Prior to the 2004 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic were a franchise in need of direction. They had been a fairly irrelevant organization since Shaquille O’Neal left the team to join the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. A major contributor to their irrelevance was their lack of cohesiveness as a team.
During this span (1996-2004), the Magic endured five first round exits, while never winning over 45 games in a season. They had a few notable players during these years, like Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, however, success was never able to follow suit with these rosters.
The 2003/04 Magic team was actually terrible; sporting a dismal 61 loss season. Though in reality, this atrocious year was a blessing in disguise for the franchise, as it put them in prime position to land a good draft pick. Orlando had been infamously lucky during past lotteries with them earning the first overall pick in both 1992 and 1993.
In 1993 especially, the odds were heavily stacked against them with only a 1.52% chance of getting the first pick in the draft that year. Fast forward to the 2004 NBA draft lottery and the Magic have a much better 25% chance at getting the first pick.
Even though the odds improved drastically, there was still a 75% chance that they would not win the lottery. Fortunately for the Magic, they were able to strike gold once again and gain the first pick in 2004, which would prove very crucial down the line.
With this draft class, the drop off between the top prospect and the next best player was substantial. There were players like Ben Gordon, Devin Harris, and Andre Iguodala in this draft, but none of them compared to the likes of Dwight Howard.
Standing at 6’10’’, built like a tank, and straight out of high school, Howard was a game changer. He led his high school team to a 31-2 record, as well as a state title during his senior season by averaging an astounding 25 points, 18 rebounds, and 8 blocks per game.
This led him to earn numerous honors like winning the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, Morgan Wootten High School Player of the Year, Gatorade High School Player of the Year, as well as becoming the co-MVP alongside J.R. Smith for the McDonald’s All-American Game in 2004.
Howard’s incredible physique blended with his dominance with the basketball made him the perfect player to start building a team around. Orlando selected him first overall and were prepared to make him the centerpiece of the franchise.
During the first few seasons of Howard’s career, the Magic were gradually improving; even making the playoffs for the first time during Howard’s tenure in the 2006/07 season. However, it was not until Orlando hired Stan Van Gundy in 2007, where Howard and the Magic began making strides towards greatness.
The 2007/08 season saw Orlando win their division with a 52-win campaign and make it past the first round for the first time since 1996. They did not make huge ground in the postseason, but this season saw a lot of player development and was a solid first year under Van Gundy.
Howard was an All-Star for the second year in a row (first time as a starter), as this was the first season he averaged over 20 points per game. Other players like Jameer Nelson and Hedo Türkoğlu made significant improvements to their game that bolstered the play of the team.
Another key acquisition was adding long-time Seattle SuperSonics forward Reshard Lewis to give the team more alternative scoring options. This year had the franchise refining their team, as the next season was the time to compete.
Pure dominance is the only way to describe the 2008/09 Magic squad. Highlighted by their superstar center Dwight Howard, who once again averaged 20+ points, and led the league in both rebounds and blocks. Point guard Jameer Nelson had a breakout year by setting career highs in points, steals, and shooting percentage including shooting at a breathtaking 45.3% clip from three-point range.
The only drawback with Nelson was the fact that he missed the entire second half of the regular season with a right shoulder injury. Lewis, the major acquisition from the previous off-season, was the Magic’s second leading scorer and was very clutch throughout the season. Howard, Nelson, and Lewis were all deservingly selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2009.
The offensive scheme that Van Gundy ran worked perfectly with the players they had. Howard would dominate the paint with the option to kick the ball out to shooters like Nelson, J.J. Redick, or Courtney Lee. Then secondary scorers like Türkoğlu and Lewis would take over when Howard was not pounding the middle.
And because Howard was such a commanding force on the boards, it allowed the team endless second and third opportunities; making Orlando even harder to defend. It also helped that the Magic averaged the second most three-point field goals made during the regular season (10.0 per game); proving how lethal their offense truly was.
Heading into the postseason, Orlando was not playing around as they were looking to win it all for the first time in franchise history. They were able to close out the Philadelphia 76ers in six games in the first round; then it took a grueling seven game series to defeat the defending champion Boston Celtics.
In the Conference Finals, Orlando had to face LeBron James and the number one seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. However, despite being the underdog, the Magic were able to overcome Cleveland in six games; cemented by Howard’s fantastic 40-point, 14 rebound game in the pivotal game six.
That win meant that they were heading to the Finals to face off against the star-studded Lakers. Entering the series, Los Angeles was the favorite to win, but with Orlando riding off the momentum of the past two series, they felt they could beat the odds.
A major piece that was missing for Orlando during their journey to the Finals was Jameer Nelson, who would return for the series. He was coming off major surgery and there was a lot of controversy about whether he should have been playing or not.
The Magic had a talented team, but one man who they could not defend during this series was the Black Mamba. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers in scoring every game; helping them secure the series in five games and eventually went on to win Finals MVP. No Magic player really stood out during the Finals, and with a banged up Jameer Nelson, the Lakers proved to be the better team.
Even with a tough end to the season, Orlando had lots of positives to take from this year. They reached the Finals for the first time in 14 years and their star player was still improving. Howard won the first of his three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 2009 becoming the youngest ever to win that award.
In the following season, Orlando played just as well as they did the previous season by winning the exact same number of games (59) and finishing second in the Eastern Conference. They played the same style of basketball that worked so successfully in 2008/09, but unlike last season, they were unable to get past the Boston Celtics.
They were taken down in six games in the Conference Finals, but even with another ringless year, the future was still bright. Howard was still doing his part successfully and they had added Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to fill the void left by Türkoğlu leaving. Orlando still had the potential to create a dynasty.
The 2010/11 season was another solid season for the Magic with varying results. Howard would have another phenomenal season, while guys like Nelson and Redick started coming into their own. Even Hedo Türkoğlu returned to the team in a mid-season trade. However, despite a lot of core players playing well, they were once again unable to find the spark that they had in 2009 when it came to the playoffs.
They were knocked out in the first round for the first time during the Van Gundy era in 2011. The roster was not bad by any stretch of the mean, but this season saw Orlando begin to reach a tipping point, where many of the other Eastern Conference teams were improving while they were staying stagnant and not evolving with their competition.
Orlando decided to have one last go with this group of players during the 2011/12 lockout shortened season. This move proved successful early, as the Magic held a top four seed for a large portion of the season, but fell off late and finished as the sixth seed come playoff time. The normally very durable Howard sustained one of his first major injuries, as he had to undergo back surgery right before the postseason started.
To add on to the Magic’s struggles was the turmoil in the locker room. Howard had issues with Van Gundy’s coaching and was upset at the state of the team. He had requested a trade during the season and his relationship with the franchise never fully recovered.
Their lockout team was a roster full of diminishing players and it showed often. They were quickly taken care of by the Indiana Pacers in five games; ultimately securing the end of this chapter in Orlando history.
Howard was traded to the Lakers during the offseason in a blockbuster trade, and the star center that was the face of the franchise for eight seasons was gone. Once he left, the rest of the chips began to fall. Van Gundy was let go, Redick would get traded, Nelson was never able to replicate the success he found with Howard, and the entire franchise went from contending to rebuilding.
The basis for success in the NBA is strong coaching, an All-Star caliber player to build around, and quality role players to complement the superstar. Orlando had the correct formula to find success, but just fell short and was never able to reach the heights that they seemed destined to go. They came close, but have nothing to show for it.
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