Rebuilding Magic Using Thunder as Model
The Orlando Magic found themselves at a crossroads last June. Otis Smith had resigned, Stan Van Gundy had been fired and Dwight Howard had one foot out the door. The organization was essentially starting from scratch and they had to make difficult decisions that would shape the franchise for years to come.
The first step in the Magic’s rebuilding process was hiring a new general manager, someone who could orchestrate the offseason of upheaval that was about to take place in Orlando. After much consideration, the team’s ownership zeroed in on Rob Hennigan as the man for the job.
Even though the 30-year-old Hennigan had no experience as a general manager, the Magic fell in love with his vision and long-term plan. Hennigan pitched that the Magic should model their franchise after the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were playing in the NBA Finals as Hennigan interviewed for the job.
Before becoming a perennial contender, Oklahoma City was in the exact same position as Orlando. After losing their two franchise players, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, they had to rebuild from scratch. They endured a dreadful three-year stretch in which they went 74-172. They were one of the youngest teams in the league and they struggled to compete on a nightly basis. However, the losing seasons yielded top draft picks, which were used to select the next cornerstones of their franchise: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Then, Durant, Westbrook and Harden were given minutes from day one, which allowed them to develop and experience success ahead of schedule.
Hennigan was part of that rebuilding effort in Oklahoma City. He joined the organization in 2008 as their director of college and international player personnel, and he was promoted to assistant general manager of player personnel in 2010. He developed a close relationship with Thunder general manager Sam Presti, since both men attended Emerson College and got their start in the NBA as interns with the San Antonio Spurs. Hennigan was in the front office as the Thunder went from bottom feeders to world beaters quicker than anyone expected and he felt that Oklahoma City’s blueprint for success could be duplicated.
What is the Thunder model? Stockpile promising, high-character players and put them in a supportive, structured environment that allows them to reach their full potential. Hire a young head coach that can relate to his players and grow alongside them. Dump bad contracts and spend wisely going forward. Accumulate as many draft picks as possible and select players who fit the unselfish, team-first culture.
Hennigan got the job in Orlando, becoming the youngest general manager in the history of the NBA, and started to put his plan into action. He hired Jacque Vaughn, who at 37 years old became the league’s youngest head coach. He traded Howard in a four-team deal that netted Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, three first-round picks and two second-round picks. He also used the blockbuster trade as an opportunity to dump the ugly contracts of Jason Richardson and Chris Duhon. Perhaps most importantly, he resisted the temptation to trade for Andrew Bynum – a move that looks very smart today – and instead stuck to the OKC model of bringing in as many high-potential prospects as possible.
Many of the individuals who worked with Hennigan in Oklahoma City rave about him. They truly believe he can turn the Magic into a team that closely resembles the Thunder and has similar success. Hennigan still calls and texts Presti as well as Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
“Rob is very good,” Brooks said of Hennigan. “He’s talented, loves the game and has a passion for what he does. The organization has a guy that they can count on, who’s going to be very diligent in all of his decisions. He’s thorough. He loves doing the right thing and he’s never afraid of working. The players he will acquire are going to be high-character guys who are committed to being good teammates and good workers. They’ll be players that this community in Orlando can be very proud of. He’s going to be very, very good for a lot of years. … The [Magic] organization has a guy that I have a lot of respect for. ”
“I really believe in Rob Hennigan,” Durant said. “He was here with us [in Oklahoma City] the last few years and I believe what he is doing with these guys is going to push them over the top. I am a big fan of the Magic and I would like to see them do well.”
Nine months in, Hennigan’s plan is looking good. Vucevic seems like a long-term answer at center, averaging 12.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and one block per game. Harkless is just 19 years old and already in a starring role for the Magic, averaging 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and two steals since his role increased after the All-Star break. Tobias Harris, who was acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for J.J. Redick, and Andrew Nicholson, who was drafted 19th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, have also played extremely well and seem like core players for the Magic going forward.
Rookies Kyle O’Quinn, DeQuan Jones and Doron Lamb round out Orlando’s young nucleus, which will only continue to get better since Orlando has a large stash of first-round draft picks going forward. Meanwhile, veterans such as Jameer Nelson, Beno Udrih, Afflalo and Harrington serve as the mentors in the locker room.
“They have a young group of guys who, if they keep working them and empowering them and improving them, they’re going to be special players,” Brooks said of Orlando’s young core. “They have guys who work hard. They have talented players who are going to continue to get better.”
Orlando is 18-52 on the season, but this year has been a success for the Magic because they’ve been able to identify the promising players on their roster and give them significant minutes. Making the playoffs with this young team would’ve been nice, but qualifying for the postseason wasn’t the priority when this team was assembled. Orlando wanted to completely rebuild rather than retool. They had several offers on the table that would’ve brought back veterans for Howard, deals that would’ve made the team more competitive in the short-term. However, that’s not what the team wanted. Hennigan and his staff didn’t want to become a team that finishes as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference each year. They felt that it would be better to bring in prospects, acquire draft picks and create cap space.
Rather than settling and becoming a middle-of-the-pack team, this gives Orlando the chance to become an elite team in several years by drafting multiple lottery picks and adding pieces through free agency and trades, just like the Thunder. Hennigan is determined to build a contender, even if it means taking a step back before taking a step forward. He was criticized for the haul he received in exchange for Howard, but he hopes to have the last laugh in a few years.
The Magic players hear the comparisons to the Thunder all the time, and they believe it’s fitting.
“Our GM came from the Thunder and I think he’s trying to put a similar young and athletic team together,” Harkless said. “If you look around, we have eight guys under the age of 22 or 23. I think [Hennigan] is definitely trying to use [the Thunder] as a model. I think he’s doing a good job so far.”
“I think they are a type of model for us to look at,” Harris said. “They are young guys who got the opportunity to play early in their careers and became a great team. That could be our model to look at. That could be motivation for us to get where we want to get in the next couple of years.”
Vaughn understands the comparisons, but he’s quick to point out that duplicating the Thunder’s success won’t be easy. First of all, it takes some luck. Not only do the lottery balls have to bounce your way, you have to hope that there’s a franchise-changing player available in the draft. There aren’t many individuals like Kevin Durant in this world. After that, the supporting cast has to come together and everyone has to click. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“I think the comparisons are obvious because of Rob and I’s background and our relationship with Sam Presti and the amazing job that he’s done in Oklahoma City, but the situations are different,” Vaughn said. “A lot of things have to fall in place for us to be at a level where Oklahoma City is. They’ve done it the right way. There were some [times] when it seemed like their day wasn’t coming, but it came for them. That’s kind of the inspiration that we have here.”
When the Magic hired Hennigan, it was a dare-to-be-great move. It was risky handing the reins of the franchise over to someone who had never run a team, but Orlando bought into his grand plan for the future and loved the idea of becoming the East’s equivalent of the Thunder. Now, it’s on Hennigan to live up to the hype and turn his vision into reality.