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At this time last fall Orlando was in the midst of throwing a citywide housewarming party for the Magic's two prize free-agent pickups: former Pistons star Grant Hill and unproven but promising ex-Raptors swingman Tracy McGrady. Despite the duo's matching seven-year, $93 million contracts, McGrady took pains to make one thing absolutely clear. "It's Grant's team," the 21-year-old said. "He's the All-Star. I ain't done nothing in this league yet."
How strange, then, to attend Magic training camp only a year later and listen as Hill talked about playing on what is now undeniably Tracy's team. Even stranger still, Hill not only seems to be accepting this reversal but also fully embracing it. "My role will be different, and I welcome that," says Hill, who sat out all but four games with an ankle injury last season while McGrady was maturing into one of the league's best players. "I'll give up scoring 30 [points] a night to have a chance at a championship, and I think we're going in that direction."
Indeed, optimism is the designer drug of choice these days in Orlando, where McGrady has mentioned 60 wins as a goal, coach Doc Rivers talks of "expectations [that] are very high, and they should be" and general manager John Gabriel calls this year's squad "maybe the best team we've ever had here, including our Finals team [1994-95]." (That last claim would no doubt be of interest to a certain Lakers center and former Disneytown denizen should the two teams meet in the Finals next June.)
Easy as it usually is to discount such preseason braggadocio as mere hot air, in the case of the Magic it's hard not to agree. After all, this is a team that finished fourth in the Atlantic last season based largely on the make-you-stay-up-and-watch-TNT-on-a-Tuesday play of McGrady, who capped an All-Star season by going Jordan on the Bucks in the first round, averaging 33.8 points and 8.3 assists in the four-game series defeat.
This year the Magic not only brings back Hill, who has looked healthy, if rusty, in the preseason, but the team also bulked up by adding free agents (or more accurately, free ancients) Patrick Ewing, 39, and Horace Grant, 36, who between them have played in 2,448 NBA games, or more than twice as many as the Orlando franchise. Regardless of their mileage, the pair is a significant improvement upon last year's starting duo of Andrew DeClercq and Bo Outlaw, who, though admirable hustle players, contributed little to the box score outside of the PF column, combining to average more fouls per game (5.8) than field goals made (5-2).
Thus, in one off-season, the Magic has gone from an undersized smoke-and-mirrors club to one of the deepest, and tallest, teams in the East. As such, Rivers won't be starting Mike Miller, the 2000-01 Rookie of the Year, even though the sweet-shooting swingman probably made the greatest off-season strides of any Magic player. After being pushed around as a rookie, Miller spent the summer working out with McGrady in Orlando, adding 15 pounds of muscle and a good dose of confidence—"I gotta have it," he says with a smile—both of which were on display during the U.S.'s gold medal run at the Goodwill Games.
Miller broke a bone in his right foot last Friday, and he may miss up to five weeks. Once healthy he will play close to 30 minutes a night and often team with McGrady and Hill, whom Rivers plans to use as a point forward this year to create the ultimate small-guard matchup nightmare. Faced with a trio of players 6'8" or taller, all of whom can pass, shoot and handle the ball, opposing teams will either have to send their smaller guards into the paint to play post defense (welcome to the weight room, Sam Cassell, Jason Terry and David Wesley) or try to match the Magic's height. Asked how he would defend such a lineup, Rivers thinks for a moment and then smiles. "I don't know," he says. "That's a good question."
It's one the rest of the East will have to figure out quickly, or the Magic—be it Grant's team or Tracy's team—will be known simply as the East's best team.
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