During the last half of the 1990s, Penny Hardaway was on top of the basketball world. Playing on a fresh new franchise and arriving just after the retirements of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, Hardaway promised to escalate the NBA’s popularity with a style that melded many of the talents of the aforementioned legends. His raw athleticism trumped Bird’s, his scoring outbursts surpassed those of Magic, and his passing was more deceptive than MJ could ever consistently hope for.
Playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Hardaway’s Magic quickly ascended the NBA ladder and made the NBA Finals in 1995, just his second season. In 1996 the Magic were defeated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the now-returned MJ’s 72-win Chicago Bulls. (Hardaway, by the way, finished 3rd in MVP voting that year). Despite the disheartening defeats, the future looked bright. Instead of perennial contender, though, the Magic ultimately floundered because Shaq left for the Los Angeles Lakers and Hardaway experienced his first of many knee injuries.
However, it would be remiss to say that Penny Hardaway’s career ended when Shaq left Orlando, or when his knee first betrayed him. In the 1996-97 season without O’Neal, Penny guided the Magic to a 45-win season. He shifted from over-sized point guard to scoring machine who had the threat of passing to keep defenders totally off-balance. The apogee of this version of Penny was Games 3 and 4 of the 1st Round that year. He played every minute of both games and delivered back-to-back 40-point games while shooting well over 50%. It was a blistering performance that the Miami Heat barely survived winning the series 3-games-to-2.
In 1999, Penny returned from his first serious knee injury and led Orlando to the best record in the Eastern Conference in the lockout-shortened season. The next year he was traded to the Phoenix Suns where he again spearheaded a regular season success. Teaming with Jason Kidd, Penny and the Suns won 53-games in the regular season. However, Penny was by himself when it came to upsetting the defending champion Spurs in the first round as Kidd missed three of the four games. Hardaway’s triple-double (17 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds and 4 steals) in Game 3 proved the turning point to clinching the series.
In the next round Penny faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers and his old ally, Shaquille O’Neal. Over the first four games of the series, Hardaway worked over the Lakers with 25 points, 6.5 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals a game while shooting 54% from the field. These heroics couldn’t stop the better team from winning this time as the Lakers dispatched the Suns 4-games-to-1 and went to win the NBA title.
Dreaded microfracture surgery cost him all but four games the next season (2000-01). Thereafter, Hardaway’s career finally succumbed to nagging knee injuries. The career splits are unmistakable and this is the moment he became the shell of himself:
1994 – 2000: 18.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.9 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 47.3% FG, 76.9% FT
2001 – 2008: 9.6 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 42.1% FG, 79.7% FT
But Penny at his finest was one of the greatest players to ever set foot in the NBA. Trying to write the story of the NBA in the last half of the 1990s is impossible without including him. And when you can say that about a player, I don’t care how long his career lasted, the impact is enough to warrant Hall of Fame inclusion.
Seasons Played: 1994 – 2008
2x All-NBA 1st Team (1995-’96)
All-NBA 3rd Team (1997)
4x All-Star (1995-’98)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1994)
NBA - 704 Games
15.2 PPG, 5.0 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 45.8% FG, 77.4% FT