By John Denton
April 13, 2017
ORLANDO – When the Orlando Magic couldn’t change the fact that they are mired in the worst five-year stretch in franchise history and couldn’t end their longest playoff drought ever major changes within the organization were inevitable.
Those changes came on Thursday when Magic CEO Alex Martins announced the firings of General Manager Rob Hennigan and Assistant GM Scott Perry. Too many misjudgments in the past five NBA Drafts, too many miscalculations on trades and free-agent signings and too much coaching upheaval severely damaged the Magic’s chances of making major strides in rebuilding. Those shortcomings fell at the feet of Hennigan and Perry and cost them jobs that they had held since 2012.
“Some things didn’t fall (Hennigan’s) way, some of the decisions didn’t work out and maybe over a longer time horizon it would have turned for him,’’ Martins said. “But this business is about results and, in my estimation, five years was enough time to get results. Other organizations have proven (the ability to successfully rebuild) during that period of time.
“The facts are that we’ve regressed this year and we made the decision that five years with this leadership team was enough to show improvement,’’ continued Martins, pointing out that the Magic had a top-10 payroll this past season and still came up short. “This organization has seen great success over the years, but this five-year period unfortunately hasn’t seen that same success. We feel as if we’ve fallen behind several of the teams that started this (rebuilding) process at the same time that we did or even after. But we also believe that we can catch up quickly with different leadership and a different approach.’’
Assistant GM Matt Lloyd, a Magic employee for five years, will serve as the franchise’s interim GM until a full-time successor is chosen. Lloyd, who worked for the Chicago Bulls for 13 years prior to joining the Magic, is expected to be a candidate for the long-term position.
Also, head coach Frank Vogel, who just completed his first season in Orlando, will remain in his position regardless of who the next GM is, Martins said.
The search for a new GM has already begun and Martins and the Magic undoubtedly will be looking for a basketball operations leader with solid communication and team-building skills. Martins stressed that strong characteristics will be more valued than prior GM experience. Still, there figures to be no shortage of candidates for the Magic’s attractive position. Undoubtedly, other elite GM candidates will look to land a Magic job where a solid core of talent with Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross and Mario Hezonja is in place. Also, the Magic will have two first-round picks in the upcoming June NBA Draft and approximately $25 million in salary-cap space with which to use to re-stock the talent on the roster.
“That’s what happens when you don’t win,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who came to Orlando three years ago following a Hennigan-orchestrated trade with the Denver Nuggets. “When you don’t win, you’ve got to make moves and the ones that usually go first are coaches or general managers. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it goes and that’s the business.’’
The dismissals of Hennigan and Perry come on the heels of a disappointing 29-53 season – one where the Magic fully expected to contend for a playoff spot after a flurry of trades and free-agent signings last July. Instead, the Magic’s bevy of new players never meshed under first-year head coach Frank Vogel and the team finished last in the Southeast Division for a fifth consecutive season.
The Magic were left with no choice but to make a move on Hennigan and Perry – the two men charged with rebuilding the Magic into winners following the crippling defection of franchise center Dwight Howard in 2012 – after seeing their last five teams struggle mightily. Orlando has posted a 132-278 record (a .322 winning percentage) since 2012. That’s the second-worst mark in the NBA over the last five seasons with only the Philadelphia 76ers being worse at 109-301 (.266 winning percentage).
Orlando’s last playoff berth came in 2012 – weeks before Hennigan was hired as GM and Perry was brought aboard as Assistant GM. The five-year playoff drought is a first in the 28-season history of the franchise.
“It was a very tough year and we didn’t deliver,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, one of the first players acquired by Hennigan in August of 2012 and the longest-tenured player on the Magic. “We didn’t meet the expectations that we had and it shows.’’
It also didn’t help Hennigan’s case that other down-on-their-luck franchises rebuilt their rosters and got back to the playoffs before the Magic could.
Boston hired head coach Brad Stevens in 2013 and over the four past seasons the Celtics have increased their win total from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53 victories, making the playoffs each of the past three years. Portland hired coach Terry Stotts in 2012 and it has been in the playoffs each of the last four seasons. Utah, which bottomed out with 25 wins in 2013-14, capitalized on several big scores in the NBA Draft and is headed to the playoffs after locking up the Northwest Division crown this season. Finally, Milwaukee, winners of just 15 games in 2013-14, is bound for the postseason for a second time in three seasons under head coach Jason Kidd.
Hennigan, who broke into the NBA as a scout and a rising executive with San Antonio and later Oklahoma City, hoped to repeat the lottery luck that helped the Magic land superstars Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Howard in previous years. However, bad ping-pong ball luck certainly played a role in the front office’s lack of success in culling superstar-level talent out of the past five drafts. The Magic fell to fourth in 2014 (and missed out on Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid) and remained stuck at fifth in 2015 (and missed out on Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis).
