About five years ago, ESPN did a fun documentary called “This Magic Moment” about the mid-1990s Orlando Magic, led by Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. I didn’t really catch this doc at the time but saw it in rerun over the holiday season. The documentary examines how Orlando almost ruled the NBA and poses the hypothetical question of what would’ve happened had Orlando kept the Shaq/Penny core together. The doc ends with Shaq and Penny sitting on lounge chairs by a pool lamenting the break up. Shaq notes that he regrets ever leaving Orlando and they both agree they would’ve won multiple titles had they stayed together.
I hadn’t thought much about that team after it fell apart, mainly because Shaq went to a better situation and won a ton of rings and Penny fell apart physically. Let’s dig in to that brief window of the Shaq/Penny Magic and see if we can answer the documentary’s overarching question, as well as a few other issues that pop up upon revisiting that time period…
A Brief Recap of Rookie Shaq
Orlando’s best stroke of luck was winning the 1992 lottery to enable it to draft Shaq, who was a huge prospect and the obvious pick. He was not just the consensus number one pick but had the vibe of Ewing or LeBron, where the experts considered him a generational prospect. Shaq would’ve been the top pick if he had left college in 1990 or 1991.
In 1991-92, there were three truly awful teams with the best chance of snagging O’Neal in the lottery: Orlando (21-61), Minnesota (15-67), and Dallas (22-60). In May 1992, the Desert News reported that Shaq “voiced a preference for the Los Angeles Lakers” and did not want to play for Minny. The Lakers were not a viable option since they made the playoffs and could only get Shaq via trade. Shaq was such a big prospect that the winning lottery team wouldn’t trade him unless the return was extraordinary or it believed that he would hold out. Orlando, if it won, indicated that it would definitely pick him: “[t] here would be no hesitation from Orlando Magic in taking O’Neal, Magic general manager Pat Williams told the Sentinel.”
As luck would have it, Orlando, with the second best odds won the lottery and took Shaq (incidentally, the 31-51 Charlotte Hornets leapfrogged Minnesota and Dallas. Charlotte took Alonzo Mourning, while the Wolves took Christian Laettner third, and Dallas took Jamal Mashburn with the fourth pick).
In 1992-93, the Magic improved by 20 games with the help of Shaq. They went 41-41 and just missed the playoffs. Shaq was great (22.2 ppg, .562 FG%, 13.2 rpg, 3.4 bpg, 22.9 PER, .163 WS48, 3.5 BPM, 4.3 VORP) and Nick Anderson was very good but the rest of the team average and they had gaping holes at power forward (they started Tom Tolbert, a replacement level forward) and on the bench.
Orlando was good enough to make the playoffs but the East happened to have a logjam of decent teams:
-5 Seed Charlotte: 44-38 (-0.02 SRS)(Mourning and Larry Johnson)
-6 Seed New Jersey: 43-39 (1.20 SRS)(Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, and Drazen Petrovic)
-7 Seed Atlanta: 43-39 (-0.67 SRS)(Dominique Wilkins, Mookie Blaylock, and peak Kevin Willis)
-8 Seed Indiana: 41-41 (1.77 SRS)(Reggie Miller, Detlef Schrempf, and Rik Smits)
-Orlando 41-41 (1.35 SRS)
So, the Magic was as good as any of these teams but was edged out in a tie-breaker. This actually was the best thing for Orlando. Missing the playoffs put them in the lottery again but, this time, their odds of winning a top pick were infinitesimal. Still, they somehow won the top pick again. The top picks were not exactly as big as Shaq but they were quite strong: Chris Webber, the star power forward from Michigan and Penny, a guard from Memphis.
Webber v. Penny: Should Orlando Have Just Kept C-Webb?
Orlando took Webber with the top pick but immediately traded him to Golden State for the third pick Hardaway and three more first-rounders. Webber was already very famous as a member of the Fab Five at Michigan and Orlando had clear need for a power forward to replace Tolbert. Apparently, Shaq asked Orlando to draft Penny because he and Hardaway had just filmed a movie called Blue Chips (note: I don’t recommend watching it) and they meshed very well in pick up ball during the down time.
Webber would go on to have a Hall of Fame career but Penny was very good early on and Golden State sweetened the pot with three first-rounders, which was a huge haul. Despite the big hole at power forward, the Magic were probably better off trading Webber because he was not really healthy the first few years of his career.
