Cohen: What Would've Happened If...

By Josh Cohen
August 29, 2011

ORLANDO -- In a new series on, I analyze what potentially would have happened if certain big moments in NBA history didn’t happen.

What would’ve happened if Michael Jordan didn’t return to basketball in 1995?

When Michael Jordan decided to retire from the hardwood to follow his childhood dreams of playing professional baseball in 1993, it was observably poignant for all basketball enthusiasts to endure.

MJ had arguably transformed into the most recognizable athlete in the world after capturing three consecutive NBA championships with the Bulls at a time when media sports coverage was blossoming.

His premature retirement, however, allowed a few other teams and their fans to relish with excitement. For one, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks flourished in Jordan’s absence by advancing to the NBA Finals in 1994 after years of watching No. 23 surpass them.

Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets, meanwhile, evolved into the league’s premier team in Jordan’s nonattendance by winning back-to-back NBA titles.

But what would have happened if MJ didn’t make his celebrated return to the NBA in March of 1995?

Well, we know that in his first few months back, Jordan didn’t restore his illustriousness when the Orlando Magic eradicated the Bulls in the conference semifinals.

After an offseason filled with blood, sweat and tears, however, Jordan entered the 1995-96 season with redemption on his mind and far greater confidence. Chicago compiled a league-record 72 victories and cruised to the NBA championship. He would then guide the Bulls to another three-peat to ultimately finish out his basketball legacy.

It’s very possible that if Jordan didn’t return, the Magic, more than any other team, would have evolved into an NBA powerhouse – perhaps even a dynasty.

Most observers and analysts in 1996 felt strongly that Orlando was the second best team in the NBA behind Chicago and some argued that in any other year, the Magic would have hoisted the trophy.

Josh Cohen
Assuming that proved to be true and Orlando captured the title in 1996, it would only seem logical that there would have been more incentive for Shaquille O’Neal to remain with the franchise instead of bolting for Los Angeles in that summer’s free agency.

With no Jordan present to negate the Magic from converting into a league power, it seems reasonable to believe that Shaq, a healthy Penny Hardaway and the rest of an esteemed core in Orlando would have thrived for a few years.

While other teams like the Utah Jazz, Seattle Supersonics and Indiana Pacers would probably claim similar projections if MJ wasn’t around, I’m convinced that the Magic (assuming O’Neal remained in blue and white) would have at least two NBA titles if not more.

What would've happened if the Orlando Magic didn’t trade Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway on draft night in 1993?

Chris Webber was a household name well before he declared for the 1993 NBA Draft. He was the leader, by and large, of the most celebrated and recognized collegiate empire in NCAA history.

There wasn’t much doubt when Webber opted to forego his final two years at Michigan that he would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

When the Orlando Magic defied astonishing odds to land to the No. 1 pick for a second consecutive year, however, suddenly a no-brainer transformed into a dubious debate.

With Shaquille O’Neal already present to dominate in the paint, the Magic felt it was probably in their best interest to balance out their roster.

Orlando, as a result, decided to trade Webber’s draft rights to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway, who according to many had the potential to evolve into a Magic Johnson-like point guard, and future first round draft selections.

In three seasons together, Shaq and Penny formed a dynamic duo and developed into the most popular NBA tandem. They helped the Magic advance to the NBA Finals in 1995 and were perennial All-Stars.

However, O’Neal’s decision to leave Orlando for L.A. in 1996 and Hardaway’s deteriorating health denied the Magic from evolving into a perpetual powerhouse.

Thus, what would have happened if Orlando opted to keep C-Webb?

Well, Webber’s tenure in Oakland lasted for just one season after differences between he and Warriors head coach Don Nelson proved to be irreconcilable. Golden State traded C-Webb to Washington – where he would spend four seasons in the nation’s capital before becoming one of the best players in the league during his magnificent years in Sacramento.

On one hand, it’s possible to believe that a Shaq & C-Webb duo could have resembled some of the other all-time great big man duos in NBA history. O’Neal could have overpowered his opponents near the rim, while Webber could have been an unmatchable threat with his aptitude to shoot from the perimeter.

Scott Skiles, who showed he could be a solid floor leader prior to Penny’s arrival, would have likely remained as the organization’s starting point guard.

The big question is: would Orlando’s size up front been inexorable for the other elite teams in the league?

Would the combo of Shaq and C-Webb been too daunting for Hakeem Olajuwon to handle – assuming it was still the Rockets and Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals?

Would that duo been too intimidating for Chicago’s rather inferior front line (Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Dennis Rodman) in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals?

While it’s undeniable that for three years Shaq & Penny were a fantastic tandem, you can’t help but wonder if a Shaq & C-Webb duo would have been even more extraordinary.