The Orlando magic may win the NBA championship next season. but—and for general manager John Gabriel this has to be a wake-up-sweating-in-the-middle-of-the-night but—if the season were to start today, the team would forfeit its opening game because Orlando, for all its great potential, has only four players under contract. When Magic executives say they need a shooting guard, it's because they really need a shooting guard. The players they have under contract aren't exactly Shaq-beaters, either: Together they averaged 35.4 points for Orlando last season, less than what O'Neal averaged for the Lakers in the NBA Finals this year.
"We know this has the chance to work out pretty well," Gabriel says of his radical plan to alter the NBA landscape by clearing a lot of salary-cap room on his roster and trying to sign two free agents from among the cream of this year's crop: Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Eddie Jones and Tracy Mc-Grady. "But we also know it may be one of those things where people look back and say, What were they thinking?"
Though the 7-foot Duncan—the biggest catch in every way—informed the Magic Sunday night that he would remain in San Antonio, executives around the league were still probably thinking that they'd like to trade places with Gabriel. The Magic had already nailed down a commitment from Hill, and they were optimistic about their chances of signing McGrady or Jones. If they succeed in re-signing some of their own free agents, such as center John Amaechi (who last week was offered a six-year, $16.9 million deal by the Lakers), they should become instant contenders in the weak Eastern Conference. With as many as nine first-round picks over the next four years, along with the growing perception that Orlando has turned into the place for celebrity athletes to live, Gabriel should be able to upgrade his team and merrily tinker with its chemistry over the next couple of years.
As promising as everything seems now, Gabriel's rivals weren't so envious four years ago, when O'Neal left Orlando as a free agent to sign a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Lakers. When coach Chuck Daly announced his retirement in May 1999, shortly after the Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs, Gabriel decided to overhaul the team with a wrecking ball. "We didn't just want to make the playoffs," says Gabriel. "We wanted it all."
His choice to lead the team, Doc Rivers, turned out to be this season's coach of the year. Gabriel was voted executive of the year for that move and for assembling, with cast-off parts, an egoless, floor-burned team that wasn't eliminated from the playoffs until the regular season's final day.
Gabriel was a frenetic horse trader last year: He signed, released or traded 28 players, employed 37 in all and swallowed $32 million in contracts, culminating in the draft-day trades—Corey Magette, Derek Strong and one of their first-round draft picks were sent to the Clippers—that put Orlando more than $20 million under the salary cap and left the team plenty of money to hire a couple of high-priced stars.
In May, Gabriel took the unprecedented step of hiring a recruiting coordinator, former communications director Alex Martins, who was charged with overseeing the final details of Orlando's brave experiment in free agency. On July 1, the first day NBA teams could negotiate with free agents, the Magic hosted forwards Duncan and Hill, the two biggest prizes on the open market. They were greeted by hundreds of employees wearing T-shirts with pictures of the two players bridged by a single word: IMAGINE. On their way to a meeting with Magic owner Rich DeVos at the Isleworth golf course community, the players happened by Tiger Woods, who was in the process of hitting his tee shot on a long par-3 to within two feet of the pin. Woods, though he is a Lakers fan, then came over and greeted the two NBA stars. It was the kind of advertising for the good life that money can't buy.
But two days later Gabriel was escorting the stars back to the airport with the sobering knowledge that Hill, who professed to be on the verge of committing to Orlando, was still planning to listen to offers from the Knicks, the Bulls, the Spurs and the team he played for the past six years, the Pistons. "It's like having your girl say she'd like to date these four other guys, just to make sure," says Gabriel. "She says, 'Do you mind?' and you say, 'Yeah, sure, honey, go ahead.' You want to go to the altar with her, but you're waiting to see if she likes someone else better."
A few years ago a player in Hill's shoes might have jumped into bed with the highest bidder. But priorities have changed as a result of last year's collective bargaining agreement, which puts a ceiling on the number of years and dollars for which he can sign. Over the next five seasons (when he would again be eligible to become a free agent) Hill could earn $56.25 million if he remained with Detroit, or $54 million if he jumped to Orlando or Chicago, the only teams that now have enough room under the cap to offer him the maximum salary.
If money is no longer the deciding factor for the top free agents, what would be the difference-maker? Teams have been wooing players with every other inducement imaginable. Indiana free agent Austin Croshere already has received NBA jerseys with his name on the back from three clubs hoping to sign him. Hill got personalized videos with appearances by Oprah Winfrey, recruiting on behalf of the Bulls, and Jerry Seinfeld, who pleaded with him to become a Knick. "A lot of what we're doing is analogous to what college coaches do to attract players," says Seattle general manager Wally Walker, who is trying to re-sign 6'10" forward Rashard Lewis. "I find myself deferring a lot to one of our assistant coaches, Dwane Casey, because he was a college coach for years."