012 NBA draft. Because the franchise’s 37-29 record the previous year, he wouldn’t be given a great position.
When the name Andrew Nicholson was called, there seemed to be two very distinct reactions from fans. The first group was dismayed, not by the player but by the position. With Glen Davis, Ryan Anderson, and several other quality role players on the roster, it seemed that he would never crack the lineup. The second group cried "genius!" convinced that the Spurs-groomed talent guru had found his first unheralded star in Orlando.
As it turned out, Nicholson would be the first in a long line of players whose future potential would translate into present-day uncertainty.
The Island of Misfit Toys
After the draft, Hennigan got busy. First, he would need a head coach – one that could steer this ship through the waves of mediocrity. He needed a Gregg Popovich to his R.C. Buford, so he hired an equally young disciple from Pop’s coaching tree. Jacque Vaughn, a former player most known for his time alongside Paul Pierce at Kansas, would be introduced as Orlando’s new head coach. Now Hennigan could focus on the sleek new Magic 2.0.
In line with his team-imploding philosophy, he declined to match the New Orleans Hornets’ offer for Anderson. Fresh off of a season as the NBA’s most improved player, Ryno was headed to New Orleans. Above all else, this proved that Hennigan had a plan and that he was committed to it. Anderson was a favorite of fans, as well as ownership, but neither would sway Hennigan from his process.
Soon after, Hennigan was forced to make the move that still remains his most important as an executive – the departure of Dwight Howard. Despite having his hand forced, and losing the best player in the four-team deal, Hennigan has looked smarter and smarter with each passing year. The Magic came out of the deal with current center Nikola Vucevic, outside scorer Arron Afflalo --who was later cashed in for Evan Fournier--, and the young and raw Maurice Harkless. They would also receive three first round picks, one of which, following a draft night trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, became Elfrid Payton. The young Rob Hennigan had pulled off his first big boy trade, and he’d made off like a bandit.
These first three years would be characterized by the same approach; out went the familiar faces – Howard, Anderson, J.J. Redick, Hedo Türkoğlu, Jameer Nelson – and in came a new crop of talent. For many, it was time to go. They had given Orlando some of their best years and it was time for them to bring experience to a new team.
As these clearly established veterans left, it transformed Orlando’s roster into an island of misfit toys – a place of constant shifting where no one’s role was safe. This young core of clearly limited players – Vucevic, Harkless, Elfrid, Tobias, Nicholson, Fournier – even Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, and Mario Hezonja – they would all be competing for the same minutes. Like an NBA version of Making the Band, these young stars would spend years of tribulation watching their stock rise and fall for a chance to be part of Hennigan’s promised success.
The Promised Land (Sort of)
In year four of the rebuild, the stakes have been much higher. For the first time, these pieces are expected to work together – to be viewed as part of a functional whole as opposed to independent science experiments. New head coach Scott Skiles has made it clear from day one that the playoffs would be the goal.
As the month of January rolled around, however, it became clear that the roster was lacking. These flaws in the team seemed clearer with each loss; Vucevic struggled to defend screens, Payton’s shot wasn’t progressing, Tobias’s game was at odds with the new system, Oladipo had lost his starting role. The team lacked leadership, and they lacked continuity. Skiles has continued to stress that the Magic "have a lot of losses on them" and that the years of losing have worn a groove into the mentality of the young team.
So what now?
When the Golden State Warriors came to town, their roster was composed of veterans. Despite going through a similar rebuild which started a year before Orlando’s, there is a night and day difference between the two rosters. Of the Warriors’ 14 active players that made the trip to Florida, nine had at least five years of NBA experience. This contrasts with a Magic roster that featured nine of its 14 players with a maximum of five years experience.
To support their young core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, Golden State was able to acquire veterans Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, who add depth and leadership to the roster. These are the kinds of moves that Hennigan has yet to secure. Mediocrity has been the mission so far, but what kind of executive will he prove to be when the chips are down?
So far, his record with free agents has been less than stellar. That deal that sent Anderson to New Orleans was for $34 million over four-years; he would sign Channing Frye, a worse version of the same player, for $32 million over four years. C.J. Watson has done little to justify his three-year, $15 million dollar salary. Jason Maxiell, Ben Gordon, the list goes on. It would be difficult to name a single meaningful free agent that Hennigan has brought to the Magic. This summer, however, that comes to an end. He will be expected to sign one, if not two difference-making veterans to lead the team to the promised land.
There is no doubt that this offseason will define Hennigan’s tenure as the Magic’s GM. In a city that enjoyed so many years of success, fans’ patience is starting to wear thin. The former scout will need to do more than select young talent – he will need to sell grown men on the city of Orlando, and convince them that winning here will be possible.
Moreover, he will need to clearly define this team’s identity – to construct a roster with leaders and stick with a system for the long term. The era of players as trade chips is coming to a close. The auditions are over, and whichever members of the young core survive this offseason deserve the assurance that they will be part of the team’s long-term plans.
As a savvy veteran, would you feel comfortable playing for an organization that tells you the very same things it once told Tobias Harris?