Magic Masters: The Finals — 2009 vs. 1996, Part I

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 is Day One of the Finals:

I did not expect this to take this long. Crammed into a season that was too fast for its own good and n offseason of incredible importance, we finally reach the end of the long and arduous journey to figure out who is the greatest Magic team of all time.

There were some surprises. But overall, it went how you expected. The final four teams were the four you would think — the Magic’s four Eastern Conference Finalists — and if it were not for a bracketing quark, I imagine we would be seeing the 2009 Eastern Conference Champions going up against the 1995 Eastern Conference Champions. By the way, the 2009 team won that in an incredibly close 21-17 vote.

The other semifinal pitted the two teams that probably had better seasons but not better final results in the Playoffs. They both ended in bitter disappointment in the Eastern Conference Finals. Statistically in a lot of ways those two teams were better. After a 16-10 victory in the semifinals, the 1996 team (finally) gets its shot at a championship.

So who will win? This will once again be a two-part analysis. And, again, the voting criteria is whatever you want it to be. Will you vote based on which team was subjectively better? Will you follow the results of the WhatIfSports.com simulation (coming in the next post)? Will you vote based on overall impact? Let me try and break down the teams a little bit for you before you make this important question and finally answer the most important question:

Who is the best team in Magic history?

Jameer Nelson tried to skate the line back at the All-Star Break:

“You can’t take away from that, those guys are legends,” Nelson said, unknowingly flinging some trash talk for some random blogger’s history competition. “I’m trying to get to where they are one day and just mark my legacy here in Orlando. I don’t want to compare this team to that team. We have a good team. Hopefully we can win a championship this year and have a better team than that team.”

Nelson may not have been able to do it this year with this year’s team, but maybe 2009 can do it. What do you say?

The poll is open whenever you are ready to vote and will remain open for the next two weeks (or so). On to the analysis.

Key Matchup — 2009 Jameer Nelson vs. 1996 Penny Hardaway

During the All-Star Break, Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Dennis Scott did a sit down interview where they discussed the mid-90s Magic. It was a fantastic interview as the trio tried to dredge up what will probably be one of the forgotten great teams in NBA history (I blame you, Michael Jordan… but then again so does Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone …).

The question this series is trying to answer inevitably came up though. How would the “New School” Magic play the “Old School” Magic.

They might be biased, but Dennis Scott, Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal all came to the same conclusion. The “Old School” team wins because of Penny. As Scott told me back at the All-Star Game this year, everyone forgets just how good Penny Hardaway was.

“They do [forget how good Penny was] just because you have to realize it was the early 90s,” Scott said. “We didn’t have YouTube and we didn’t have Twitter. My youngest son, they were showing some highlights and he was like, ‘That’s Penny Hardaway? He used to do that?’ He did stuff in practice where Brian Hill had to say timeout, go get some water because even he was amazed what he was doing on the court that time.”

It is true, you really forget just how good and athletic Hardaway was. The 1996 season was no exception. He averaged a career-best 21.7 points per game, shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and dishing out 7.1 assists per game. His PER was a career-best 24.6 and he posted 14.4 win shares for a 60-win juggernaut of a team. With Shaquille O’Neal out at the beginning of the season, Hardaway took over and became the team’s superstar. This was slowly becoming his team (a transformation completed when O’Neal left).

Hardaway was your matchup nightmare. Extremely athletic. A great shooter and slasher. Someone who could finish at the rim with explosion. He was a treat to watch — if the constant injuries and his short career did not cut your memory short.

2009 was similarly (OK, maybe not similarly) Jameer’s career year. In the years since it has felt like the Magic are chasing the Nelson that existed in 2009. Nelson was an All Star that year and averaged 16.7 points per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor for an incredibly balanced Orlando team. More impressively, Nelson shot an incredible 53.6 percent from 16-23 feet, yes the least efficient shot in the game but so vital to Orlando’s pick and roll offense.

Nelson was deadly efficient because he could hit that jump shot. And he did it again and again. And it gave him the confidence to attack the rim aggressively.

Much like Hardaway, I think Nelson’s shoulder injury and performance in his hasty return for the Finals makes us forget just how good Nelson was that year. Nelson was the difference for this team. He was the one that really lifted the team when they were struggling and created for everyone. A 2009 Jameer Nelson would fix a lot of problems for the Magic right now.

The problem is these two great guards would not be matched up directly. The Magic would throw Mickael Pietrus on Hardaway. Hardaway’s size is quite problematic for the Magic. Well, it was a problem for every NBA team in the mid-1990s.

“In all fairness, we would probably sweep them,” Scott said. “It all comes down to Penny. You can argue Shaq and Dwight and battle with me shooting 3s and Ryan and the rest of those guys shooting 3s. There’s nothing on Penny. That’s no knock to  J.J., Jason Richardson and Jameer. It’s just how do you stop a 6-foot-9 point guard who could do it all?”

