Denton: Flexibility Was Key to Trade

By John Denton
August 13, 2012

ORLANDO -- Faced with trying to win the NBA’s most unwinnable battle – getting equal value in a trade for a disgruntled superstar player – Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan braced himself for the fallout in the days after cutting ties with All-NBA center Dwight Howard.

Hennigan kept one singular focus in mind when dealing Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a four-team, 12-player blockbuster trade: Do what’s in the best interest of the Magic. Hennigan knew that not only was it time for the Magic to divorce themselves from Howard, but also that he had to execute a deal that would help Orlando on a variety of fronts in the future.

Some critics have panned the return that the Magic got in exchange for Howard, but Hennigan didn’t worry so much about the reaction of others. He was more focused on the Magic getting six players, five draft picks that will serve as building blocks for the future, a whopping $17.8 million trade exception and salary cap flexibility in years to come. Hennigan said he was more worried about the long-term health of the Magic more so than the negative reactions from dealing a six-time all-star in Howard.

``I don’t think I would have taken the job if I cared much about public judgment,’’ Hennigan said. ``Our goal is to do what we thought was best for the organization. We’re comfortable with where we are and excited about moving forward.’’

Following a tumultuous 2011-12 season and an even rockier offseason filled with daily Dwight drama, the Magic can finally move forward with a plan toward recovery and rebuilding. New head coach Jacque Vaughn has already met with most of the Magic’s players and is starting to map out what he expects from them for the rest of the summer and the coming season. And Hennigan has continued to work on putting together a roster, casting both an eye toward the future and one on the season dead ahead. Another point guard and an additional center top his list with seven weeks remaining before the start of training camp.

Moving on from Howard was understandably painful and the shock waves could continue to be felt for months to come, but the Magic feel they finally have a core of players that will help them establish the kind of team-first culture that they are seeking. In Jameer Nelson, Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Aaron Afflalo, they have a group of veterans who want to be in Orlando.

``I totally believe in the dynamic of a team and a group of men that will be in the locker room who I will be proud of because they want to be there,’’ Vaughn said. ``When we start this season we want to have guys who want to be great and want to wear Magic uniforms. The group of young men that we have now meets that criteria.’’

The Magic obviously have some building to do in the coming years, and Hennigan feels the Magic have created the avenues to do so through free agency, the draft, player development and through trades. The Magic already have a young base in place in the form of rookies Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn and young big men Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon.

By also trading away Jason Richardson (to the Sixers), Chris Duhon (Lakers) and Earl Clark (Lakers), the Magic set themselves up to have some salary cap flexibility each of the next two summers. They should have enough room available next summer to extend a maximum contract to a free agent. Or if they prefer to wait until the summer of 2014, the Magic should be in position to chase two elite free agents much the same way they did in 2000 when signing Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill.

Acquiring flexibility, Hennigan stressed, was the key motivating factor for the Magic in any deal for Howard. They wanted to have multiple avenues with which to attack rebuilding, and the Howard trade has accomplished that feat.

Hennigan came to the Magic from Oklahoma City, a team that built a powerhouse by getting extremely fortunate in the NBA Draft. In 2007, Kevin Durant was there for the taking at No. 2, and Russell Westbrook (fourth pick) and James Harden (fifth pick) followed to form the NBA’s best young nucleus.

``I think we’re pliable and we’ve set ourselves up to look at both avenues,’’ said Hennigan, referring to rebuilding through free agency and the draft. ``That was something that was important to us. I don’t think you can ever get too parochial and say, `This is the model that we need to subscribe to.’ We have a lot of flexibility. We have flexibility to build through free agency. We have the flexibility to build through trades.’’

Of course, if the Magic don’t want to rely on lottery luck, draft development and future free agents, they could utilize the $17.8 million trade exception that they have for the next calendar year. The exception allows the Magic to take back players (on their contracts) without having to ship out equal salary value.

Some recent examples of the trade exception being used: Dallas received a $12 million trade exception when Tyson Chandler went to New York in a sign-and-trade deal. The Mavs used that exception to acquire Lamar Odom, a trade that proved disastrous. That transaction created a trade exception for the Lakers, one they used to acquire Steve Nash earlier in the summer.

Also, when Odom was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this summer, it gave the Mavs another $8.9 million trade exception. That four-team deal also included the Utah Jazz acquiring Mo Williams with a trade exception they got when shipping Mehmet Okur’s expiring contract to New Jersey last year.

Regardless of whether the Magic build through the draft, re-tool via free agency or utilize their trade exception – thought to be one of the biggest in NBA history – they have options with which to rebuild.

Knowing that getting equal value for Howard in a trade was virtually impossible, Hennigan’s main priority was having flexibility for the Magic’s rebuild. And he’s happy he was able to give the franchise options with which to hopefully make a quick recovery.

``One of the positive nets of this trade is all of the positive hypotheticals that exist,’’ Hennigan said. ``Now, they are hypotheticals, but the flexibility and mobility components are things that we can explore. We’re excited about opening a variety of avenues with which we can use to build this team.’’

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