ORLANDO — There’s little similarity between Dwight Howard’s return Tuesday night as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal’s return in his first season after leaving the Orlando Magic.
The Magic were not in a total rebuilding mode then like they are now. They made the NBA playoffs in Year One P.S. (Post-Shaq), although not without quite a bit of tumult and upheaval.
And while all indications are that Howard will be in uniform when he takes the court in the city he called home for eight seasons, Shaq’s return in March 1997 turned out to be something of a non-event.
A hyperextended left knee sidelined Shaq more than a month before the Lakers paid their only visit of that season to Orlando. He flew into town separate from the team and attempted to slip in unnoticed to the Orlando Arena, but a group of fans and reporters rushed the vehicle he was driving and he sped off in the other direction.
The game, a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon contest, turned out to be no contest. The Magic took a 31-14 lead after one quarter, increased their advantage to 31 points during the second quarter, and cruised to a 110-84 victory over the Lakers.
As expected, the Magic were buoyed by a fired-up crowd that came bearing signs taunting an absentee Shaq. One was a takeoff on his “The World Is Mine” tattoo that said “Take me West I Sold out for the Money.” Other signs expressed support of Rony Seikaly, the center acquired by the Magic one game into the season to try filling Shaq’s gaping void.
“I told people the only time I saw so many signs with my name was back in college,” said Seikaly, who ended up averaging 17.3 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds in 74 games with the Magic that year.
The vengeful, triumphant atmosphere in the arena that day stood in stark contest to the mood around the Magic a month earlier.
Languishing in a five-game losing streak which left them below the .500 mark, the team fired coach Brian Hill and replaced him with assistant Richie Adubato, who now serves as the Magic’s radio color analyst.
One similarity to that team and this year’s squad is the toll injuries have taken. Penny Hardaway, who led a players-only meeting that prompted Hill’s firing, missed 23 games that season because of a knee injury after playing in 241 out of 246 regular-season games during his first three years. Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott were also sidelined for significant stretches, and neither one of them was much of a factor in the Magic’s first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat.
This year’s Magic have been forced to get by without Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson at various points during Jacque Vaughn’s first season as coach. They also did not have veteran Al Harrington available until two weeks ago.
It was an injury to Davis a week before Christmas that turned the Magic from a team that handily defeated Howard and the Lakers in Los Angeles earlier in December into one struggling to avoid falling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
First-year general manager Rob Hennigan also dealt J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks before last month’s trading deadline, another sign of how the Magic are largely starting from scratch without Howard.
Nikola Vucevic, the center acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the four-team trade involving Howard, was thought of as a bit of a project but has instead developed into one of the league’s top rebounders and most improved players.
In contrast to Hennigan’s approach, general manager John Gabriel sought to keep the Magic relevant after losing Shaq and getting nothing in return by bringing in established centers. Seikaly fell out of favor with coach Chuck Daly during the 1997-98 season, causing the Magic to go out and sign Ike Austin. That move never clicked, even though the Magic compiled one of the best records in the East during the 50-game lockout season.
Hardaway, Anderson, Scott and Austin were all traded away during the summer of 1999 after the Magic made the playoffs for the second time in three years but again failed to advance past the first round. They did not win a series after Shaq’s exit until 2008, which was Howard’s fourth season with the team.
Until Nelson returned to action a week ago, four of Vaughn’s five starters were 24 or younger, including rookie forwards Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson. That emphasis on youth, some of which is as much by necessity (namely, the injury to Davis) as by design, is what makes the Magic’s situation without Howard far different from what it was without Shaq.