Monday, January 30, 2012

Fortunate Moments for Unfortunate Franchises: The Orlando Magic and the Summer of 2000.

For an "unfortunate franchise," the Orlando Magic has honestly had a pretty nice run.  Since joining the league as an expansion team in the 1989-1990 season, the Magic have gone 933-854 (.522), and have qualified for the playoffs in 13 of their 23 total seasons.  The team has reached the Eastern Conference Finals four times, and have represented the East in the NBA finals twice; once in 1995 with a young Shaq and Penny, and again in 2008 behind dominant center Dwight Howard and a solid group of outside shooters.  That's really not too shabby, and frankly a track record several other teams would love to have, if they had any say in the matter.  Or, any brains in the first place.  Christ.  I'll stop letting my Warriors fandom show.

But even though the Magic have seen their fair share of the playoffs, and have even sniffed at an NBA championship a couple of times, it's not too much of a stretch to argue that it could have been different.  Really, it could have been much, much different.  Given what the Magic were able to pull off during the summer of 2000, it's nearly inexcusable that there are no banners hanging from the Amway Center.

You see, before the famous free agent summer of 2010, when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Amar'e Stoudemire and others were unrestricted free agents, and four or five teams clamored loudly to secure their services, there was the free agent summer of 2000.  That summer featured a similar batch of superstars who were all unrestricted free agents, primarily looking to get paid, but also perhaps looking to join forces.  The biggest names of that summer's free agent class -- Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Jalen Rose and Eddie Jones -- had kept their respective clubs in the dark about their preferred destinations (providing a model for guys like LeBron and Bosh ten years down the road), but most media pundits that at least a few of the bigger names would land in Orlando.

Orlando had just enjoyed a surprisingly successful season.  Starting 18 months before the summer of 2000, the Magic had cleared nearly $20 million worth of salaries, which was enough cap space to sign two players to max contracts.  The Magic had joined the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls as teams that could offer two to three max contracts (sound familiar?).  Generally speaking, salary-dumping operations leave a team with untalented, unmotivated players working on one-to-two year contracts (see: the New York Knickerbockers, circa 2008-2010).  Yet, despite the fact that the Magic had largely dismantled their team by the start of the 2000 season, they had just finished 41-41 and narrowly missed out on the playoffs in a loss to the Bucks on the final day of the regular season.  The overachievement had netted (then) rookie head coach Doc Rivers and general manager John Gabriel universal acclaim, including Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year honors, as well as league-wide recognition for the gutsy performances delivered by unheralded players like Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Pat Garrity, and a very young Ben Wallace.

Once July 1st came -- the first day teams were able to negotiate with free agents -- the Magic swooped in.  Their two main targets, unsurprisingly, were Tim Duncan and Grant Hill, who in 2000 were arguably the two best players at their positions in the league, and almost certainly among the two best players in the NBA, period.  Duncan had just averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks per game for the Spurs, and Grant Hill had just given the Pistons 26, 7, and 5 per night.  However, both players were coming off of injuries -- Duncan had partially torn his meniscus shortly before the end of the season, which had caused him to miss the playoffs for the defending champion Spurs.  Hill, meanwhile, had injured his ankle seven games before the start of the playoffs, but had played on it during their first round series against the Heat, until it be came too bothersome during game two.  That injury would prove to have staggering ramifications for both Hill and the Magic, but no one knew it at the time -- including then-Magic GM John Gabriel.  He proceeded to wine and dine the players, taking them out on yacht rides, and treating them to expensive meals and lavish parties.  Reports maintained that both Hill and Duncan had talked about playing with each other, and encouragingly, both players (especially Hill walked away from the visit feeling very good about their chances of winning a championship in Orlando.  It was looking like the Magic were going to hit a home run.

On July 5th, 2000, shortly after returning from Orlando, Grant Hill indicated that he would "probably" sign with Orlando, but wanted to see what Tim Duncan was going to do.  Duncan, who had been famously coy with San Antonio brass about his intentions as a free agent, finally announced on July 11th that he was going to remain in San Antonio and try to make another run at a championship with aging Hall of Fame center David Robinson (which turned out to be a smart move, as the Spurs won one more with Robinson in 2003, and two additional championships behind a new cast in 2005 and 2007).  Duncan's about-face did not deter Hill, however, who was peeved that the Pistons had made him play while heavily medicated on a clearly damaged ankle, and decided to sign with Orlando anyway.  In order to receive some returns, the Pistons agreed to a sign-and-trade that sent Ben Wallace and guard Chucky Atkins to the Pistons in exchange for Grant Hill, and a brand-spanking-new 7-year, $93 million dollar max-level contract.

