The Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway-led Orlando Magic were one of the great non-dynasties in NBA history, making the Finals once and Conference finals once, being swept in both series’, before watching O’Neal grin his way to Los Angeles as a free agent in 1996. The Magic have yet to recover, while the Penny-led Magic were only first-year fodder in 1997 and 1999 before dealing Hardaway in a cap clearing move during the summer of 1999.
Shaq, famously, went on to win three titles in Los Angeles, with Grant acting as his starting power forward during one of those turns. In a recent interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, though, Grant rues the free agent move that sent O’Neal to L.A. for absolutely no compensation:
“He called me, and I didn't return his call, before he signed with the Lakers. And to this day, I wish I had just answered that call, and maybe he still would have been in Orlando. I heard about it and saw it on the news, and it was like Mike Tyson hit me. You cannot recover from a guy that size, in his prime, that dominant to think you are going to win a championship. Absolutely not.”
People tend to forget about how weird the three summers between 1994 and 1996 were. They included some cap circumvention, a lockout, and probably the most lucrative free agent summer for players in 1996 (inflation permitted) until the 2010, LeBron-led, free for all.
Grant felt disrespected by Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf in the months leading up to his 1994 free agency, not an uncommon occurrence at the time. The Orlando Magic were already fielding large rookie contracts, before the rookie contract scale, for Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, and they were attempting to sign free agent guard Brian Shaw with very little cap space. The Magic had to start the legendary Jeff Turner at power forward for most of 1993-94, so they badly needed a big forward as well – and Horace Grant’s mixture of sound defense and spot up shooting fit the bill.
Cap space as hard to come by, though, which is why the Magic signed both Shaw (to a one-year deal for under $700,000) and Grant (to a five-year deal, but one with an opt out of the first year) to “wink-wink” deals meant to hand each player some salary cap-legal pennies in the first year in exchange for plenty of pounds in the upcoming seasons. When Shaw signed a massive $9 million, single-year deal during the summer of 1995, it was obvious what was up, so the league voided Grant’s contract (in the offseason after he helped down the Bulls in the 1995 playoffs), turning him into a free agent in the summer of 1996.
Also understand that in the summer of 1996, a ridiculous retinue of top-level teams had massive amounts of cap space. The Bulls, Knicks, SuperSonics, Miami Heat all had tons of room under the cap, while the Lakers and Magic would end up with heaps of room after some quick offseason trades. It was a players market, and there were plenty of fantastic players to go after: Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Juwan Howard, Alonzo Mourning, Allan Houston, Dikembe Mutombo, and Shaquille O’Neal.
The only player not to stay with his incumbent team was Shaq, but not after the Magic low-balled him with their initial offer – four years, $54 million. This, combined with backlash from both Orlando media and fans after Shaq’s Magic had been swept out of the playoffs for the third straight year (amongst other loftier pursuits) influenced O’Neal to take a seven-year, $121 million offer with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And that signing came two days after the Magic and Horace Grant, at age 31, agreed on a five-year, $50 million offer. Just two months after he was knocked out of the playoffs with an elbow injury. It was a top-heavy contract that, in order to make up for the two “wink-wink” years, would pay Horace Grant over $29 million during the first two seasons. Even today, as much as we respect Horace Grant the four-time champion, that seems like crazy, crazy money.
So it’s possible that a phone call from O’Neal to Grant wouldn’t have changed much. If anything, it may have been to congratulate Grant on his good fortune as he took in eight figures a year through his early and mid-30s.
The 1990s were weird.
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