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:
What cruel god would pit two of the most memorable seasons in Magic history against each other so soon in this tournament? What person would be forced to make such a difficult decision between sentimentality and greatness? Who, I ask? Who? Oh wait, it is me.
I hate that Heart and Hustle has to go up against the only 60-win team in Magic history before we get down to eight teams. It is absolutely killer.
But I am a slave to the winds of fate and the way I set up the bracket. And so, here we are. 1996 vs. 2000.
The 1996 team has gone largely unappreciated in Magic lore. Like the 2010 team, the 1996 team might have been statistically superior to the team that made the championship the year before. And much like the 2010 team, the 1996 team ran into a buzz saw in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 72-10 Chicago Bulls are largely regarded as the best team of the 1990s for sure, and possibly even the best team in league history. Orlando was swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals that year — very similar to 2010 indeed — and that disappointment clouded everything about this year. Not to mention that Shaquille O’Neal left the following summer.
Nobody remembers that O’Neal missed the first 22 games of the season. Jon Koncak was starting. And, yes, the Magic handed the Bulls one of those 10 losses with Koncak starting at center.
Nobody remembers this team, like the 2010 team, because of the way the season ended: in disappointment.
Still, the 1996 team is the only Magic team to reach 60 wins in the franchise’s history and might be the team with the greatest what-if in Magic history (what if Michael Jordan never returned, do the Magic win the 1996 title?). They were the first team to get a sweep in the postseason — sweeping by Detroit and coming a few free throws short of sweeping Atlanta (the 2010 comparisons are scary) — and had the same general level of dominance that you would expect from a team thinking championship and nothing else.
This is the year that Penny Hardaway became a true superstar — and maybe had some inkling of becoming the focal point causing a rift with O’Neal. This is the year the future seemed so limitless and the Magic and Bulls would battle for years for Eastern Conference supremacy. It was not to be of course. And that stains the memory of the 1996 team.
It is a very different memory than what we have for the 2000 team. That team failed to make the Playoffs but is perhaps the most cherished and beloved team in Magic history.
During the summer, Chuck Daly had retired, failing to guide the Magic out of the first round in two seasons. The young Doc Rivers took the helm as the team’s head coach, bringing energy and enthusiasm to the job. But gone were Penny Hardaway (to Phoenix), Horace Grant (to Seattle) and, most painfully, Nick Anderson (to Sacramento).
This Magic team was moving away from the 1995 Finals team and trying to forge a new identity. That identity of course was caked in the promise of the 2001 free agent class. Orlando had positioned itself to sign all three big-name free agents — Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. The 1999-2000 season was supposed to be a throwaway season. Just about everyone picked the rag-tag squad of Magic players to finish dead last in the East.
With Rivers, Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw’s energy, this Magic team defied the odds. Getting to .500 and finishing just outside the postseason (starting that heated rivalry with the Bucks). More than anything, everyone appreciated the amount of effort this underdog team put into every game.
It was like The Replacements. Most knew they were not going to be back the next season and were all playing for contracts somewhere, anywhere. It is probably the one non-Playoff team that appears in that history video before each game at Amway Center and was one of the most enjoyable seasons in team history.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who’s better?
Records, Results & Expectations
The 1996 team had one mission following the 1995 Finals run: win the whole thing. The taste of greatness was in everyone’s mouth and nothign short of lifting the golden trophy was going to be acceptable.
It would be difficult to keep pace with the 72-10 Bulls, especially since O’Neal missed the first month of the season. But this was, again, the only Magic team to reach 60 wins. And the fact is, unlike 2010, the Magic ran into a juggernaut a little wounded with Horace Grant limited by injuries in the Eastern Conference Finals. That Bulls team simply routed the Magic in the sweep — as the Bulls would rout most teams that season.
Still, it should be noted this team largely played beyond its actual skill level. Basketball-Reference notes the team had a pythagorean record (which more accurately measures wins by scoring margin and other statistics) of 56-26. The team did not have other-worldly stats. It was not a top defensive team (just 12th by defensive rating) but had a top offense (fifth by offensive rating).
As the Magic found out in losing to the Bulls, they still had a lot to learn about winning. The problem is, we never got to see what that learning process would like. O’Neal was gone that summer and so was all hope of winning a championship.
The 2000 team was full of overachievers. With Orlando selling off every player it could and getting expiring contracts and pennies on the dollar, the team had no expectations. The only expectation was that John Gabriel would deliver superstars during the summer in free agency. Any win, it seemed, was gravy.
So by finishing 41-41 with a bunch of no-name players and veteran wanderers, this team endeared itself to Orlando fans like no other. They far surpassed expectation and turned it into one of the most miraculous and exciting seasons in franchise history. A Playoff berth would have been having our cake and eating it to in so many ways.
When the summer came and it became clear McGrady, Hill and Duncan were eyeing Orlando very closely, many regretted the pieces the team would have to let go to make a deal work. Nobody really wanted to see Ben Wallace go. Everyone loved the promise Corey Maggette seemed to have within him. There were a lot of regrets coming out of that year after the Grant Hill thing came about. But this season accomplished a lot for the franchise and is embedded in Magic fans’ memories.
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Honestly, I did not believe for a second that the 2000 team would be able to hang with the 1996 team. The 1996 team we might remember more for their record than anything they actually did. I think this series proves that.
The 2000 team we recognize as the ultimate overachievers in the franchise’s history. The 1996 team was an overachiever in a lot of ways, but was a team that fell short of its ultimate goals. And perhaps that is why they are not remembered much at all. I hate burying them further under the pile of Magic teams. But the 2000 team is too memorable and too endearing to ignore.
That 2000 team was much more memorable in so many ways. The 1996 team? It should be more memorable, but it just isn’t. Jordan’s Bulls were so good and so dominant and the pall and aftermath O’Neal left in his departure kind of make this a forgotten season.
We would rather remember the good times of the 1995 season and the innocence of the years before. Not the failure and havoc that followed in 1996.
This 1996 team was good. Its record indicates that as does the appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. But as far as memorable? It does not live up to the Heart and Hustle crew.
Yes, I think the 2000 Magic would have no way of slowing down Shaquille O’Neal or Penny Hardaway. But the 2000 team also was much deeper and could withstand any offensive lulls the 1996 team might go through. I think the simulated series shows that if the 1996 team failed to put the 2000 team away, the 2000 team would hang around to make things interesting.
Again, I hate burying the 1996 team any deeper than I already might be. There is a great story in this team somewhere that has a big part in Magic history. But the 2000 team was so memorable and special for a variety of reasons, it is too hard to ignore over a disappointing finish that 1996 had.