Orlando Magic Madness 2020: The Final Four — the big three and a surprise

A surprise player has joined our final four in our Orlando Magic Madness tournament. Now we begin to reassess history and settle some big debates.

I fully admit that when I decided to go through with this Orlando Magic Madness tournament to pass the time during the season hiatus that the results felt fairly academic. I have written this several times in our recaps of each round that it seemed we would inevitably get to this point — at least with three of the players.

I did indeed rig the brackets so we would not see the final four involving the four best players in Magic history — Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady and Anfernee Hardaway.  By dividing the player into their disparate eras of Magic basketball, I thought we would get more competitive matchups of players who could be more directly compared by role and play style.

Early on, that was certainly the case. We had some intriguing matchups and debates. But as the tournament moved forward, the choices did become a bit more obvious. The best players rose to the top of the pile and advanced easily.

There is such a clear dividing line that manufacturing some debate was necessary to make these a bit more competitive.

The round of eight did not disappoint.

Featuring one of the bigger debates in Magic history and one of the closest votes of the tournament, Shaquille O’Neal advanced over Anfernee Hardaway 55.5-45.5 (a total of 26 votes). Both O’Neal and Hardaway deserve mention among the Magic’s all-time greats. They should both occupy a spot on the Magic’s Mt. Rushmore.

The other close battle scored us a surprising upset. Perhaps a bit of recency bias but an interesting debate I did not realize Magic fans were having.

Jameer Nelson is the lone 2-seed to advance to the final four, defeating Nick Anderson 54.6-45.5 (a total of 15 votes) to advance to the final four.

As I wrote in previewing the matchup, both Jameer Nelson and Nick Anderson are part of the soul of this Magic franchise as the two longest-tenured players in the franchise’s history. They both have a sentimental spot in Magic lore.

Nelson had the All-Star bid over Anderson. As one voter put it to me, Nick Anderson’s low moment in the 1995 NBA Finals still stung him and he did not hold Jameer Nelson’s own Game 4 gaffe (I contend it was not Nelson’s fault, but it seems most fans blame Stan Van Gundy for putting Nelson in the game to begin with).

These results certainly merit giving Nelson a new look at his historical place in Magic history. It is hard to be the best player on some bad teams as Nelson was at the end of his Magic tenure. But he played that role admirably and Magic fans always appreciated his effort and leadership.

Nelson was part of a lot of very good memories for the Magic. And this is a nice reward. We will have to examine where Nelson fits in the Magic pantheon very soon.

The final four will present some new challenges — and one huge debate that I imagine will be colored by player popularity as much as what they did on the floor.

We will open up voting for the semifinals of #MagicMadness on Monday at around noon on Twitter @OMagicDaily. Be sure to leave the reason for your vote too!

Here is a preview of our semifinal matchups:

(1) Shaquille O’Neal vs. (2) Jameer Nelson

When FanSided asked me to name the biggest moments in Orlando Magic history, one of the first five that came to mind was not a game or anything to do on the court.

It was a draft.

Specifically drafting Shaquille O’Neal. The entire history of the Magic franchise and organization changed with that lottery win. The whole history and trajectory of Orlando as a city probably changed with that selection.

As I noted then, the city of Orlando was seeking an identity as much as anything else outside of the theme parks. The Magic gave them that in O’Neal’s four years.

The Magic were one of the most popular teams in the entire league behind O’Neal’s exuberant personality and aura. He backed up all the fun he seemed to have off the court with 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.

He singlehandedly brought the Magic to playoff contention. The team went 41-41 in his rookie season, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. And they were in the Finals two years later. The Magic were anointed the team of the future.

O’Neal still casts a very large shadow over the entire Magic franchise. He is the measuring stick for everyone.

This is an unfair matchup for Jameer Nelson. I feel kind of bad pitting him against the big fella.

Nelson was a solid player with the Magic — 12.6 points and 5.4 assists per game in 10 seasons, peaking in 2009 with 16.7 points and 5.4 assists per game for his lone All-Star bid.

He could create his own shot and make plays for others. He worked perfectly for that 2009 and 2010 championship window for the Magic. Orlando loved his spunk and energy.

Fans did too. He is certainly a sentimental pick. And him making the final four of this tournament should force us to re-evaluate his true place in the pantheon of Magic greats.

My Pick: Shaquille O’Neal

(1) Dwight Howard vs. (1) Tracy McGrady

Among the top four players in Orlando Magic history, there is a fair argument to make for all of them to be the Magic’s best player. That is why I typically like to call it a Mt. Rushmore and leave it at that — although we have made efforts to rank the top players in Magic history before.

It usually does come down to two players. And that usually does not include Tracy McGrady (or Anfernee Hardaway, if I can preview my pick).

But McGrady is a Hall of Famer in his own right. He deserves to be talked about as the greatest player in Magic history.

He was the team’s best scorer, averaging 28.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in four seasons in Orlando. Those numbers speak for themselves in a lot of ways.

Just like the team has constantly sought to fill the hole Shaquille O’Neal left behind both on the court and culturally — coming close with Dwight Howard. The team is still looking to fill the scoring, playmaking, superstar hole left behind by McGrady.

It seems like ever since McGrady left in 2004, we have been seeking a perimeter-based superstar to score and take over games. That was likely the reasoning behind acquiring Vince Carter before the 2010 season. And the Magic are still searching for that supreme scorer on the perimeter.

There are so many elite players in Magic history who spent short times in town that his four-year tenure (three playoff appearances, but zero series wins) should not be a knock against him.

The knock against him is the lack of playoff success. That was not his fault either though. Grant Hill suffered setback after setback, depriving him of a true partner on the court. And the Magic were so cash-strapped because of it, they spent those four years piecing a roster together (hello, Patrick Ewing and Shawn Kemp).

This is where Dwight Howard has the matchup advantage. He was the superstar player — unquestionably one of the five best players in the entire league for several seasons — that oversaw the most successful run in Magic history.

He, along with fellow semifinalist Jameer Nelson, lead the Magic in playoff series wins. The Magic went to a franchise-record six straight playoffs with Howard as the centerpiece, including three straight years getting out of the first round (also a team record).

Howard was better than a lot of people remember or give him credit for, averaging 18.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. He is the only player to win three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

The only thing working against Howard in a poll like this was his bitter exit. There is still a lot of animosity toward Howard for how things ended in Orlando. There was a lot of animosity for how things ended with Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady. Time healed those wounds. More time will heal the wound with Howard and he will get welcomed back in Orlando.

Now might be too soon.

I pick Howard because he was so impactful and important to the Magic reaching the Finals in 2009 and becoming legitimate title contenders for three seasons. But I suspect McGrady will win the fan vote.

My Pick: Dwight Howard

We will open up voting Monday around noon on Twitter @OMagicDaily. Be sure to leave who you will be voting for in the comment on Twitter or below. I hope everyone has been enjoying #MagicMadness!