NBA's youngest GM steps into the limelight to chart Magic's new path
Rob Hennigan worked for the Spurs and Thunder before being hired as Magic GM
Hennigan: Dwight Howard deal has put Orlando on the right track for the long term
Magic officials describe the 30-year-old as unflappable, studious and measured
With a few twists of fate, Rob Hennigan -- aka the mystery man who traded Dwight Howard -- may have been the one judging as opposed to being judged last Friday.
Before the 30-year-old became the Magic general manager in June, and before he sent Howard to the Lakers in a deal that had some critics wondering aloud if Hennigan was not only the youngest executive of his kind in the NBA but also the worst, Hennigan was on his way to joining the much safer world of punditry. Two post-college job offers in the media industry were the latest products of his hardworking ways, the continuation of a successful run in which Hennigan became the all-time leading scorer at Emerson College in Boston and an Academic All-American.
But the internship with the San Antonio Spurs was just too good to be true, too paved with promise to pass up in favor of being the sports director of a television station in Fairbanks, Ala., or a sports reporter at another in Joplin, Miss. Sure, he had chosen Emerson in large part because of the school's renowned communications program, accepting the invite from coach Hank Smith not long after winning a Division I state title at St. John's High School in Shrewsbury, Mass. But because this was the Spurs and because of who was offering the job, Hennigan ended his pursuit of a journalism career and began his lane change into the NBA executive fast track.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti, a former Emerson star himself who had been granted the very same internship en route to his then-job as San Antonio's assistant GM, took Smith's spirited recommendation of Hennigan to heart and offered him the job. Presti had missed playing with Hennigan by a year at the Division III program, but his old coach was quick to tell him how well they would have worked together, how smart and diligent and efficient Hennigan was and how eerily similar the two of them were.
Eight years later, Hennigan -- who is just one year older than Presti was when he became a whiz-kid GM and two years older than standard-bearer Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox at the time of his ascent in Major League Baseball -- would leave his post as Thunder assistant general manager to execute the messiest divorce in all of pro sports between Howard and the Magic.
It was his union with and similarities to Presti, though, that had largely defined him. The promotions came quickly, from intern to basketball operations assistant and director of basketball operations in San Antonio to rejoining Presti as the director of college personnel in Oklahoma City when the team was transitioning from Seattle in 2008.
A Presti clone, some said, was being groomed. And considering Presti's impressive ability to build the Thunder into a championship contender so soon after taking over in 2007 when the franchise was in the midst of four woeful seasons, it was about as good as NBA labels get.
"I see a lot of similarities, and I always have," said Smith, who remains a friend and mentor to both men. "They're both smart guys, both extremely hardworking guys, guys who will never speak until they've thought out what they're going to say and won't make decisions until they've weighed all their options."
Hennigan, who is widely known as the humble sort and only agreed to be interviewed for this story after extensive prodding, spent more than seven weeks weighing his options with Howard after he was hired. He didn't do it alone, though, as he had continued the Presti parallel by hiring Pistons vice president of basketball operations Scott Perry as Orlando's VP and assistant GM. Before joining the Pistons in 2008, Perry was Presti's right-hand man in Seattle during his debut season with the Sonics. Hennigan also hired Bulls director of college scouting Matt Lloyd as assistant general manager, and on July 28 made 37-year-old Spurs assistant Jacque Vaughn the Magic's coach.
The group worked closely with recently promoted CEO Alex Martins in the Howard process. Martins, who picked Hennigan over far more experienced finalists in Dennis Lindsey (a former Spurs assistant GM who was recently hired as Utah's GM) and former Hornets GM Jeff Bower, reported to the DeVos family that has owned the Magic since 1991.
The Magic decision makers ended up trading Howard and three other players in a four-team deal with the Lakers, Nuggets and 76ers that brought to Orlando guard Arron Afflalo; forwards Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga; center Nikola Vucevic; three first-round picks (a lottery-protected selection from the Sixers in 2015, the lower of Denver's two first-rounders in 2014 and the Lakers' 2017 pick); and two second-round picks (from Denver in 2013 and a conditional pick from the Lakers in 2015). Orlando was roundly criticized for not getting enough for Howard and accused of bypassing potentially better deals with Brooklyn and Houston. But team officials insist that this was the best available trade for their long-term plan, their preferred package of players, picks and salary-cap relief that still allows them to create a team in their image as they build toward the key free-agency summer of 2014 (when they have just $29 million on the payroll).
