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 crown a champion.
And a worthy champion it is.
When I embarked on this task of determining the best team in Magic history last summer, I suspected how it would go. Now more than ever, though, I think is the right time to remember the 2008-09 team.
This was an incredibly special season. One that Magic fans could properly appreciate, yet still be surprised about every step of the way.
The 2009 team is etched into our memories and because it was recent the memory is still very clear. Particularly now, it is comfortable to look back then and feel the world was in front of us still.
At the beginning of the season, Otis Smith and the team were all talking championship. Magic fans were willing to temper the expectations a bit. After all, Orlando had just come off its first trip out of the first round and first division championship since 1996. The Magic still had nightmares about meeting the Pistons in the Playoffs, even if Chauncey Billups was swapped for Allen Iverson.
Winning was an unfamiliar feeling for the franchise and its fans. It is not something Orlando had been able to expect since Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. The inter-regnum was full of bitter disappointments -- Hardaway's injury, the failed Chuck Daly experiment, Grant Hill's injury, Tracy McGrady's defection -- and calling the Magic the "Tragic" and going to games in half-empty stadiums (until the Playoffs, of course, which still came just about every year) was normal. This was an Orlando team accustomed to mediocrity.
That made Stan Van Gundy's work wtih Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu so masterful. Think about how all those pieces came together.
Turkoglu signed a mid-level exception contract for five years and failed to deliver in splitting time with Grant Hill at small forward. It is hard to believe now with Turkoglu as a staple in the Magic lineup (even after that pit stop with the Raptors and the Suns) that he was considered one of the more overpaid and under performing players in the league.
Stan Van Gundy gave him the ball and Turkoglu delivered with two All-Star caliber seasons in 2008 and 2009.
Jameer Nelson was an under-sized point guard who had faced nothing but criticism throughout his career. He went from national player of the year at St. Joseph's to the big faller in the NBA Draft. Orlando made a shrewd draft move picking him up from Denver. Nelson had to fight for acceptance in the league. He had to play behind the enigmatic Steve Francis. Then struggle as a starter while splitting minutes with Carlos Arroyo.
In 2008 and 2009, the team was finally his. And it got taken away from him in a cruel twist of fate. The torn labrum against the Mavericks robbed Nelson of his chance to make his only All Star appearance and ended a historic season. Nelson is more remembered that season for his ill-fated comeback in the Finals. He rushed to get back to help his team and the Magic felt he could help.
Nelson was brilliant that season though. His numbers are well known as he shot 50.3 percent from the floor and 45.3 percent from long range on his way to 16.3 points per game. Nelson has struggled to live up to this season ever since.
Then there is Rashard Lewis. Still dogged with questions about his salary and max contract, Lewis proved to be the matchup nightmare Van Gundy envisioned. Lewis came up big in several spots during the Playoffs. His shot in Game One against the Cavaliers proved to be a preview of how much trouble the Cavaliers would have accounting for him.
Then there was Dwight Howard.
Howard was still unbelievably young, making his deepest Playoff run and experiencing true winning for the first time in his career. Perhaps it set the expectation for the rest of his career. But in 2009 Howard was enjoying every moment of the ride. As were the fans.
Sports Illustrated asked if the Magic's superstar could get serious for a moment in its Playoff preview. But nobody except the national media wanted Howard to change. Howard back then represented all the hopes we had for this team and for him. He enjoyed playing the game and did it with a defensive mastery that the NBA has not seen in a very long time.
Howard quietly shunned critics who questioned his ability to take over games. His performance at the end of Game Six against the Celtics in the second round should have silenced all doubts. Then he outperformed LeBron James in a euphoric Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals.
2009 seems so long ago now that things are heading where they are. The bright future we thought this team had is much darker now. The window flung open in an instant, closed shut just as quickly. That is the nature of the NBA. It was a cruel lesson that will cost the team dearly.
The 2009 season was a much happier day, a much happier time. In the franchise's history, it was clear Orlando knew to appreciate this moment much more and to expect more great moments in the years ahead. Optimism that Orlando had learned the lessons from its past was at a high. The Magic seemed to have a championship dynasty at their grasp.
More than ever, that is why I think the 2009 team holds so much popularity and reverance in the Magic historical pantheon.
This was a team that did not have championship expectations (although plenty of aspiration) at the beginning of the season. This was a team that overperformed and made believers of us all. This was a team that looked at the NBA establishment and beat it all to get to the Finals. It was a shame it did not get a second chance to go for a title. The realities fo the salary cap prevented that.
The 2009 team made believers of us all. For that, we can officially call them the greatest team in Magic history. For that, we can call them Magic Masters.