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By the end of the 1995-96 season, it was clear the Orlando Magic had one of the youngest, most promising cores in the league — of the five guys who logged over 30 minutes per game that season, the average age of them was 26. Their past two seasons included one Finals appearance, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and a combined regular season record of 117-47 (.713). They also had two of the most promising young stars in the league on their roster — Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.
Despite this, over the next four years the Orlando Magic missed the playoffs twice, and in the two seasons they did make it, failed to advance past the first round. To be fair to Orlando, it’s worth mentioning that those four years came after losing one of the most dominant players the game has ever seen.
In July 1996, Shaquille O’Neal had agreed to a seven-year deal with the Lakers, worth over $120 million.
Shaq wasn’t the only player who signed a big deal that summer. Horace Grant had just signed a big extension with the Magic, merely days before O’Neal would sign with L.A.
Horace recently appeared on a Grantland podcast with Bill Simmons where he talked about playing with Jordan, Kobe, and Shaq himself.
Grant spoke of one particular moment from his NBA career that he wished he could re-live: he said that not long before Shaq signed with L.A, he missed a call from him, and didn’t return it until after O’Neal had agreed to the deal. Horace thought that had he answered that call, things might have played out differently, and perhaps he would have been able to convince Shaq to stay in Orlando, where they undoubtedly would have built a dynasty.
In Grant’s words (17:27 in the podcast):
“He called me, and I didn’t return his call, before he signed with the Lakers. And to this day, I wish I had of just answered that call, and maybe he would still be in Orlando.”
“I heard about it, saw it on the news, and Bill, seriously like someone hit me, like Mike Tyson hit me.”
“You cannot recover from a guy that size in his prime, that dominant, to think that you’re gonna win a championship. No, absolutely not.”
Bear in mind, it wouldn’t have just been Horace and Shaq, had he stayed with the Magic. Penny Hardaway was in Orlando too, and going into the 1996-97 season was 25 years old and making only $14.2 million over the next two years. Once you think about the supporting cast, that’s a really good team (obviously — they went 60-22 the year before).
Imagine the free agency appeal the Magic would have had then, with Shaq, Horace, and Penny locked up for a few years at least, in an attractive market, and Orlando being such an enticing location.
Just to rattle off a few names of guys that were free agents that offseason: Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard, and Reggie Miller. Not a bad class.
Orlando’s cap situation wasn’t great after shelling out the huge contract to Grant, but you have to wonder if that was given under the assumption that Shaq wouldn’t re-sign there. What if O’Neal tells them he’s definitely staying — does Horace get a contract that big if that’s the case? I doubt it.
All through this hypothetical situation where Shaq stays with the Magic, there’s one name that is yet to come up, which is funny, because Shaq played a bigger part in this particular player’s career than he did anybody else’s — Kobe.
When Shaq arrived in L.A. in 1996, Kobe was a skinny 18-year-old kid just out of high school, with no NBA experience. Kobe played just 15 minutes a game in his rookie year, averaging 7.6 points per game.
Fast forward seven years, and Kobe has three championships to his name, all of which he played a pivotal part in, averaging 15.6 points a game in the first Finals series, 24.6 for the second, and 26.8 for the third.
These three championships (combined with the two later ones) help Kobe’s case as being one of the best players the game has seen, but its a common belief that Shaq was the main force behind all of those series wins. So how, ultimately, would it have effected Kobe if Shaq didn’t sign with the Lakers in 1996?
Obviously, it’s unlikely that the Lakers win any, let alone all three, of those championships in the early 2000s. With Shaq hitting his prime elsewhere, still paired with a superstar, he might have gone on to win those three championships regardless.
This brings up a totally different point though, in that I am suggesting that Shaq was the driving force behind those three championships, and could have possibly done so without Kobe. With how dominant Shaq was — his size, strength, co-ordination, agility — it just seems foolish to say otherwise.
At that stage of his career, Shaq was unstoppable. Could he have three-peated paired with anybody? Probably not, but what if Shaq was still playing in Orlando with Penny Hardaway, and Penny’s knees don’t blow out? Hardaway was an incredible player in his own right, and one whose game is often overlooked when we look back on great point guards.
Horace discusses this in the podcast, when Bill asks if he (Horace) thinks that, barring injuries, Penny’s career could have been as good as Kobe’s. Horace says:
“Without a doubt.”
“I mean, you consider he’s 6’7″/6’8″, can see the floor, 3-pointers, drive to the basket, assists, you name it.”
Coming from somebody who played with both of them, it’s hard not to believe that.
So it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Orlando could have won those three titles with those two guys playing together, and whatever pieces they put around them.
Not only this, but at the end of the 1999-00 season, a 21-year-old shooting guard — who’s game, in his prime, was often compared to Kobe’s — signed as a free agent with the Orlando Magic: Tracy McGrady.
If Penny and Shaq could have been the greatest one-two punch the game has ever seen, what would have happened to T-Mac? That’s a question for another dull Sunday afternoon.