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 semifinals.
The discussion of who is the greatest generation of Magic teams has been in the news lately. With the All-Star Game in Orlando, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Scott and Penny Hardaway had a lengthy discussion about the mid-90s run for the Magic for Inside the NBA. it is a great watch and you can see the loss in 1995 still gets to Shaq. Glad it does, it still gets to me.
But here we are in the other semifinals pitting the 1995 team against Orlando’s other Finals team from 2009. These two teams are very similar to the teams profiled in the previous semifinal — which the 1996 team won over the 2010 team, two title contenders that are largely underappreciated.
These two teams I will be discussing today are the teams we think of when we think Magic excellence, just by the mere fact that they reached the Finals. The 1995 team failed to win in the Finals, but came pretty close and could have been one free throw away from completely turning that series. The same could be said of the 2009 team though.
With that in mind, I once again turned to Josh Cohen of OrlandoMagic.com to help discuss this matchup and break down these two amazing seasons. Remember, you can follow Josh for his thoughts on the Magic at @Josh_Cohen_NBA.
Again, I present the questions I asked Josh with my answers as well:
1) What is something that stands out to you about each of those four teams? What makes them really memorable (aside from the deep playoff runs)?
Josh: 1995 — They were the team that essentially put the Orlando Magic franchise on the map. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway became instant celebrities and household names. There weren’t really lofty expectations in the preseason, especially after getting swept the previous season in the first round. But rather quickly, they evolved into a fan favorite organization and a team that could compete for a world championship.
2009 — They were easily one of the most resilient NBA teams of all time. Unlike most clubs that advance to the NBA Finals, this particular squad really wasn’t the most talented from top to bottom. Especially after Jameer Nelson‘s midseason shoulder injury and with a rookie starting at shooting guard, Courtney Lee, they depended on their buoyancy and balance. Dwight Howard that season was starting to become a dominant defender and Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu was the perfect tandem to compliment Howard.
OMD: I really have to echo Josh’s sentiments about these two teams. I was really young in 1995 so the whole thought of contending was still an incredibly new experience. Going to games and expecting to win every single one was just a fun experience. And I think that team really displayed that exuberance. This team was as young as the franchise itself and you could feel that energy every time they hit the floor. It was exciting to head down to the O-Rena. Everything was so new — does anyone else remember the gigantic inflatable basketballs they put on the four nodes for the Playoffs?
The 2009 team really stood out to me for some of those same reasons. The team just played with a looseness and attitude of having fun. They got their work done for sure and the winning makes everyone feel good. But you could see the lightning get trapped in that bottle as the the Playoff went on. The 2009 team was hardly perfect, they lacked that dominant scoring perimeter player and so were overlooked the entire season and you never quite knew if they were for real or not (probably not until Game Six against Boston in the second round). But that is what made this team so special.
Both these teams seemed headed for uncharted territory for the franchise.
2) I have been a big proponent that Horace Grant added an extra level to the 1995 team and put them over the top. What impact do you think Horace Grant had on that team — aside from the fashion statement of those goggles, which were just awesome — and what else led to that team making the leap from good team to great team?
Josh: Well, Horace Grant was a proven champion as a result of his glory days with the Bulls. He also was one of the best interior defenders in the league (selected four times for the NBA All-Defensive Team) and was an All-Star in 1994.
But obviously, this team went from good to great because of they had the perfect blend of power and finesse. Shaq was a beast at the rim, Grant was the unrelenting guy who crashed the boards and hustled for every loose ball, Dennis Scott was the 3-point threat, Nick Anderson was the big-bodied guard who can man up and work in isolation over his opponent and Penny was the versatile playmaker.
OMD: I really believe Horace Grant was the key to this team. He brought a seriousness to this young team that it needed to get over the top and into the Finals long before I think many thought they would get there. Grant was that intangible piece that the team has sort of been looking for since.
