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The best Orlando Magic team to never win a championship

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The Orlando teams that went to the NBA Finals were not necessarily the best of that Magic era

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic, Game 1 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Would you describe the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic as overachievers or underachievers?

Both labels come with a trace of negative connotation, when that should not be the case for the Magic team that came closest to winning an NBA championship than any other. In a fun project for SB Nation, Mike Prada created a bracket to determine the best NBA team to never win a championship. In that, the 2008-2009 Magic are the four seed in the “Overachiever” division.

But when I look back at that 2009 team, it’s not with an “aw-shucks, happy-they-made-it- that-far” mentality befitting of an overachieving team. What most creeps into my memory is how that team was essentially a Game 2 Courtney Lee layup and Game 4 Dwight Howard free throw/poorly-timed Stan Van Gundy backcourt pressure decision/Jameer Nelson closeout away from holding a 3-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers.

So, grateful as I am for that group and that run, the team in my mind actually underachieved. To those who at the time didn’t watch the Magic on a nightly basis, who didn’t see the seeds being planted during their playoff seasons in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, it may have seemed that the team came out of nowhere to make a flash-in-the-pan run to the Finals. Those who did watch saw it coming, and when it was over, expected more.

NBA Finals Game 2: Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The 2009 Magic team is now best remembered by outsiders as the team that denied the world a LeBron/Kobe NBA Finals match-up. Not as the innovators that first prioritized the three-point shot (inside-out brand of basketball with four shooters, including the frontcourt nightmare match-up duo of the 6-10 Rashard Lewis and 6-10 Hedo Turkoglu). Or the team that had three All-Stars (Howard, Lewis, Nelson). Or the team that in its follow-up season may have been even better (albeit with a different cast of characters).

To pick which of the most successful Magic teams was best is like having to say which of your kids is your favorite. Logic dictates that the team that went furthest is the best, and the one that registers the sentimental vote.

When the Magic opted to let Turkoglu walk in free agency in the summer of 2009, gone was the ability to have a 6-10 forward handle the ball and distribute like a point guard, a huge factor in the Magic’s 2009 postseason success. The addition of Vince Carter gave the Magic a more traditional lineup, and while the 32-year-old Carter certainly had his moments, he never became the go-to scorer the Magic hoped he’d be when he and the defensive-minded Matt Barnes replaced Turkoglu and Lee in the starting lineup.

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic, Game 5 Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

But the addition of Barnes, along with Brandon Bass, Jason Williams and Ryan Anderson (who emerged as the crown jewel in the Carter trade), bolstered the Magic’s overall depth and physicality, giving the 2010 Magic more top-to-bottom talent. There was internal improvement — Howard had his most efficient offensive season, shooting 61.2 from the field, and JJ Redick developed into a regular, shooting over 40 percent from three. But there was also regression, with Lewis and Nelson failing to replicate their All-Star seasons, suffering drops in efficiency and production.

Overall though, much like in the mid-1990s when Shaq and Penny ran into a 72-10 Bulls team, a case can be made that the Orlando team that went to the NBA Finals was not the best of that Magic era.

Both the 2009 and 2010 teams went 59-23 in the regular season, tied for second-best in franchise history behind the 60-22 Magic of 1995-1996. The 2010 Magic had a slightly better margin of victory at 7.49, compared to 6.7 for the 2009 Magic.

The 2010 Magic were top-five in both offensive rating (111.4, fourth best) and defensive rating (103.3, third best), whereas the 2009 Magic held the league’s top defensive rating (101.9), and 11th best offensive rating (109.2). That gives the 2010 Magic the edge in net rating at 8.1 to 7.3, and a more balanced brand of basketball.

The 2010 Magic’s Simple Rating System, which accounts for point differential and strength of schedule, was 7.12, the best in the league that season and best in franchise history, topping the 2009 Magic (6.48).

Though the 2009 Magic are lauded in Central Florida for their successful and unprecedented use of the three-point shot, the 2010 Magic actually attempted and made more, but connected at a slightly lower clip (37.5 percent, down from 38.1 percent in 2009). The Magic’s effective field goal percentage, however, jumped from 52 percent in 2009 to 53.6 in 2010.

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2010 Magic entered the playoffs having won nine of 10 games, and went more than a full calendar month without a loss (April 3 to May 16) as they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating a 53-win Hawks team in the second round by an average margin of victory of 25.3 points.

Then came the Boston Celtics, this time with a healthy Kevin Garnett. The Magic dropped the first two games at home by a combined seven points and never recovered, ultimately falling in six games, all but shutting the Magic’s championship window.

Does the 2009 Magic winning three more games (admittedly three very important games) make them the better team? How far would the 2010 Magic have gone if they stayed intact? Would the 2010 version of the Magic fared better against the 2010 version of the Lakers in the NBA Finals?

There are simply too many unknowns to be a right or wrong answer as to which Magic team is the better of the two.

To Prada’s credit, he considered the 2010 Magic and gave them their due:

The 2009-10 version, with Vince Carter instead of Turkoglu, was stronger in the regular season and favored in the East Finals after LeBron James’ Cavaliers lost to the Celtics. But I prefer the 2008-09 version because it advanced further in the playoffs, scored the most impressive series victory of the era over a better LeBron team, and had two giant “what if” moments — Nelson’s midseason injury and Courtney Lee’s blown layup that would’ve won Game 2 of the Finals against the Lakers — that could have made them champions.

The 2009 is the more successful and beloved team, but in a league where match-ups can bring the most promising of seasons to a premature end, I still feel the 2010 team was slightly better. Either way, the follow-up success that brought the Magic back to the brink of the NBA Finals shows it was a team built for sustained success and championship contention, not a group of overachievers.

Which team do you think was better? Join the debate below…


Update:

JJ Redick has chimed in.

With the opinion of a player who was on both teams, along with the lopsided results in the poll, it seems the debate is settled.

The 2010 Magic were the better team.