Afflalo, 26, is the centerpiece of Orlando's haul of six players and five draft picks. The Magic view Afflalo as being well-deserving of the $30.4 million he's owed for the next four seasons because of his combination of two-way talent and intangibles.
"We love his mindset, love his toughness, love his penchant to compete every day," Hennigan said. "We really feel that he's someone who can set the tone for the organization and help set the tone for the culture and the kind of work ethic and mindset that we want the players to embody. I just really like his makeup."
Afflalo, the 27th pick by the Pistons in 2007, had crossed paths with Perry before, during his second season in Detroit. It's his experience before then, though, that the Magic are hoping to repeat.
In 2004, UCLA coach Ben Howland made Afflalo his first recruit and relied on him to set the tone for the turnaround that was to come. Howland's Bruins finished 11-17 the year before Afflalo arrived, but in the next three seasons with the guard they went 80-24 with one appearance in the national championship game and another in the Final Four. The Magic, in some ways, have hand-picked Afflalo to play the same role.
In Harkless, the 15th pick in the June draft by Philadelphia, the Magic see a young player with serious potential to be their small forward of the future. In Vucevic, they see a versatile, smart big man entering the second year of his rookie contract who was a spot starter and improving player for the Sixers last season. Altogether, the chance to obtain young players who fit their vision while also netting the three first-round picks and two second-rounders appealed most to the Magic.
Sources with knowledge of the talks said that wasn't the case with Brooklyn's most recent proposal. Before Brook Lopez's re-signing on July 11 ended the talks with the Nets because he could no longer be included in the deal, the Magic -- who had a chance to get four first-round picks (with Nets guard MarShon Brooks being traded to the Clippers, or some other third team, in exchange for one of the picks) -- had been against the idea of saddling their payroll with Lopez on a maximum contract (four years, $61 million) or, to a much lesser degree, power forward Kris Humphries on a deal that would guarantee him about $10 million next season. Most, if not all, of those picks would likely have all been late first-rounders based on any reasonable projections of the Nets' future (and that of the Clippers, if they had signed off on that deal).
The offerings from Houston, sources said, weren't as plentiful as previously believed either. In both the two-team talks with Houston and three-team discussions that involved the Lakers and would have sent center Andrew Bynum to the Rockets, sources said Houston was offering only two first-round picks. From Houston's perspective, however, the comparative value of the picks far outweighed anything available to the Magic elsewhere and it had been made clear that a third pick could be added "if it got the deal done."
One of the picks, which would have come via Toronto as part of Houston's recent trade of point guard Kyle Lowry, has protections that make it likely to land in the lottery. The other being offered, by way of Dallas, had an outside chance at becoming completely unprotected in 2018 if the Mavericks didn't finish the regular season in the league's top 10 in the five years prior.
Many assumed that the Rockets' three first-round picks from this year's draft -- guard Jeremy Lamb and forwards Royce White and Terrence Jones -- would be made available in a Howard deal. But sources close to the Magic said Lamb was the only such prospect offered, and that he was off the table by the time the talks involved the Lakers and Lamb had impressed at the Las Vegas summer league in July (he averaged 20 points in five games). Meanwhile, unwanted players like Gary Forbes, Jon Brockman and Marcus Morris were made available (along with shooting guard Kevin Martin, whose expiring $12.9 million contract was a must to make the money work).
On the Rockets' side, meanwhile, sources said the message had been sent that the Magic could have one or possibly two prospects from a pool that included Morris, Patrick Patterson, Lamb, Jones, White and Donatas Motiejunas. Houston offered significant salary-cap relief, but, as had been the case on the topic of young players, never in the form that the Magic wanted.
"I enjoyed working with Rob on a potential deal," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told SI.com via text message. "He went with what was best for Orlando and over time people will see that he has made a good decision. He has a plan for Orlando and he has proved his ability to execute a plan to make franchises great from his time in San Antonio and Oklahoma City."
Hennigan wouldn't discuss the negotiations in any detail but made it clear he is content.
"What's available in theory and what's available in reality aren't necessarily the same," he said. "At the end of the day, we're happy with the net result of the trade considering the circumstances."