I might be overstating his impact too much, but it is hard not to see the giant change in this team and this franchise from his arrival in the summer of 1995. In a lot of ways, I think a consummate grinder and championship experience really kept the 2009 and 2010 teams from reaching their full potentials. If Michael Jordan had not come back, Grant could have very well been the voice pushing the Magic past the problem of more and into a championship dynasty.
3) The 2009 team was like the 1995 team too (funny how that happens). They went from good team to great team very quickly. What helped in the transformation of this team to that level? It could not have just been Dwight Howard.
Josh: I touched on it one of my previous responses. They were resilient. The 2009 playoff journey for the Magic will be remembered as one of the most astonishing adventures in NBA history. From overcoming a stunning Game One defeat in the first round to Philadelphia to Turk hitting the game-winning 3-pointer in Game Four to closing out the series in Philly without Dwight (suspension).
Then in the conference semifinals, they surmounted Glen Davis‘ game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game Four before pulling off a shocker in Boston to win a decisive Game Seven.
In the conference finals, they conquered the shot heard around the world (LeBron James‘ game-winner in Game Two) and overcame a few double-digit deficits to eventually win the series.
OMD: I think Josh really hits the nail on the head. This team was extremely resilient. You could not throw a road block in their that they could not find a way to burst through.
Something that I think goes underrated about this team though was the job Stan Van Gundy did throughout. The resiliency of this team was born from the Shaq-called “Master of Panic.” He instilled an attitude about the team and did a great job keeping the attention on himself and letting his team just play. I think everyone came to realize his genius throughout the entire season and especially in the Playoffs. He shouldered a lot of the heat and pressure and let his players just play.
4) We know how great Stan Van Gundy is as a coach and his mastery was displayed over and over again in 2009 — the game-winning plays for Rashard Lewis in the conference finals the alley-oop to Courtney Lee in the Finals. Brian Hill is not as well remembered for his coaching chops — especially considering his bitter exit and his failed reprisal. What did Brian Hill add to those two championship contending teams? What did he bring to make that team better and so good so quickly?
Josh: Brian Hill learned from some great coaches, including Mike Fratello and Matt Guokas. After so many years as an assistant coach, he was fully ready for the challenge when he became head coach of the Magic in 1993.
I think the best aspect of Hill’s coaching was that he managed egos well. Shaq and Penny were instant celebrities and if not for a quality relationship between Hill and his players, it would have been possible for those teams to lose focus.
OMD: I was not entirely aware of Brian Hill‘s coaching acumen when I was watching the 1995 team. It is hard for me to remember the job he did. His track record aside from those two years is pretty bad — take out his 117-47 record in those two years and he is 181-268 (a .403 win percentage) — at least considering his run in those two years.
He really resonated with the team and managed his young team’s expectations. It might have become a little too much when the winning went away, but Hill did a good job nurturing this young team and letting them grow. Orlando was along for the ride and Hill was an able captain.
5) What would happen if the Magic’s two finals teams — 1995 and 2009 — faced each other? Which team would win? What matchup advantages would each have against the other?
Josh: It’s a similar assessment as the one I described between 1996 and 2010. The only difference is that year Hedo Turkoglu was such a distinctive talent with inimitable playmaking skills that he would have outmatched Dennis Scott. Ultimately, though, I think Penny would have schooled Rafer Alston and the 1995 team would win in 5 or 6 games.
OMD: I am having a tough time thinking of who would win this one. As Dennis Scott and Shaquille O’Neal constantly remind us, the 2009 Magic have no one to guard Anfernee Hardaway. That would be a difficult task for Jameer Nelson or Rafer Alston (whoever is healthy at the time). And Hedo Turkoglu provides a similar difficult matchup for the 1995 team. The more I think about the 2009 team, though, the better I think it is. It had a lot of determination to win. This would be a difficult series. I will go with the mild upset here. The 2009 team was deeper and could fight. Turkoglu tries to slow Penny and does a better job of it than you think (or maybe I forget how good Penny actually is). I take 2009 in seven.
But we will see what WhatIfSports.com says in a few days.
My thanks again to Josh Cohen for taking the time to reminisce a bit with me during this busy season. Be sure to vote!