By Josh Cohen
August 11, 2011
ORLANDO -- There was a budding sentiment around Central Florida in late 1994 that the Orlando Magic were building into a potential powerhouse.
After lottery luck secured the franchise two No. 1 draft picks in 1992 and 1993 – one in which they landed mighty Shaquille O’Neal and the other that ultimately delivered versatile Penny Hardaway via a draft day trade – the Magic were nationally recognized as a team on the rise.
Though swept in the First Round of the 1994 NBA Playoffs by the Indiana Pacers, the growing belief was that Orlando had the pieces to instantly become a championship contender.
In addition to Shaq and Penny – who had just starred together in the feature film “Blue Chips,” the Magic possessed the always-reliable Nick Anderson, a lethal 3-point specialist in Dennis Scott and a savvy veteran Horace Grant, who signed with Orlando as a free agent after a storied career with the Bulls.
At the start of the 1994-95 campaign, most analysts suggested that the Eastern Conference was a three-team race between Orlando, Indiana and defending conference champion New York.
It didn’t take long for the Magic to flex their muscles and prove they deserved all the praise they had been receiving over the previous few months.
Orlando captured nine straight victories during the first month of the season and closed November with a 16-4 record.
Riding that early momentum, it quickly appeared that the Magic had enough prominence in their starting lineup and enough depth and resourcefulness on their bench to finish with the best record in the East.
Aside from O’Neal, Hardaway, Anderson and Grant, Donald Royal demonstrated he was a worthy starter and the collection of Scott, Anthony Bowie, Jeff Turner, Brian Shaw and Anthony Avent were dependable reserves.
It was apparent based on statistics alone that the Magic possessed the most potent offense in the NBA. In the regular season, Orlando ranked No. 1 in the league in points scored per game (110.9) and was in the top 10 in 3-point percentage (.370).
Shaq and Penny, who instantly evolved into fan favorites across the nation, were both named starters in the 1995 NBA All-Star Game. O’Neal led the East with 22 points and seven rebounds, while Hardaway enjoyed a spectacular 12-point and 11-assist performance.
In spite of all the success and excitement in Central Florida, some trepidation clouded over all the fun. After rumors began to circulate that Michael Jordan, who had left the hardwood for the diamond more than year earlier, was planning to return to the NBA and rejoin the Bulls, every NBA enthusiast assumed Chicago would steal away a great opportunity for Orlando.
And shortly after all the commotion, MJ officially decided to come back on March 18, 1995 and immediately suited up for the Bulls the next night.
While Jordan didn’t quite look as daunting to adversaries as he had when he guided the Bulls to three straight championships prior to his short-lived retirement, Chicago still seemed like it had the confidence and experience to conquer the rest of the competition.
Perhaps due to the sudden thunderstorm that struck the others in the East, the Magic hit a bit of a wall from the time Jordan returned to the completion of the regular season.
Starting with a disastrous home loss to the Utah Jazz on March 14 until the end of the regular season, Orlando went just 9-11. It was not a very favorable way to close out what generally was an entertaining and prolific 82 games.
But despite a late slip, the Magic (57-25) headed into the playoffs with home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and without any major injuries to worry about.
STAY TUNED FOR PART II – FIRST ROUND VS. BOSTON
If you followed the Orlando Magic during the 1994-95 season, what were your overall thoughts of the team during the regular season?