After narrowly winning Rookie of the Year over Penny in 1993-94, Webber missed large parts of 1994-95 and 1995-96 with shoulder problems. Moreover, Penny was just a better player in the mid-1990s. Here are the stat comps of Penny and Webber from 1993-96:
-Penny: 241 gms, 37.1 mpg, .581 TS%, 19.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 7.0 apg, 20.9 PER, .173 WS48, 4.7 BPM, 15.1 VORP
-Webber: 145 gms, 34.9 mpg, 19.1 ppg, .546 TS%, 9.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 21.3 PER, .130 WS48, 4.0 BPM, 7.6 VOR
We cannot know for sure if these injuries would’ve happened to Webber if he had played for Orlando but it is fair to assume that, if he had a bad shoulder, the problem probably would’ve manifested itself in Orlando too. Also, as noted above, Penny’s rate stats were actually better than Webber’s for that period anyway. Drafting Webber could’ve left Orlando with no star to pair with Shaq for 1994-95 and 1995-96.
As a side note, the three picks that Orlando got from Golden State ended up being pretty good. The 1996 first-rounder was Todd Fuller, who was not good, but was taken right ahead of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, and Jermaine O’Neal. The other two picks ended up being Vince Carter and Mike Miller. Orlando actually traded the picks that would end up being Fuller and VC to Washington in the summer of 1994 as an inducement to the Bullets for taking Skiles’ bad contract. Orlando used that cap room created by dumping Skiles to sign Horace Grant and Washington would, ironically, send the picks back to Golden State to get Webber (we examined that whole Webber drama here). So, Orlando effectively traded the injured Webber for Penny and Horace Grant. Not a bad haul, even if the picks that Orlando returned back were pretty damn valuable.
1993-94: Prelude to Title Contention
Shaq took a major step forward from his already impressive rookie season and Penny and Anderson were both good too. The result was an improvement to 50-32. There was still a big void at power forward as the Magic were now playing jump shooter Jeff Turner most of the minutes. In all, though, the team looked good and was hoping to make serious playoff noise. They were matched up with a solid Pacers team that waxed Orlando 3-0. Reggie Miller scored 29 ppg and Indy’s huge front court (Antonio Davis, Dale Davis and Rik Smits) were effective against Shaq. Turner was injured and Orlando had to resort to playing the beaten up Larry Krystkowiak to counter the Davises. No doubt this encouraged Orlando to make the Horace Grant move.
How Good Was Horace?
The Grant signing was quite necessary given the lack of power forwards on the roster but how good was Horace? At the time, I tended to conflate Horace with a bunch of hardworking power forwards like the Davises and Charles Oakley and I wasn’t sure his value translated outside of the Bulls’ system. In truth, Grant was a level better than those other bigs in 1994.
In 1993-94, Grant was fifth in power forward VORP at 3.9, narrowly trailing Derrick Coleman, Charles Barkley, and Shawn Kemp (Karl Malone topped them all by a large margin). Peak Grant was not a great offensive player but he was a great defender (he could easily guard small and big players) and had a reliable jumper. Over the next three seasons with Orlando, Grant wouldn’t be quite as good as he was in 1993-94 but he was still pretty good:
-1993-94: 36.7 mpg, 15.1 ppg, .540 TS%, 11.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 19.8 PER, .188 WS48, 4.0 BPM, 3.9 VORP
-1994-97 averages: 36.6 mpg, 12.9 ppg, .532 FG%, 9.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 17.3 PER, .162 WS48, 2.3 BPM, 2.6 VORP
Replacing Turner at power forward with Grant was as good a move as Orlando could’ve made under the circumstances.
1994-95: Orlando’s Best Title Shot
With Penny and Shaq likely to continue to improve and Anderson and Grant, Orlando had no significant weaknesses coming into in 1994-95. Phoenix was the title favorite at +350 but Orlando was tied with New York, Seattle, and Houston for second at +450.
