First off, much to the NBA's chagrin, I want to thank the Orlando Magic for knocking out the nostalgic giant, the Boston Celtics, last night and thus bringing new excitement to new markets who are starving for it instead of the same tired, old fan bases.
Do it next to the Cleveland Cavilers and King James and God help the NBA who will surely have to rig, uh, I mean, figure out something else.
I am a Magic fan. I wish I could claim to be leading the effort, but ESPN's Skip Bayless has been leading that charge for several weeks saying they pose the biggest threat to the Cavs if they were able to get by Boston and I agree.
Growing up, the 1994-95 NBA season remains one of my first memories of the NBA as its when I initially remember becoming a fan and following the season throughout its entirety.
I remember when it seemed like every week the premiere game on NBC featured a matchup of the Chicago Bulls versus the Orlando Magic, or the Indiana Pacers versus the Houston Rockets. In one particular game, I still remember going into the first commercial break the announcer, who I believe was Marv Albert, saying something like this:
"And at our first commercial break, it's the Chicago Bulls 14, Dennis Scott 9."
This particular game began with Orlando Magic sharpshooter Dennis Scott drilling a series of threes as he was known to do from time to time.
I still remember the No. 54 bright blue Horace Grant jerseys hanging from the rafters at a local sports store I frequented, wishing I could buy one but knowing I could not. I remember a series of kids with their No. 1 Hardaway jerseys in home room or the stylish black-and-white spiraled Shaq shoe and knowing he wore size 22 (yes, a classmate of mine had those shoes and I thought it was so cool).
The 1994-95 Orlando Magic were a team one couldn't help but like.
They had the game's biggest man in Shaquille O'Neal with his cool personality that still shows to this day; they had the flashy Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway with his commercials and appeal; they had the blue collar/lunch-pail veteran in the playoff-tested ex-Chicago Bull, Horace Grant, with his cult-following goggles; and they had wily role players in Scott and Brian Shaw who did their jobs, and did them well with the same swagger the whole team carried.
Then they had Brian Hill as coach who did his job equally as well.
Shaquille O'Neal Departure a Crying Shame
Following the 1996 season, super-phenom O'Neal left the Magic in what could have been a franchise-killing move for greener pastures and the bright lights of Los Angeles and all the movie-making deals it could offer that Orlando could not compete with.
He was coming off a season which he averaged 26.6 PPG and 11.0 rebounds. The previous season, at the age of 25, his stats were even more incredible: 29.3 PPG, 11.4 rebounds. To put it in some modern comparison, that would be the same as Dirk Nowitzki (26.8 PPG) or Carmelo Anthony (27.0) leaving their respective teams in the middle of what should be their glory years evidenced by each team's deep runs in this year's postseason.
In Anthony's case especially, it would hurt the Nuggets who are experiencing their best season since 1985. That 24-year gap is roughly the same amount of time it has taken the Magic (14 years) to recover from the Shaq defection. Take Carmelo off the Nuggets and are they still a good team? Yes. The 1996-97 Orlando Magic were still able to make the playoffs without Shaq, posting a 45-37 record, but the damage was done as they lost in the first round.
Losing Carmelo would set that team back as there is only so much Chauncey Billups, playing the emotional role as team leader, could do while doing his best Hardaway impression. We may see this sooner than later if LeBron serves as Shaq II and the impact his departure would have on Cleveland after 2010. I'd predict the worst but that is for another column.
What still breaks my heart was he left for a "paltry" $8 million dollars more than what the Magic offered (eight years/$115 Million versus seven years/$123 million from the opportunistic Lakers). I can still see the picture of him flexing his muscles after signing that contract. I still remember when he caused a stir with his first backboard breaking dunk.
Many kids wanted to go to Florida for Disney World. While that was an incentive for sure, my preference was to first go to a Magic game and see Shaq play. (I made it by the way, only eleven years late.)
Many parallels can be drawn from those incredible up-tempo Magic teams to the one that they field today. In sum, here is how I'd compare the two with the roles they'd play.
