Five alternative NBA timelines for Shaquille O’Neal

General overall view of a Spalding official NBA basketball - Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
General overall view of a Spalding official NBA basketball - Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /
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1. What if he never left Orlando?

What if Shaq didn’t leave Orlando for Los Angeles in 1996 NBA free agency right before the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta? Four things happen if O’Neal signs a new deal with the Magic:

1.) Orlando wins at least two NBA Championships with O’Neal and point guard Penny Hardaway as its two star players. They had better on-court chemistry than O’Neal ever had with Bryant. Who knows how good the Magic could have been in the mid-to-late 1990s?

2.) Hardaway could have been a top-30 player in NBA history. His body broke down once he had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders once Shaq left for the Lakers. For those who didn’t get to see Penny in his prime, Hardaway was roughly a cross between Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook before knee injuries ruined his promising NBA career.

3.) Orlando is the marquee free agency destination in Florida, not Miami. Miami may have South Beach on its side, but all of Florida has warm weather and no state income tax. South Beach wasn’t a major selling point for the Heat until Shaq gave the team legitimacy in 2004.

4.) The Lakers and the New York Knicks would mirror each other on opposite coasts. These are two franchises living in yesteryear with nothing but chaos on the hardwood from the mid-1990s to 2000s. Los Angeles was well equipped to land another marquee free agent, but none could touch the 1996 signing of Shaq. Would Kobe be the top-10 player in NBA history without Shaq? No way.

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This decade gave us a huge what-if team in the Oklahoma City Thunder. How Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka never won an NBA Championship is a basketball enigma we’ll talk about for years. It’ll remind us of the greatest what-if team in NBA history: the Shaq and Penny Magic of the mid-1990s.