The 2020-2021 Orlando Magic turned out to be one of the worst teams in franchise history.
The use of the word “worst” is relative, because this team only reached that level of futility by way of injury, fire sale and, we’ll say, non-optimal late-season lineups. So, the team can’t be defined entirely by a .292 winning percentage that was more a product of a miserable season than a terrible team.
Nevertheless, it was a shortened season that certainly seemed like the longest in basketball history for those in Central Florida.
As we wait for ping pong balls to start bouncing, let’s escape the most recent season of Magic basketball and reminisce of one that had far fewer injuries and many more victories. Let’s discuss the greatest team in Orlando Magic history.
Dwight Howard. Jameer Nelson. Rashard Lewis. Stan Van Gundy.
No, no. Not that team. Not the one that went to the 2009 NBA Finals. Great as that team was - with its inside-out brand of basketball that surrounded Howard by four shooters, and it’s matchup-nightmare inducing lineups, and its unprecedented three-point volume - brought the organization closer to a championship than any team before or since. But, in what is one of the great debates in team history, they were not the greatest version of the Orlando Magic.
That came the following season, after the defending Eastern Conference champions underwent a mini makeover.
One member of both teams shared their input when we asked which Magic team was better around this time last year...
2010 was better— JJ Redick (@jj_redick) April 15, 2020
The Magic, after that run to the NBA Finals, allowed Hedo Turkoglu to walk in free agency, surrendering their ability to create mismatches with a 6-foot-10 point forward. Taking his place in what became a more traditional lineup was 32-year-old Vince Carter, who was acquired along with Ryan Anderson in a trade with the Nets for Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee.
Three starters from the Finals were out – Turkoglu, Lee and Alston, who had taken over for an injured Nelson – making for an unexpected overhaul following a successful postseason run. It was the sneaky-good acquisitions that turned the 2009-2010 team into kings of the Magic Kingdom, ahead of the Finals teams of the Dwight Era and the Shaq-and-Penny Era.
Anderson went from being a trade throw-in to a valuable contributor with a lethal outside shot, who would go on to score more points during his Magic tenure than Carter did during his. Matt Barnes brought defensive physicality and swagger. Brandon Bass added frontcourt depth. Jason Williams provided a veteran presence and change of pace as backup point guard.
The regression of Lewis and Nelson after their All-Star seasons was compensated for by the rise of JJ Redick, who came off the bench to shoot 40.5 percent on 3.3 threes per game, and Howard, who shot 61.7 percent from the field, his top efficiency during his Orlando tenure.
Add it all up and the Magic ranked in the top five in offensive rating at 111.4 points per 100 possessions (fourth best in the league) and defensive rating at 103.3 points per 100 possessions (third best). They finished with a 59-23 record, matching that of the previous season, and trailing only the 60-22 Magic of 1995-1996 for the best record in team history.
The team hit 841 threes during the regular season to set a new NBA record at the time, shooting 37.5 percent from three (though that was slightly down from the 2008-2009 team that shot 38.1 percent, but on more attempts). The Magic of 2010 posted a Simple Rating System, accounting for point differential and strength of schedule, of 7.12. That was tops in the league that season and the best in franchise history (eclipsing the 6.48 produced by the 2009 Magic).
The team was peaking at the perfect time, going 33-8 in the second half of the season. They finished the regular season by winning nine of their final 10 games, including a six-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
They made quick work of the overmatched Charlotte Bobcats with a sweep in the first round of the playoffs.
They annihilated a 53-win Atlanta Hawks team in the second round, winning by an average margin of 25.3 points en route to another sweep. That pushed their overall winning streak to 14 games, with the Magic combining a string of success with a wait-and-see post-sweep schedule to go more than a full calendar month without suffering a loss.
That streak came to a crashing end in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Magic lost the first three games to the Boston Celtics and ultimately fell in six games to end their season and two-year championship quest.
It’s a two-year window that leaves plenty to wonder about. What happens if Courtney Lee doesn’t miss the game-winning layup at the end of Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals? What happens if Dwight Howard doesn’t miss two free throws at the end of Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals or if the Magic better defend Derek Fisher at the other end? What happens if the 2009 Magic run it back intact during the 2010 season? What happens if Vince Carter hit those late free throws in Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals? What happens if the Magic somehow won Game 6 of that series and had a chance to become the first team in NBA history to erase a 3-0 series deficit? Who wins in a matchup between the 2009 Magic against the 2010 Magic?
We’ll never know. What we do know, in order to recreate days like these on the court rather than in our memories, the Magic need some luck in the draft lottery on June 22.
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