Orlando was clearly the best team in the East, going 57-25 with a 6.44 SRS. Penny (4.1 BPM) took another step up. Shaq didn’t improve but was still great (5.8 BPM and led the NBA in scoring). Orlando’s playoff run was complicated when Michael Jordan came back in the middle of the season and posed a big potential obstacle for the Magic. The teams met in the second round and it seemed like the Bulls had the edge with Jordan. In the series, MJ was shaky by his standards (he let Nick Anderson steal the ball from him to clinch Game 1) but was still the best player on the court (31 pg, 6.5 rpg, 3.7 apg). Ultimately, what killed the Bulls was Grant. Chicago had no real power forward to replace him (they tried Toni Kukoc but he was really a small forward) and Grant, in turn, had a great series (18 ppg, .647 FG%, 11 rpg).
The Magic beat the Bulls 4-2 and then beat the Pacers in a tough seven game series to get to the Finals against the Rockets. Orlando had home court and was favored in the series. They had a secure lead in Game 1, only to blow it when Anderson missed four free throws in the last few seconds. This opened the door for the Rockets to win the game in overtime. The Rockets blitzed Orlando in Game 2, stealing both games in Orlando, which basically ended the series. Houston then swept the series 4-0, leaving an indelible impression that Anderson’s misses in Game 1 forever altered the outcome.
How Much Blame Should Anderson Get for the 1995 Finals Sweep?
Anderson’s bad free throw shooting in Game 1 obviously didn’t help the Magic’s cause but it’s not like the Magic just immediately fell apart. They battled in overtime and the Rockets ended up winning the game on a tip in by Hakeem Olajuwon with 0.3 seconds, which seemed to be the bigger back breaker. According to Roland Lazenby’s The NBA Finals, Olajuwon said that after scoring the winning basket: “[i]t was so quiet that I didn’t realize the basket was in.”
Anderson’s bad free throw shooting set the stage for the loss but the overtime ending seemed to be most shocking to the crowd and players. After going down 0-2, the Magic played the Rockets tough in Game 3 in Houston and only won the game on a later three-pointer by Horry. Once down 3-0, Orlando folded in Game 4 but the series was over anyway.
A few notes about this series:
-Anderson was having a great Game 1 and ended up with 22 points on 9-18 shooting (4-10 from three), 11 boards, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Interestingly, he hadn’t shot any free throws before coming to the line with the game on the line.
-Anderson proclaimed at the end of Game 1 that he had handled worse in his life and he would bounce back (in high school, he witnessed his teammate and top player Ben Wilson gunned down in a senseless attack). But Anderson was clearly rattled. The next three games, Nick scored 9.0 ppg on .281 FG%, though he did grab 7.7 rg and had 4 apg. His foul shooting was also askew. He barely got to the line and shot only 3-6 on those attempts.
-Dennis Scott, another key player, had an even worse series than Anderson: 37.5 mpg, 10.5 ppg, .310 FG%, .241 3-FG%. Scott was a great shooter but didn’t do much else. In this series he was a huge negative on offense and didn’t exactly stop his man on defense (Mario Elie shot a blistering .649% from the field). He got off easy because of Anderson’s high profile free throw misses.
-Shaq had a good series but Hakeem clearly outplayed him. Shaq had 28 ppg, .606 TS%, 12.5 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.5 bpg. Hakeem was even better: 32.8 ppg, .514 TS%, 11.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2 spg, 2 bpg. Hakeem had only 11 TOs in the series versus 21 for Shaq . Olajuwon had to rely on jumpers (his TS% was .560 for the season and the earlier playoff rounds), which pushed down his shooting percentage but the other numbers show Shaq wasn’t ready to overtake him yet.
-Did this series “ruin” Anderson? Not exactly. He was still pretty good in the following season (14.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, which was roughly in line with the prior season). He shot .692% from the line in 1995-96, down from .704% in 1994-95 but not significantly so. In fact, .692% was almost exactly in line with his career free throw shooting of .696% that he had coming into 1995-96. Bizarrely, Anderson’s free throw shooting tanked to .404% in 1996-97 but this cannot really be attributed to the 1995 Finals because it would stand to reason that any mental scars or yips wouldn’t have taken two years to manifest.
Anderson would rally back to .638% from the line in 1997-98 and he put up the best PER (19.6), WS48 (.149), and BPM (4.8) that year. As an older player, his free throw shooting did slip from 1999 until 2002 when he retired (42-85, .494% on really low volume) but that’s a normal aging phenomena that occurs when players breakdown and also had nothing to do with the 1995 Finals. Anderson deserves to be remembered as one of the above-average shooting guards of the 1990s. The misses definitely fragged him for the rest of the 1995 Finals but the narrative that he was never the same afterwards is simply false.
