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Ultimate What If: Grant Hill (w/ Neil Paine)


Grant Hill.


For Orlando Magic fans, the mere utterance of the name naturally provokes a myriad of emotions to come out. However, there is one emotion that I want to capture. Curiosity. 


By definition, curiosity is the state of wanting to learn more about something. 


In the case of Hill, I've been curious of one thing. What if Hill was completely healthy during his tenure in Orlando. What would the end result be, for both him and the team? I always thought of the scenario in my brain, but I could never come up with any type of empirical data "on paper" to see how things would have played out for the Magic (mea culpa). Sure, I knew that the team would improve its performance on the court with a healthy, in-his-prime Grant Hill paired with a budding superstar in Tracy McGrady, but by how much? What could have Orlando fans expected to see from their squad? When the Magic front office invested in both Hill & McGrady, what could the maximum returns have been?


Well, I can say that I am able to provide answers to all those questions. 


Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference wrote a post on BBR's blog a little over a week ago, which posed a similar question to mine. What if Hill's career did not get derailed due to his ankle? Using an advanced metric, Paine was able to project what Hill's career would have been, had it not been for all his foot problems. The results are interesting (click here to see them). 


Once I saw the numbers, I felt compelled to contact Paine and see if it was possible for him to project how Orlando would have looked like with a healthy Hill. The answer was yes. Here's what Paine confirmed he could do and how he would go about creating this "alternate" universe:

"We'd have to establish the Magic's rotation with Hill healthy, which wouldn't be too hard, and then figure out exactly how much their ORtg/DRtg improves as a result, which might be a little tougher. The two ways I was contemplating were reconstructing the team like I did in this series about Cleveland in the 80s, and also reconstructing them using statistical +/-. Then I'd just average the two "expected wins" values, and adjust the rest of the league down to force the NBA average to still be .500. For the playoffs, I guess we'd find out what seed they'd be, and run what's called the log5 method to find their odds of winning each round."

Once his process was explained to me, Paine asked how many years did I want simulated? I requested five years for two main reasons (I had more but they're secondary) that a.) I wanted to concentrate on the years Hill and McGrady played together and b.) I wanted to create a scenario where McGrady doesn't get traded in 2004 (thus eliminating Dwight Howard from the picture). 


With the parameters set, Paine went ahead and crunched the numbers for me.


Click after the jump to see the results.


FAQ --

AU = "alternate" universe, what occurred in this simulation.

RU = "real" universe, what occurred in real life. 

Draft choices by Orlando Magic = Determined by myself and Neil Paine, using the draft strategy of Doc Rivers and logic. 

Draft strategy of Doc Rivers = Does prefer college players who have upside and are winners. Does not prefer high school players or international players. 

Free Agent signings = "Real" universe free agent signings do not change. 

NBA Draft = The results of the "real" draft do not change, except in situations when the Orlando Magic are drafting. Adjustments are made in these instances for teams impacted by personnel changes in the "alternate" universe.

Trades = "Real" universe trades do not change, except for the Houston Rockets' acquisition of Tracy McGrady (which does NOT occur in this simulation). 





Orlando Magic: 53-29, 3rd in the East


Odds of advancing past the first round: 69.4%

Odds of advancing past the semifinals: 42.4%

Odds of advancing past the conference finals: 22.0%

Odds of winning a championship: 8.4%



NP: The Hill and T-Mac additions were obviously huge for Orlando, kick-starting their offense into ranking somewhere around 11th in the league (they had been 22nd in 2000). McGrady was still the breakout star of the team, but Hill was excellent as a 2nd option, and guys like Darrell Armstrong & Bo Outlaw played their roles perfectly. This squad would have done some serious damage in the East, although I have to say that even if they triumph in the ECF vs. Philadelphia, no one would have beaten L.A. that year. Still, it was the kind of season Orlando envisioned when they made their big free agent splash in the summer of 2000. 

ER: It's evident that the results in Year 1 of the Grant Hill & Tracy McGrady era were what many Orlando Magic fans hoped to see when former general manager John Gabriel invested roughly $190 million on both individuals. When the team brought in two superstars, the best case scenario imagined was that both would be able to fill the vacant seats left behind by Penny and Shaq and really catapult Orlando back to relevance in the NBA. Needless to say, Hill and McGrady lived up to the hype and both w ere able to help bring the Magic back into the upper-echelon of the league. 




Orlando Magic: 51-31, 3rd in the East


Odds of advancing past the first round: 72.9%

Odds of advancing past the semifinals: 41.6%

Odds of advancing past the conference finals: 23.7%

Odds of winning a championship: 6.5%



NP: Not much changed in Year 2 of the Hill/McGrady regime -- Jamaal Tinsley was drafted the previous offseason and became the team's PG of the future, but everything still revolved around T-Mac, Hill, and to a lesser extent, Armstrong and Mike Miller. The frontcourt was really ancient with Horace Grant & Patrick Ewing, and depth was an issue, but the team still secured the 3 seed in the East for the 2nd straight season, and fought hard against Detroit before finally bowing out in Game 7 of the East semis. With the franchise's first back-to-back 50-win seasons since the Shaq era, the Magic had definitely established themselves as an elite Eastern Conference team at this point. 

ER: When the off-season came around, the Orlando Magic had two first-round draft picks to play with (#23 & #24 [from Milwaukee via Houston]). When comparing the "real" universe to the "alternate" universe, the draft settings have changed slightly. In the RU, the Magic held the #15 pick in the draft and proceeded to select center Steven Hunter from DePaul. Yet in the AU, Orlando's first choice in the draft was much lower. It's unlikely Hunter would have fell down far enough to be scooped up by the Magic, so the next target likely would have been guard Jerryl Sasser from SMU. In the RU, it's no secret that the reason why former head coach Doc Rivers selected Sasser was because Doc wanted a player who could stop Allen Iverson. In the AU, it's probable that Rivers would still have wanted to select Sasser to stop Iverson, since Orlando was unable to get past the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals. Thus, it was decided that the Magic would, yet again, choose Sasser. 

