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:
The 2008 season was the return to glory. The return to the national relevance. The return to mattering. For 12 years, Orlando muddled through the darkness of mediocrity and the lottery in the post-Shaquille O’Neal era. Dwight Howard was “the savior” top overall pick. But he could do no saving.
Not until 2008. Not until the greatest second guessing ever to happen occurred. Not until the fax heard round Sacramento. Not until the questionable free agent signing that brought the Magic to the doorstep of a championship.
Nobody was quite sure what would happen when the Magic bowed out of the first round at the hands of a sweep to the Pistons. Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson were young and nobody knew where they would go. Finally, Grant Hill’s contract would be off the books. There was a chance to begin re-making the roster.
It started with Billy Donovan accepting and then rejecting the Magic’s job offer. Allowing Otis Smith to make up for that mistake with a hasty fax to Sacramento to secure Stan Van Gundy’s coaching service. With him in tow, they began crafting a vision for the Magic. It started with the signing of Rashard Lewis.
The contract was extremely bloated and Smith likely bargained against himself in offering it. But there was also no doubt the effect it had on the team. With Hedo Turkoglu now firmly in the starting lineup and Lewis spreading the floor to give Dwight Howard some space down low, the Magic transformed into a much different team.
Orlando became a 50-win team for the third time in franchise history. The Magic ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, an especially large climb after ranking 22nd in offensive rating the year before under Brian Hill. Van Gundy continued to improve the team, but this was the foundation.
Dwight Howard became a monster in the postseason, averaging 22.6 points per game and 18.2 rebounds per game in the first round. It was his first big step toward superstardom on a national stage. He was no longer just that plucky young big man.
This team obviously needed a lot of growing up. They would get that in the next two years in a trip to the Finals and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. But this was quite a first step for a team ready to grow up and become a factor for a championship.
The 2006 season was very uneventful. Mediocrity reigned in the post-McGrady era. We learned fairly quickly (if we did not know already) Steve Francis was more of a headache than he was worth and was likely holding back Dwight Howard’s development. Jameer Nelson was still a pesky point guard coming off the bench and there were solid role players who would help lead the Magic back to prominence.
But this team was still a long way off. Howard was still a long way off. And Brian Hill was not the best coach for the job.
Despite all that, the 2006 team gave Magic fans hope for the future. The mid-season trade of Steve Francis brought in Darko Milicic and cap space with it. And then all of a sudden after that trade was made, things clicked. The team got hot and got back into the Playoff race. The Magic won eight straight games and 12 of the last 15, falling two games short of sneaking into the Playoffs for the first time since 2003.
It was not to be as the team was a year away from accomplishing that goal. But this young and spunky team, with a coach who favored a very slow type of game that lacked a lot of offensive imagination and did not quite fit his personnel, showed a lot of promise for the future.
The present though in 2006 was increasingly bleak until Orlando unloaded Steve Francis. Orlando, as strong as it finished, had a 2-18 stretch in January and February that put the team in a deep hole it scrambled to climb out of. Francis was horribly inconsistent and far from the star Jon Weisbrod promised.
And that inconsistency proliferated throughout the roster. Dwight Howard was still solely relied on for defense and rebounding — little attention was paid to developing his post game. Hedo Turkoglu was exactly how we remember him, except not featured as much and a lot more inconsistent. Brian Hill was among the many coaches who could not unlock Turkoglu’s talents. Grant Hill was injured… again, this time with a sports hernia, so at least it was not his ankle.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who’s better?
Record, Results & Expectations
With all that cap room available to Orlando, it is safe to say we expected a second straight Playoff berth and for the team to continue to grow and to mature. Rashard Lewis was a nice, if not pricy, signing that would help the team get there. But to the next level? To the second round? Even the most optimistic of us did not think that would happen.
You have to really remember how innovative Stan Van Gundy was in the way he implemented his new strategy for this team. A lot of “experts” did not even have the Magic making the Playoffs that season. Much less, winning the whole division and becoming one of the best teams in the league a few years later.
The crux was Rashard Lewis and the important decision he and Van Gundy made. In Seattle, Lewis was a small forward. He did a lot of his work on the perimeter against smaller players and worked his way into the post some. The Magic asked their new max deal man to hang around the perimeter more and look to attack off the dribble while focusing defensively agaisnt bigger players. Orlando banked that Lewis’ superb shooting ability would counterweigh any defensive liability Lewis might have.
Amazingly it worked. Astoundingly it worked. Thankfully it worked.
The 1-in/4-out set seems second nature now, but it was an incredible risk. That first year with Orlando, Lewis averaged 18.2 points per game and shot 40.9 percent from beyond the arc (both highs for his time with Orlando). More importantly, he posted a 3.7 defensive win share (notably sharing the court with Dwight Howard most of the time) and a career-best 9.8 win shares.
If ever there was a sign that Lewis contributed a lot to the Magic’s success it might be that.
For the 2006 team, inconsistency kept it from reaching the Playoffs. Really it was a miracle that 2006 got to 36-46, matching the previous year’s record (a team that injuries derailed at the end).
Still the 2006 season undoubtedly ended on a higher note. The team scrapped the Steve Francis experiment, Jon Weisbrod was on his way out and the team showed a ton of potential in the final month of the season to get close to a Playoff berth. There was optimism at the end of the season because of the potential Darko Milicic showed (yes, I just wrote that) and because Grant Hill seemed like he finally would be healthy (he would, and I just wrote that).
Really, the 2006 team became an empty promise in 2007 despite the Magic’s return to the postseason. The 2008 season was the foundation for something great.
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The difference between 2006 Dwight Howard and 2008 Dwight Howard is probably enough on its own to give the 2008 team a victory in this head to head matchup. Howard had not quite put the stamp on the defensive end that he would. The 2008 season, after all, was the first year Dwight won Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The difference though is, as explained thoroughly above, is the impact Rashard Lewis had on the offense. Brian Hill was not an offensive genius in his second stint with Orlando. Stan Van Gundy instantly (almost instantly) transformed that Brian Hill squad into an offensive juggernaut with a better understanding of pace and floor spacing. I thinkt he four-game sweep shows that.
Both these teams were good defensively. But Hill’s teams were good defensively because they pounded the ball into the ground and tried to execute in the half court. That team was not really built to do that. These two teams really showed the difference between a Van Gundy-led team and a Hill-led team pretty simply.
I honestly see no universe where the underachieving 2006 squad tops the overachieving 2008 squad. You are welcome to try and prove me wrong.