Starters (then vs. now comparison)
C Shaquille O'Neal/Dwight Howard Advantage=THEN
PF Horace Grant/Rashard Lewis Advantage=NOW
SF Donald Royal/Hedo Turkoglu Advantage=NOW
SG Nick Anderson/JJ Reddick Advantage=THEN
PG Anfernee Hardaway/Rafer Alston Advantage=THEN
Darrell Armstrong/Courtney Lee Advantage=THEN
Dennis Scott/Mickael Pietrus Advantage=EVEN
Brian Shaw/Tyronn Lue Advantage=THEN
Hits and Misses
After getting my hopes up watching the Magic try and recreate this past nostalgic success with the same-day signings of Grant Hill and Bartow, Fla. native Tracy McGrady in a joint press conference that ultimately failed, to the flirtation and failure to court similar youth superstar Tim Duncan after the lockout season, this is first and best chance at legitimate and long-lasting success.
Signing the then 24-year-old budding superstar in Duncan would have been an absolute coup for the Magic, who could have helped ease fans still bitter at the loss of Shaq just four years prior and had the same impact of Shaq going to the Lakers. Instead, the quiet but solid superstar shocked many, myself included, by deciding to stay in small-market San Antonio to continue what he started.
Building of a Contender—A Real Contender
Instead, the Magic had to take different paths to get them where they are today. In 2003, the transition began with the winning of the NBA Draft Lottery and drafting of future star Dwight Howard.
Like O'Neal before him, Howard was a 7'0" monster. Only this time, the Magic had two things going for him. Howard was an Atlanta, Ga. native, meaning by staying in Orlando, he was already playing about as geographically close to home as he could without actually playing there. Secondly, not everyone can play in L.A., New York, Chicago, or Boston as there are only so much roster spots and salary cap to go around.
This system was not around at the time of Shaq's signing but which ultimately contributed to the lockout and subsequent re-structuring of contracts in the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
Finally, the Magic, did the smart thing learning from their mistakes when they signed him to a five year, $80 million extension prior to the 2007 season. While the then 21-year-old joked about "being here forever with Mickey Mouse," it's still possible that the 26-year-old could opt to leave when his contract runs out in three years. Let's hope he's good to his word.
Twenty-six. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. All too familiar.
Next they signed former Kings sharpshooter Hedo Turkoglu to a six year, $39 million deal prior to the 2004 season. Only problem is apparently he has plans to opt out this summer instead of playing out the contract which runs through 2009, leaving possibly a one-year window to win if an adequate replacement can't be found on time.
Next, they signed former Seattle Sonics forward Rashard Lewis to a ridiculously overpriced six year, $110 million contract prior to last season. An additional year and $13 million later, the team was now on the hook for seven years and $123 million.
I immediately liked the move because of the fit and the need, but questioned the price that was justified in order to get players to want to come to the Magic Kingdom. Thank goodness it looks like Lewis was worth it, if you can somehow rationalize that kind of money for 18.2 and 17.7 points in his two seasons with the team. Nonetheless, the move had to be made.
Finally, in a very under-the-radar move, the team signed away Frenchmen Mickael Pietrus from the lowly Golden State Warriors on July 10, 2008. Couple these moves in with the savvy drafting of Jameer Nelson and Courtney Lee for depth and it's easy to see why the Magic are again on the cusp of greatness.
This season the Magic and Cavs have met twice: Orlando has won two of three, with one win being by 29 points on April 3. The Magic averaged 102.7 PPG and the Cavs 90.7. The Magic shot 48.1 percent and the Cavs 41.6 percent (*Bayless noted the Magic have also won 8-for-11 overall in the match up.)
Oh, and they have the "Master of Panic" Stan Van Gundy himself and his quirky, admirable, must-see-TV interviews and postgame press conferences. He's my Coach of the Year already regardless of who won the actual award or outcome of this series, and an excellent bench man who I'd love calling the shots any day for my team.
Let's only hope they get it done this time.
Magic over Cavs in Six.
*All numbers courtesy ESPN First Take5/18/09. Credit to Skip Bayless, Ryan Stewart, and Mike Hill for the information which contributed to this article.