There was a time when the Orlando Magic had two Hall of Fame players on the team, while both were in their prime.
Some would assume that meant Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. While Penny was Hall of Fame caliber during his time in Orlando, injuries robbed him of a Hall of Fame career.
After the Shaq and Penny era officially came to an end after the 1998-1999 season when the Magic traded Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, the rebirth of the organization was put in the hands of Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in the summer of 2000. A pairing of the budding McGrady and the perennial All-Star Hill was projected to cause match-up nightmares that would catapult the Magic back to the heights that Shaq and Penny first lifted the team to. Injury then robbed the Magic of another Hall of Fame duo.
With Hill’s well-deserved induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, it brings to the forefront, thoughts of what could have been in Orlando as McGrady transformed into a superstar while Hill was forced to watch in street clothes from the bench.
During Hill’s selfless enshrinement speech on Friday, during which he thanked all who influenced his basketball career. Hill mentioned each of his NBA coaches, drawing a laugh when he reached Doc Rivers, his former coach in Orlando,
“Doc Rivers, who really didn’t coach me at all. I was hurt all the time,” Hill said. “I wish I had played for Doc.”
As do all Magic fans.
Had Hill been able to continue generating the nightly near triple-double production the way he had since being drafted by the Pistons in 1994, there is no telling how far he would have helped carry the Magic. During his final season in Detroit, at the age of 28, Hill averaged a career-best 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game and had a PER of 24.5 and Win Shares of 10.7.
“At the time I got hurt, I felt like the game was becoming very easy for me,” Hill told Jason Whitlock in 2011. “I was entering my prime. There was an understanding of the game. I felt the next four or five years would be an opportunity and a time to really make my mark and really go for it.”
He never got the opportunity to do so. Hill was bothered by an ankle injury towards the end of the regular season in 2000, attempted to play through the pain, and ultimately broke the ankle in the playoffs against the Heat.
When he arrived in Orlando to sign a nearly $100 million contract with the Magic, he did so on crutches.
After missing just 25 games during his six years in Detroit, Hill would play in just 57 games over his first four seasons in Orlando. He’d go on to miss 374 of 574 regular season games in seven seasons with the Magic, perhaps as a combination of his determination to play and mismanagement by the Magic medical and coaching staffs.
Rather than focus on what was, let’s imagine the what if.
Let’s pretend for a moment that Hill was at full strength from 2000 and beyond. The combination of McGrady and Hill would have given Orlando two swingmen with all-around talent capable of creating off the dribble, attacking the basket and facilitating for teammates.
Hill’s presence would gave given the Magic arguably the second-best duo in the NBA behind Shaq and Kobe.
With Hill playing just four games in his first season with the Magic, McGrady guided Orlando to the sixth-best offense in the league at 97.5 points per game, and the seventh-seed in the playoffs, where they fell in four games to the Bucks. Had a healthy Hill been on the court, commanding defensive attention that would have opened the court for McGrady, it’s plausible that Orlando could have been a threat for years to come in a wide open Eastern Conference that featured the Allen Iverson-led 76ers, the Ray Allen-Glenn Robinson-Sam Cassell-led Bucks, Baron Davis-led Hornets and Vince Carter-led Raptors.
In the coming years, how much difficulty would the Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin and the Nets, with their top-ranked defense, have had containing McGrady and Hill? Would the Magic’s All-Star duo have been superior to Boston’s Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker?
The Eastern Conference, during the early and mid-2000s was in a state of flux. It was there for the taking. A Magic team led by two Hall of Famers (and possibly three if not for that damn airplane policy!) could have taken it.
Hill’s healthy presence on the Magic would have not only changed the landscape for the Orlando Magic, but for the entire league.
“For me, Hill told ESPN’s ‘The Jump’ earlier this year, “that was a difficult time because I couldn’t join (McGrady). I felt like the two of us together, I don’t know if we would have won, there are a lot of variables that go into winning...It would have been interesting in the East. We would have been real relevant. It makes me a little sad.”