The Orlando Magic nearly hired both Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder. Their work in Utah provides a blueprint for the Magic.
Lindsey made the list of finalists for the role. But eventually lost out to Rob Hennigan, who prevailed over him and the other candidate, Jeff Bower.
As we now know, that turned out to be a terrible decision. Not least because while Hennigan crashed and burned over the subsequent five years, Lindsey has very quietly used that time to go about putting the Utah Jazz in a position to compete.
Utah currently has a 3-2 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs thanks to a well-constructed roster pieced together patiently and intelligently by Lindsey, who took the Jazz job in 2012.
Since his appointment, he has drafted promising young players like Dante Exum (taken fifth in 2014), Rodney Hood (23rd in 2014) and Trey Lyles (12th in 2015) to a roster that already featured the talents of swingman Gordon Hayward and able big man Derrick Favors.
One of his smartest moves to date though came in the form of a trade that saw the Jazz acquire the draft rights to center Rudy Gobert (drafted 27th overall by the Denver Nuggets in 2013) for Erick Green and cash considerations.
This has proven to be the most shrewd move. Gobert has gone on to become one of the most exciting young big men in the NBA. He is a front runner for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. Gobert is living proof of Lindsey’s ability to recognize talent when he sees it.
He also made some very savvy moves last offseason too. Adding veteran contributors George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw in an attempt to ensure the team made the playoffs. And they succeeded, logging 51 regular season wins (11 more than last year), a total that meant they finished fifth in the ever-competitive Western Conference.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic went 132-278 (.322) under Hennigan the past fives years. The team has now missed the postseason for five straight years, a franchise-long drought.
"“This organization has seen great success over the years but this five-year period has unfortunately not seen that same success. We feel as if we have fallen behind several of the teams that started this process at the same time that we did or even after we had started.”"
Martins was most likely referring to teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, both of whom were involved in the Dwight Howard trade that triggered the Magic’s most recent rebuild. But he could just as easily have been referring to the Jazz.
Their own rebuild was, after all, inspired by a postseason sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 – the year the then newly-appointed Hennigan finally brought the “Dwightmare” to an end. Utah too was cleaning up the pieces after trading star point guard Deron Williams.
In the same way Orlando was left with a handful of veteran pieces that were not part of the long-term plan – Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, J.J. Redick – Utah was too. And Lindsey had to look beyond the likes of veterans Al Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Marvin Williams (who led the Jazz to 43 wins in 2013) to embrace a future centered around Hayward, Favors and eventually Gobert.
It took a 25-win season in 2014 to bridge the gap between old and new. But Lindsey’s gamble soon started paying off. The Jazz then won 38 games in 2015 behind a strong defense in the second half of the season. Utah won 40 games in 2016, falling a game short of the Playoffs as injuries ate away at their lead for the eighth spot late in the season. Utah finally broke through in 2017, taking things to the next level this season.
Magic fans were hoping their team would follow a similar trajectory. Especially after last season’s iteration won a respectable 35 games under Scott Skiles.
But his departure, combined with questionable offseason moves that saw the team trade away long-term assets like Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris to make room for Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo ultimately left the team in a weird place. It eventually sealed Hennigan’s fate.
All of these moves were supposed to make the Magic better defensively. But under new head coach Frank Vogel they actually slipped on that end of the floor, logging a defensive rating of 110.4 (22nd in the NBA) while allowing 107.6 points per game (also 22nd).
The Jazz, on the other hand, excelled defensively this year. They registered a defensive rating of 105.3 (third in the NBA) while holding teams to 96.8 points per game (first).
This is largely due to the influence of third-year head coach Quin Snyder, who is another guy Orlando came close to hiring back in 2012. Of course, they appointed Jacque Vaughn instead. That worked out about as well as the decision to give Hennigan the keys to the car.
Still, if there is a silver lining here it has to be the fact that despite the trials and tribulations of the past five years Orlando still has a promising young core. Which could eventually serve as the foundation for a winning team.
Rob Hennigan’s process, assuming there was one, failed. But, in the right hands, the Magic could be transformed into a playoff team. Especially in the Eastern Conference, where 41 wins (six more than the Magic logged under Skiles) is all it took for the Chicago Bulls to bag the eighth seed this year.
The key now is to find the right general manager. One capable not just of fixing Hennigan’s mess and righting the ship, but one who can make the Magic relevant again.
And, if whoever gets the jobs needs a sense of just how to take a young team to the next level — the patience it sometimes takes and the judgment needed to make their own success — he need look no further than Utah, where two of Orlando’s also-rans are doing an exceptional job.