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 opening round with our fifth matchup:
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 teh 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 woul dhave 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.
The story of the 2004 team was a story of pure disappointment. There is no way around it.
After nearly upsetting the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the Playoffs and winning the first game of the year in a stunning overtime comeback at Madison Square Garden (on national TV), the Magic lost 18 in a row. At first, the losses were close enough to give Magic fans hope if the team could break its funk.
There was McGrady’s miss on the home opener against New Orleans (loss one). And then there was a two-point loss to the Celtics where Paul Pierce and McGrady engaged in a scoring duel that ended with McGrady fouling out and pierce crowing victor (and loss 14). Then there was Vince Carter burying a difficult sideline jumper to send the Magic to loss 15.
There was also a 30 point loss at Sacramento (loss 12) and a disheartening home loss to Minnesota that left McGrady contemplating retirement (loss five). Even the most optimistic of us new something was very wrong. And that feeling pervaded throughout the 21-61 season.
There were still great memories from that season. McGrady scored 62 points in one game and punted the ball into the upper deck twice in another. But those memories did litle to cover up how bad the season was.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who’s better?
Record, Results and Expectations
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.
The 2004 team was very much the opposite. After years of moderate success, the future looked very bleak.
Jon Weisbrod and Tracy McGrady were butting heads with each other and it was clear McGrady was inching his way out of Orlando. The Magic got truly lucky to be one of the few teams with the worst record in the league to net the top overall pick. And Weisbrod made the absolutely 20/20 hindsight correct decision in taking Dwight Howard. Everyone forgets how close that decision really was.
Still, focusing back on 2004, the team was just plain bad. And really, in theory, none of the moves should have even worked — no matter how much I among Magic fans deluded myself into thinking it would. Juwan Howard at center? Tyronn Lue at point guard? That just does not even remotely smell like a playoff roster.
Plus there was the leadership void. McGrady got a captain’s “C” stitched onto his jersey with Darrell Armstrong’s departure. And McGrady just was not a leader.
That was no more evident than early in the season when the Timberwolves trounced the Magic and a frustrated McGrady told the media he was thinking about retiring. This was a guy at the peak of his powers who could not figure out a zone defense and smelled a lost season.
Much like McGrady at the end of the losing streak in December, we were just glad this season was over.
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The simulated series shows pretty clearly what the 2004 team was all about. Tracy McGrady can keep any team in a game because of how talented he was at that time. He single-handedly scored all of Orlando’s points. It was just insane the seasons he put up offensively. Occassionally Drew Gooden or Juwan Howard would come along.
Still, who did the 2004 team have to matchup with Shaq? Andrew Declercq? Drew Gooden? Juwan Howard? If O’Neal would not average 40 points in this series, something is very wrong with Matt Guokas’ strategy.
For that matter, who would the 2004 team stick on Scott Skiles? He would be easily passing over Tyronn Lue. Maybe the aging Rod Strickland could hold his own.
And honestly, I feel more comfortable with Nick Anderson guarding Tracy McGrady than I do any other player in the 2004 front court against O’Neal. The matchup is that simple.
This is one of the most lopsided matches we have looked at so far. The 2004 team is the lowest seed in the tournament for a reason. They might be the worst team in franchise history any way you want to measure it.