If you're at all familiar with my work, you know I don't often veer into topics charged with emotion. But I think it's relevant to discuss, with the NBA season looming, who the Orlando Magic's biggest rivals are. For once, it's actually a question worth considering.
The term "rival" comes up far too often in sports, I believe. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have a storied, decades-long rivalry, and play in the same division, for instance, but the Yankees are a cut above the Red Sox right now; the Tampa Bay Rays pose a more immediate threat to their chances of repeating as World Series champions than the Red Sox do. In a rivalry, what I look for is competitors at roughly the same level, preferably among the elite. I mean, the L.A. Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves might have bad blood stemming from the Timberwolves' hilarious tanking effort to avoid having to deal a draft pick to the Clippers, but because neither of those teams matters much in the NBA landscape, you'll have a hard time convincing me I should care.
Having established my preferences here, we should now take a look at the contenders for the Magic's biggest rival.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2007: 7-4 regular season, 6-7 postseason, 1-1 in postseason series.
Overall Head-to-Head Record: 41-42 regular season, 9-8 postseason, 2-1 in postseason series.
Narrative Evaluation: The Magic and Celtics are linked pretty tightly since both franchises made major moves in 2007. In Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston infamously added two Hall-of-Famers, while the Magic brought head coach Stan Van Gundy and Rashard Lewis. Though they didn't meet in the postseason that year--the Celtics dispatched the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, one round after the Pistons sent the Magic home--they've had some memorable battles in the ensuing seasons. Boston took a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009, but the Magic charged back to take that series, which included blowing the Celtics out on their home floor in Game 7. Boston got its revenge this year, though, jumping out to a 3-0 lead on the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals and ultimately knocking them out in 6 games.
Additionally, Celtics forward Paul Pierce made headlines during the 2009 Finals when he likened the Magic to a "poodle" against the "german sherperd [sic]" L.A. Lakers, and vowing that the "rotwieler [sic]" Celtics would give them what-for next year. Magic fans laughed and pointed to the imaginary scoreboard, but Pierce backed up his tough talk this spring with some remarkable performances against the Magic.
Celtics center Kendrick Perkins also has a contentious relationship with Dwight Howard, most famously when asked for his response to Howard's winning an Olympic gold medal in 2008. He retorted, "What's his impression of me after I won a ring? I don't watch people like that. I'm not a fan of everybody." Since the two often guard each other, and get quite physical, things can get heated in a hurry.
As far as competitiveness is concerned, it's hard to get much closer than the Magic and the Celtics have been since 2007. In the 24 meetings (counting the postseason) between the teams in that span, the Celtics have scored 2206 points to the Magic's 2197. A one-possession margin decided six of those 24 games. When the two teams play, you really ought to tune in.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2007: 4-2 regular season, 1-4 postseason, 0-1 in postseason series.
Overall Head-to-Head Record: 12-31 regular season, 1-4 postseason, 0-1 in postseason series
Narrative Evaluation: Playing in opposing conferences means these teams don't play quite often, but given the fact that the Lakers ended the Magic's championship hopes with a 4-1 victory in the 2009 NBA Finals, they merit consideration here. Adding salt to that wound is the fact Jameer Nelson, who torched the Lakers in the Magic's regular-season sweep of L.A. that year, was hardly himself in the Finals series after returning from a shoulder injury which ended his regular season on February 2nd. Oh, and there's the matter of Courtney Lee missing a difficult lob layup attempt which would have won Game 2 of the Finals in regulation for Orlando. Instead, the Lakers took the game in overtime.
Orlando fan-favorite Matt Barnes signed with the Lakers this summer, which should a) improve L.A.'s depth at small forward and b) make its games against the Magic this season that much more interesting. But because the only way these two teams will meet in postseason play is if they both come out of their respective conferences, it's tough to peg them as rivals. Frequency of play, in addition to the hostility and emotion while playing, matters when discussing rivalries.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2007: 9-3 regular season
Overall Head-to-Head Record: 40-43 regular season, 2-3 postseason, 0-1 in postseason series
The Magic/Heat rivalry has proven fairly one-sided in Orlando's favor since 2007, but the Heat's appearance has more to do with their future roster than the one that's struggled against Orlando in the recent past. Indeed, among the 18 players the Heat have under contract, only Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Jamaal Magloire, and Dwyane Wade have suited up as members of the Heat against Orlando.
But in adding LeBron James this summer, Miami has certainly vaulted itself into championship contention, and made its relationship with the Magic more interesting. James' incredible showing in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals wasn't enough to get his Cavaliers over the hump against the Magic, but it did establish him as an individual rival of Orlando's. And it's valid to compare him to Howard, insofar as they're both among the best players in the league who entered it just one year apart.
Chris Bosh hasn't enjoyed much postseason success in his seven-year career, but he's among the most prolific Magic-Killers in recent memory. His career averages against the Magic? 23.2 points and 10.0 rebounds, including five games of 30-plus points.
And, of course, there's Wade, who has six games of 30-plus points against the Magic in his career, and holds the two highest-scoring performances against the Magic since 2007: 50 points in 37 minutes in February 2009 and 48 points in 52 minutes in December 2007. All told, the Heat's new trio have combined for 15 of the 55 games of 30-plus points against the Magic since 2007... and that was when they were starring for their own teams. Together? They won't combine for 90 in a single game against the Magic, but they have three scorers who've proven they can handle Orlando's defense. Combining their skills should make for a fantastic rivalry for years to come, and it's likely that they'll match up in the playoffs at least once in the next five seasons.
There's also the issue of how the Heat almost blocked the Magic's hiring of Van Gundy. As he held a consultant position with the Heat prior to accepting the Magic's coaching offer, Heat boss Pat Riley demanded compensation from the Magic to release Van Gundy from his Heat contract. The Magic agreed to Riley's terms, conveying the 39th pick in the 2007 Draft, as well as the right to swap first-rounders in the 2008 Draft, to Miami. Though Van Gundy's success with the team since has made that price more than worth it--the players selected with those picks are Stanko Barac and Darnell Jackson--Riley's ransom, however reasonable, did little to smooth relations between the two Florida teams.
Going back further, the Magic had one of their most memorable playoff series in their history against the Heat in 1997, forcing a decisive Game 5 in Miami after falling into an 0-2 hole. Penny Hardaway scored 83 points in the next two games when the Magic tied the series despite the absence of Rony Seikaly--whom I remind you is the third-best center in Magic history--who went down with an ankle injury in Game 3. They sorely missed him in Game 5, when the Heat's starting frontcourt of Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown, and Alonzo Mourning mustered 34 rebounds; the Magic, as a team, snared but 37 caroms.
There's also a long list of players who've worn both uniforms, which Shaquille O'Neal headlines. Seikaly, Hardaway, Dan Schayes, Isaac Austin, and Jason Williams are also on that list, which Orlando's Quentin Richardson will join this year.
One can make a strong case for any of the teams here being the Magic's biggest rival; as with most things, the selection comes down to personal preference and, in this case, idiosyncratic interpretations of the word "rival." Don't let the length of the contenders' respective write-ups influence your poll vote. Speak your mind, and let's hear about it in the comments section.