The Orlando Magic were Michael Jordan’s greatest threat

Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal split their Playoff series with the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic. A rubber match would have been gold. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal split their Playoff series with the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic. A rubber match would have been gold. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic defeated the Chicago Bulls in 1995 and served notice their time was next. They broke up before they could be the foil to Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan had a mountain to climb. The Last Dance makes that painfully clear, spending an entire episode describing that climb to his first championship. The Detroit Pistons were his main rival. They were the old dogs keeping the young pups at bay.

The Detroit Pistons had to overcome the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers to take their turn at the top. The Chicago Bulls had to top the Detroit Pistons. And those battles in 1990 and 1991 were epic — eating up documentary time in both The Last Dance and The Bad Boys.

This story is essential to NBA history. It is a tale that can be retold in several ways throughout the league’s history. The greats always have a mountain to climb.

Maintaining that spot on top of the mountain is the stuff of legends. And Jordan’s time at the top was legendary.

Precious few players leave on top as he did. And as we will see in the concluding episode of The Last Dance, Jordan’s greatness had really no competition. The Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz both pushed Jordan in his final season with the Chicago Bulls. Those two teams will get more attention put on them than any other team in Jordan’s championship run.

Because the reality is Jordan had no equal. Once he got to the top of the mountain, nobody truly challenged him consistently. There were no rivals.

There was one rival, however, perhaps unrealized. There was one true threat. A team that was not a contemporary of Jordan but a usurper.

That team was the 1995 and 1996 Orlando Magic. It was only Shaquille O’Neal’s departure that broke up the greatest threat to Michael Jordan’s reign. The Magic were the greatest threat to take Jordan’s throne because they were so good and so young.

Their time was clearly next and they were set to take the throne.

A trail of frustration

Like the Chicago Bulls had to overcome the Detroit Pistons to become champions. The Orlando Magic could have been the team to usurp the Chicago Bulls. They were the lone true usurpers in the Michael Jordan era.

They just did not stay together long enough to create the rivalry that Jordan never had in the back half of his career.

That is part of the Jordan mystique, of course. He so dominated the league he left a trail of frustrations and tears for some all-time legends. The disappointment of The Last Dance is that it does not do much to build up his opponents. That might be the point.

The New York Knicks were supposed to be that new team, but they could never overcome the Chicago Bulls, losing most notably in seven games in 1992 and then again in six in 1993. They only reached the Finals in 1994 when Jordan left the Bulls, defeating the Bulls in six that year.

The documentary gave them some due. It spoke about how people viewed Clyde Drexler as Michael Jordan’s equal. Then Jordan stamped that out.

The 62-20 Phoenix Suns led by MVP Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were also a serious threat. But the Bulls dispatched them in six games after having a chance to clinch the series in Game 5.

Nobody really rose to the challenge. Jordan departed to try baseball and the Houston Rockets filled the vacuum (and might have given the Chicago Bulls a run for their money if the two teams had actually met in the Finals).

The Knicks finally got their turn in 1994. But they, along with Reggie Miller‘s Indiana Pacers, soon found themselves dealing with a new threat.

The Magic had quickly built themselves into a powerhouse in drafting Shaquille O’Neal and striking gold in the Lottery again in 1993 to draft Chris Webber and trade him for Anfernee Hardaway. Orlando was the upstarts who stole homecourt advantage in 1994, before falling to the more experienced Indiana team.

But in 1995, the Magic shocked everyone. They beat out the Knicks for the Atlantic Division title with a 57-25 record and one of the best offenses the league had ever seen to that point. Anfernee Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal were virtually undefendable. They could spread the floor with shooters and smart cutting off O’Neal’s growing passing. They had grit with Horace Grant.

More from History

This was still a young team and inexperienced in the playoffs, but they were still so good they were experiencing success, ultimately reaching the NBA Finals in 1995.

Jordan came back in the middle of that season, but as Horace Grant related in The Last Dance, he still felt really confident at the Magic’s ability to beat them.

That series was a lesson in the Magic’s mettle. They showed they were stronger and more poised beyond their years.

