All eyes on Rob Hennigan | Magic Basketball

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Apr 13

All eyes on Rob Hennigan

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Photo by Fernando Medina/Getty Images

If there is a rock star for the Magic, it’s not Jacque Vaughn, Jameer Nelson, or even Victor Oladipo. It’s GM Rob Hennigan.

The Mark Cuban’s and Jim Irsay’s of the world have taught us that a higher-up can often get more coverage than the actual players on the team. But we’re not watching Hennigan because of his antics. We’re watching him because he is the architect holding the blueprints. Until you actually build a house, you can’t install air conditioning or organize furniture or fill the room with pine-scented candles. We can’t assess the players or coaches until Hennigan whips up a roster that is expected to win.

His background has been documented. He shot up the positional ladders in San Antonio and Oklahoma City for eight years, two cities who have had winning filtered into their drinking water for quite some time. He’s shares a hauntingly similar background with the Thunder’s Sam Presti. And he’s the youngest GM in the league at 32.

Funny how age 30 for a GM is equivalent to about 18 for a player, and 30 for a player is somewhat at or beyond his prime.

Regardless, there wasn’t a lot of questioning about the hire when it happened. Magic fans seemed to want a fresh start in every way, so a young, vibrant triggerman appeared to be much needed.

But this is neither a defense nor an attack on the man. With the end of the season finally here and our eyes glazed over with the prospects of the future, we must make a logical assessment of the Magic’s rock star. And always keep in mind the question, “Could anyone else have made more out of the same variables?”

Here are the highlights of Hennigan’s time so far:

Dwightmare saga
It’s hard to imagine a much messier situation than the one Hennigan came into immediately after he was hired in June 2012. I won’t make you relive it. But here is the most important assessment of that predicament: nobody could have kept him. The young GM objectively passed his first test because there was no other outcome but to watch the franchise superstar walk out the door. It was only a matter of what was received in exchange.

The Ryan Anderson trade
Oddly enough, out of everything I’ve read, the Anderson-for-Gustavo Ayon swap seems to be his most contested decision (Ayon was later dealt in the Tobias Harris trade). That may be fair: we shouldn’t just brush this one off just because the team was in rebuilding mode and he was looking to maintain cap flexibility. But if this turns out to be his biggest mistake, he’ll have enjoyed some prosperous, breezy years in Central Florida.

I don’t think you can shower him with praise for how this one turned out, considering how Ryan Anderson has been plagued by injuries this season in New Orleans, but it’s a C or C-minus at worst. It’s tough to argue that it really set the rebuilding process back much at all.

Draft picks
The 2012 choices, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn, have turned out to be solid, considering they were not high selections at all. You can take a look at all the players drafted afterwards, and there aren’t any players that have blossomed enough yet to say Hennigan missed — the Magic can only hope Nicholson can bounce back next season after a disastrous sophomore year. He took what was available.

Then, of course, Hennigan had Oladipo and Romero Osby selected from the 2013 draft. Oladipo won’t be winning Rookie of the Year (that honor will go to Michael Carter-Williams), but that doesn’t mean Hennigan would blink twice about drafting him again. Anyone can see he’s going to be an exciting player for years to come. As for Osby, he was waived before the regular season began. Such is the life of a second round pick.

The other trades
The rest of Hennigan’s work, in my opinion, can be assessed at about a 60 percent win. Acquiring young staples like Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, and Maurice Harkless was critical for the rebuild, and those three players in particular have panned out probably better than anyone else could have anticipated. That’s the type of vision you like to see from your GM.

The only reason I don’t rate the moves any higher is because there have been so many pieces in Hennigan’s trades that have meant absolutely nothing to the rebuild. Even Arron Afflalo will probably not be around in a few years, and then all his scoring will just have meant he stuffed stats on a bad team before the nucleus really arrived.

I do reserve the right, however, to bump up my percentage another 10 or 15 points based on how Hennigan utilizes the draft picks he acquired in the next few years, particularly the second lottery pick the Magic will be acquiring from Denver or New York this year.

The future
Hennigan has been preaching the step-by-step gospel. So perhaps his judgment will be based off his adherence to it.

This is partly why Magic fans should begin to lower their expectations on free agent signings in the next couple of years. There will be so many dangers lurking in the palaces of large-contract veterans, and the danger is always that they won’t even look the Magic’s way unless Hennigan overreaches to bring them in. This may be a case of building from the inside. And that’s frightening as well.

So with this wandering season wrapped up, what’s an assessable goal to place for Mr. Hennigan by, say, the end of next year?

A few suggestions:

  • Does he draft the right potential superstar for Orlando? Does the second first-rounder end up playing a significant role on the roster next year?
  • Does he make one or two value free agent signings? Not Jason Maxiell, a veteran presence with little basketball impact. Not Ronnie Price, a player no one expects to play much. A relatively young player who is used to winning games.
  • Does the team see a significant leap in wins? I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to expect a team ready to vie for a playoff spot in a weak conference next year. They should at least be within reach for a chunk of the season.

I’m of the mindset that next year should be that full mental turn for everyone in the Magic organization: after the summer draft, they should turn their full attention to winning every game they can, spurning future drafts from entering their thoughts. They need to start winning. Not championships, just more in the win column.

If his words are to be believed, Hennigan has had that type of mindset from day one. In a Worcester Telegram & Gazette article, he claimed that “for the Magic, we try to win every possession, we try to win every game, and there’s a reason why we try to do that. We owe that to the players on our team and we want to create a culture that’s about winning and about creating habits that will sustain themselves over time.”

“Any time you try to do anything other than that, you allow for toxicity to start to infiltrate your culture.”

I think if we keep an eye on the checklist above, we’ll know if what kind of shelf life the Magic’s rock star will be likely to have and whether or not his tenure might be toxic or transformative.

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