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 2009 team is special. I half expect them to win the title in this entire tournament because simply that team was incredibly likeable.
It had some success the previous year and it was clear with a young core of Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson and key veterans in place with Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis that this team was going to compete for a championship for years to come.
The thing was, Orlando was not quite used to competing to a championship. This was really the third year in franchise history we could legitimately say, “The Magic might win the championship.” Nobody believed in the Magic in the media. And fans were left pinching themselves. Personally, I thought it was a victory to get the Celtics to seven games in the second round — it was growth, in my mind, for the run that would come in 2010; it was a failure for the team to grow from.
This team had no illusions or lowered expectations. The goal was always a championship. And the 2008-09 team played with energy and exuberance to get to the doorstep and the franchise’s second NBA Finals appearance.
What stuck out to me about the 2009 team was its resiliency. There was no quit in this team. It felt like there would be games that were sure losses, that this team would find a way to rally and win. It had that instinctual ability to fight and win ugly or win pretty. They were more than a team that jacked up 3-pointers at will as they sometimes were painted.
Just think about it for a second. Orlando lost an all-star point guard in early February and looked dead in the water until Otis Smith acquired Rafer Alston. Maybe there was some mishandling in the Finals concerning Jameer Nelson’s return. But you could not doubt the team’s resiliency in switching point guards mid-season and still rallying to reach the Finals.
In that way the season was more incredible than it already was.
Just like seemingly every year under Stan Van Gundy, this felt like a team of overachievers. And more than any other team in that era, this team caught fire in a big way and took us for a special ride.
The 2007 team stands squarely in between two eras of Magic basketball. Brian Hill was something of a lame-duck coach as everyone began to realize his deliberate style of play was not getting the most out of his relatively young roster.
Dwight Howard was really beginning to blossom into a superstar, laying the foundations for the will he would exert defensively. Jameer Nelson was firmly entrenched as the team’s starting point guard. And Hedo Turkoglu was even beginning to show signs that he would be able to contribute in the future with his on-ball playmaking ability.
This was also the one year — the one year in seven! — that Grant Hill was completely healthy for the Magic. The promise of his contract coming off the books and giving Orlando some much needed salary relief after seven years of mediocrity with the Hill albatross hanging about the franchise’s neck. Not that Hill had a bad season. By PER he was actually Orlando’s best player on this strangely appealing team.
The Magic got this group to its first Playoff appearance since 2003, and met a merciless sweep to the hated Pistons. Still, this team provided a lot of hope for the future. Sure, that cap room turned into Rashard Lewis and Otis Smith briefly flirted with Billy Donovan before Stan Van Gundy became his man (the right man) for the job.
The 2007 season was the beginning of Orlando’s ascendance to a championship-contending team. It met expectations by reaching the postseason, although the team failed to get a victory. At the time, though, Magic fans had no idea what was to come. All they knew coming out of this season that the Magic were officially Dwight Howard’s team now.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who’s better?
Records, Results & Expectations
Did anybody expect the 2009 team to make the Finals? Maybe not outside the locker room.
It was clear that was the only goal that mattered for the team. From day one, the Magic expected nothing less than a championship. And that was the attitude they took. Nobody believed this team was serious about winning a title. Dwight Howard was still growing as a defensive player and expanding his offensive game. It was no sure thing that Orlando would continue its string of success.
Sure, the team might repeat as Southeast Division champions. But to challenge Cleveland, Boston and even Detroit (they still had Chauncey Billups at the beginning of the year) atop the Eastern Conference? Not the same chance.
Yet, there they were winning games. Everyone waited for them to fade and they never did. Everyone assumed the 3-poineters would stop falling, but even when they did that strong defense was there to pick the team up.
This team defied expectations even as they grew during the year until finally everyone was left only to believe. I remember being one of those people trying to temper expectations. But by the time Orlando beat Cleveland, it was clear to me this team was special. But even after the Finals appearance, nobody quite believed in Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard and the Magic. All they did in 2009 was prove doubters wrong and prove themselves right.
Unlike 2009, the 2007 team met expectations and returned to the postseason after a four year absence, even if it was for just a brief cameo. After the way the 2006 team ended its year, maybe a bit more was expected.
The Magic finished 40-42 that year and earned the eight seed in the Eastern Conference. Orlando seemed to build off the success from the end of the year, heading into December with a 13-4 record. It felt like, at times, the Magic were going to be the surprise team in the East. But it was young and soon suffered several strings of losses to fall below .500. The team hovered around that mark for the rest of the season.
Getting to the Playoffs was the goal and it was accomplished. Beggers were not going to be choosers after struggling through the last five years. It seemed like a long journey to get back after Tracy McGrady’s departure and the Steve Francis experiment.
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I believe the difference between the 2009 team and the 2007 team was a matter of growth. Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu were all carry overs from that team that began the Magic’s latest Playoff streak. And 2007 was their first postseason together as a group.
It was clear after Detroit swept Orlando out of the postseason that there was some growing to do. Dwight Howard was developing into a defensive linchpin, but was not quite an offensive force as Rasheed Wallace seemed to easily bottle him up. Jameer Nelson was a solid point guard in his first year as a starter, but was not efficient — or durable — enough to go much farther beyond that. And Turkoglu was still inconsistent and a great unknown bundle of potential. He was still somewhat seen as a sixth man.
Maybe it was just getting out of Brian Hill’s stodgy offensive sets. Maybe it was just a matter of growing up a little bit more.
Whatever it was, by 2009, all three of those players had found something and had matured into much different players.
Howard in 2009 officially became the linchpin of both the offense and the defense. The double double became an every-night assumption for him and he became a true superstar in leading the Magic to the Finals.
Jameer Nelson probably hit the height of his potential as a super effective mid-range scorer and saavy pick-and-roll point guard. It is easy to forget from the Finals mishap how good Nelson was in the regular season.
And Turkoglu? He became the initiator and a matchup nightmare in that first run with Stan Van Gundy. That was made no clearer than in the 2009 Playoffs where Turkoglu had the ball in his hands late in games and made some critical plays — his block on Kobe Bryant to force overtime in Game Two of the Finals is overlooked far too often.
Yes the 2009 team was clearly a maturation of the 2007 team. It is no wonder they should win this matchup.