1995-96: The Last Ride for Shaq & Penny
Going into 1995-96, it was not clear that Michael Jordan would be as good as he was before his first retirement. That makes it particularly interesting to see what the odds were for his Bulls against the up-and-coming Magic team, with Shaq and Penny coming into their primes. The preseason odds had a bit more faith in MJ, as the betting markets pegged the Bulls as slight favorites to win the title (+350) with the Magic a close second (+400).
Things got worse when the Bulls stole Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue and Shaq broke his thumb on a Matt Geiger hack during the preseason. Without Shaq, though, Penny was amazing (26.4 ppg, .503 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.0 bpg, 0.9 bpg) and Orlando jumped out to a 17-5 start. The only problem was the Bulls were the best team ever. MJ morphed back to pre-retirement form and the Bulls went 72-10. Orlando wasn’t exactly weak. They were 60-22 and were thought to be one of the few teams that might beat Chicago.
Orlando went 1-3 against the Bulls in the regular season, with the only win coming early in the year when Shaq didn’t even play. In the playoffs, the Bulls blitzed Orlando by 38. Grant also blew out his shoulder during the game and missed the rest of the series, forcing Orlando to use the limited Jon Koncak at power forward. Chicago swept the Magic, decisively resolving the mini-rivalry. Shaq and Penny played well but the role players gave them nothing. Scott and Anderson shot a combined 18-64 from the field and no player other than Shaq or Penny averaged more than 8.3 ppg.
After the season, Shaq was a free agent and wanted seven years and $120 million to stay. He was allegedly miffed that Orlando lowballed him initially. A July 1996 article by Brian Schmitz in the Orlando Sentinel indicated that the negotiating gulf between the team and Shaq was large: “Orlando would be happy to sign Shaq at an average salary of about $15.5 mill and won’t dole out more than $17 million, absolute tops.” Schmitz was pretty supportive of paying Shaq, noting that owner Rich DeVos could easily afford it: “How high is too high when you have $4 billion? Let’s break it down: Imagine a pile of money totaling $1 million. DeVos has 4,000 $1 million piles. He can hand Shaq about 120 of those piles and not even get weak at the knees.” Shaq was also supposedly even more pissed that the Orlando Sentinel ran a poll asking fans whether Shaq was worth the money, which the readers answered decisively in the negative. Shaq ended up signing with the Lakers for seven years and $120 million that he initially demanded from DeVos.
In 2011, an emotional Shaq said he regretted leaving: “I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of titles]. I just wish I would’ve had more patience. It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then.” Umm….no. I appreciate that Shaq wanted to win in Orlando but this speech ignores the decades of pain players went through to earn the right to free agency. Shaq could’ve stayed if he wanted. It’s not like he would’ve starved in Orlando.
But, as noted above, the push to Los Angeles was coming even before Shaq was drafted. It was clear that he wanted to go to that major market. If they wanted to keep Shaq, Orlando shouldn’t have played too much hardball. He was too good a player and too valuable a property to mess with. The Magic just didn’t have the leverage they thought they did. Shaq probably was going to leave regardless but Orlando’s negotiating stance made it much easier for him to do so.
Should Shaq Have Left Orlando?
At the time, I thought it was a bad move for him. Shaq had the best young guard in the NBA in Penny and the Lakers had a few good players (Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and Cedric Ceballos) but nothing near Penny’s 1995-96 ability-level. Hardaway’s 1995-96 was something out of Jordan’s career: 24.6 PER, .229 WS48, 7.2 BPM, 6.9 VORP. Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon had struggled to find a guard as good as Penny (anyone who tells you he knew in 1996 that a rookie Kobe Bryant would be better than Penny is lying).
So, How Many Titles Would Shaq + Penny Have Won If They Stayed Together?
None. Penny’s knee issues began the next season and he regressed to good player when healthy for a couple of years before his career totally stalled. There was no way Shaq and an injured Penny would ever have beaten the Bulls in 1996-97 or 1997-98. Penny’s knees and MJ’s greatness would’ve closed that door. Shaq clearly made the right career move. He somehow was able to find another all-time great guard and win those titles he felt so much pressure to get.
In sitting by a pool and talking about staying in Orlando, Shaq is being wistful for his youth. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Those Magic teams were fun and really good but they were over after the 1996 playoffs, even if Shaq had stayed.