Orlando trailed in the fourth quarter of three of its wins. But the rest is history. Nick Anderson stole the ball in Game 1. The Bulls missed free throws to keep the game close in Game 3, going the final two minutes without a field goal. And the Magic went on a 14-0 run to close Game 6 and win in six games.

In the Jordan story, fatigue was the factor. It almost certainly played a role in the Bulls’ defeat. Jordan could still average 31.0 points per game, but he made critical mistakes down the stretch of those games. This was just another sleight to correct.

Jordan certainly did that in 1996 as the Bulls went 72-10 and swept a battered and bruised Magic team — if Jordan can use fatigue as an excuse for 1995, the Magic can use injury as a partial excuse in 1996.

O’Neal was known for creating his own sleights in his time — see David Robinson. But the league never got to see this budding rivalry blossom. There was never a rubber match. O’Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers the following summer.

The Chicago Bulls would have two Finals battles with the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. The Pacers became one of the few teams to take the Bulls to seven games in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Those teams probably came as close to any others.

Contemporaries and usurpers

This article is not take anything away from them — or from the 1996 Seattle Supersonics who got their licks in to force a Game 6 after falling behind 3-0 to those Chicago Bulls in the Finals.

There were a lot of great teams and great players throughout the 1990s who are not getting their due from The Last Dance —for that, check out Bomani Jones’ ongoing series called “Bulldozed” (he has not done the Magic yet).

But the stars on all those teams have a fundamental difference to the danger the Magic represented. They were all contemporaries.

Patrick Ewing (New York Knicks) was drafted in 1985, a year after Jordan. John Stockton (Utah Jazz) was taken in the same draft as Michael Jordan, Karl Malone a year after. Reggie Miller (Indiana Pacers) went in the 1988 Draft.

The Sonics were a real threat with Shawn Kemp (drafted in 1990) and Gary Payton (1991) truly in the next generation. But their list of playoff struggles are long. They could have been the Western Conference team to try to upend the Bulls. Their breakthrough in 1996, sort of like the Magic’s in 1995, led to problem of more issues and they quickly dwindled after taking their shot at the Bulls.

But the Magic were different. Kemp and Payton were great players. But even by their own times, O’Neal and Hardaway were on a different level.

In the 1996 season, Hardaway was the only player among those players to make the All-NBA First Team. O’Neal, Kemp and Payton were all on the second team.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That 1996 team saw the Magic win a franchise-record 60 games with O’Neal missing the first 20-plus games. It seemed this team was destined for greatness. The team was still unseasoned and perhaps a little failure would have driven them to new heights.

Everyone involved with that team believes they should have won championships. And the 1995-era Magic still resonates with fans today.

Not to mention the Magic got one over the Bulls in 1995. Among all these great teams of the 1990s, the Magic are the only team to beat the Bulls in a series.

Rivalry unrealized

The Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls had the potential to be the great rivalry of the 1990s. With how young that team was, it is reasonable to believe they could have come back in 1997 and gotten their rubber match with the Bulls and a showdown to return to the Finals.

To be sure too, once Michael Jordan retired in 1998, the league slowly shifted West. In the first full season after Michael Jordan’s retirement, Shaquille O’Neal won his first title with the Los Angeles Lakers. It seemingly became inevitable that the league would belong to him for the next decade.

Yet another reason that Orlando Magic team was so dangerous. The league belonged to O’Neal next.

As so often happens, when a team comes close to the mountaintop and fails, they quickly dissipate. There are examples of that too. Plenty of teams gave great teams their best shot and then dissolved when they could not overcome them.

The Magic were certainly among them.

But because of their youth, star power and confidence against those Bulls, they posed the greatest threat to the Bulls dynasty. They would have been a team that would have kept going at the Bulls from 1995 and beyond.

If there was any team that was positioned to climb the mountain and defeat the Bulls the same way the Bulls defeated the Pistons, it was the Magic.

Next. Shaq became Shaq in Orlando Magic's 1995 Playoff run. dark

History just had other plans and prevented that rivalry from truly blossoming.