Tim Duncan, back in the free agency season of 2000, nearly signed with the Orlando Magic. How would that decision have made things different, not just for the Magic, but also the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and even the Los Angeles Clippers?
First let’s do some back-tracking. The Magic drew the first pick in the NBA draft lottery and used the pick to take Shaquille O’Neal after their third season. In three years, along with another first pick in the draft eventually becoming Penny Hardaway, the Magic made it to the NBA Finals in 1995. They were swept in those Finals by the Houston Rockets who made it back-to-back while Michael Jordan was off trying to hit a curve. When Jordan returned to the NBA full-time in 1996, they booted the Magic back to second place in the Eastern Conference with a resounding thud after a four game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. Shaq then decided it was not going to happen for him in Orlando and took his talents to the Lakers. There he and Kobe Bryant would eventually team up to win three NBA World Championships
This sent the Magic spiraling back down to the draft lottery. But they still had a relatively healthy Hardaway at the time so they never went all the way back down to get a number one pick. So their strategy was to clear salary cap space and go free agent shopping. By 2000, they had cleared enough room to go after Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Duncan had just led the Spurs to their first NBA World Championship in 1999 and Hill had put a six-year run with the Detroit Pistons together that had many wondering if he was the next Jordan.
They put the “full court press” on Hill and Duncan. They took them to Disney World after hours where they had the place to themselves. They took them golfing with Tiger Woods. They wined and dined them to the point where Duncan was about ready to join Hill and McGrady in Orlando. What was the hold-up? Duncan’s girlfriend, Amy Sherrill was not sold. For whatever reason, she wanted to stay in San Antonio. So she and David Robinson were able to convince Duncan to re-sign with the Spurs.
What happened afterwards was the Spurs won three more NBA Championships and will go for a fourth this year. The Magic signed Hill and McGrady, but Hill spent the vast majority of his seven-year magic career on the bench in street clothes enduring five ankle surgeries and a near fatal bout with MRSA. The result was the Magic crashing all the way down to the bottom of the NBA once again. But they did get another number one pick in which they drafted a high school phenom from Atlanta, Dwight Howard.
In an eerily Shaq-like stay in Orlando, Howard developed into the dominant center in the game, even becoming the next “Superman” with the same “Kryptonite” as Shaq. That would be his inability to hit free throws. After failing to hit a free throw that would have iced Game Four of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Derek Fisher then broke the Magic’s hearts, much the way Kenny Smith did in 1995. Only it was Nick Anderson that could not hit a free throw to ice Game One of the 1995 NBA Finals, not Shaq. History again repeated itself when Howard decided he couldn’t win a championship in Orlando without help.
His first play was to try to lure Chris Paul to Orlando. But Paul wanted Dwight to move to the bayou and play for the New Orleans Hornets with him. The two could not get together on a team to play together with. After David Stern vetoed a trade to the Lakers, Paul was then traded to the Clippers as he threatened to leave the Hornets when his contract was up. The Magic were forced to trade Dwight to the Lakers rather than lose him to free agency.
To top off this whole scenario, as Duncan prepares to go for his fifth championship against the Miami Heat, he is now divorcing his wife, Amy. So this has many in Orlando and elsewhere wondering what if he had signed with Orlando against her wishes in 2000?
Would the Spurs have ended up in the lottery? Would they have possibly drafted Howard? Would Dwight have teamed up with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli to win multiple rings? It’s doubtful with Parker and Ginobli the Spurs would have gotten bad enough to win the top pick in the draft, so probably not.
Would Duncan and McGrady teamed up even with Hill on the sidelines to win a ring or two? That is a possibility. For a while there T-Mac was right up there in the MVP conversation. How good might he have been with Duncan’s help?
So where would Howard have ended up? Perhaps with the Clippers? The Clippers were sure at the top of the daft an awful lot back then. Might he and Paul be on the same team with the Clippers right now? How good would they be now if that had happened? And how about the Boston Celtics? Doc Rivers was the coach of the Magic and was part of the management team fired (along with GM John Gabriel) for the team’s subsequent downward trend. Rivers wound up as coach of the Celtics where he took them (with the help of his new GM Danny Ainge landing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) to two trips to the NBA Finals including one win in 2010.
Just to bring this whole thing full circle, while the Spurs are back in the Finals and the Magic is back at the top of the draft with the number two pick, Hill retired this week as a member of the Clippers, and McGrady is now on the bench of the Spurs where he might end up with a championship ring before he calls it quits. Duncan will retire a Spur, but without the woman who made that happen.