Recently over at Orlando Pinstriped Post, Mike from Illinois and Tyler Lashbrook participated in SBNation's "What if?" Day. One of those worthy distractions for the dead time in March. Mike looked at What if Jameer Nelson did not get hurt in the 2009 season and Tyler looked at What if the Magic acquired Andrew Bynum or Brook Lopez in the Dwight Howard deal.
Those are worthy "What if" questions. But they are not, in my opinion, the greatest What if in Magic history.
To answer this What If — What if Michael Jordan did not return to basketball in 1995 — we have to remember just how good the Magic were in 1996 even with Jordan and his Bulls putting on a historic 72-10 season.
Think about that 1996 season for a moment as we remember it. The Magic won a franchise-best 60 games and waltzed to the Eastern Conference Finals before getting swept by the juggernaut of a Bulls team. The team had the second best offensive rating (112.9 points per 100 possessions) in team history.
This was a team that was coming off of the 1995 Finals appearance and was hungry to actually win the title. And with the return of Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, why couldn't they? The team added Jon Koncak as a backup center but were largely the same as the team that went to the Finals.
Here is the part that is mostly forgotten about this team: Shaquille O'Neal missed the first 22 games of the season and went 17-5 without him, including a home win over the Bulls with Koncak starting at center.
That Magic team also led the league in effective field goal percentage — the team was far ahead of its time in its use of the 3-point line — and they were fifth in the league in margin of victory.
Perhaps this does not bode well for what I would ultimately argue: the Magic could have won the NBA title if they could have gotten past the Bulls. Jordan's transformation of the Bulls into that 72-10 juggernaut was all that stood in Orlando's way.
Is that true?
Margin of victory and point differential are largely seen as the best indicators for championship wins. The Heat last year were second in point differential (the Thunder were first). They were fourth in 2012. The Mavericks were seventh. So this is not a clear picture of who would have won the title.
The Sonics — a team that featured Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf — made the Finals from the West. Would the Magic have won that matchup?
In the two games from the regular season, the teams split their meetings. In Orlando on January 5, the Magic defeated the Sonics 115-93 behind Shauqille O'Neal's 38 points and 13 rebounds. This was more of a defensive effort game as Penny Hardaway struggled shooting 2 for 9 from the floor. In the second meeting, the Sonics eked out a 100-99 win at Key Arena, giving up a 7-0 run in the final minutes capped off with Detlef Schrempf's jumper with 14 seconds left.
Historically, Orlando struggled with Seattle. The Sonics were one of the two teams that defeated the Magic at Orlando Arena in 1995. And Orlando struggled to win at Seattle for several years — before 1996, Orlando had not won at Seattle since 1992. The Magic's inconsistent work on the glass would be the key to the series.
Of course, we will never know whether the Magic would have won the title that year. Michael Jordan and the Bulls had a historic season and absolutely dominated the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Shaquille O'Neal left for the Lakers the next season and the Magic were lost in the wilderness of mediocrity for the next decade.
Who knows what would have happened there had Orlando had a title in its pocket.