Across-Era Players

If you could switch one player from each team who would it be? I think Dennis Scott knows that answer.

3-D, meet Stan Van Gundy. Stan Van Gundy, meet Dennis Scott.

“Playing with this guy [Jameer] and Dwight in Stan’s offense? Do you see how many Ryan is making now? I would probably make double,” Scott said. “Their style suited me perfect. Dwight gets double teamed a lot and he’s a good passer out of the double team. It’s amazing how a style of play – very similar to what Jeremy Lin is doing in New York – if you can find a system that fits your game, you can really flourish.”

Indeed, Scott took 628 3-pointers in 1996 and led the league with 267. He was 42.5 percent of his long-range heaves. I think this was after the league pushed the 3-point line back out after shortening it in 1995 to try and increase scoring. Either way, Scott would have had more than a green light to shoot in Stan Van Gundy’s offense. He would have the traffic light in his car as he blew through stop signs he is simultaneously knocking out with a baseball bat.

That was a convoluted metaphor.

The point is, Dennis Scott would have shot threes and he would have made a lot of threes. That is what he did for Brian Hill’s Magic and that team was not based on the 3-pointer in the same way the 2009 team was. Put it this way, the 2009 team set the record for most 3-point makes in a single game on a winter evening in Sacramento. Scott might be gunning for his own 3-point shooting records on a nightly basis.

Trust me, you could see the smile on Scott’s face when I asked him the question on All-Star Saturday Night at the thought of playing in Stan Van Gundy’s offense.

If I had to take a 2009 player and stick him on the 1996 team, I might go with Marcin Gortat.

2009 was really the year Gortat’s career took off. Yes, he was playing limited minutes behind Dwight Howard but everyone knew there was something in this backup center. He certainly stepped up in the first round with Dwight Howard suspended for the series-clinching win in Philadelphia. Honestly, the Magic probably undervalued everything Gortat did.

So why would he fit in with 1996?

O’Neal started the year on the shelf and the Magic started Jon Koncak. Knocak was serviceable, but largely disappointing in his only year in Orlando. He averaged 5.7 points per 36 minutes and 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in posting a career-worst 7.1 PER. With O’Neal out the first 35 games, Koncak averaged 4.3 points per game, grabbed 5.9 rebounds per game and shot 47.6 percent from the floor. That is awful for a center.

Gortat could have made a big difference for the Magic coming off the bench in much the same role. If O’Neal gets in foul trouble against the Bulls, there is still a rim protector.

Gortat really was a luxury the Magic should never have given up. It is something the 1996 team would have loved to have to clutter the lane some more against Jordan and his Bulls.

Final Thoughts — Battle of the Big Men

When you look at these two versions of the team, you really can see a whole lot of comparisons. Honestly, I cannot believe it took me 1600 words (you still with me?) to make a comment about the Shaquille O’Neal-Dwight Howard battle. A lot of people would probably point to this matchup as the key matchup. And it is.

But largely throughout their careers, Howard and O’Neal tended to cancel each other out. It is true Shaq was a better offensive player, but Dwight was dominant defensively. Like I said, it seems like they would cancel each other out — by fouls or by production — when push came to shove.

Still, the center of the debate between these two teams is ultimately the center.

O’Neal was much further advanced on the offensive end at this point. He was efficient and had multiple post moves and counter moves. He was an offensive force that very few players could contain. Paired with Hardaway, the Magic were an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. When the Magic needed points they could reliably dump the ball into Shaq and let him get to work.

In 2009, Howard’s offense was still developing. But he was by far the best defensive player in the league — or at least the one that could make the biggest impact. He was the rock around which everything on the Magic’s offense would spin.

Of course, that has its problems. Howard was much better and still improving his offensive game. His post moves were limited — but he had mastered a few and rarely needed to do much more. Offensively, he struggled against centers with a lot of lower body strength that could take him off his spots. Unlike O’Neal, Howard was not someone you could just throw the ball into at this point in his career (he has become a lot better at it).

And unlike the 1996 team, the 2009 team took a balanced approach to offense. There was no perimeter go-to player.

But the 2009 team could share the ball and move it with deadly efficiency. All around Howard, who would assumedly draw double teams. O’Neal is not going to need any help against Howard. Horace Grant did not have the same lower body strength, but he would have a few tricks to throw at Howard too.

The more you look at this matchup, the more you want to favor the 1996 squad. But there is something special about that 2009 team. They were deep and gutsy. They had an intangible quality about them that became more endearing as the Playoffs went on. It was always amazing to me, and I think I wrote about this earlier in the tournament, how the 2009 team could win games when it was playing so poorly.

This really is a hard choice. So who do you have?

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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