AP Photo/John Raoux
The 30-year-old whippersnapper general manager of the Orlando Magic, Rob Hennigan, was brought in to lead the Orlando Magic brain trust in their attempt to remake the roster through draft picks, not with the usual flashy free agent signings. It’s a track similar to the one navigated by his mentors — Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and R.C. Buford in San Antonio.
There will be no Rashard Lewis signing or other overpriced free agent bluster debuting at Amway Center next year, but that’s fine because the rebuilding process begins with the ability for Hennigan and his staff to identify draft diamonds and facilitate adroit trades, which have brought his tutors in Oklahoma City and San Antonio multiple playoff berths and championships.
That could be the Magic’s future as well, because Hennigan has already proven himself to be an astute judge of talent with his acquisitions over the first year of his tenure.
Hennigan’s transactions thus far have included trading the unhappy Dwight Howard and the expiring contract of J.J. Redick for solid returns on investment, even with a cloud of initial skepticism hovering over the former.
It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to believe that he’ll do the same in the 2013 draft, regardless of what the ping pong balls spit out on May 21 when the lottery takes place. Hennigan has earned the trust of the Magic fanbase by the deft way he’s handled this first post-Dwight season despite finishing with the worst record in the league (20-62).
Orlando has got some great, young talent in the frontcourt, a stable of draft picks coming over the next four or five years as part of the Howard trade, and assuming they waive Hedo, they’ll be eight figures under the cap next season. He’s effectively gotten the franchise back to the tabula rasa setting fans have wanted since Dwight first called that awkward press conference with Stan.
The post-CBA NBA demands that general managers draft smartly and trim the fat off a payroll and Hennigan has done so adequately — if not above the mean — since getting hired last June. That’s why Magic fans should trust his judgement this summer when Orlando’s draft picks are announced. Right now, the Magic will have the best chance at landing the coveted top pick in the draft on June 27th.
Lets say the ping pong balls fall Orlando’s way and Hennigan drafts the ostensible number one pick in this “down year,” Nerlens Noel, despite already having a good base of talent in the front court. Woe is the man who repeats past mistakes, like drafting a specious college player (played 24 games before going down with an ACL tear) after another player drafted out of high school left on such bad terms.
So maybe Hennigan — weary of the maturity level of Noel — elects to draft someone else with the top pick. Or, learning from the cagey executives he worked for previously, he trades down from the top perch on the draft board and grabs one of the available backcourt players. Trey Burke, out of Michigan, might be a good choice, and even though Jameer Nelson has been extended through the 2014-15 season, he’s past the traditional peak years for NBA players at 31 years old. So it makes sense to draft a guard like Burke who can shoulder some of the workload at point in case the oft-injured Nelson again goes down.
Marcus Smart has elected to stay at Oklahoma State for another year, as he’s only just-completed his freshman year in Stillwater. But there are other choices for the parsing: Ben McLemore out of Kansas is a 6-foot-5 shooting guard that was clearly the best player on Kansas’ team this season even if he appeared, at times, differential to his older teammates and didn’t show an ability to create his own shot. Victor Oladipo, out of Indiana, is probably one of the most athletic players in this year’s draft, and his shooting has improved even if his size has not.
But the best thing about this year’s draft, is it may just be a precursor to next summer, when players like Canada’s Andrew Wiggins and Duke-bound Jabari Parker could be available. If Orlando exceeds expectations next season and doesn’t get a shot at those top two players most likely coming out in 2014 — considered to be some of the best prospects since the ‘Melo/Wade/LeBron triumvirate in 2003 — then Hennigan has innumerable trade options to move up. For next year, and the year’s beyond, the Magic are already pretty set because of Hennigan’s prescient planning.
In exchange for Dwight, the Magic got five draft picks. Three of those picks are conditional first rounders including Denver’s in 2014. Denver also has a first round pick coming from New York next summer, so the Magic will get the lesser of the two.
The other first round picks Orlando picked up, from Philadelphia and Los Angeles, are contingent on a few factors as both teams have to satisfy prior obligations from earlier deals (the Lakers with the Suns as part of their Steve Nash deal and the Sixers with the Heat). Even though 2017 or 2018 — when the Magic might finally collect on those other two first-round picks from Philly and Los Angeles, not to mention the two second round picks Orlando accrued in exchange for Dwight — seems like a long way off (Hennigan might even by gone by them) the Magic have a trump card or two in case things fall apart.
Hennigan’s tenure so far lends credence to the idea that while Orlando is currently a team at the bottom of the standings, they’re also looking towards a brighter future. One where they won’t have to swallow another 2012-13 campaign.
By bringing in Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson on rookie deals under $2 million a year and signed through next season, with team options for 2014-15, the Magic are set to hit their stride in those years when they’ll need the Lakers and Sixers picks because their own won’t be very good: they’ll be winning too much. That’s neglecting to mention Doron Lamb and Kyle O’Quinn, both of whom are set to make less than $1 million through the 2014-15 season.
All that available cap space and with a base of solid front court players comes because of the clairvoyance of Hennigan. So it stands to reason he’ll make excellent choices on draft day as well. And maybe even in free agency.
Like his mentors, Hennigan’s taking the long view, and it’s going to pay dividends for the Magic regardless of who they snag in this June’s draft. While it’s tempting to hope for a Nerlen November next season, Hennigan isn’t thinking about what’s right around the corner, but what’s three or even four blocks past that corner.
The spring has brought a lot of overcast days for the Magic this year (they only had 2 wins since March 10), the horizon is looking sunnier, and they’re only just beginning the resurrection of the Orlando Magic.