The Orlando Magic’s Best Season: 2009

To say the Orlando Magic got lost in the shuffle during an era of NBA history punctuated by the likes of the Celtics, Lakers, Cavaliers, and later the Miami Heat is a bit of an understatement.

After all, in the teaser for this very article at the end of yesterday’s piece about the Thunder, I all but called out Nick Anderson, expecting to write about the 1995 Magic and their lost Finals to the Houston Rockets in the second and last year of the Jordan Interregnum.

But, as is always the case in these features, I looked over the franchise index on Basketball Reference, and it was there that I was reminded that the second-best regular-season record in franchise history and the team’s other Finals appearance belongs to the 2009 team, when coach Stan Van Gundy, center Dwight Howard, and a team of shooters around him codified modern four-out basketball, with minor alterations the style of basketball that just won the Milwaukee Bucks a title in 2021.

I mean, we’ll still talk about the 1995 team. It’ll just be in the honorable mentions. Let’s get right to the recap, shall we?

The On-Court Record

Orlando went 59-23 in 2009. With that record came a case of falling just one game short of only the second 60-win season in franchise history. The first, in the 1995-96 season, came at a time when it didn’t matter what 28 NBA teams did—you could go 60-22 like the Magic did or 15-67 like the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies did in putting up the worst record in the league. It didn’t matter because Michael Jordan was unstoppable and so too were the rest of the 72-10 Chicago Bulls that year.

In 2009, however, Orlando got some injury luck when the Celtics, who started the season 27-2 and were 44-11 at the All-Star break, lost Kevin Garnett to injury and didn’t have KG at all during the playoffs. The Magic beat the Celtics in a brutal Game 7 in Boston, shocked LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 in the conference finals, and then finally met their match in Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers, who had Pau Gasol to create matchup nightmares with Howard and good enough perimeter defense to stifle Orlando’s outside shooting.

Oddly enough, it was usually Orlando who did the stifling; their defense was ranked tops in the league in 2009. Their offense was 11th, but that can be a bit misleading because Orlando was third in eFG%, first in 3PAR (and seventh in 3PT%), and third in FTR.

Where the trouble came in was in the fact that Orlando was dead last in FT%, thanks to Howard taking 10.7 free throw attempts a game and making just 59.4 percent of them. That dragged down their offensive rating.

Still, their plus-7.2 Net Rating was good for fourth in the league, and if the other team didn’t have a dominating big man matchup to stifle Howard—the Celtics were without Garnett, after all, and Cleveland’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn’t going to slow Dwight down—Orlando could steamroll them.

So it goes that a 59-win team made the Finals despite the Cavs winning 66 games that year and Boston winning 62, going 35-18 after that 27-2 start.

The Featured Players

Before 2020, when Dwight Howard won his ring with the LeBron-led Lakers and secured his legacy as a champion, you could’ve made the argument that Howard’s Hall of Fame case would’ve been better served if he’d just suffered a catastrophic career-ending injury after the 2012 season, never signed with the Lakers for the disastrous 2013 campaign, and hadn’t bounced around like a journeyman in all the years since.

It wouldn’t be a very good argument—even without a ring, when a guy plays well over 1,000 games (Howard is at 1182 and counting and is still active as the 2021-22 season begins), scores 20,000 points (Howard is just 887 points short of that mark heading into the season), pulls down nearly 15,000 rebounds (14,271 to be exact through 2021), and is an 8-time All-Star and 8-time All-NBA, that’s a Hall of Famer any way you cut it.

But at the same time, Howard hasn’t made an All-Star game since 2014. His legacy was almost entirely built in the first eight years of his career. And before he won a ring, everything that happened since 2014 would lead you to think Howard was a coach-killing, teammate-infuriating (thanks to Kobe Bryant and James Harden hating his work ethic) sideshow who caught lightning in a bottle before he turned 30 but never had a champion’s heart. Never mind that a “champion’s heart” is served in no way by being the eighth man unless your name is Robert Horry.

Perhaps more interesting is the cast that Van Gundy surrounded Howard with, a motley assortment of role players who were greater than the sum of their parts.

The rest of the starters were Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson—with Rafer Alston starting 28 games when Nelson got hurt and missed every game after February 2 before coming back for the Finals, Rashard Lewis, and a revolving door of wings. 12 different players started at least three games for Orlando in the 2008-09 season.

