The calendar has nearly turned to August, meaning we are somewhere near the mid-point of the offseason. It is not quite the 2010-11 season -- but the schedule should be coming out soon. This might be the time then to officially close our thoughts on the 2009-10 campaign. You would hope any problems that persisted on that team have been corrected in the offseason, or a new and improved team has been assembled. Or somewhere in the middle.
This post is not about what Orlando did or did not do this summer to make up for the team's Eastern Conference Finals loss. Rather, it is an attempt to find the team's place in the annals of Magic history (and to spark a little debate).
The first thing, and I think we can all agree on this, is that the 2010 season was at least in the top four for the Magic. The 1995, 1996, 2009 and 2010 teams were the only four to make the conference finals. The four teams had the best regular season records in team's history and went the furthest. The only thing you can debate is the order in which to put the four, but these are the top four. Agreed?
So how do you order those four and where does 2010 rank?
If you value playoff experience and how far the team went, then it is safe to say 2010 was the third best season in Magic history. The 1995 and 2009 teams went all the way to the Finals. The 1996 and 2010 teams went to the conference finals. Maybe if Horace Grant did not get hurt and Nick Anderson were not fighting off an injury the 1996 Magic would have gotten a game against the 72-10 Bulls. Then again, the 2010 Magic were one loss away from getting swept themselves. But they dug down deep and got a Game Three win on the road.
If you value regular season -- most of the games are played during the regular season, right? -- 1996 is your winner. The team won a franchise-high 60 games that year. But that would also make 1995 your loser. And that season holds too many special memories and mystique around it to be rated as the worst of the four seasons (then again, maybe that does not matter).
If you value the team's best player, you are making the Shaquille O'Neal/Dwight Howard argument that always seems to be on the tips of every Magic fans' tongue. O'Neal was a more developed offensive player and the mid-90s Magic had one of the more dynamic offensive attacks, featuring a go-to perimeter scorer in Penny Hardaway that the current iteration of the Magic lack. But, at the same time, O'Neal was not the most dominant force in the game during his time -- David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon were both better centers at the time -- like Howard is. While Howard does not have the refinement on offense O'Neal had, his defense is what anchors the stingiest team in the league.
For what it is worth, on a strictly matchup basis (if you want to use that) the mid-90s squad would probably win. While O'Neal was not the force he would become with Los Angeles, he was still a dominant player. More importantly O'Neal and Howard would cancel each other out, but no one on the 2010 Magic could cancel out the playmaking ability of Hardaway. Boston was able to neutralize Orlando's spread-it-out offense by single covering Howard.
The 1995/96 Magic would be able to do the same. Throw in a young Horace Grant in the prime of his career helping O'Neal man the boards and Orlando is facing its toughest matchup of 2010. Of course, there is no way to know for sure how the two teams would match up in a seven-game series.When it comes down to it, the unfulfilled expectations for the franchise's first championship may ultimately color how the 2010 team is seen years down the road. The 1996 team had championship expectations but ran into the buzzsaw that was the 1996 Bulls, arguably the greatest team of all time. It certainly can be argued the 60-win Magic of that year could be better than the 1995 team that went to the Finals.
The fourth-seeded Boston Celtics were no 72-10 Chicago Bulls. Orlando in 2010 was not some young, star-crossed team experiencing the Finals for the first time. It was a team that fully knew what it would take to return to the Finals and win the whole thing. It was upset.
The sad part is, the 2009-10 regular season was perhaps the franchise's finest. Despite wholesale changes to an Eastern Conference-winning team, Orlando won the same amount of games and was the second-best team in the league by record. This was even with the other top teams around the league winning less games than the 2008-09 season.
The tear the Magic went on to end the season -- winning 20 of the final 23 games and then the first eight of the postseason -- is likely the best stretch the franchise will see in a long time.
But the disappointment of the postseason will be what will linger. That alone probably makes the 1995, 1996 and 2009 teams better. Still, fourth best team in franchise history was not bad. Let's put that season to bed and get ready for 2010-11.