Denton: Hennigan Made Right Decision Passing on Bynum

By John Denton
March 19, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS – If, as the cliché goes, hindsight is 20/20, what then is the gauge of impeccable, dead-on foresight?

As it relates to the Orlando Magic, let’s just say that rookie GM Rob Hennigan won’t be getting fitted for glasses anytime soon.

When Hennigan made the decision last August to pass on acquiring all-star center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers, it not only saved the Magic from a personnel and PR disaster, but it also likely helped to alter the future of the franchise.

While that move would have qualified as an absolute stroke of genius from pro basketball lifers such as GMs Pat Riley, Donnie Walsh, Geoff Petrie or R.C. Buford, it’s especially impressive when you consider that Hennigan – the youngest GM in the NBA – had been on the job just six weeks.

When he hired Hennigan away from the Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder on June 20, 2012, Magic CEO Alex Martins predicted the young whiz kid would be a future star exec for years to come. Who knew that Hennigan would flex his off-the-charts basketball smarts before the paint was dry on his Amway Center office name plate?

The Philadelphia 76ers, the hard-luck recipients of Bynum and his balky knees, announced on Monday that the 7-footer would be having season-ending surgery on not one, but both knees. If you’re scoring at home, that’s zero games played, $16.5 million paid out, several dozen questionable hairdos along the sidelines, zero cartilage, mountains of Philly fan angst and two 60-year-old knees in a 25-year-old body.

Of course, there is absolutely no joy in seeing the career of a blossoming big man such as Bynum now in peril. Orlando went through seven years of Bynum-like hell last decade with Grant Hill modeling more designer suits than Magic jerseys because of a busted ankle. Philly actually has a chance to dig itself out of this stroke of monumentally bad luck because Bynum’s contract expires in July. That is, of course, if they don’t make the same mistake and give him guaranteed money once again.

Some would argue that the Magic’s decision to pass on Bynum was as obvious as the Miami Heat being the heavy favorites to lead ESPN’s SportsCenter each of the next 36 nights. After all, Bynum wasn’t exactly the Cal Ripken of the NBA while playing/loitering for the Lakers for seven seasons. He missed 30 percent of his games (166 of 558) for the Lakers, had his knee drained before last season’s All-Star Game in Orlando and underwent a controversial German procedure over the summer.

To put it bluntly, Bynum had more red flags than China.

Still, you must understand the pressurized-bulls eye that was affixed to the back of Hennigan last summer immediately upon taking the GM job in Orlando. He learned the rigors of the job at the feet of San Antonio’s tag team of Gregg Popovich and Buford and Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, but those three highly successful personnel evaluators were never forced to trade Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant.

What Hennigan was charged with doing last summer was being forced to get equal value for Dwight Howard, quite possibly the best player in franchise history. The next time an NBA team gets equal value in the trading of a disgruntled star player, it will be a first.

To add to the degree of difficulty for Hennigan, Howard robbed the Magic of any leverage whatsoever by demanding a trade and refusing to expand a three-team wish list of Brooklyn, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers. (Dwight even shot down potentially going to his hometown of Atlanta or Chicago to share the spotlight with Derrick Rose.) Maybe it’s surprising that President Barack Obama – the man responsible for pulling this country out of its worst financial crisis in a generation – didn’t call Hennigan and offer his condolences.

Factor in that game-changing centers are about as hard to find as humble Heat fans, and Hennigan really had his work cut out for him. There was also this bit of daunting history staring the Magic and Hennigan in the face: When the franchise lost Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers in 1996, it took eight years to find a steady replacement (Howard in 2004) and 12 years of winless springs in the playoffs.

Bynum was there on the table for the Magic, and so too was Nets’ center Brook Lopez and his brittle feet. Grabbing either one of them would have could have been justified considering that Bynum was coming off a final season in L.A. where he averaged career highs in both points (18.7) and rebounds (11.8), while Lopez showed the vast promise that he has continued this season.

But there are some rules of thumb that personnel execs in the NBA should never ignore: don’t fall in love with the stats of a player on a bad team; don’t trade a big for a small; don’t ever draft someone named ``Darko’’ ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh; and absolutely, positively don’t ever sign a big man with bad feet and/or bad knees. (Portland Trail Blazers fans should quickly avert their eyes here.) See: Oden, Greg; Bowie, Sam; Walton, Bill.

When Hennigan refused to cave to public pressure and trade for Bynum, Lozez or even the onerous contract of Pau Gasol, he instead opted for a package of Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, some spare parts and a conditional 2015 first-round draft pick of the Sixers. Adding the perks of the massive four-team, 12-player deal, Hennigan also off-loaded the contracts of Jason Richardson (onto the Sixers), Chris Duhon and Earl Clark (onto the Lakers).

Some Magic fans were dumbfounded that an elite player such as Howard couldn’t get Orlando a superstar in return. And nationally, one blog site, Bleacher Report, had the gall to post a headline that screamed, ``Is the Orlando Magic’s Rob Hennigan the NBA’s Most Inept GM?’’

But not long after Afflalo emerged as the Magic’s leading scorer, Vucevic blossomed into a top-five rebounding monster and Harkless continued to make strides on a nightly basis, Bleacher Report issued a mea culpa of a headline that read: ``Orlando Magic are Officially Winners of the Dwight Howard Trade.’’

Of course, the Magic are still very much in full-blown rebuilding mode after having to hit the reset button following the Howard trade. They will almost assuredly miss the playoffs this spring for the first time in six seasons, ending the longest such streak in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

But what Hennigan was able to do last August – avoid Bynum like the plague, discover a couple of under-the-radar stars-in-the-making in Vucevic and Harkless and unload several troublesome contracts – gives the Magic a distinctly bright future. Had he swung and missed, Hurricane Andrew (Bynum) likely would have stalled over Central Florida and produced dark and cloudy days for years to come.

Instead, Hennigan used that impeccable, dead-on foresight to give the Magic a clear path for the future. Orlando figures to have two top-five draft picks, a host of developing players and gobs of salary cap dollars to spend in the summer of 2014 with which to reload.

Hennigan is the extremely humble type, and would never, ever beat his chest over the making the right call on several personnel fronts. And he would be the first to admit that Martins, Magic VP/Assistant GM Scott Perry and Assistant GM Matt Lloyd helped to make the franchise-altering decisions from last August.

It’s extremely easy now to use hindsight and say that passing on the broken-down Bynum was the right thing for the Magic to do. But the most important aspect to come out of one of Hennigan’s first major decisions with the Magic was the prudence that he used to help the franchise sidestep a Bynum landmine.

It’s that sort of vision that should let Magic fans know that the franchise is in good hands with a man of Hennigan’s impeccable, dead-on foresight leading the way.

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