The advanced stats bear out this basketball-by-committee approach. Howard put up 4.7 VORP. Lewis, in the second year of a five-year, nearly $90 million contract that would make him a cap albatross when his skills dropped off a cliff in 2010, posted a very solid 4.1 VORP. Nelson posted 2.3 VORP in just 42 games, which would’ve put him over four had he stayed healthy. And Turkoglu managed 2.4 in 77 games and 2,815 minutes.

Nobody else on the team topped even one VORP, but a distinct honorable mention is certainly in order for Alston, who got the defensive specialist’s due with 0.9 VORP in just 29 games. That’s well over two VORP per 82, and Alston actually had a good year offensively, posting a 15.6 PER and 12.0 points per game. Sure, that was a dropoff from Nelson’s 16.7 and came on far worse shooting (Nelson’s eFG% was .580 and Alston’s was .466), but still, for a guy best known as a defensive stopper, Alston put some points on the board.

How the Magic got all the way to the Finals plagued by injury and without their All-Star point guard is something of a mystery, but it’s not like it was Dwight and Jameer and nobody else. Lewis had his last good year as a pro, Turkoglu did what he always seemed to do throughout his career as a reliable wing shooter, and Orlando’s defense was off-the-charts great. Can’t ask for much better than that.

The Coach

Stan Van Gundy’s four-out style of offense is, as mentioned earlier in this piece, the prototype by which the Milwaukee Bucks won a title. Without Howard, the framework around which the Bucks built with Giannis Antetokounmpo surrounded by shooters in 2021 wouldn’t have been as well-defined. Van Gundy’s lack of coaching success first in Detroit and less in New Orleans is less a function of his coaching ability and more a sign of both teams’ terrible front offices, unable to give the Pistons anyone to surround Andre Drummond or the Pelicans anyone to surround Zion Williamson.

The 2016 Pistons had Reggie Jackson starting at point guard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a 30.9 percent 3-point shooter, leading the team in 3-point attempts.

The 2021 Pelicans, meanwhile, had a roster that was so poorly constructed that one need look only at the personnel—starting Williamson and Steven Adams at the same time is just asking for a clogged-toilet offense in the low post because neither guy can shoot from more than 5 feet away reliably—to know that Van Gundy wasn’t the guy who was going to make sense of things.

It’s easy to forget that when Van Gundy had a roster that was built to play the style of basketball that he designed, with a big man and excellent outside shooting, nobody executed that style better from the sideline, putting his players in a position to win games.

The 2009 Magic—and in many ways, the 2010 team as well—define Van Gundy’s true contribution to the league, a style that, when it is done right with the right personnel, can win a championship. Sure, the championship happened in Milwaukee and Van Gundy had nothing to do with it, but Mike Budenholzer owes Stan a debt of gratitude for lighting that signal fire.

Honorable Mentions

Maybe the 1995 Magic would still have been blown out of the Finals by Hakeem Olajuwon and friends had Nick Anderson canned the free throws that would have sealed Game 1. Orlando looked in Game 2 like they’d already lost the series, going down 63-41 at the half on the way to a 117-106 ultimate defeat before losing the next two in Houston and sealing their fate.

That does not detract from the fact that Orlando, with Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, had the makings of a dynasty had Michael Jordan stayed retired. A 57-25 regular-season, including a second-round win over Jordan’s Bulls in His Airness’ too little too late comeback attempt in the 1995 playoffs, certainly presaged big things to come.

And indeed, that 60-win season in ’96, even though it ate pavement in the ECF in a sweep against a vengeful spirit wearing number 23 for Chicago, remains the regular-season high-water mark for the franchise to this day.

But man, what a crazy what-if scenario at the free throw line in ’95. It’s hard to believe that the complexion of a seven-game series, especially one that ended in a sweep in the current timeline, would have been that altered by the opposite outcome…but it’s a tantalizing theory to play with.

As for other honorable mention seasons? Well, bluntly, there aren’t any. The only five Magic teams to get out of the first round of the playoffs were the 1995, 1996, 2008, 2009, and 2010 teams. And we’ve covered both rosters. Nikola Vucevic and friends made the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, but the 2021 team went 21-51, the third-worst record in the league, and they’re going to have to blow that team up and start over.

That’s pretty much it. That’s Magic franchise history. A team that was never good for very long, isn’t good now, and has no real path to being good in the future.

But hey, they made two Finals. That’s at least better than anything New Orleans or Charlotte or Minnesota ever did.

NEXT: Philadelphia 76ers. That’s right…we’re going to talk about Dr. J (sorry, Wilt, you’re getting an honorable mention.) Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!