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 start in the opening round with our first matchup:
It is actually quite funny that this series begins with the 1999 Magic. After all, it was that team that had to go through the lockout ordeal and play a truncated season -- much like the 2012 season is expected to. The 50-game schedule was a strain to most, but Orlando was one of the best teams in the league that year, going 33-17 and tying Miami and Indiana for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The 1999 season was Penny Hardaway's last gasp. It was Nick Anderson's last gasp. It was the beginning of Darrell Armstrong's ascendance to a quality and consistent player. The league was weak, but the Magic were strong.
Until the Playoffs that is. And really the end of the season. The Magic saw their hopes of getting the top seed in the East crumble with a late-season loss to the Heat. Then a young Allen Iverson officially welcomed himself to the NBA in a surprising 3-1 upset of the Magic. Following the year, John Gabriel set into motion his plan to clear cap space to make a run at Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady.
The 2003 season also 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.
There is the stage, here is the poll. Who's better?
Record, Results & Expectations
I don't think there were many expectations when the lockout ended as to what the league would like. A number of guys showed up out of shape and not ready to play. Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel even reported earlier this summer that the Magic elected not to practice throughout the season. Imagine Stan Van Gundy doing that!
Maybe that eventually did Orlando in when the postseason came around and Allen Iverson began taking over.
Chuck Daly helped turn the Magic into a pretty solid defensive team, pouring in a 97.4 defensive rating which was good for third in the league that year. The only problem was the balanced offense featuring the guard trio of Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Darrell Armstrong just did not produce at the same rate -- only 100.3 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the league.
The 33-17 regular season record and tie for the Atlantic Division were pleasant surprises. Hardaway played in all 50 games and, while still showing signs of his injury, had a solid year next to a somehow rejuvenated Nick Anderson. Expectations were high entering the Playoffs and the team failed to deliver.
Unlike the 2003 team. 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 of that upset. Overall, that season was simply disappointing and a turning point in team history.
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As you can see from the simulated series on WhatIfSports.com, offense could be a problem for the 1999 team. Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson were good scorers, but not great. And the 1999 team's defense struggled with Allen Iverson. Tracy McGrady would give them fits too.
The fact of the matter is the 1999 season was just weird. I am not one of those guys who want to give the Spurs an asterisk for winning the title that year, but look at the 1999 team's stats. The pace in the league was much much slower than normal. Scoring was way down. And defenses seemed to take over.
I do not remember anything particularly amazing about the 1999 team's defense. Nick Anderson and Darrell Armstrong were solid defenders. Horace Grant was pretty good and Isaac Austin was serviceable. But again there was nothing spectacular.
The 2003 team, despite a worse record and fewer offensive options, might have had more options. Tracy McGrady was an unstoppable offensive force. Armstrong was still pretty good. Between Gordan Giricek and Mike Miller, the Magic had some decent shooting. Shawn Kemp took up space in the paint. Likely, he was only slightly worse than Austin, who took advantage of a strong contract year the previous season. Drew Gooden was not so bad either in his rookie year and performed admirably in his late-season stint with Orlando.
The 1999 team's record stands out, as does its regular season. But you have to take it with a grain of salt because of the conditions the league was under in that particular year. The 1999 team had a pretty big weakness that I think the 2003 team would have been able to exploit. You plop Dwight Howard on the 1999 team and you might have something more akin to the 2009 team. As the roster stood, Tracy McGrady would find ways to score and break down the defense and possibly take down this team.
My Pick: 2003