ORLANDO, Fla. — It wasn’t long ago when the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves going through what the Orlando Magic are now.
As rough as things have been for the Magic, at least they didn’t have to endure a 1-12 start that prompted a coaching change in 2008. Rob Hennigan, the Thunder’s newly appointed director of college/international player personnel, could have been forgiven at the time for second-guessing his decision to leave a perennial championship contender in San Antonio for a franchise that had just relocated from Seattle and seemed light years away from relevancy.
But by the time the Magic were in the market for a new general manager last summer, Hennigan had worked his way up to becoming the right-hand man to Sam Presti, who shaped the Thunder from a 59-loss non-entity in 2008-09 into Western Conference champions in 2011-12. As far as the Magic were concerned, that made him the right man for the job, even at age 30.
And Scott Brooks, who was entrusted by Presti to take over the team that won just once in its first 13 games back when, believes the Magic couldn’t have made a better choice than Hennigan.
“The organization has a guy that they can count on,” Brooks said Friday night before the Thunder’s only appearance in Orlando this season. “He’s going to be very diligent in all his decisions. He’s thorough. He loves doing the right thing. He’s never afraid of working. And the players he will acquire are going to be high-character guys who are committed to being good teammates. They’re going to be good workers. They’re going to be players that the community of Orlando can be very proud of.”
“I really believe in Rob Hennigan,” Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant added. “He was here with us the last few yers, and I believe what he is doing with these guys is going to push them over the top. I am a big fan of the Magic, and I would like to see them do well.”
You’ll be far more likely to spot Pat Williams, the Magic’s very first general manager, than Hennigan on game nights at Amway Center. Hennigan keeps a low profile, although he mentioned in an interview in late January with OrlandoMagic.com that he’s pleased with the rebuilding process despite what the current record might suggest.
“The improvement of our players speaks to their willingness to buy into the culture that we’re trying to establish and the directives the coaches give them,” he said then. “Their progress is a mark of their own consistency in a lot of ways.”
Glancing down the rosters of the Magic and Thunder, it’s not hard to detect some similarities. Both starting lineups feature a handful of players in their early 20s. The Magic’s frontcourt against the Thunder consisted of two rookies (Maurice Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn) and a second-year forward obtained in a trade a month ago (Tobias Harris).
Of course, none of those guys are about to be mistaken for Durant anytime soon. But Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who played on San Antonio’s 2007 NBA title-winning team when Hennigan was the Spurs vice president/assistant general manager, pointed out that no one was anticipating three consecutive scoring titles for Durant before his 25th birthday when the Thunder drafted him after only a year at Texas.
“There were a lot of negative things said about him when he came out of college,” Vaughn said. “And the player that he is now, it’s unbelievable because of what they’ve done.”
The Thunder franchise followed up their selection of Durant in 2007, when the Thunder were still the Sonics, by taking Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in the first round a year later. During Hennigan’s time in Oklahoma City, they also dealt for Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins.
Aside from O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson, all of the new faces on the Magic were brought in by Hennigan via free agency or trades. The biggest of those trades came six weeks after his hiring, when the Magic obtained Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington in a four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Hennigan was criticized in some quarters for not being able to pry away Andrew Bynum from the Lakers. But between Bynum’s knee problems, which have kept him sidelined all season in Philadelphia, and the development of Vucevic as a double-figure scorer and rebounder, the Magic have made the best of a potentially disastrous situation.
Brooks witnessed the resiliency of the Magic during their visit to Oklahoma City when they trimmed what was once a 27-point deficit in the third quarter to 106-102 with less than four minutes to go. Even with Vucevic unavailable Friday night because of a mild concussion and Afflalo missing the second half due to a right hamstring injury, the Magic gave the Thunder a scare again behind a career-high 25 points from Harkless.
“You keep working them and empowering them and improving them, they’re going to be special players,” he said. “They have guys that work hard, and they’ve got talented players that are going to continue to get better.”
Vaughn isn’t ready to proclaim the Magic are on the verge of becoming Thunder East, saying “a lot of things have to fall into place for us to be at the level of Oklahoma City.” But it’s clear that the blueprint the future is in place.
“They’ve done it the right way,” Vaughn said. “And there were days where it might not seem like that day was coming. But it came for them. That’s kind of the intuition we have here. When that day comes, we’ll say we earned it.”