Earlier this month, it seemed like new Magic GM Rob Hennigan was trapped, and succumbing to the pressure. Word spread that the Nets were that magical word, “close” to a deal for Dwight Howard, in one of the most complicated trades maybe ever proposed, involving up to 14 players being swapped. The result was shady and never clarified the particulars, but some elements indicated that the Magic would have received Brook Lopez in a max-deal sign-and-trade (had Lopez agreed to such a deal), picks from the Nets, and theoretically one other team. So the haul would have included a very talented center that comes with a huge series of concerns long-term, on a max contract, poor draft picks, and only would have sent out Jason Richardson and potentially one other contract.
It was an impressive full-court press from Billy King just to get the Magic talking and move the trade to that point. King did everything you do when you want to exert pressure, including making it seem like there were no other options than to take the Nets deal.
In short, Hennigan was “close” to vomiting in a trash can and calling that the Dwight Howard trade.
The most important move of his career, just weeks into his tenure, and Hennigan seemed set to fail in every conceivable way. Writers, columnists, fans, and bloggers like me sharpened our knives to carve apart the decision while facepalming with the other hand.
The deal fell apart.
Throughout the process, all the talk about the deal came from two sources: reporters with sources close to the Nets and reporters with sources close to Howard. In short, from the two sides that most desperately wanted the deal to come through. But from other places the indications were strong that the Magic planned to be patient, that the Magic were always, always weighing their options. So after the deal fell apart, it wasn’t a huge shock. Hennigan proved to be the more patient party. Resisting the pressure and the invisible clock on getting a deal done for Howard before the season starts and Magic ownership and executives were forced to deal with the indignity of another year under the cloud of the mess they helped make last year with their emotional reactions to the Howard situation.
Now, it would appear, that great come-and-get-it day is on the horizon, and Hennigan’s rainbow is coming into view.
With word that Howard has
finally accepted reality quit being unreasonable grown up agreed to re-sign with the Lakers in free agency if traded there, the Magic are now dealing with a team that has a worthy asset to send to a third team. Andrew Bynum is arguably on the level of Dwight Howard, and while his similar expiring contract presents issues, there’s considerable hope that the Lakers can pull in a third team who wants Bynum to send the picks and assets to the Magic.
Most importantly? There’s a decent chance the Lakers or a facilitating partner will be willing to take the salary from Orlando that the Magic want to ditch. Hedo Turkoglu is obviously the big sticking point, but Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, and Glen Davis all have longer deals for fair-size money which the Magic need to unload. They need young players. They need picks. This trade scenario affords them that and there’s a good chance that whether it’s Cleveland or Houston that the picks will have more value than what they would get from Brooklyn.
Even if the Lakers talks fall through as well, the ball has been moved forward, the bar for offers has been raised. Vomit in a trash can is no longer good enough.
So to review: instead of being forced into taking on a questionable max contract, poor draft picks, filler, and not unloading as much as they need, the Magic are closer to being able to get more flexibility, better draft picks, young assets, and maybe salvage some dignity from the deal.
The key here has been patience. Hennigan hasn’t taken a ton of questions, he’s not leaking a ton of information to the press. He’s been succinct in his statements and in reality, there’s been very little noise from anyone in Orlando outside of Howard. Hennigan hasn’t overreacted and has been careful in not going after any one particular asset. He’s not focusing in on Andrew Bynum, but he’s open to it. He’s used the three teams in the running for Howard (Brooklyn, the Lakers, and the Rockets) to raise the value of the offer.
Two months ago, the Magic had no leverage. It was all in Howard’s court, all the Nets’ pressure. The Nets were able to say “he only wants to come here.” Howard was able to say “I can go where I want in free agency.” But when the Nets used up all that space, that option disappeared. So it became about whether Howard was willing to deal with another full year of this just to prove his point, or if he would buckle and open up his “list.” Howard will end up somewhere nice regardless. He’s not going to Milwaukee. But he doesn’t get everything he wanted.
It was a game of chicken. Howard has swerved first.
There’s a lot more to be done, a deal could fall apart. But the reality is that Hennigan has reasserted control over the situation with cold, clinical precision. When Howard gets traded, if Howard gets traded, it will be on Hennigan’s terms and will put the Magic as close to where they want to be going forward. It won’t be perfect. But it’s got a good chance of being the best move possible.
Hennigan took a job coming into a difficult situation and while the contract for Jameer Nelson was an auspicious start, his early tenure will be judged entirely on how the Howard trade is handled. Early on, he’s managed to avoid the big disaster and has moved the pieces in place to get what they need. In the NBA it’s not just about what moves you do make, it’s about the ones you don’t. And Hennigan’s proven he’s not over his head.