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Friday, June 18, 2010
No. 9: Orlando Magic

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal gave the Magic a quick rise to the NBA's elite; his departure cast a large shadow.

Orlando tends to see itself as a star-crossed franchise, and you could certainly make an argument for that. From Nick Anderson's four missed free throws in the 1995 Finals; to Shaquille O'Neal's shady free-agent departure; to the injury woes of Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill; to the bizarre Hockey Guy years; to, perhaps, the missed layup by Courtney Lee in Game 2 of the 2009 Finals, a common thread does seem to run through most of the franchise's history.

But to focus on that is to ignore the biggest story: The Magic have been the most consistently successful of the league's early-'90s expansion teams, and have done it while showcasing several of the game's biggest stars. Shaq, Penny, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard would be all-timers in most franchise's pantheons; Magic fans saw all four in a span of a dozen years.

Orlando won 31 games in its second season, was at .500 in its fourth thanks to Shaq, and was in the Finals by Year 6. That was when Anderson's four misses in the final seconds of Game 1 against Houston blew a game in which they had led by 22 points; the Magic never recovered, losing in four. What appeared to be a budding dynasty fizzled when Shaq fled for L.A. two years later and Penny's knees started troubling him, and as a result the Magic didn't get past the first round of the playoffs again until 2008.

They still won, though. Orlando has won at least 36 games in 17 of the past 18 years, and even managed to be decent when "Hockey Guy" John Weisbrod was mangling the roster with deals like trading McGrady for Steve Francis. And with the current edition having posted consecutive 59-win seasons and made the 2009 Finals, Orlando seems well poised to move up the ladder. In fact, they already have -- the Magic climbed six rungs since we did this exercise a year ago.

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