After Shaquille O’Neal lied to the Orlando Magic and bolting to Los Angeles, and a Anfernee Hardaway-led mutiny against head coach Brian Hill, the franchise was in a bad spot. They had no stars and were still stuck in a small market. But following the 1999-2000 “heart and hustle” season, there was one thing they did have: money. Unfortunately they squandered a special opportunity. Grant Hill’s return to Orlando Wednesday night reminded many fans of that.
A small market team like the Magic doesn’t have the opportunity of an open cheque book often. While teams in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles can pay exorbitant amounts of money on a yearly basis to free agents, the Magic only get that opportunity once in maybe a decade. But in 2000, they had that opportunity.
One player the Magic were bringing in was swingman Tracy McGrady. McGrady grew up in nearby Auburndale before moving to North Carolina in high school to attend basketball powerhouse Mount Zion Christian Academy. He decided to forego college and enter the NBA draft where he was the number nine overall pick in 1997. After three years in Toronto, he was a free agent, and was returning home.
The other big money player the Magic wanted was San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. Drafted the same year as McGrady, Duncan made up half of the twin towers with Hall of Famer David Robinson. The year before Duncan became a free agent, he won the NBA title with San Antonio, and was the NBA Finals MVP. But Duncan showed a character trait that NBA stars today don’t possess, loyalty, and returned to the team that drafted him.
The Magic were looking to sign two big money free agents and with Duncan out of the picture, turned their focus to all-star Grant Hill.
But there was a problem with Hill. Seven days prior to the beginning of the Detroit Pistons playoff run, Hill suffered a sprained ankle. Despite the injury, Hill played the first round series against the Miami Heat, which the Pistons lost 3-0. The injury caused Hill to miss the 2000 Olympic Games, which he had been selected for.
The Magic signed Hill to a seven-year contract worth $93 million anyway in a sign-and-trade deal with Detroit. Of the 574 games that the Magic played in those seven years, Hill missed 374 of them due to injury. The Magic went into that off-season with the possibility of coming out one of the dominant teams in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they ended up with a self-absorbed all-star and a $93 million seat-filler on the bench.
The Magic would become a dominant team in the East when they drafted Dwight Howard with the number one pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. Of course, eight years later, they would be abandoned by him too. While it’s not entirely the fault of the Magic or Hill, a possible golden era of Magic basketball turned into a slight improvement for a team with little success in their history. And Hill’s possible impending retirement will just remind Magic fans of that.