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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Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando Magic, Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
As we revisit the Orlando Magic’s series win over the Chicago Bulls, defeating Michael Jordan stands the test of history. (Mandatory Credit: Jonathan) /

What Really Happened — the Magic

History will always remember the 1996 season for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ pure dominance. They returned to the court with a vengeance and went 72-10 for what was the best regular season in history at that point. Many people probably still believe the 1996 Bulls are the greatest of all time.

The Last Dance is not doing justice to the teams the Bulls had to beat to get there. My big criticism for the documentary is that since Jordan beat the Detroit Pistons, there has been no conflict. Nobody could stand up to him.

Part of that is on the teams that went up against Jordan.

There were only three teams Jordan faced twice in a playoff series after he returned — the Orlando Magic in 1995 and 1996, the Miami Heat in 1996 and 1997 and the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. Of course, only the Magic got a win over Jordan during his comeback season in 1995.

Jordan just never had a consistent rival — the New York Knicks in 1993 and 1996 (with a win with Jordan out in 1994) might have been the closest — and that is on the other teams for not gearing up well enough to challenge and eventually usurp Jordan.

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There were teams that came closer than both the Orlando Magic (a 4-0 sweep in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals) and the Seattle SuperSonics (a 4-2 loss in the 1996 Finals after falling behind 3-0). The Jazz took the Bulls to six games in both the 1997 and 1998 Finals. The Indiana Pacers were the only team ever to take Jordan to a Game 7 in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.

But there may not have been two more promising teams that could have taken over the league in Jordan’s stead quite like both the Magic and the Sonics.

Coming off a historic NBA Finals run in 1995, it felt like the league was going to come down to the Bulls and the Magic. The league greatly anticipated the battle between these teams — especially considering Jordan’s penchant for seeking revenge.

The Magic though came back with an incredible season. They won a franchise-record 60 games despite Shaquille O’Neal missing the first 22 games with a broken thumb.

This was the season where Anfernee Hardaway began to assert himself, earning a first-team All-NBA spot and turning in his best individual season. He averaged 21.7 points and 7.1 assists per game on a 54.9-percent effective field goal percentage.

Orlando followed up a season with its historic offensive season with another strong offensive season, finishing third in offensive rating at 112.9 points per 100 possessions.

The Magic raced through the playoffs, sweeping Grant Hill’s Detroit Pistons in the first round and then defeating the Atlanta Hawks in five to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bulls were the better team and would have won that series anyway, but the sweep was a product of injuries to Horace Grant and Nick Anderson early on. Orlando lost an 18-point lead in Game 2 at the United Center and the series was essentially over.

The in-fighting and naivete from the franchise ultimately led to its dissolution and we never got to see the Magic fully mature.