Now, this is where the RU and the AU skew a bit. Since Steven Hunter is gone and Jerryl Sasser is chosen, this is where it seems as though Orlando would have targeted a point guard who could eventually replace an aging Darrell Armstrong. Hence, it was assumed that the Magic front office would have made the choice of bringing in Jamaal Tinsley from Iowa State with the #24 pick. Taking into consideration who was available at that spot and the fact the team was lacking depth at the guard position, it appeared as though Tinsley would have been the most logical choice for Orlando. Tinsley fit the type of player Rivers would have preferred - college player who had upside and was a winner. 


Orlando Magic: 48-34, 3rd in the East


Odds of advancing past the first round: 58.5%

Odds of advancing past the semifinals: 29.8%

Odds of advancing past the conference finals: 15.1%

Odds of winning a championship: 2.6%



NP: In 2003 the supporting cast changed a bit, especially after a deadline deal that sent Mike Miller to Memphis for Drew Gooden, but for the most part it was still the Grant & Tracy show. Despite a 48-win season, though, it was clear they couldn't do it all by themselves -- with an aging Armstrong slipping and an even older Shawn Kemp being asked to play a big role in the frontcourt, the third-seeded Magic were eliminated by the New Jersey Nets in the 2nd round of the playoffs. 

ER: With Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant out of the picture, it was clear that the Orlando Magic needed to make a move to acquire a big man. So to create some continuity between the RU and the AU, it was surmised that the Magic would have still struck a deal with the Memphis Grizzlies to acquire Drew Gooden (and Gordan Giricek) for Mike Miller. The trade to bring in a player like Gooden served to fill a void in the frontcourt left behind by Ewing and Grant in the AU, as it did in the RU.



Orlando Magic: 37-45, 8th in the East


Odds of advancing past the first round: 6.7%

Odds of advancing past the second round: 2.5%

Odds of advancing past the conference finals: 0.4%

Odds of winning a championship: 0.0%



NP: After a gradual decline from 2002 to 2003, the Magic's defense sank to the NBA's worst mark in 2004 and left them clinging to the final playoff spot in the East with just 37 wins. The offense was as good as usual, despite Hill seeing some aging effects, because McGrady was amazing, the old and young Howards (Juwann & Josh) were solid, and the Tinsley/Tyronn Lue combo at PG was surprisingly effective. But defensively the team was a disaster -- despite Tinsley's best efforts -- because there was no true center, and as a result they posted the worst FG% defense in the NBA. Overmatched against the Pacers' 9th-ranked offense, Orlando was swept in the first round of the playoffs. 

ER: Coming into the draft, the Orlando Magic held a choice in the lower-half of the first round (#21). When comparing the AU and the RU, there's a bit of a difference in where the Magic's pick is located in the draft. In the RU, Orlando held the #15 pick, which was used to draft guard Reece Gaines from Louisville. However, things are different in the AU. Given where Orlando is picking, it was decided that the team would have likely selected forward Josh Howard from Wake Forest. 

The main factor in making this presumption is based off of former head coach Doc Rivers' drafting preference. It's unlikely that Orlando would have chosen an international player with the #21 pick, which would have eliminated a lot of players from being considered by the team. Plus, given the roster of the Magic, the squad was in need of depth at the guard and forward positions. The only guy who would have been available at that juncture in the draft and would have fit the profile for Rivers? Josh Howard. 



Orlando Magic: 50-32, 4th in the East


Odds of advancing past the first round: 63.7%

Odds of advancing past the second round: 23.5%

Odds of advancing past the conference finals: 12.0%

Odds of winning a championship: 2.8%



NP: As it turns out, Orlando's defensive slide was a one-year aberration. With the frontcourt bolstered by new additions and the holdovers apparently playing with renewed intensity, the Magic bounced back to post the 12th-best defense in the league, and their record followed suit: 50-32, good for the 4th seed in the East. Unfortunately, the top-seeded Heat awaited them in Round 2 of the playoffs, and they were unable to advance any further. Still, with Grant Hill still signed through 2007 and Tracy McGrady inked to an extension through 2010, the Magic have the core to contend over the coming years, especially with Indiana relinquishing its place as the East's "next big thing". Then again, division rival Washington looks awfully tough with their young centerpiece Dwight Howard...

ER: With defense becoming an issue during the previous season, it appeared as though the Orlando Magic would have wanted to make a concerted effort to beef up its frontline. So, it was decided that the Magic would have selected forward Kris Humphries from Minnesota with the #14 pick and also, proceed to trade a conditional future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets so that Orlando could have drafted center David Harrison from Colorado with the #20 pick.


Summary -- 

Well, as you can see, a healthy Grant Hill would have made things a lot different for the Orlando Magic. No need for me to go into further detail. The data speaks for itself. 


In short, here's a sampling of what the "alternate" universe may have looked like. I, literally, could list a plethora of things but I'll keep my thoughts brief. 


--> Orlando would have had long-term success.

--> The Magic's luck in the draft would have been different due to a variety of factors -- a.) draft position, b.) success on the court, c.) team needs, etc. 

--> Former general manager John Gabriel and former head coach Doc Rivers would still be employed by Orlando.

--> Tracy McGrady wouldn't have been traded.

--> There would be no Dwight Howard.