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“They said it was Penny’s team” — Shaquille O'Neal opens up about why he left the Orlando Magic in free agency

The Magic lowballed Shaquille O'Neal during '96 free agency because they thought Penny Hardaway was their future
Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway with the Orlando Magic

Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway

When Shaquille O'Neal was a free agent in 1996, his main goal was to look for a team that would pay him max money and let him be the franchise's star. Many teams were interested in The Diesel's services but the Los Angeles Lakers were the most persistent.

Despite having O'Neal's bird rights and the ability to offer him the most money, the Orlando Magic lowballed him and committed one of the worst franchise decisions in history by not retaining O'Neal.

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The Orlando Magic didn't want to prioritize Shaq.

Initially, O'Neal welcomed the idea of staying in Orlando for as long as they went above and beyond to pay him. But before he tested the free agency market, O'Neal discovered that the Magic would prioritize Penny Hardaway over him, which rubbed the big man the wrong way.

"At the end of my four years, Penny's deal was up. He actually sat out, until they paid him. I was a supporter, 'Hey man, pay the man what he wants.' So, Penny gets a lot of money," O'Neal revealed in the Oprah Masterclass podcast. "When my deal was up, they didn't want to give me the money that I wanted and they said it was Penny's team. So instead of me talking to Penny, ego kicked in a little bit, and then, I tested out free agency," he added.

O'Neal then signed with the Lakers, who offered him a 7-year $120 million contract. His free agency was one of the most significant events in NBA offseason history as teams such as the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and Atlanta Hawks were also on the chase. In the end, the Lakers came out on top because they offered Shaq the most money and promised to build a contender around him.

Why the Magic didn't want to outbid the Lakers

Aside from prioritizing Hardaway, the Magic reportedly didn't want to offer O'Neal $20 million per year over a longer deal. They were also nitpicking the opt-out year of his contract and weren't willing to go over the luxury tax for the rising superstar.

The Magic lowballed a 24-year-old rising superstar who had already won Rookie of the Year, a scoring title, been named to the All-NBA team 3 times, was the runner-up for league MVP, and someone who knocked Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls off in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

This is yet another reminder for teams that if you have a potential all-time great in the making, you do your best to keep and pay them — otherwise, there's no point in competing in the NBA for championships. 

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