Players that Hennigan and his staff drafted or traded for – (19th pick) Andrew Nicholson and (50th pick) Kyle O’Quinn in 2012; (second pick) Victor Oladipo and (51st pick) Romero Osby in 2013; (fourth pick) Aaron Gordon, (10th pick) Elfrid Payton and (56th pick) Devyn Marble in 2014; (fifth pick) Mario Hezonja and (51st pick) Tyler Harvey in 2015; and (41st pick) Stephen Zimmerman in 2016 – either didn’t pan out or have yet to fully blossom into the kind of transformational players needed by struggling teams. Gordon, Payton, Hezonja and Zimmerman are the only Magic-drafted players still on the roster.
Misses on under-the-radar talents in 2012 (Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, Evan Fournier and Khris Middleton), 2013 (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, C.J. McCollum and Steven Adams), 2014 (Nikola Jokic, Dario Saric and Zach LaVine) and 2015 (Myles Turner and Devin Booker) proved costly in the Magic’s ability to stockpile talent throughout their roster. To be fair, several other teams also misjudged those players, but those whiffs become more punitive when there’s a dearth of difference-making talent, such as with the Magic.
“You need some luck and you need some moves to hit,’’ Vogel said of the difficulty of rebuilding in today’s NBA. “Sometimes you make the right move and it doesn’t work out for whatever reason. It’s difficult to create that culture that you want, but your moves have got to hit. You’ve got to hit on some lottery picks and some free-agent acquisitions and hit on some trades. It’s difficult to make all of that happen, but it’s a challenge we’re embracing (going forward).’’
Churning through four head coaches in the past five years certainly didn’t help the Magic’s continuity, either. Hennigan’s first hire, Jacque Vaughn, was 58-158 in 2½ seasons as head coach. Interim James Borrego was not retained at the end of the 2015 season, while Scott Skiles lasted just one season (2015-16) after clashes over personnel. Hennigan acted quickly last May to hire Vogel, who was considered the best coach on the market following his highly successful 5 ½-year run with the Indiana Pacers. This season, however, has tested Vogel’s mettle because of Orlando’s many struggles.
“I liked the team coming in and I thought we had a good chance, but some things didn’t work out that we’ll have to try and fix and do differently going forward,’’ Vogel said on Wednesday prior to Orlando’s season-ending defeat of the Detroit Pistons. “Gradually we were failing, but we tried our best all the way through. Mathematically we were still alive and we were still trying to compete. We were still trying to build something in terms of a winning culture. There are obviously a lot of reasons why it didn’t work out this year, but I don’t want to get into them all right now. I’m going to take some time away and evaluate the totality of it.’’
Hennigan will most be remembered as the GM who granted the trade request of the disgruntled Howard, dealing him to the Lakers in a four-team, 12-player transaction in August of 2012. However, it was other transactions that ultimately did more long-term damage to the Magic.
Orlando surrendered shooting standouts and fan favorites Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick in 2012 and ’13 for little in return. The same thing occurred with Tobias Harris and Channing Frye midway through the 2015-16 season, and the Magic have little left to show for those transactions.
More recently, Hennigan made the controversial call on going big with the personnel – even as the rest of the league was trending toward smaller, faster talent. Hennigan traded Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasovsa and rookie Domantas Sabonis for OKC’s Serge Ibaka on draft night even though the power forward was set to become a free agent in July and his statistical effectiveness had been slipping for the previous three seasons.
Free agent Bismack Biyombo to a lucrative, four-year deal even though the center has had just one highly productive season in the NBA.
The additions of Ibaka and Biyombo not only created a logjam with Vucevic, but that overemphasis on size made Orlando’s offense slow and its defense ill-prepared to stop foes that rely heavily on 3-point shooting.
Ibaka was traded to Toronto on Feb. 14 for reserve shooting guard Ross, whose shooting has allowed the Magic to shift to a more modern style of perimeter-based play. The Magic won seven games after getting Ross into the lineup, but that was far too little to help the Magic salvage the season and get back in playoff contention.
The departures of Hennigan and Perry show that the Magic could be about to undergo another major roster overhaul in hopes of getting back in the playoff mix by next season. Whoever the new GM is, several changes in the way that the Magic roster is constructed could occur. That’s something that wasn’t lost on Fournier as the final days of another disappointing regular season wound down.
“I’m fully aware that (Wednesday’s finale) might be my last game with the Magic because you never know what can happen,’’ said Fournier, whose career has blossomed in his three seasons in Orlando. “When you lose, that’s really when things shake up and teams make a lot of changes. So, yeah, everyone is fully aware (that changes could come).
“I’m not the type of guy who is concerned by that sort of thing,’’ Fournier added. “At the end of the day, my job is to get better and play basketball and I can’t control those (roster changes). To be honest, I don’t even want to think about it because it’s just a waste of time and a waste of energy. Again, you can’t control it, so why focus on it?’’
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