Magic Acquire Jennings and Ilyasova From Pistons in Exchange for Harris

Dan Savage
Director of Digital News

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By John DentonFeb. 16, 2016

ORLANDO – Calling the Orlando Magic’s play the past six weeks ``unacceptable’’ and frustrated by the squad’s bevy of close losses, GM Rob Hennigan took a proactive approach on Tuesday by executing a trade to acquire more veteran savvy and talent.

After seeing the Magic (23-29) drop 16 of 20 games before the break for the NBA All-Star Game – many of them in last-minute, heartbreaking fashion – Orlando decided it could no longer stand pat and simply wait on the development of Orlando’s young, but erratic core. That prompted the Magic to trade for veterans Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova and send 23-year-old forward Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday.

Once a promising 19-13, Orlando went just 2-12 in January and dropped the first three games of February before beating the Atlanta Hawks in back-to-back games and nearly topping the San Antonio Spurs. The Magic have had more games decided by three points or less this season and they are just 5-8 in those. And some of those don’t even include the five games that Orlando has lost in overtime this season.

Aiding with the transition that invariable comes with a midseason trade, both Jennings and Ilyasova already have a distinct familiarity with Magic head coach Scott Skiles. Both played for and had some of their best NBA success under Skiles for 3 ½ seasons while with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The hope is that the two players will help shore up areas of concern that have arisen for the Magic of late. Ultimately, Orlando still has designs on making a serious playoff push. It starts the unofficial second half of the season on Friday at the Amway Center against the Dallas Mavericks sitting just 3 ½ games back of the East’s No. 8 seed.

``We’re not saying we’re going to solve all of those (end-of-game) problems now, but we do see this as a step in the right direction,’’ GM Rob Hennigan said. ``We’re trying to win. Losing is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to the organization, it’s unacceptable to me, the coaches and the players. We’re serious about winning.’’

The NBA Trade Deadline hits on Thursday afternoon, meaning there is still time for the Magic to make other trades that could improve their roster. But the team has no plans of disrupting its dynamic, young core, CEO Alex Martins said.

``Clearly, there’s been a lot of rumor out there about us breaking up major pieces and that’s not in our interest because that deviates from the long-term plan,’’ Martins said. ``Whatever moves Rob and the team have looked to make, it’s been about making that incremental improvement while still sticking with the building blocks that we’ve invested in the last couple of years.’’

Harris, 23, had been with the Magic since February of 2013 when he was acquired in a trade with the Bucks. The versatile forward had a career year in 2014-15, earning him a four-year contract extension from the Magic last July. However, the forward’s production dropped off this season as Skiles implemented an offensive system to relied more on ball and player movement than isolation plays.

Harris missed the three games before the break for the NBA All-Star Game because of an ankle injury and was averaging just 13.7 points and 7.0 rebounds a game at the time of the trade. He also was the winner of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award each of the past two seasons, making the transaction even more difficult, said Martins, who spoke to Harris on Tuesday.

``It was tough and I talked to Tobias right after we had agreed to the trade and we had a discussion and I thanked him for everything he did for us on and off the court,’’ Martins said. ``He was great for us as a player and great for us in the community. He and I had established a great personal relationship. He was very thankful. He said he understood that it’s part of the business, but he was very thankful for everything that the organization had done for him. He said that this will always remain a special place for him.’’

Two other factors spurred the move by the Magic on Tuesday. First, the deal should be beneficial for both the short term and the long term for the Magic as it allows them to remain in the playoff hunt this season and it could free up as much as $16.8 million in salary cap dollars when free agency hits in July. Jennings, 26, will be a free agent at season’s end, while Ilyasova has a non-guaranteed year left on his contract.

Secondly, trading away Harris eases some of the logjam at the wing positions and potentially opens up more playing time for prized rookie Mario Hezonja, rapidly blossoming forward Aaron Gordon and standout guard/forward Evan Fournier. All three got increased minutes and shots last week with Harris out and they came through in big ways.

``We feel like additional minutes for Mario, Evan and Aaron Gordon are important for our team – both this season and long term,’’ Hennigan said. ``I think all of that sort of gets factored into the stew when you make a decision like this. That was certainly a factor.’’

The 10th pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, Jennings became an instant hit in Milwaukee while playing for Skiles. He played all 82 games as a rookie and boosted his scoring average to a career-best 19.1 points per game by the 2011-12 season. For his career, Jennings has averaged 16 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists, while shooting 39.1 percent overall and 35 percent from the 3-point arc.

Jennings suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear last winter and he’s played just 23 games this season as he’s worked his way back into shape. Forced to play behind breakout star point guard Reggie Jackson, Jennings has averaged a career-low 6.8 points and 3.0 assists in 18 minutes a night this season.

Jennings, who is in his seventh NBA season, should compete with incumbent point guard Elfrid Payton for starter’s minutes. Payton, who is in his second NBA season, was forced to deal with a couple of ankle injuries in early January and he’s since struggled defensively to keep other point guards in front of him.

``Our belief in Elfrid has not wavered and it will not waver. We think that Brandon is a great complement to Elfrid and that Elfrid is a great complement to him,’’ Hennigan stressed. ``A lot of the ways we go about building our roster is based on the versatility and the complementary nature of our players. We feel like Elfrid and Brandon fit very well together. We feel like Brandon’s knowledge and experience will help our backcourt. He’s a proven scorer, a proven shot-maker and he can get his own shot on occasion. And those are all things that our backcourt needs.’’

Ilyasova averaged 11.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 52 starts with the Pistons. Like Harris, Ilyasova can play either forward position, is a plus defender and excels at hitting corner 3-pointers. Also, Ilyasova plays with a toughness and a nastiness on the defensive end that has been missing much of this season for the Magic.

The Magic and Pistons, two teams desperately in the hunt for a playoff spot in the East but on the outside looking in as the second half of the season starts, still play each other two times. The Magic are in Detroit on March 23, while former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, Harris and the Pistons come to Orlando on April 6.

With the roster more balanced with experienced veterans and dynamic young players, Hennigan feels there is still plenty of time for the Magic to make a playoff push.

``I think we’re right in striking distance for a playoff spot,’’ the fourth-year GM said. ``Our team, I feel like, has played well the last few games and we just have to continue to sustain it and add to that momentum. But, absolutely, the goal is to make the playoffs and the goal is to win. That’s what we’re trying to do.’’