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:
It is always tough to move on from the departure of a superstar. The Magic team that left the court in Orlando after the Bulls swept the Magic out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals was very different from the one that walked out to open the season. It was not that there was major roster turnover. Nick Anderson, Anfernee Hardaway, Horace Grant and Dennis Scott were still on the team. This was essentially the same core that took Orlando to the NBA Finals two years earlier.
The noticeable difference and gap was at center. Shaquille O’Neal was gone. He packed his bags, embarrassed and upset over the Magic’s low-ball offer and the naivete of the results in an Orlando Sentinel poll and enamored with the prospect of building the next Lakers dynasty. O’Neal did not leave the cupboard bare. This was still an Eastern Conference finalist.
Yet O’Neal’s departure left the team and the franchise in almost complete turmoil. The franchise never recovered for nearly a decade after he left.
Still you had an All-NBA player in Hardaway and some solid players around him. The gap O’Neal left was massive though. And the team fell further and further down the standings.
The 1997 year was a year of turmoil for sure. The team spent a lot of it figuring out how to replace O’Neal. Then the rebellion happened in mid-February. Reportedly Hardaway started a vote among players to throw out head coach Brian Hill. Richie Adubato brought some new energy to the team and they played some inspired defense to go 21-12 and reach the Playoffs.
Orlando was a bit outmatched in that first round series against Miami, but Orlando did not leave without serving notice that Hardaway was still an elite player and Darrell Armstrong would be a spunky, energetic point guard for the future.
Still it was disappointing to see the team fall so far so quickly. The Brian Hill exit was ugly and still left a lot of people bitter even years after — the franchise tried to make amends by rehiring him nearly a decade later. But it was nowhere near as effective.
This was the first year of a difficult transition for the Magic. It had its ups and downs, but we knew a quick ascendance back to the top would not be easy, like it was the first time.
Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie year was something truly different for Magic fans. When Orlando scored the No. 1 pick and seemingly the key to future NBA championships (that would prove to be true… just not in Orlando). He was young, dynamic and dominant. A true budding superstar and the clear rookie of the year.
With O’Neal on the roster, the Magic transformed into one of the most exciting and personable young teams in the league. The franchise had expectations for performance on the court for the first time in its young life. There was no telling how the team would react. It was still something of a honeymoon phase but now the team needed to start putting pieces together and winning or risk the whole Orlando experiment.
Getting O’Neal would have changed the course of any franchise. But for an expansion franchise like Orlando, it absolutely changed the franchise’s perception and expectations moving forward. Perhaps the team got a star and chance of this magnitude too early, increasing expectations for the post-Shaq era.
But optimism and buzz were surrounding the Orlando Arena for the first time. You went to the O-Rena expecting wins. And the 41-41 record certainly got Magic fans thinking wins. Finishing tied for the final playoff spot with Indiana was a huge step forward for the franchise.
O’Neal completely changed the game for Orlando. It is easy to forget, considering what he would eventually become, how different of a player he was in Orlando. O’Neal was a polished post player with speed, quickness and agility to match his sheer size. Nobody could muscle him around even as a rookie (and he was considerably more slender in Orlando).
O’Neal’s rookie season averages of 23.4 points per game, 13.9 rebounds per game and 3.5 blocks per game are among the best in team history. Like I said in summarizing the 1992 team, the Magic were a superstar short of competing for a postseason berth. O’Neal definitely proved that to be true.
Record, Results and Expectations
It is tough to say exactly what everyone expected from the 1997 team. I think there was a certain indignation and denial (not to mention anger) about O’Neal’s departure. Like just about every time Shaq has left some place, the team he departed believed the guard was the future.
There was no reason to believe that Hardaway couldn’t carry the team. He averaged 20.5 points per game and 5.6 assists per game in that first year without Shaq. He became a team leader — in both good and bad ways that year. Hardaway still had a stellar year and it amplified during the Playoffs when he scored 40 points in back-to-back games with Orlando facing elimination.
A drop off might have been expected, but I don’t think people realized how critical O’Neal was to the success of this team. There might have been a general disappointment in finishing seventh in the conference, surely this team was better without one player, right?
What we thought about this team’s prospects without O’Neal might have been a bit naive. The Magic were extremely naive because of how quickly the team rose to the top of the league — this was year seven of the franchise’s existence. That naivete struck everyone. Hardaway’s head was probably bigger than it needed to be since he had seen nothing but extreme success in his first three years. that might have led to the frustration that ousted Brian Hill.
Things were not working the way they were supposed to and frustration mounted on all sides. The team needed a spark and another star to pair around Hardaway — likely a post… like Shaq. It was a hard lesson for the franchise to learn as O’Neal made John Gabriel and company swallow their pride a bit.
I really cannot remember what the expectations were for the 1993 team. Sure, Shaq was in the fold and the team was leaving the expansion honeymoon. Now with a superstar, the team needed to start winning. Expectations were starting to come.
By wins and losses, this was the Magic’s best season to date. Finishing at .500 marked a vast improvement over the previous season and laid the foundation for the team’s first playoff appearance. You can’t help but think of how exciting it all was to be new to competitive basketball. Again, Orlando fans were just spoiled in this way.
Things really ratcheted up after the successes of this season. Plain and simple, Orlando was entering its golden age with some help from some ping pong balls.
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There are certain areas that the 1993 team would certainly give the 1997 team trouble. Rony Seikaly was never going to be able to handle even a young Shaquille O’Neal, and I suspect that O’Neal would have had some massive games in this series. Horace Grant would have to help as much as he could — and it would probably be OK since Tom Tolbert started the majority of the games at power forward for the Magic that year.
The 1997 team was probably more put together than the 1993 team, which was still a remnant of the expansion franchise and what the team would become with O’Neal in the middle. Hardaway was a bona fide superstar while O’Neal was still growing. Nick Anderson had to readjust and become the team’s second scorer again, a role he was not really fit for. He would have to fill that role in this series as Rony Seikaly surely would not be scoring as much as he did in the regular season going directly against O’Neal.
Different guys would have to step up for the Magic to win this series. Clearly WhatIfSports has the 1997 team winning the series 4-1, but you can see how competitive and high scoring a series between these two teams would be.
The 1997 team is probably a better team. They played with a lot of energy and focus in the days following Brian Hill’s ouster, showing what kind of team it could be.
But, I have to go against the grain here. A lot of what worked in 1993 was the team’s unpredictability. O’Neal was a superstar in waiting and Nick Anderson still had a lot of talent and a bright future inside of him. I would not put it past the 1993 Magic to steal a victory. And, as far as impact and memory, the 1993 team might be the better squad.
All just a matter of taste when you vote.