November 13, 2014 by NowhereButPop
The easiest thing for sports fans to do, is to lament and torment ourselves over “what could/should have been”. What if Len Bias didn’t die? What if Kevin Dyson crossed the goal line? What if the Mets kept Nolan Ryan? By far, basketball has the best “what ifs”, maybe because one player has more effect on the outcome than any other sport, maybe because basketball players do more damning things to themselves than other athletes, or maybe because the NBA is influenced by the hand of the commissioner, but trying to answer the “what ifs” of basketball is more exciting than for any other sport.
As a Knicks fan, I have way too many “what ifs” running through my mind regarding this one team. What if Kenny Walker was good? What if Xavier McDaniel never left the Knicks? What if Charles “Mr. Softee” Smith dunked the fucking ball? What if John Starks didn’t shoot 2-18 from the field, 0-11 from 3-point range, and 0-10 in the fourth quarter of game seven? Then there are the gimmes, the ones that every basketball fan has asked themselves at least five times in their lives. What if the Trailblazers drafted Michael Jordan? What if Shaq and Kobe got along? What if Magic Johnson never contracted HIV? What if Kareem Abdul Jabbar wasn’t a socially retarded misanthrope?
The most interesting “what ifs” to analyze are the ones that came tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. In these instances, the fine line between hypothetical and actual is somehow at its faintest, but yet most pronounced. If Lou Gehrig never developed ALS, without a shadow of a doubt, he would have become the first player in MLB history to hit 500 home runs, knock in 2000 RBIs, and accumulate 3000 hits. He was seven homers away, 5 RBIs away, and about 1 ½ seasons away from his 3000th hit; he would have done it. But, he didn’t, and when something that should happen not only doesn’t happen, but is devilishly just out of reach, it turns an intriguing hypothetical into a bitch of an itch on the sole of your foot while you’re stuck climbing mountains in a pair of Timberlands. That was a shitty metaphor, I know, but the point is when something that seems like it should happen doesn’t happen, that’s what drives us the most to ask the dreaded “what if”.
Arguably the most overlooked “what if” scenario in NBA history involved the Orlando Magic, a franchise that has only really ever had four relevant seasons. But the question that has been bothering me the most over the past few months is, “What if the Shaq/Penny Hardaway Magic never fell apart?”. Now, I know I’m asking a lot here as I’m not only asking for Shaq to stay in Orlando after the 1995-1996 season, but also for Penny Hardaway to stay healthy, some semblance of job security for whoever was coaching the team, and for Nick Anderson to get over his PTSD. But, if all of these conditions were met, we could be talking about the Magic in the same way we talk about the Phil Jackson’s Lakers and the Greg Popovich’s Spurs: A dynasty in the post Michael Jordan NBA.
Remember, they went to the Finals in Shaq’s third year as a pro, and Hardaway’s sophomore year. Granted, they were swept in the Finals, but they were still serious contenders in what was, at the time, a loaded Eastern Conference. The next year in 1995-96, they win 60 games but lose out to the otherworldly Bulls, and their 72-10 record. That sweep at the hands of the Bulls would be the last we’d ever see of that Magic team, as two months later Shaq would bolt for Los Angeles.
This Magic team however, was built for sustained success. In 1996, only his fourth year in the league, Shaq was already named one of the 50 best players in NBA history. And this Shaq wasn’t the marginally out of shape juggernaut that he with the Lakers; Orlando Shaquille O’Neal had this Herculean build reminiscent of David Robinson. He was strong, but it was all muscle, and for a guy standing in at over 7 feet, weighing over 300 pounds he could run the fast break like he was going out for a Sunday stroll. This was a Shaq who was already a bona-fide All-Star, and a scoring champion, and it wasn’t like he was the only talent on the team either.
There was a time, before the myriad of knee injuries that would make Amar’e Stoudemire worry, Penny Hardaway looked to be on his way to the hall of fame. Probably the most successful time in NBA history when a natural shooting guard was moved over to the point guard position, Penny Hardaway simply exploded onto the scene as both a scorer and a playmaker. During the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, Hardaway averaged about 20 points with 7 assists, 2 steals, and shot over 50% from the floor. And, you’re playing Shaquille O’Neal at his most physically fit. But, shortly after Shaq left, Hardaway’s entire body gave out leaving him as shell of the dynamic phenom he once was.
Throw in the veteran Horace Grant and his championship experience, the three point marksmanship of Dennis Scott, of the best three point shooters of that era, and Nick Anderson who was once a borderline All-Star, and you have a team primed to make a serious run for multiple championships. But alas some things just weren’t meant to last.
After Shaq left, and Hardaway fell apart like Humpty Dumpty, the rest of the team soon spiraled into mediocrity. Coach Brian Hill was ousted like Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Horace Grant got old way too fast, and Nick Anderson became Brick Anderson after he contracted basketball’s version of Steve Sax Syndrome. Originally both Shaq and Hardaway lobbied for Hill to get the head coaching job, but a few years later it surfaced that one of the reasons Shaq didn’t stay in Orlando was because he no longer saw eye to eye with Hill. Subsequently enough Hill only made it mid-way through the first year of the Magic’s post-Shaq era as he was fired after Penny Hardaway led a player’s mutiny against him. Two years later Hardaway would be traded to the Suns, leaving not only Magic fans, but basketball fans lusting after what could have been.
It would have been amazing to see Shaq/Penny go up against other notable point guard-big men combos of that era like Stockton/Malone, Hardaway/Mourning, Payton/Kemp, and Houston/Ewing, especially during the playoffs. Instead we got Shaq/Kobe which wasn’t too bad either. But if that Magic team stuck together it’s tough not to wonder how many championships they could have won together.
Here’s a little something extra: Originally the Magic drafted power forward Chris Webber with the 1st overall pick in the 1993 draft and envisioned him playing with Shaq…and they would have utterly destroy ANY frontcourt. Seriously, it’d be like Superman and the Hulk fighting side by side. Instead, the night before the draft, Penny Hardaway made an incensed plea to the Magic to either draft him or trade for him after the draft, just so he could play alongside Shaq. Five minutes after the Warriors drafted Hardaway, a deal was struck between the Magic and the Warriors essentially swapping draft picks. It was that moment that the Magic instantly became real contenders. It’s just fun to wonder what would have happened if Shaq and Webber actually played together. It would have been magic indeed, but it would have been a different kind of magic.
The team that was assembled however, was a team that was still, clearly on the rise, even after a 60 win season. In the four years that Shaq was in Orlando, the team improved its style of play, along with its record. His first year they went 41-41, the next year they win over 50 games, his third year they go to the Finals and lose to the defending champions, and in his last year they win 60 games. But, there’s no shame in losing to the greatest team of all time. Still, that Penny Hardaway/Gary Payton matchup would have been a dream to watch. There was so much potential, a potential that was only just being realized, but because we have a brief span of promising dominance, if that Magic team stuck together, it’s safe to say that they win at least two championships. But, we’ll never know. Try as we might, we’ll never find an answer to any question that starts with those dreaded two words: “What if”.
 For however masochistic it is, it’s pretty fucking fun to do.
 As of right now, only one player has achieved this milestone: Hank Aaron.
 Magic shooting guard, Nick Anderson, is directly responsible for the Bulls latter three-peat as he dissed Jordan after their playoff series in 1995, saying that Jordan (who wore 45 at the time) played like he was 45 years old. If we’ve learned one thing about Jordan, it’s that you never trash talk him.
 Really more for Hollywood than for the Lakers.
 Obviously after Jordan retired.
 The Magic would also receive three additional future first round draft picks from Golden State. That is how coveted Chris Webber once was.