Magic Masters is Orlando Magic Daily's attempt to recognize the best in Magic history. In this edition, we are trying to rank the best teams in Magic history. To see the full tournament bracket, visit the introduction page. Today, we continue the second round:
Statistically, there may not be a better team in Magic history than 2009-10. Aesthetically, they were not pleasing because of that 0-3 hole they dug themselves against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. That disappointment is going to always affect how we think of the 2009-10 squad.
The overall season was nothing short of excellent though. The team finished 33-8 in the final 41 games and had the largest point differential in the league, a statistic many people believe is a very valuable measure of how a team is doing, sometimes even over win-loss record. This team was just flat-out good.
Orlando was third in defensive rating and fourth in offensive rating while putting in the highest expected win total according to their statistics, at least, according to Basketball-Reference. The Magic that year were a conglomeration of the 2009 Finals team and one of the biggest reloading projects in the franchise's history.
Dwight Howard was quickly ascending to a major superstar level. Jameer Nelson was not playing at his 2009 All Star level, but was still very solid. Vince Carter came down from his All Star level too, but after a slow start to the season came on strong to give Orlando the same kind of offensive balance the team relied on in its run to the Finals the year before. Then you add in Matt Barnes adding some attitude and toughness, and you had a team everyone just loved.
If this team made the Finals, we might be talking about this team as legitimately the best team in franchise history -- not just a feaux No. 1 seed for a tournament like this. As it stands though, this team fell short and then fell apart the following year.
That is very much unlike the 2003 season, as I detailed in its opening-round victory over the 1998-99 team.
The 2003 season held a lot of promise for Orlando. By this point, it was only a delusion to think Grant Hill would be healthy, and making matters worse (or more delusional) was Shawn Kemp's appearance on the roster. Still, the Magic had Tracy McGrady. And that is all that seemed to matter.
McGrady was a scoring machine and likely the best offensive player in the league. We were seriously debating who was better between McGrady and Kobe Bryant. And it was a serious argument. It sounds ridiculous now to think about because of how McGrady's body betrayed him, but it was an absolutely serious discussion. McGrady displayed that prowess in the postseason against the Pistons.
A mid-season trade that sent Mike Miller to Memphis for Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek shored up the Magic's depth down low while (theoretically) keeping the team's shooting that it sent away with Miller. The Magic got hot heading into the postseason, even though they were relegated to the eight seed.
Then, a miracle nearly happened. Everything clicked. McGrady was unstoppable and the balanced Pistons could not get their footing defensively to slow him down or offensively to keep up.
In stepped Tayshaun Prince, a rookie with long arms and energy, to try and check McGrady and in went McGrady's foot into his mouth. Orlando lost its 3-1 lead, momentum and maybe a bit of confidence. And the team went down with it.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who's better?
Record and Expectations
The 2010 Magic had one goal and one result that would be acceptable. After getting to the NBA Finals in 2009, the team allowed its payroll to skyrocket. Only a championship would be an acceptable result. And the way the team played in the regular season and the first two rounds of the Playoffs, everyone believed a championship was imminent.
Then the Magic got a rude awakening in Game One against the Celtics. Then Vince Carter missed two critical free throws late in Game Two after almost single-handedly keeping the Magic in Game One and a good chunk of Game Two -- he had 39 total points in the first two games, although his struggles truly began in that Game Two loss and his confidence went with it. Game Three was simply an embarrassing effort where the Celtics just showed they wanted to go to the Finals more than a Magic team that had seemingly been handed everything to that point.
So the season, despite all its successes, was a disappointment. I don't want to call it a complete failure, I do not believe it was that. But it would be hard to argue that it was not a failure. This turned out to be a great season, with a very bitter ending.
The 2003 team also had a very bitter ending, if not the same lofty goals.
After taking the No. 5 seed in the 2002 Playoffs, the Magic were a disappointing 42-40. It was good enough for the eighth seed and a date with the up-and-coming Pistons. Orlando kept itself mattering because McGrady was unstoppable that year, scoring 32.1 points per game. And then the team came alive for three games in the Playoffs.
Unfortunately they needed four games of brilliance to pull off that upset. The Pistons proved themselves to be a better, more complete team. McGrady simply could not do it on his own. Overall, that season was simply disappointing and became a turning point in team history. Just as the 2010 season would too.
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This matchup will not bode well for McGrady's crew. Not well at all. The 2003 Magic do not have anyone who could handle Dwight Howard at his very best. Nobody.
OK, Shawn Kemp is a big body and might be able to keep Dwight Howard off his spot. But how long could Kemp do this without fouling? And he did not quite have the hops or agility to keep up with Howard. Maybe if this were 1995 Shawn Kemp. Amazing what eight year, millions of dollars and a lockout can do to a player.
Dwight Howard is having a field day.
The real question you have to ask if these two teams hypothetically matched up is how would the 2010 team handle Tracy McGrady. The Magic did a very good job with LeBron James because of Dwight Howard's presence. Mickael Pietrus has some length and Matt Barnes would get under McGrady's skin. Yes, McGrady is known somewhat for folding when times get tough. Even at the height of his offensive brilliance.
As you can see from WhatIfSports.com's simulation of this series, McGrady is good for one game even against an elite team like the Magic. But there is a lot of toughness in the 2010 team, especially against mediocre competition like the 2003 team.