Shaq and Penny. Stockton and Malone.
40 fingers. Zero rings. (Well, in the 1990s, at least. Before Shaq defected to Los Angeles).
But now one of those infamous duos - held ringless by a Hakeem Olajuwon tip-in or, you know, a Michael Jordan-led dynasty - is about to finally be crowned champion. The best non-champion, that is.
The 1994-1995 Orlando Magic and the 1996-1997 Utah Jazz have advanced to the finals of Mike Prada and SB Nation’s “Titleless” competition, a bracket-style tournament that combines simulation, expert analysis and fan voting to determine the best NBA team to never win a championship.
And your vote is needed to help lead the Magic to victory. So vote HERE.
The Magic, which in the 1994-1995 season went 57-25 and closed down the Boston Garden permanently in the first round, knocked off the No. 45 version of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and overcame Reggie Miller’s Pacers in seven games en route to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the Houston Rockets.
Orlando entered the “Titleless” tournament as the top-seed in the Eastern Conference and along the way dominated the 2001-2002 Boston Celtics, won an Orlando Civil War against the 2009-2010 Magic, edged the 1981-1982 Philadelphia 76ers, and topped the 2018-2019 Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Jazz entered as the top seed in the Western Conference, with the 1996-97 team going 64-18 in the regular season, the best record in franchise history. They beat the Clippers, Lakers and Rockets in the playoffs before losing to Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals for the first of two straight seasons.
In the “Titleless” tourney, the Jazz beat the 2014-2015 Memphis Grizzlies, the 2004-2005 Phoenix Suns, and the 2017-2018 Houston Rockets.
That sets the stage for the Magic and Jazz in the Finals. Cue the NBC on NBC music.
Here are Prada’s bullet points on each team from the start of the tournament:
ERA: Penny and Shaq
POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +7.1
PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Houston Rockets (4-0)
KEY STAR(S): Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway
COACH: Brian Hill
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Donald Royal, Brian Shaw, Anthony Bowie
ERA: Stockton and The Mailman
POINT DIFFERENTIAL: +8.8
PLAYOFF RESULT: Lost in NBA Finals to Chicago Bulls (4-2)
KEY STAR(S): Karl Malone, John Stockton
COACH: Jerry Sloan
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Hornacek, Byron Russell, Greg Ostertag, Antoine Carr, Chris Morris, Shandon Anderson, Adam Keefe, Greg Foster
With balanced rosters on both sides, and both teams in their respective seasons posting top-of-the-league offensive ratings (Magic at 115.1, Jazz at 113.6) and top-ten defensive ratings (Jazz 104.0, Magic 107.8), this match-up comes down to starpower.
The easy question from a Magic perspective is “Who is going to stop Shaq?” The most effective weapon between the combination of Greg Ostertag and Antoine Carr are the 12 fouls the two Jazz centers provide.
In the Shaq-era, from the 1992-93 to 1995-96 seasons, the Magic went 5-3 against the Jazz, and 4-2 after Penny was drafted. In this tournament, Shaq would primarily be opposite Ostertag, against whom Shaq averaged 25.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in 32 regular season games.
In nine career playoff games against the Jazz while with the Lakers, Shaq averaged 26.3 points. BUT in those postseason games, in 1997 and 1998 when Shaq had a young Kobe but not yet an All-NBA level teammate, the Lakers went 1-8. So the Jazz showed that they can win handily even as Shaq gets his.
Enter Hardaway. In 1995, it was Penny who made First Team All-NBA (alongside Stockton and Malone), with Shaq making Second Team behind David Robinson. In six regular season games against the Jazz during the Shaq and Penny era, Hardaway averaged 18.3 points and 6.7 assists. With a six-inch height advantage over his fellow point guard Stockton, Hardaway’s length and switchability would seemingly disrupt the Jazz’s trademark pick-and-roll over the course of a seven-game series.
That, however, doesn’t necessarily show in Stockton’s numbers over six career games against the Magic in the Shaq and Penny era, in which he averaged 16.5 points and 13.2 assists.
Malone in that span averaged 28.5 points and 13.7 rebounds against the Magic, with his scoring output dropping slightly to 25.7 when Horace Grant joined the Magic. In 31 career games against Grant, Malone averaged 25.4 points and 10.9 rebounds. Having Shaq as a help defender, with little ramifications for leaking off the Jazz’s offensively inept centers, helps control the paint, but does little against Malone’s lethal midrange game.
Some may use the young Magic’s lack of “experience” as a lazy excuse for their getting swept by the Rockets, but that wasn’t a factor in their Game 7 rout of the Pacers, or as they built a 20-point lead over the Rockets in Game 1 of the Finals. If Nick Anderson hits one free throw, or Kenny Smith doesn’t have a record-setting three-point shooting night, or Olajuwon doesn’t convert a difficult tip, it changes the entire complexion of the series and there’s a good chance the Magic aren’t even eligible for this “Titleless” tournament. And let’s not forget that the 60-win 1995-1996 Magic were probably even better.
Challenging as it is to compare teams from different seasons, I think the Magic find a way to capitalize on the advantages that Shaq and Penny, and the shooters surrounding them, provide.
Prediction, albeit a very biased one: Magic win in seven.
Help your Orlando Magic become the best team to never win a championship.