Overlooked, Overachieved or Overrated: 1999 Orlando Magic

Feb 14, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Team Westbrook legend Penny Hardaway (1) and Team Westbrook forward Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever (24, right) high-five during the 2015 NBA All Star Shooting Stars competition at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 14, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Team Westbrook legend Penny Hardaway (1) and Team Westbrook forward Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever (24, right) high-five during the 2015 NBA All Star Shooting Stars competition at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

Possibly the most forgotten team in Orlando Magic history is the 1999 team. Although the team tied for first place in the Eastern Conference that year, they seem to get overlooked.

The 1999 season was weird for the NBA as a whole.

The first three months were lost due to a lockout. The normal 82-game NBA season was shortened to 50 games, starting in February.

To make things even weirder, the New York Knicks became the first team to make it to the NBA Finals as an eighth seed before the San Antonio Spurs dispatched them for their first title.

The swiftness of the season may be one of the reasons this Orlando Magic team — that finished with the third seed and tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference — is forgotten.

The late start to the season may have been a blessing to Orlando as Anfernee Hardaway would be returning from a knee injury which sidelined him all but 19 games the previous season.

A team that was not too far removed from appearances in the Finals and Conference Finals, the Magic only had a few of their core players still on the roster. Along with Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Horace Grant were the only noteworthy contributors left from the glory days. This whole group may have had a chip on their shoulders.

After not making the Playoffs the previous season and losing Shaquille O’Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers two seasons ago, Orlando had to find a way back to the top. The team had something to play for.

Hardaway needed to prove he was a franchise player to build around following his injury the year before. Anderson needed to prove he was still a clutch player after the debacle at the free-throw line years ago and waning confidence after. While coach Chuck Daly needed to show he is still one of the best in the business.

Even in this abbreviated season, the Magic could accomplish these goals.

To mark their shift in direction, the Magic would make their first uniform change moving away from their signature pinstripes. The team also signed future Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins for what would be his last season as an NBA player.

Orlando relied heavily on defense to collect wins. The team ended the season ranked sixth in the league in points allowed per game with 86.9 and third in defensive rating. This carried their 22nd-ranked offense, which averaged only 89.5 points per game.

One of the leaders of that defense was Darrell Armstrong. Armstrong’s pesky defense tied him for the team’s lead in steals with Hardaway at 2.2 per game.

Armstrong was also valuable on the offensive end, leading the team in assists with 6.7 per game and ranking third in points per game with 13.8. Armstrong won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award as well as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Besides Armstrong’s breakout season, the team was below average in many of the major statistical categories. The Magic finished ranked 19th in both field goal percentage and 3-point percentage and finished 23rd in free throw percentage. They tallied the fourth most turnovers in the league.

Somehow, they still finished tied for first place in the East, a miracle perhaps or a product of a shortened season.

With the league so out of whack, it is hard to tell whether Orlando overachieved or if the rest of the league just was not good that year. Either way, Orlando returned to the Playoffs that season only to lose to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers 3-1 in the first round upset.

Following the close of the season, Orlando hit the reset button and went into complete rebuild mode replacing coaches and players.

But what led up to all of this?

With the season condensed, teams were forced to play a schedule unlike any other season. The Magic played only six total games against teams from the Western Conference finishing with a 3-3 record against those teams.

Orlando got the right end of that deal on their schedule. There was a total of seven teams ranked lower in points per game behind the Magic. Orlando played six of those teams and played five of those teams multiple times.

Having such an uneven schedule throughout the league means while some teams played many weaker teams, others were left to play the strongest teams over and over. The Magic were lucky to have a schedule filled with average-to-poor teams opposed to above average and elite teams.

The Eastern Conference as a whole had a down year, which is evident from the eighth-seeded Knicks making it to the Finals. Players arrived out of shape and it was a strange sprint to the Playoffs. Once everyone was in, anything could happen.

Related Story: Watch highlights from the 1999 season

In the end, Orlando met a Philadelphia team whom Orlando lost two of three games during the season. The only win came by one point — on a famous Darrell Armstrong steal and layup at the buzzer.

So while the Magic finished tied for first in the Eastern Conference, that feat was somewhat illusory because of the schedule imbalance.

This is similar to the ongoing debate in College Football. Does a team with an inferior schedule deserve to be in the playoff? In the case of the Orlando Magic it worked itself out as they lost in the first round.

The Magic implemented a new starting lineup the last four games of the season going Darrell Armstrong, Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Horace Grant and Isaac Austin. The results were great as the team added four wins to their record during those games.

Orlando took this lineup into the playoffs and received a shocking loss in the first game at home. They bounced back with a win after Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson went 4 for 15 from the field for only 15 points after scoring 30 in Game One.  After the series shifted to Philadelphia, Iverson was back to himself scoring 33 and 37 points in the next two games to close out the Magic.

It was a shocking defeat as the Magic failed again to get out of the first round. They would not win a Playoff series again until 2008.

Following the playoff exit, the Orlando Magic had some decisions to make regarding the future of the team.

With Coach Daly retiring, the franchise would move in a completely different direction altogether.  Orlando had a few players of value on the roster and decided to trade players for assets. The Magic traded Anfernee Hardaway to the Phoenix Suns. They dealt Nick Anderson to the Sacramento Kings. Horace Grant was dealt to the Seattle Supersonics. And the Magic cast off Isaac Austin to the Washington Wizards.

This effectively started the rebuild process for Orlando and ushered in the ” Heart and Hustle” year. That season was meant to be a tanking year to clear cap space for Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill to come. They did not know that then.

After all of the trades, Orlando had 10 first round picks in the next five years setting them up for the future.

Next: The last day of the Orlando Magic 'dynasty'

The 1999 season though represented the official end of an era for the Orlando Magic. A strange season of regular season success that was not true success. And a season of Playoff failure that shifted the team to an uncertain future.