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 quarterfinals:
In a lot of ways, the 1995 season was the beginning for the Magic. The expansion era was done. The franchise had tasted the Playoffs for the first time. Now, expectations were setting in. Maybe not championship expectations. But they were building to that point.
Then the spunky, young Magic squad paraded to the Finals. They sat down the old guard of Michael Jordan and his Bulls and Reggie Miller and his Pacers. They closed down the Boston Garden. If it were not for the championship-caliber Rockets and some mised free throws -- or a tip-in with 0.3 seconds left in overtime from Hakeem Olajuwon -- in Game One, who knows where this incredible season could have ended up.
It is amazing to think how close this team really was. And that is only because the ride was so incredible.
Sure, the free agent signing of Horace Grant and Brian Shaw added some veteran composure to this young team. But Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Nick Anderson were experiencing Playoff victory for the first time. That Game One shellacking of Boston in the first game of the Playoffs was the franchise's first Playoff victory. Everything was a first.
Even with the East's top seed, Orlando was an underdog to Chicago with Michael Jordan returning and beginning to look like his old self. The Magic were underdogs to the experienced Pacers team who finally got over the hump against the hated Knicks. And the Magic, gaining some believers, were probably still underdogs to the defending champion Rockets.
The 1995 Magic were very similar to the 2009 Magic that took the league by surprise in the Playoffs. It was a team that relied on 3-point shooting and surrounding Shaquille O'Neal with skilled shooters to space the floor for him to work. The 1995 Magic posted the highest offensive rating in team history and they were every bit the offensive juggernaut. There were not many areas they could not attack from.
As far as Magic teams go, there might not have been a team with a better starting lineup. The bench was a little thin (well, except for Tree Rollins... sorry Tree). But if it were not for Jordan's comeback being so successful, there was no reason to think this was not the dynasty for the next 10 or so years in the NBA. That did not happen (obviously). Instead, we were left with warm memories of a special and surprising year. Even without winning the championship, the year was an unmitigated success.
There is no 1995 season though without the exploits of that first Playoff team the year before.
In year five, the Magic arrived. The growth that came with Shaquille O'Neal's first two seasons finally got over the top with Anfernee Hardaway's arrival. The Magic knew they had something special brewing after reaching the Playoffs for the first time.
Yes, it ended in a sweep at the Pacers' hands. But that is hardly what we remember from 1994.
OK, maybe it is what we remember because the next year saw that team go to the Finals and then saw the Finals team break up with Shaquille O'Neal's departure. But this was a more innocent time when everything in the world is new to the franchise.
This was a great ride for a young franchise. It had its second superstar and future point guard after a lucky bounce of some ping pong balls and a shrewd trade on draft night.
This was Orlando's first 50-win season and first foray into the postseason. In 1993, the team finished .500. Now the Magic were a winning team with big goals.
1994 is officially when the expansion honeymoon ended. The Magic were ready to win and deliver somthing more than just basketball to their fans.
This squad had Shaquille O'Neal at perhaps his best -- he averaged 29.3 points per game and 13.2 rebounds per game, one of the best individual years in team history. This team also featured a young Penny Hardaway pushing the veteran Scott Skiles for playing time at point guard. The now-veteran and developing Nick Anderson next to him in the backcourt, adding nearly 16 points per game.
This was a fun team with lots of dynamic players and Magic legends who long-time Magic fans still talk reverentially about. This was the culmination of basketball arriving in Orlando. From here on out, expectations of victory would rule (and in some cases, rule) the day.
Impact & Historical Significance
These two teams were probably the biggest, most important seasons in Magic history. At least early Magic history.
Orlando completed the fast ascendance in 1995 that had its groundwork laid in 1993 and 1994. The Magic were a legitimate Playoff franchise for the first time in these two years. It set the tone for the expectations for the franchise moving forward.
The Orlando Magic as a franchise have not settled for anything less than a Playoff berth -- much like the 2008 and 2009 teams made the franchise settle for nothign less than a championship... that mentality is still to be determined.
The ascendance was so fast that it is hard to think about what that 1994 team and then the 1995 team accomplished.
Consider this: Before 1994, the Magic had never had a winning record. They finished 41-41 the year before to earn a spot in the Draft Lottery and a tie for the eighth seed with the Pacers. The Pacers won the tiebreaker, the Magic won Chris Webber -- whom they turned into Anfernee Hardaway and eventually Mike Miller.
These were the first two winning seasons for the Magic and set everything else up for the franchise's history.
It is very easy to say the 1995 team was historically more significant. We still talk reverentially about this squad and the trip it took to the Finals. Both the Magic and Pacers made significant improvements from the 1994 to 1995 seasons. Orlando went from getting swept at Indiana's hands to defeating Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Both teams pretty much needed the year to improve and season with the Magic making the key add of Horace Grant.
Still, the historical significance of both teams should not be understated.
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If I am not mistaken, this is one of the few sweeps we have seen in the simulated series for Magic Masters. It is not at all surprising.
The 1994 team was good. It earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason. The team also got swept for a reason. The Magic were young and energetic, but they were also overachievers. Their pythagorean wins according to Basketball-Reference was 52-30, so in a record sense they underachieved at just 50 wins. But nobody saw the young Magic team making this kind of leap.
They were not quite at the height of their powers and they were one of those "too young to know any better" type teams. Certainly Byron Scott showed the power of some Playoff experience in winning Game One at the buzzer.
Orlando went out and got that experience in acquiring Horace Grant in 1995. It was a fantastic addition to a team that lacked some muscle to protect Shaquille O'Neal in the paint. It was the absolute perfect move to turn Orlando from young, surprising Playoff team into up-and-coming, contending team. And that is exactly what happened.
It is not surprising to me that the 1995 Magic would dispatch the 1994 Magic. Relatively easily too.
Orlando had fully developed its identity in 1995 as a break-neck 3-point shooting team that could outscore just about anyone and use O'Neal to intimidate. The 1994 team was still trying to figure out who it was.
They were both extremely significant teams in the franchise's history. No doubt about that.