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 conclude the quarterfinals:
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 for 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.
When the 1996-97 season came around, it felt like that same special kind of ride hit a hard brake. And we were still a little jolted from having to stop so suddenly after an equally sudden ascendance.
It is always tough to move on from the departure of a superstar. The Magic team that left the court in Orlando after the Bulls swept the Magic out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals was very different from the one that walked out to open the season. It was not that there was major roster turnover. Nick Anderson, Anfernee Hardaway, Horace Grant and Dennis Scott were still on the team. This was essentially the same core that took Orlando to the NBA Finals two years earlier.
The noticeable difference and gap was at center. Shaquille O’Neal was gone. He packed his bags, embarrassed and upset over the Magic’s low-ball offer, upset over the naivete of the results in an Orlando Sentinel poll and enamored with the prospect of building the next Lakers dynasty. O’Neal did not leave the cupboard bare. This was still an Eastern Conference finalist.
Yet O’Neal’s departure left the team and the franchise in almost complete turmoil. The franchise never recovered for nearly a decade after he left. No one could fill his shoes.
The 1997 year was a year of turmoil for sure. The team spent a lot of it figuring out how to replace O’Neal. Then the rebellion happened in mid-February. Reportedly Hardaway started a vote among players to throw out head coach Brian Hill. Richie Adubato brought some new energy to the team and they played some inspired defense to go 21-12 and reach the Playoffs.
Orlando was a bit outmatched in that first round series against Miami, but Orlando did not leave without serving notice that Hardaway was still an elite player and Darrell Armstrong would be a spunky, energetic point guard for the future.
Still it was disappointing to see the team fall so far so quickly. The Brian Hill exit was ugly and still left a lot of people bitter even years after — the franchise tried to make amends by rehiring him nearly a decade later, but it was nowhere near as effective.
This was the first year of a difficult transition for the Magic. It had its ups and downs, but we knew a quick ascendance back to the top would not be easy, like it was the first time.
Impact & Historical Significance
When you look at the historical significance of these two teams you come with an overly positive side for one and an overly negative one for the other (bet you can’t guess which is which).
Like I said, I have a feeling the 2009 team is going to win this whole thing because of how simply likeable it was. Even when the Magic were tearing through the first two rounds of the Playoffs, people lamented not having Courtney Lee on the roster and not having the same vibe around that team. Coming up short of a championship that year certainly did not help anything either.
Now that the Magic have fallen back down to Earth and back into the middle of the NBA, it is easy to look back and think: Why was this team broken up in the first place?
That is a moot question (especially considering the necessary look back to the conditions that existed at that time to successfully complete the exercise). But you can also say that surprising success in 2009 kicked off the crazy spending and reckless abandon for the luxury tax that has us here. If the expectations don’t get raised that quickly to strike immediately, maybe the team continues a steady building and wait for the right move instead of the move they HAVE to make.
The Hedo Turkoglu question in 2009 shaped the future of the franchise. No doubt. As did the 2009 season.
The Finals trip is going to be seen as the apex of this era of Magic basketball, but also probably as the point things began their steady decline (you could argue the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals was things really began hurtling toward the abyss). I imagine the positives will get the most reflection rather than the negative.
The 1997 team was all about the hubris of the franchise following its separation from Shaquille O’Neal.
Yes, people actually believed that Penny Hardaway was a better player than O’Neal and a better building block. Hardaway was good… but not Shaq. It was the delusion necessary to move on and try to build quickly. And Penny was really good. But the franchise showed its cracks as the year went on.
There was the mid-season “revolt” and firing of Brian Hill that stained the franchise for a while. There was the emergence of Darrell Armstrong as a permanent rotation player and sparkplug alongside Hardaway. There was the flourishing of Hardaway as a star and the beginnings of the decline of his legs. It was just a strange season.
Rony Seikaly was fine as a replacement for Shaq. But he wasn’t Shaq. And nobody was going to do that until Dwight Howard arrived.
This was a seven seed and that might have been one of the worst things that could happen. It gave Orlando hopes of a quick rebuild could work. It never came as the rotating group of centers made the team become worse and worse as Hardaway’s body betrayed him and no one was there to pick up the slack.
It is a long fall from the top.
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Wow, I did not see this as a seven-game series. Not even close. I certainly did not see the 2009 team needing to come back from a 3-1 deficit. But doesn’t that perfectly display the intangible resiliency this 2009 team featured? Even the hard, cold machine could not simulate it out of them.
The 2009 team was down in the first two rounds of the Playoffs and were the ultimate underdogs. That is why the team seemed to endear itself so much. They never stopped fighting. And every round deeper into the postseason was just another bonus for the fans. It was just an incredible ride and there is no other way to talk about it.
Now, the Magic would have problems with Penny Hardaway in this series. Penny could have the kind of series that LeBron James had where his athleticism and speed would just wreak havoc on his opponent. We all remember his epic 42- and 41-point performances in the Playoffs to stave off elimination and avoid a sweep. Hedo Turkoglu is not fast enough to stay with him and neither Jameer Nelson nor Courtney Lee were tall enough to bug Hardaway enough. That was the kind of matchup problem he was. He was Dwyane Wade with a better jumper and point guard vision. That was Hardaway in his prime.
Based on that, maybe Hardaway would have given the Magic those kinds of problems.
In the post, the tandem of Rony Seikaly and Horace Grant would not have been able to muscle around Dwight Howard for 48 minutes. But I will give Grant credit as a defender and give him a fair shot to match up with Howard (not the whole time, mind you, but he has some tricks up his sleeve).
There is no doubt in my mind that the 2009 team is the better team. But the more you think about that 1997 team, the more interesting this kind of a matchup gets. If that team were not such a mess that year, we might remember it more for something.