By John Denton
April 13, 2017
ORLANDO – Magic players, many of them drafted or recruited to Orlando by Rob Hennigan and/or Scott Perry, expressed disappointment and a sense of failure that the GM and Assistant GM were fired on Thursday.
With the Magic stuck in the worst five-year stretch in franchise history and unable to snap their playoff drought since 2012, Hennigan and Perry were let go by the organization intent of getting back in the postseason race.
The moves came on the heels of Orlando wrapping up a disappointing 29-53 season – one where it hoped to compete for a playoff spot. The lack of success dropped the Magic to 132-278 (a .322 winning percentage) over the past five seasons – all of which were presided over by Hennigan. That record is the second-worst mark in the NBA since 2012 with only the Philadelphia 76ers being worse at 109-301 (.266 winning percentage).
“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.’’
With no GM in place, Magic players conducted their exit interviews with head coach Frank Vogel and other assistant coaches on Thursday. Vogel, who just completed his first season in Orlando. That comes as a welcomed relief to many Magic players who have endured lots of coaching upheaval in recent years. Vogel is the Magic’s fourth head coach in the past five years, and several players were thrilled at the prospect of him bringing some much-needed continuity to the team next season.
“It’s been difficult and a challenge (with so much coaching turnover) because you want to have something in place that can count on,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said. “There’s always a chance that it may or may not work, but you have to give it a chance to grow. We’ve been coming back (each season) and having to constantly prove ourselves to our own coaching staff.
“But it’s nice to know that Frank is going to be here. He’s a great coach and I’m excited about that,’’ Gordon continued. “(Vogel) doesn’t like to lose at all and we have that in common. He wants to be great and he feels that he has greatness within him. And I have a similar feeling.’’
Several Magic players, including centers Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, said that Hennigan and Perry were hardly the only ones to blame. The team should share in that disappointment, they stressed.
“I just feel like it was a big disappointment for us to not make the playoffs,’’ said Biyombo, who was signed to a lucrative free-agent contract last July. “We failed to our fans, to the organization and to the city. We’ve got to take full responsibility of that that and go into the summer-time with a different mindset and a willingness to think the right way.’’
Added Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic players after Hennigan acquired him in a trade back in August of 2012: “It’s part of the business when things don’t go the right way, changes happen. It’s unfortunate for Rob, who has been here since I’ve been here and he’s a guy who brought me here. He’s a guy that believed in me from the beginning. It sucks that change is happening and that things didn’t work out the way that we wanted them to, but this is how business goes. If you don’t win, changes always happen.’’
Elfrid Payton and Gordon, two players that the Magic acquired in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft, said their relationships with Hennigan and Perry extended well beyond basketball. The support and faith shown by the front office, they said, helped them grow as players over the past three seasons.
“It’s definitely hard to see those guys go because I’m a big advocate for those guys because of their belief in me and I saw where they wanted the culture of this program to go,’’ said Gordon, the fourth overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft. “With the players that they drafted, it really means that they care about character and they care about being loyal. It’s tough to see people like that go. Rob and Scott have always been there for me and they’ve always spoken highly of me. It’s the nature of the business, but those guys are going to be fine because they are basketball-wise.’’
Payton said it is difficult for him to separate business from friendships as it relates to his relationships with Hennigan and Perry. Both were strong proponents of the point guard’s abilities even though his style of play is sometimes unorthodox. That support always meant a great deal to Payton.
“A little shocked. It’s kind of tough to surprise me now, but I’m a little shocked,’’ Payton said. “I think it’s just a business (decision) – something that you hear all the time – and that’s something that you’ve just got to adapt to. It’s definitely tough (emotionally) and I’ll be reaching out to them. They drafted me and they will always have a special place in my eyes.’’
Payton is hopeful that the changes make in the front office don’t extend too far into the team. He believes that the small-ball style that the Magic played after the all-star break is a much better fit, and fans started to see the vast potential of the new roster. Despite five years of poor records and no playoff berths, Payton believes strongly that the Magic are close to turning things around.
“Honestly, I think we’re a lot closer than it seems,’’ said Payton, who compiled five triple-doubles over the second half of the season. “We’ve got the offense going now and we’re putting up points, but we’ve got to establish a defensive identity.
“I think we have guys who can do it, but we all still need to improve. Staying together and that continuity, those are the biggest things,’’ the point guard added. “I think we can do it (make the playoffs next season) with this group right now if we have a summer, a whole training camp and a preseason – I know we can do it.’’
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