Here’s a frightening scenario for the 1990s-era Orlando Magic.
As we know, the Magic maneuvered a draft-night deal to acquire Penny Hardaway for Chris Webber and three future first-round draft picks. As a result, Shaq and Penny would become a formidable duo in the Eastern Conference, making it to the 1995 NBA Finals before Shaq would eventually leave for greener pastures (and three championships) in Los Angeles.
But what if the Magic didn’t do that deal? I know, this sounds like every other what-if involving a Shaq/C-Webb frontcourt. But how much further do theorists tend to go with this scenario? Usually they go on to say that the Magic boast a dominant frontcourt for the remainder of the decade, which is fine.
But there’s something beyond this that is overlooked.
With hindsight being what it is, which option would you have chosen?
Option A: Trade for Penny Hardaway and repeat history?
Option B: Draft Chris Webber and let the chips fall where they might?
Here’s why, for the sake of hindsight, I would consider Option B. Proponents of the original timeline are justified in their thinking that a balanced team, where you have All-Star talent on the wings and in the post (especially in the 1990s). I personally believe in that need for balance as well. But what if I told you that you could still have that while securing arguably the most dynamic frontcourt since Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson?
Follow me on this one. Based on the record books, the Orlando Magic had two first-round draft picks in the summer of 1993: the #1 pick for the second season in a row and the #26 pick, which they received from the New York Knicks in a 1992 trade. For the record, the Magic would draft Dutch center Geert Hammink, who would play a total of 8 NBA games and score a total of 14 points in 27 total career NBA minutes. Legend.
Let’s change history. One of the criticisms Shaq raised against Penny was that he wasn’t ready for the big stage, despite gaudy numbers in the 1995 NBA Finals. This would often be used by the big man in a trilogy of star guard comparisons involving Hardaway, the late Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade:
The difference between those three is in ‘The Godfather’ trilogy … one is Alfredo, who’s never ready for me to hand it over to him. One is Sonny, who will do whatever it takes to be the man. And one is Michael, who, if you watch the trilogy, the Godfather hands it over to Michael. So I have no problem handing it to Dwyane.
So we need someone that is not afraid to take big shots late in games.
Note: This is needed for two reasons—the first being that Shaq himself has admitted to not being a clutch player and the second being that Chris Webber, as great a power forward as he was in his prime, was not known for clutch plays (his career at Michigan notwithstanding).
So with both Magic picks in hand, let’s look at the 1993 NBA Draft. Assuming we’re smart and take Webber (and not Shawn Bradley) with the first overall pick, we’ll need to find someone that can make up for Penny Hardaway’s absence while also making sense.
Here is how the 1993-94 Magic’s lineup looked in our timeline.
PG: Penny Hardaway/Scott Skiles
SG: Nick Anderson
SF: Dennis Scott
PF: Jeff Turner
C: Shaquille O’Neal
Seems normal, right? Good. All is right with the world…until we look at Earth-2.
PG: Nick Van Exel/Scott Skiles
SG: Nick Anderson
SF: Dennis Scott
PF: Chris Webber
C: Shaquille O’Neal
That’s right. Nick the Quick is now a member of the Orlando Magic to kick off the 1993-94 NBA Regular Season! Congratulations! How did this happen? Van Exel, who had a solid 13-year NBA career, made the All-Rookie Second Team after his first season, and averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 assists a game in five seasons as a member of the Lakers, was drafted 37th overall that summer!
It’s safe to say that, after a variety of big shots and flashy play, the one-time All-Star certainly outplayed his draft position. So let’s say the Magic take him out of Jerry West’s hands at #26. Just like that, the Orlando Magic enter the regular season with a dynamic wing rotation and one of the most dominant power rotations in NBA history.
Would it have worked? I’d like to think so. With this lineup, you still have two excellent passers on the floor in Van Exel and Webber, as well as a capable passer in SHAQ. Anderson and Scott would continue to stretch the floor as they did on this Earth. In the 1990s, this lineup would remain lethal.
You could even argue that the Magic would become even more talented, allowing them to use the money they would have used on Horace Grant to deepen their bench even more and ensure that both SHAQ and Webber stick around after 1996 and 1997.
Beyond that, with the Eastern Conference aging and teams like the Knicks, Pacers, and HEAT with their own flaws, the Magic would be, like on our Earth, primed to dominate not just the conference, but the leagues until at least 2004. Perhaps longer, if the two behemoths down low are able to lessen one another’s load and the guards remain effective.
Note: This is, by no means, a deliberate shot at Penny Hardaway, one of my favorite players of all time. But it is interesting to wonder how things would have changed with different players.
Which now begs the question(s): with the Magic now boasting a lineup of Van Exel, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Chris Webber, and Shaquille O’Neal, how does NBA history (as we know it) change? Does SHAQ still leave in 1996? Do they still reach the 1995 NBA Finals with Webber in the paint instead of Horace Grant? Where does Grant go?
Does he stick around with Chicago? Does he head to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers instead? Or Phoenix? Does this mean Danny Manning remains a Clipper? Could the Bulls (still without Michael Jordan) remain relatively intact? What does this mean for Dennis Rodman’s career? Do the San Antonio Spurs run it back with the legendary rebounder?
Could Grant Hill eventually join them in 2000 as Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott’s effectiveness begin to wane? The possibilities are endless! All these (and so much more) are questions that arise from just one major trade—a trade which would shape the history of the league for years to come.
Instead, we’ll have to watch them on TNT some nights (once this virus is gone). It could be worse.
Now both Shaq and Penny have since admitted that championships were likely had they stayed together. I don’t disagree with that in the slightest, but could the Magic have reached even great heights by keeping Chris Webber instead?
It’s something to think about.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Boca Raton, Ricky J. Marc, J.D., M.S. is an alumnus of the Obama White House and Cornell Paris Institute, a former Legislative Aide with both the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate, and a graduate of St. Thomas University with a Juris Doctor and Master of Science in Sports Administration.
Ricky currently resides in Paris, France, is the host of the The RJM Experience (available everywhere podcasts are found), and is the co-host of the upcoming STICK TO SPORTS: A Sports Podcast (That Isn’t) podcast series.
Follow him on Twitter @RickyJMarc.