You may remember last year our friends over at Hoops Manifesto enpaneled a group of Bloguin writers to determine the top 10 players for each franchise. Shaquille O’Neal topped that list (that might be changing for this year’s edition… and beyond) from the panel and I further explained my ballot shortly thereafter.
This year, we are back at it again, ranking the 10 best players in NBA history at each position. We started with the point guards where we named Magic Johnson the greatest point guard in NBA history and moved on to the shooting guards where Michael Jordan got the nod. The panel named Larry Bird the top small forward andTim Duncan the top power forward. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the top center.
So I thought what about Magic history? I ranked Anfernee Hardaway as the top point guard,Tracy McGrady as the top shooting guard, Hedo Turkoglu the top small forward and Horace Grant the top power forward. Here are the 10 best centers in Magic history:
10) Kelvin Cato (2004-06): 5.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 58.1% TS%.
Kelvin Cato could do very little, really throughout his career. He was drafted as a defensive ace and shot blocker and there was a time when he could do that pretty well. But he was constantly out of shape and just was not fast or able to be much more than a big body. The perfect guy to mentor Dwight Howard, right? Good thing Howard did not listen to Cato so much. He was OK (and that is being nice) in his first season with Orlando before injuries limited him until the team shipped him to Detroit.
9) Marcin Gortat (2007-10): 3.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 56.6% TS%.
The “Polish Hammer” quickly endeared himself to Magic fans as a defensive stalwart. Everyone, Gortat included, knew he just needed a chance to get consistent playing time to show what he could really do. In three short years Gortat developed into a bull of a defensive player and an improving offensive player. The only problem was that he had Dwight Howard in front of him and that is not going to get you very many minutes.
Gortat seemed to post a double double just about every game he actually started in Orlando — in 17 starts in his career, he is averaging 13.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He has proven what he can actually do with playing time in his half season in Phoenix. Yes, Gortat might be another case of a draft pick the Magic gave up too early.
8) Stanley Roberts (1991-92): 10.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 53.8% TS%.
Roberts is famous for many things. He fouled out in one quarter during a game and became notorious after he gained weight and began using drugs. Roberts career was riddled with misfortune and bad choices. When Orlando drafted him in 1991, he was not going to be a superstar like his college teammate would be when Orlando drafted him with the top overall pick the following year. But Roberts was decent. Not spectacular, but decent. His vices ultimately doomed his career and the Magic got out to make room for Shaq.
But, believe it or not, there was a time people thought Roberts was better than Shaq. He and O’Neal formed a formidable front line. But Roberts left LSU after one year before the Magic drafted him, perhaps foreshadowing some of the problems he would have later in his career.
Roberts was big (understatement) and long when he first came to the NBA. He seemingly had a solid career in front of him.
7) Isaac Austin (1999): 9.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 45.7% TS%; 6.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 46.0% TS%, 4 Playoff Games.
With Rony Seikaly gone, Isaac Austin became Attempt to Replace Shaquille O’Neal, Take Two. Austin’s lone year in Orlando might as well have been a perfect storm of bad omens for the Magic.
Austin proved the contract year theory resoundingly correct, averaging a career-best 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game with the Heat and the Clippers. His rebounding numbers were especially interesting as his second highest amount was 5.8 rebounds per game. In fact his 10.9 percent total rebound rate in Orlando was the worst of his career. Yes, it was truly all downhill after Orlando gave Austin his big payday.
Also working against Orlando — the lockout. That 1999 season was just plain weird. Even though the Magic finished tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference, looking at the statistics for that team (and really around the league) raises questions. Much of everything from that year was a mirage and Austin was very much a part of that.
6) Chris Gatling (1999-2000): 13.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG 52.5% TS%.
Gatling played only 45 games with Orlando during the Heart and Hustle season. Gatling was a key player off the bench, providing a nice scoring punch off the bench. He was able to post up pretty well and step out and hit the jumper. He was a journeyman in every sense of the word. Gatling was unspectacular, but consistent and one of the unsung heroes of that team. He was just solid, but in an expendable way it seemed.
But Gatling’s problem was that Orlando did not really need him. The team was shedding salary for the free agent bonanza that saw the team acquire Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Veterans were not the Magic’s thing that year. They looked for more time for a young and emerging Ben Wallace and probably saw him as their most valuable asset. And so with Orlando fighting (surprisingly) for a playoff spot, the magic opted to bring in Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups‘ expiring contract.
5) Darko Milicic (2006-07): 7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 46.9% FG%; 12.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 58.8% FG%, 4 Playoff Games.
Darko Milicic just needed a chance after getting buried on the bench in Detroit. In Orlando, we saw some of what made him the No. 2 pick in that draft. Perhaps he met unfair expectations and perhaps he just was never that good. But he found a role in Orlando that seemed to make sense.
In Orlando, we discovered he was a pretty good defender and not a bad player. He just carried all that expectation with him, and his head was not always in the right place. He was not the easiest to coach. Darko had some of his best years in Orlando. It would have been interesting to see if he could have finally developed alongside Dwight Howard. As it was, his time in Orlando revealed he had some worth in the league.
