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NBA AM: The Future Of The Magic Hangs In The Balance

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The Future of The Magic and GM Rob Hennigan

As the Orlando Magic approach the All-Star break with a 20-34 record and having lost seven of their last 10 games, it’s easy to say it’s time to scrap the program. General manager Rob Hennigan has had now five seasons to turn the organization around, and today they appear no closer to being back in the playoff hunt than they were when they embarked on the current rebuild.

The Magic are expected to be active around the February 23 NBA trade deadline, which may be the last chance for the current Magic front office to make this current team into something, and that may or may not be a good thing.

More and more fans and outsiders looking in wonder if the Magic are best served to let Hennigan and company make more moves, considering the current batch of moves has resulted in a very poor fit. However, the sense from inside the organization is that upper management, namely CEO Alex Martins, isn’t ready to quit on Hennigan just yet, even though the results say maybe it’s time.

Before we get into the logic of all this (right or wrong), let’s review how the Magic got here.

In 2012 the Magic parted ways with long-time general manager Otis Smith, a year after Martins assumed the role of CEO and oversight of the day-to-day of the entire team. He did a very thorough and complete search, looking for a young general manager to build the foundation for the next decade of Magic basketball. Like most teams in Orlando’s situation, they were drawn to the San Antonio Spurs model that has yielded so much sustained success in a very small market.

As Martins started to sit with would-be executives, he began to compile something of a list of characteristics he wanted in his next GM and Hennigan, to many people’s surprise, surfaced as the candidate checking off the most boxes. He was ultimately hired.

Martins knew there would be a learning curve to all of it and signed off on what would be a lengthy rebuild. Martins and Hennigan presented their plan to ownership, who signed off on the path the team is currently on.

In 2015, the Magic fired head coach Jacque Vaughn (who was handpicked by both Hennigan and Martins) and decided to explore a more experienced voice. The Magic ultimately settled in on Scott Skiles. To say the fit with Skiles and Hennigan was a shotgun wedding undervalues shotgun weddings.

The two rarely saw eye-to-eye, and that relationship ended abrutly when Skiles presented a “him or me” type ultimatum, according to sources close to the situation.

Martins tried to talk Skiles into staying onboard, and the team thought they had an understanding, and then Skiles quit on the eve of the 2016 NBA Draft combine.

The Magic scrambled to replace him, settling in on current Magic coach Frank Vogel. The view from the Magic was that Vogel was very similar in style to Skiles, and much of the planning built around Skiles would apply to Vogel.

The Magic also decided that it was time to change course on the “all young guy” strategy they had been using. The Magic had a very open and brutal assessment meeting in which the management decided that it was taking too long with the young guys and that they would have to begin handing out huge contracts to keep their youth long before the youth had achieved anything. The decision was rather than showering the likes of Victor Oladipo with what was going to be a maximum contract, it would be smarter to pursue more established proven guys for the same dollar. The Magic also decided they were not nearly defensive minded enough to compete. Those two concepts are what put the Magic on the course they are currently on.

There are a couple of things worth saying. While Martins was a key voice in many of these meetings, he was not involved in picking players. That was Hennigan and his staff. Martins did sign off on many of the moves as CEOs of teams often do, but the ultimate decisions were from Hennigan.

Additionally, on the surface, it seems the Magic may have overpaid for Serge Ibaka, giving up Oladipo, the 10th pick in the 2016 draft and the very favorable contract of Ersan Ilyasova in exchange for him. That may turn out to be a bad deal, depending on what happens next with Ibaka. The flip side of that is the Magic did not want to pay Oladipo’s expected asking price in free agency, and Ilyasova was not going to be part of the future. So, the true cost of Ibaka was the 10th pick, as the Magic were likely losing Oladipo and Ilyasova to free agency.

Maybe the Magic could have traded those players to other situations for other assets, but the Magic took the chance that Ibaka could be the answer. So far, he hasn’t been, but the Magic are not married to him beyond this season. In fact, the Magic are not married to a lot beyond this season, something that Hennigan’s critics overlook.

Which bring us back to Hennigan’s future.

Sources close to the process say they are not sold that Martins will fire Hennigan. Much like the first year in 2012, Martins knew the team was embarking on a new course, one built around more veterans. The Magic landed a few in free agency and will be set up nicely this summer to pursue more. As the Magic sit today they have just $67.4 million in salary commitments for the 2017 season, with the salary cap set to be just at $102 million, giving the Magic about $34.6 million to spend this summer.

The team has been aggressive in exploring trade options and are likely one of the teams that will do something significant before the trade deadline.

While some may question the virtue of letting Hennigan take more swings at the piñata, the view from inside the Magic is the job is not done yet, and there is still a commitment to Hennigan to deliver on the plan everyone agreed to.

That won’t be open-ended, and the results of the trade deadline may weigh heavily in Hennigan’s future, but it does seem like Martins is going to be more loyal to Hennigan than many of the fans are right now, and that may or may not be a good thing.

Firing an executive is never an easy decision. There is no question that if the Magic decides to part ways with their general manager, there is enough that didn’t go right to justify it. The question is whether they make that decision this summer or wait and make that decision next year after Hennigan gets a final chance to seal his fate with another trip through the draft and free agency.

Henigan has one more year left on his deal, so parting ways with him this summer may make more sense that entering into a lame-duck year. It would be a hard sell to the fanbase to say Hennigan has achieved enough to warrant another contract extension, so that could weigh into the decision too.

There is little doubt this is an interesting croosroad the Magic are apparoaching and the results of the trade deadline could weigh heavily on the future direction of the team on many fronts, including the future of the general manager.

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About Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.