Undeterred from missing out on Tim Duncan, the Magic turned their attention to the best free agent remaining on the market: Tracy McGrady, who at 21, had just teamed up with cousin Vince Carter to make the Toronto Raptors one of the more exciting teams in the league.  After averaging 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks per game, McGrady looked like he was ready to take a big leap forwards.  Problem was McGrady had been linked to either the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat throughout the summer.  So, after Duncan chose not to take Orlando's max contract, Gabriel offered it to McGrady.  While the Bulls could pay him more, the Magic had already gotten a handshake agreement from Hill, while the Bulls had only been able to secure the services of Ron Mercer.  Meanwhile, the Heat had already spent a large portion of their available money on Anthony Mason and Eddie Jones, who were arriving via sign-and-trade from the Charlotte Hornets.  Therefore, they could only offer McGrady the mid-level exception (which free agent forward/center Brian Grant later accepted).   So, after a bit of back and forth between Orlando and Miami, McGrady took Orlando's money.  Finally, blissfully, on August 4th, 2000, the Magic had their men.

Examining the Orlando papers from the period of the signings allows us to get a sense of the excitement that must have been palpable during the long summer of 2000.  David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel wrote on August 4th, 2000 that the tandem of Hill and McGrady had created a new "lost-and-found dynasty" in the city.  While Hill, "an Olympian, a perennial All-Star," undoubtedly impressed Whitley, he was more excited about McGrady.  For Whitley, the 21 year old McGrady represented the most "changeable" player in the haul.  "His talent allows him to do everything," he wrote, "but his youth makes him liable to do anything."  Despite that caveat, it is clear Whitley was giddy about the Magic's new prized players.

Meanwhile, in a retrospective of the previous month of anxiety, the Orlando Sentinel's Tim Povtak wrote that the Magic, prohibitively speaking, "should become the most improved team in the league."  Potvak lamented the "nerve-racking" nature of the free agency period, stating that "it was hard to sleep peacefully knowing that the Bulls, the Miami Heat and half the teams in the league kept asking 21-year-old Tracy McGrady what it would take to change his mind about going to Orlando." But, despite the angst, Povtak was sure the Magic had come away with the best prizes from the free agent pool.  "Hill is an all-star, arguably the most complete player in the East," Povtak wrote, adding that "McGrady is expected to blossom into much the same kind of player."  But Povtak also mused that with the signings came a staggering task of meeting sky-high expectations.  "After committing $186 million to two players...anything less than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals will be deemed a poor season."

But the expectations could wait.  Now was a time to celebrate.  "This is only the beginning," said then-coach Doc Rivers.  "Now we have to play."


By the end of the 2000-2001 season, things had changed.

There had been no trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.  There hadn't even been a trip to the Eastern Conference Semi-finals.  In fact, they had entered the playoffs as a seventh seed, having finished 43-39, a paltry two game improvement over the previous season. The playoffs passed quickly, with the Magic losing in four games to the Milwaukee Bucks. Mike Miller, who had been the fifth pick in the draft, played better than expected, and won Rookie of the Year.  But that was the only accolade of the season for the Magic.

You see, Hill had only managed to play four games the entire season.  His ankle injury in Detroit had caused him to miss the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as well as the entirety of training camp and the preseason.  He played the first two games of the season, then sat for a month.  He tried again for two more games in the middle of December, and then sat down for the rest of the season.  He underwent season-ending surgery a week later, and would undergo five more surgeries (and a staph infection that nearly killed him) over the course of five years with the Magic.  During that time, he would play only about 50% of the games his contract required him to play, before he left for his fountain of youth in Phoenix.  Now, he seems poised to play well into his forties.  But that sad tale need not be told here.

Tracy McGrady, meanwhile, underwent a transformation that season.  With Hill gone, and suddenly surrounded by a cast less talented than the one he had in Toronto, Tracy McGrady evolved into T-Mac, a superstar of mythical proportions.  His 15.6 per game scoring average in 2000 skyrocketed to 26.8 in 2001, alongside 7.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.5 blocks and steals.  Once considered second fiddle to both Vinsanity and Hill, now people openly wondered if Hill would be playing second fiddle to T-Mac once he returned.  In a few years, people would wonder if T-Mac was better than Kobe.  The Magic had a bona fide superstar in McGrady, but one that would never take them out of the first round of the playoffs.  And indeed, there would be a messy divorce later on down the road.  But that, too, need not be told here.

Instead, let's just reflect on what could have been in Orlando.  And, really, what seemed promised that summer in 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment