Magic Masters is Orlando Magic Daily’s attempt to recognize the best in Magic history. In this edition, we are trying to rank the best teams in Magic history. To see the full tournament bracket, visit the introduction page. Today, we continue the second round:
In a lot of ways, the 1995 season was the beginning for the Magic. The expansion era was done. The franchise had tasted the Playoffs for the first time. Now, expectations were setting in. Maybe not championship expectations. But they were building to that point.
Then the spunky, young Magic squad paraded to the Finals. They sat down the old guard of Michael Jordan and his Bulls and Reggie Miller and his Pacers. They closed down the Boston Garden. If it were not for the championship-caliber Rockets and some mised free throws — or a tip-in with 0.3 seconds left in overtime from Hakeem Olajuwon — in Game One, who knows where this incredible season could have ended up.
It is amazing to think how close this team really was. And that is only because the ride was so incredible.
Sure, the free agent signing of Horace Grant and Brian Shaw added some veteran composure to this young team. But Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Nick Anderson were experiencing Playoff victory for the first time. That Game One shellacking of Boston in the first game of the Playoffs was the franchise’s first Playoff victory. Everything was a first.
Even with the East’s top seed, Orlando was an underdog to Chicago with Michael Jordan returning and beginning to look like his old self. The Magic were underdogs to the experienced Pacers team who finally got over the hump against the hated Knicks. And the Magic, gaining some believers, were probably still underdogs to the defending champion Rockets.
The 1995 Magic were very similar to the 2009 Magic that took the league by surprise in the Playoffs. It was a team that relied on 3-point shooting and surrounding Shaquille O’Neal with skilled shooters to space the floor for him to work. The 1995 Magic posted the highest offensive rating in team history and they were every bit the offensive juggernaut. There were not many areas they could not attack from.
As far as Magic teams go, there might not have been a team with a better starting lineup. The bench was a little thin (well, except for Tree Rollins… sorry Tree). But if it were not for Jordan’s comeback being so successful, there was no reason to think this was not the dynasty for the next 10 or so years in the NBA. That did not happen (obviously). Instead, we were left with warm memories of a special and surprising year. Even without winning the championship, the year was an unmitigated success.
The 2001 season offered a lot of hope. The Heart and Hustle year was memorable for its surprise. But its purpose was ultimately for what July of 2000 would produce.
Orlando wined and dined the three top free agents from that summer. The team paraded Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady through RDV Sportsplex, which was plastered with photos of the three in Magic jerseys. Duncan was impressed. But David Robinson had his ear and convinced him to remain in San Antonio. So two out of three was not bad. Hill was a bona fide superstar (albeit on crutches at the time) and McGrady was a bundle of potential.
I think we know how this story turns out. The promise of having two big-time attackers and what we all thought would be the second coming of a Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen-like backcourt. But it took only four games for that dream to come crashing down. Hill had not healed from his offseason ankle surgery and the team shelved him for the season. It allowed McGrady to truly blossom as a star, but it was the beginning of the heavy burden McGrady had to carry without Hill next to him.
Doc Rivers did a good job adjusting that year as McGrady began to come into his own. He averaged 26.8 points per game and began to foreshadow his offensive brilliance for the next three years in a Magic uniform. Of course, McGrady had to carry most of that burden. Hill was hurt. Darrell Armstrong just was not a second offensive option (although still very good) and Mike Miller was merely a rookie (a Rookie of the Year but not yet the guy you could rely on to add support for McGrady).
The team’s failures really came in the failures of the summer. Grant Hill was still in crutches and unable to play. Orlando needed him next to McGrady to provide some offensive support and some consistency next to the budding young star. And the inability to sign Duncan left Orlando a major hole at center. Despite John Amaechi and Andrew Declercq’s efforts, they weren’t Tim Duncan. And the Magic never could find anyone to give them a consistent presence down low.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who was better?
Record, Results and Expectations
The 1995 team did not quite have championship expectations. After all, that young team exited the Playoffs with a first-round sweep to the Pacers. And that was with home court advantage. With the Knicks at the top of the Atlantic Division, the Magic were still the up-and-coming team. Nobody could fault them for tempering expectations and keeping expectations contained to getting out of the first round.
That was even with the Horace Grant acquisition.
This was a young team. This was an inexperienced team.
It is easy to think back and just believe this team was destined to go to the Finals. In truth, though, it wasn’t. This season marked Orlando’s first 50-win season, its first division championship, its first Playoff victory, its first Playoff series victory.
The reality is that this season was incredibly special. The Magic may not have overperformed because it became apparent that the team was very good once the season began. Obviously the accolades the team garnered throughout the season proved that.
And really, with all that in mind, Orlando was just in for the wild ride. We truly enjoyed every moment of this special season. And, to some extent, we still are.
With the free agent hoopla surrounding the Hill and McGrady acquisitions, expectations were high in 2000. They were quickly dashed when Grant Hill went down to an injury and, at that point, I think people were just excited for a Playoff berth. To get that one win in the postseason over the hated Bucks in the Playoffs, an overtime Game Three victory where McGrady was immaculate with 42 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, was a victory in itself it felt (remember, that Milwaukee team was pretty good with Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Ray Allen).
There were plenty of problems with the 2001 team. McGrady was the only real offensive option and the team lacked anything resembling an inside presence. The team really relied on Grant Hill panning out to complete this team and move forward. But we now know that did not happen, really, ever during the life of his seven-year contract.
This was not a complete team. Even with Hill, the expectation was probably to make the Playoffs and build from there. In some sense, the team accomplished that with a 43-39 record and the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. There were definitely visions of getting into the top half of the Eastern Conference eventually. Whether that would happen this season? I honestly do not remember.
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Like I said, the 1995 team’s starting lineup is about as good as you will find in Magic history. But outside Dennis Scott, there was not much on the bench. This team’s defense was not the best and it was susceptible to deeper teams with talent. Not that the 2001 team was that.
Tracy McGrady was still growing into himself and becoming a superstar player. Darrell Armstrong was enjoying one of his best seasons and Mike Miller was a solid rookie — rookie of the year in fact.
I don’t think the 2001 team would have enough to hang with the 1995 team. This team found a way to step up and sometimes overwhelm their opponents. That was the 1995 team’s way.
The 2001 team was just inconsistent, plain and simple. Without Grant Hill, it could survive on some hustle and McGrady, but it could not compete with the big boys. And there is no way they could compete with the 1995 team.
Not only that, but, aesthetically, the 2001 team has nowhere near the memories that the 1995 team had. The 1995 team may not have been the best team in the league. In fact, I suspect that they will not win in this tournament because of some of the shortcomings that eventually (eventually) undermined that team. But they are certainly good enough to get past this stage of the competition.