The year was 1996. Shaquille O'Neal had just been announced as the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first full day of the Atlanta Olympics. Just four years into his career, he was already one of, if not the, most dominant players in the game. He left an Orlando Magic team that made it to the 1995 NBA Finals only to be swept by the Houston Rockets with him leading the way. Shaq played like a monster in his first finals appearance as he averaged 28 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. To put it simply, this was his emergence as one of the greats. At this point in his career, he couldn't count himself as one of the all-time greats, but he most certainly was one of the league's best at the time. But he became a free agent in 1996 and spurned the Magic for Lakerland. Orlando had let one of the greatest centers NBA history walk.
Let's fast forward 16 years later. Dwight Howard, the best defender the NBA has to offer and the undisputed best center, has just been traded to the Lakers. He too led the Magic to a Finals appearance during the 2009 playoffs, a time when he scored 20.3 points per game and grabbed over 15 rebounds a game. Despite his effort, the Magic won just one game against the Lakers.
It appears that the Magic have learned a lesson from the last time they let a dominant center go. Even though Orlando did trade him instead of losing him for nothing come free agency next summer, the future doesn't look so bright because of the mediocre haul it received. Arron Afflalo, Al Harrigton, Mo Harkless and Nikola Vucevic are no doubt good players, but none of them will be serious franchise building blocks. And despite also receiving five draft picks, none are very high in the draft order so that doesn't inspire much hope. With that in mind, this is déjà vu for the club.
Everything about this situation mirrors O'Neal's 16 years ago. Shaq had a very strong personality who clashed with then head coach Brian Hill. In fact, the question of firing Hill so that O'Neal would return for the 1996-97 began floating around, starting with the Orlando Sentinel. It was known that O'Neal was losing respect for his head coach. (There was also that tiny inconvenience of fellow teammate Anfernee Hardaway being paid more than him, but that's a different story altogether).
In hindsight, this was uncanny because of the way Howard's last season with the Magic ended. We all know of the rumors of his desire for Stan Van Gundy to be fired. He, as O'Neal once did before him, created havoc within the organization by collecting too much power as a player. He, as did O'Neal, made it possible for other people to question his decision making and morals. As the two of them lost respect for their coaches, so did basketball fans. Both were seen as immature and childish.
Maybe, when the Magic drafts its next franchise center in the 2020 NBA Draft, it will have learned from these previous two nightmarish experiences. First of all, it won't succumb to player demands, and when that player makes it known that there will be no way he will sign another contract with the team, that future GM will focus on getting the best possible return via a trade. Secondly, they will not let that center leave for nothing. Eventually the Orlando Magic will handle this situation the correct way. The third time is the charm, yes?