What if? Series: 1996 Orlando Magic vs. Seattle Supersonics

The Orlando Magic and Seattle SuperSonics were set to clash throughout the late 1990s as the two best young teams in the league. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic and Seattle SuperSonics were set to clash throughout the late 1990s as the two best young teams in the league. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images) /
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Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics, Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls
The Seattle SuperSonics pushed the Chicago Bulls to six games in the 1997 Finals. (Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dani) /

Without Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the picture, the late 1990s would have been run by the Orlando Magic and Seattle SuperSonics.

The main villain of Episode 8 of The Last Dance was Michael Jordan’s own imagined enemies. The purpose of the episode was to set up the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 Eastern Conference Finals battle with the Indiana Pacers and explain what drove Jordan to lead the Chicago Bulls to the historic 72-10 1996 championship season.

The opponents in that 1996 season were inconsequential. Not the team that beat him the year before and inspired his drive to become the force that would bludgeon the NBA three more times.

It is clear from the documentary how little Jordan thought of his opponents. They were mere nuisances in the way of his inevitable ascendance to the title.

The Orlando Magic defeated the Chicago Bulls in embarrassing fashion (to Jordan at least) in 1995. The young team beat him where Jordan takes the most pride — in clutch situations — throughout all four games of that series. They danced and partied off his floor.

The Orlando Magic would go on to win the Eastern Conference title that year and reach the NBA Finals, falling to the Houston Rockets in their own slightly embarrassing way. But they seemed to have staked their place as the team of the future.

The Magic returned in 1996 with title expectations and now experience. They had the disease of more to deal with as infighting between Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway but the Magic still came back with a strong season. Orlando won a franchise-record 60 wins.

The 1996 team would have an argument for the best team in franchise history if it were not for how things ended. The Bulls swept the Magic out of the Eastern Conference Finals and the pile of forgotten challengers.

The greatest “enemy” for the 1996 Bulls as portrayed in The Last Dance was the Seattle SuperSonics. They got far more screen time than the Magic did in the documentary for that record-setting 1996 seson. That is fair because it was the Finals.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

And while everyone seemingly laughed along with Michael Jordan responded to Gary Payton’s belief he could have slowed Jordan down, there was some legitimacy to Payton’s claim. Jordan had his lowest-scoring and least-efficient NBA Finals in 1996. And Payton’s switch onto Jordan helped push what was looking like a sweep to six games.

But do not let Jordan’s narrative get in the way.

The reality is that similar to the Magic, the SuperSonics were a young and accomplished team that had their breakthrough moment in 1996 and then broke up because of similar contract jealousies — the disease of more is a real thing.

To be sure, the Sonics were a really good team in 1996. They won 64 games and shed a lot of the frustrations that dogged some of their great teams throughout the 1990s to reach the Finals. With great shooters in Nate McMillan, Hersey Hawkins and Sam Perkins surrounding superstars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, they had a balanced and strong team.

Defensively, the Sonics were as good as any team in the league. Like so many teams, if it was not for Jordan, they could have easily won the title.

Of course, Orlando fans likely believe that if it were not for Jordan the team too would have a title in 1996. And then who knows what happens with Shaquille O’Neal and beyond. Wins and losses change history for everyone.

As much as any two teams, the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic could have ruled the late 1990s and early 2000s — along with the coming San Antonio Spurs storm — as the tentpoles for the league. The breakup of these two teams provides an intriguing what if for the 1996 Finals.

My greatest Magic what if has always been what would have happened if the Magic returned to the Finals and faced the 1996 Sonics. So now it is time to put it to the test.