4) Juwan Howard (2003-04): 17.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 51.3% TS%.
Orlando signed Juwan Howard following the 3-1 debacle thinking of pairing him up with Drew Gooden in the post and featuring one of the best front courts in the Eastern Conference. Yes, there was a time when Juwan Howard and Drew Gooden would have been considered a top post combination in the Eastern Conference. It did not work, to say the least.
The 2004 season was an unmitigated disaster. Tracy McGrady could not step up to be the leader the team needed and free agent acquisitions Tyronn Lue and Juwan Howard took the rest of the brunt of the team’s extreme shortcomings. Howard though was a professional through it all. It seemed every night he would put up his average of 17 and 7 without fail. Even with the team floundering at the bottom of the NBA, Howard kept on doing his work and producing what he could. It was not his fault John Gabriel made a bad free agent signing.
3) Rony Seikaly (1996-98): 16.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 55.1% TS%; 6.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 37.9% TS%, 3 Playoff Games.
There was a long line of centers who tried to fill the void after Shaquille O’Neal left in 1996. Orlando failed to fill that void, really at all, until it drafted Dwight Howard. Seikaly at least tried and along the line might have been the best center to try and replace O’Neal. There were some real stinkers from 1996 until 2004. Seikaly was not an All Star, but at times he sure did not seem like a bad player. Perhaps Orlando did not really understand what it had when the team traded him in the middle of the 1997-98 season… or maybe they sold at the right time with Seikaly fighting injury (he played just 18 games after Orlando traded him in two seasons).
Seikaly was a versatile center who lacked much of the strength and girth typical centers had, but proved to be a solid complement to Horace Grant down low. The Magic went 45-37 that first year without O’Neal and took the Heat to five games as the seven seed. He was an able scorer and that seemed to be what Orlando needed most next to Anfernee Hardaway and Nick Anderson as they took back control of the offense.
Seikaly flamed out in the Playoffs, which featured a 2-for-12 effort in the team’s Game One blowout loss and then just 19 minutes in Game Three before injuries claimed the rest of his postseason.
2) Dwight Howard (2004-11): 18.2 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 60.5% TS%; 19.9 PPG, 14.4 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 61.9% TS%, 57 Playoff Games.
There is very little Dwight Howard has yet to do in a Magic uniform. He has led the team to its first Finals win in a surprising run to the championship round in 2009. He has saved and defined the franchise for the last five or so years.
Unlike Shaquille O’Neal, he was not ready to come into the league and simply dominate. He was brought along slowly (perhaps frustratingly so). Johnny Davis asked him to be a rebounder and improve his defense, knowing his athleticism was unmatched by other centers in the league. And so he built his defense into the kind of game-changing presence the league has not seen maybe since Bill Russell — Matt Guokas would have you think so. That is high praise.
Slowly his offensive game has begun to catch up. Last year was the apex of what Howard has done so far and he is expected to continue his improvement as he gains confidence and expands his offensive arsenal. It is coming for Howard and pretty soon he is going to be simply unstoppable, effecting both sides of the court in a way no other player currently in the league can.
Magic fans right now are worried more about Howard’s future than his past. We want to be there when Howard achieves the ultimate greatness we envision for his career. Howard, more than maybe any other player in Magic history, cares most about winning. That may be the ultimate splitting point between him and Orlando (whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not).
But few players in Magic history have been able to match this drive with results too. Orlando has completed the most successful four-year run in the team’s history, which included that 2009 trip to the Finals and the 2010 trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic have never had four straight years with 50 wins, and Howard has been the driving force behind accomplishing that feat.
1) Shaquille O’Neal (1992-96): 27.2 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 58.8% TS%; 25.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 58.2% TS%, 36 Playoff Games.
Without Shaquille O’Neal, the Magic are far off the map. Likely, the team does not aspire to the greatness it did so quickly. O’Neal made the Magic as the franchise moved off its honeymoon phase after the expansion years. If the Magic don’t hit the jackpot and win the 1992 Draft Lottery, things would be very different. We likely would not view the franchise anywhere near the same way.
Orlando has championship aspirations and it likely began with O’Neal’s arrival in 1992 (year four) and the team’s run to the NBA Finals in 1995 (year six).
Perhaps O’Neal was too much of a good thing too quickly. His statistics are just eye-popping. We will likely be debating the O’Neal-Howard debate for the remainder of the franchise’s history. He was not quite the player he would become in Los Angeles, but we all knew he was an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor — at least, when he wanted to be. O’Neal came to the league very complete and ready to make an impact immediately.
His exuberance and enthusiasm for the game was contagious and made him more than just a superstar. He was Orlando’s first superstar. And ultimately O’Neal was more of a superstar than likely a mid-market like Orlando could handle. At least in his mind. O’Neal was stunning and amazing in four years with the Magic, but it seemed he always had his eyes on bigger prizes (to me, this is the difference between O’Neal and Howard… but that is a post for another day).
Shaq had a huge impact on Orlando and the Magic. One that is definitely still felt even today. He is the stick we measure everyone by still because he was the complete package. He was a superstar in every sense of the word.
But his spot atop this list is very quickly slipping as Dwight Howard continues to improve.