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, Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics
Anfernee Hardawy of the Orlando Magic and Gary Payton of the Seattle SuperSonics represented the future of the league. (Mandatory Credit: ALLSPORT USA/Allsport) /

The Matchup — Who’s got next?

Michael Jordan seemingly dispatched of everyone in the generation before him, usurping them by 1992 and the advent of The Dream Team. The Boston Celtics had faded and Michael Jordan dispatched Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in his first Finals appearance.

The 1992 Dream Team saw Jordan further establish his reign over the NBA world. Johnson was still talking trash to Jordan, but Jordan silenced him. Larry Bird reportedly had to tell Magic Johnson to stop, the league belonged to Michael Jordan now.

All of his title wins were about him defeating his contemporaries. Clyde Drexler, taken a year before Michael Jordan, was considered as a potential foil. He got defeated with relative ease. Patrick Ewing was taken the year before too and could never climb over Michael Jordan.

Charles Barkley and John Stockton were both taken the same year as Michael Jordan too — Karl Malone a year after. Jordan essentially beat all of his contemporaries to win the title.

The Orlando Magic and Seattle SuperSonics were different. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton were drafted in 1990 and 1991 (four and five years into Jordan’s career and when he was already competing for titles). Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway were picked in 1992 and 1993.

This was very much the next generation. And for many, the fun and promise of the 1990s in the NBA were embodied in O’Neal’s power, Hardaway’s grace, Kemp’s athleticism and Payton’s grit. This should have been the future of the NBA — Jordan just stamped it out because it was not their time yet.

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These teams are still both incredibly confident for that reason.

The Magic were an offensive force. O’Neal was a dominant player and Hardaway was a master at the fast break and his size was impossible to figure out at the time.

The Sonics were a defensive force. They sent length at opponents at all times and had the shooting to spread the floor for Payton and Kemp to fly to the rim.

These teams were foils for each other and could have been excellent rivals.

Except the Sonics had the Magic’s number. Seattle went 12-4 against Orlando including 7-1 in Seattle through the 1996 season. The Sonics were one of the two teams to defeat the Magic in the Orlando Arena during the 1995 season.

The Magic struggled with the Sonics pressure — as they did with the Bulls pressure in 1995. Seattle had the ability to slow the team down and the size to counteract much of what the Magic did to their opponents.

Orlando was a big team. But Seattle was a bigger team.

But 1996 bucked that script in some way.

The two teams split the season series with Orlando taking the first game in January 1996 in Orlando, 115-93. The Sonics struggled to shoot with just 36.8-percent shooting. Kemp scored 23 points to go with 11 rebounds. But Hardaway helps keep Payton to eight points on 4-for-14 shooting.

Hardaway was not much better with just eight points. O’Neal scored 38 points and 13 rebounds with four blocks. He dominated the middle but the Sonics and the Magic each exchanged their shots. Horace Grant’s 12 points, 12 rebounds and six assists helped keep things moving.

Orlando dominated the second quarter, 37-19, to hold onto the lead. It seemed like everything canceled each other out and O’Neal, fresh off returning from his injury a few weeks earlier, was the real difference.

The rematch in Seattle went slightly different.

The Sonics came out on top 100-99 behind a crazy run and some sloppy passing from the Magic in the dying seconds.

Orlando led 99-93 with 49 seconds left when Sam Perkins hit a three out of the timeout and then Hersey Hawkins stole the ball from Dennis Scott for a layin with 30 seconds to play to cut the lead to one. Nick Anderson missed an open three and then Detlef Schrempf stepped into an open mid-range jumper in transition to give Seattle the lead for good.

Dennis Scott’s drive attempt was blocked out of bounds with less than a second left and that was that.

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  • Hardaway had 22 points and five steals and O’Neal scored 20 points to go with 12 rebounds in the loss. Payton had 23, Schrempf 20 and Kemp added 16 points to go with eight assists.

    It seemed like the Magic and the Sonics could push each other’s buttons in a lot of ways.

    Seattle’s physical defensive style could get under Orlando’s skin and force them into the kind of rushed, youthful passes that get the team in trouble. The Magic had the title experience behind them, but could still play as youthful team.

    Kemp had the speed, athleticism and size to stick with a young O’Neal and work around him. And with so many physical guards to get under Hardaway, they could make his life hard.

    Similarly, though, the Magic had the size in Hardaway over Payton to neutralize him some. They could go big and keep up with the Sonics’ length especially with Grant able to defend both Kemp and Schrempf.

    And even with Kemp, there was no one who was really containing O’Neal. Both O’Neal and Grant could force Kemp into his own mistakes.

    A series between these two teams would be a matchup in execution, poise and shotmaking as both teams had extremely capable shooters.