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The never-before-told and completely fictional "what if" alternate reality starring Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway

It's duos week at NBA.com! In addition to our all-time NBA duos 2-on-2 tournament, we're taking a closer look at some of our favourite all-time duos.

Shaq and Penny.

What are the first two words that pop into your head whenever you hear those names?

In this round of mid-to-late 90s NBA word association, there's a decent chance your mind immediately drifts to "What If?"

And for good reason! The thought of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway staying together (and staying healthy) floods my brain with so many disparate thoughts about what might have been that it's impossible to not to get lost at sea; rudderless in a swirling storm of waves tossing you every which way into the abyss of an alternate NBA reality.

You've surely thought "what if" with regards to Orlando's would-be dynastic duo but have you ever sat down to ponder what exactly that "what if" might have looked like?

Both were just 24 years old heading into the fateful summer of 1996 when O'Neal ultimately bolted as a free agent for the Los Angeles Lakers and both had finished in the top-3 in MVP voting over the previous two seasons.

And it's not as if O'Neal's departure was written in the stars. In fact, prior to the start of the 1995-96 season, his agent Leonard Armato was quoted in the LA Times on the matter. "I don't see him leaving the situation he has. I don't see any reason why he won't spend the rest of his career in Orlando."

"I don't see him leaving the situation he has. I don't see any reason why he won't spend the rest of his career in Orlando."

What if the most physically dominant player since Wilt Chamberlain decided to stick it out alongside the Orlando Magic's version of Magic Johnson? It's on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA butterfly effects rubbing shoulders with "what if the Blazers drafted Michael Jordan?" There's every reason to believe that had they stayed together (and healthy!), everything would have changed.

Here's how it would have gone…

1996-97: Not much changes this first year. Rather than play for the U.S. Olympic team, Hardaway takes it easy and returns midway through the season. The Magic reach the Eastern Conference Finals where they once again face the Chicago Bulls. Only instead of getting swept as they did in 1996, the Magic push them to six. Though he wouldn't admit it in the moment, years later Jordan himself confessed that they were lucky to get by. Just as they did in real life, the Magic hire legendary Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly in the offseason hoping he'd prove to be the difference maker.

1997-98: The Magic finish 63-19, one game ahead of the Bulls, who now have to play the Indiana Pacers in the second round instead of the Eastern Conference Finals. After winning a tough seven-game series, the Bulls face an angry Magic squad looking for revenge. Not only are the Magic younger and more well rested, Shaq is still fuming from losing out on the 1998 MVP to Jordan and channels that rage into a dominant five-game romp in which he averages 37 points and 18 rebounds per game. Poor Luc Longley. O'Neal then dunks all over Greg Ostertag and the Utah Jazz in the Finals en route to winning Finals MVP. At the championship parade at Disney World - while rocking a Lil Penny shirt with one arm draped around Hardaway - Shaq declared this the start of a dynasty.

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1998-99: In the lockout shortened season, O'Neal takes half of the abbreviated season to work himself back into shape. Orlando finishes with the 2nd-best record but is able to reach the Finals once more with relative ease as they take advantage of the top-seeded Miami Heat being eliminated by the New York Knicks. In their bid for back-to-back titles, the Magic fall short as they lose in seven to Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs.

1999-00: Prior to the season, Daly retires and Doc Rivers is hired as the new head coach. Though he's a rookie coach, the respected Rivers hits it off instantly with his two superstars, showcasing what would become a legendary ability to connect with marquee players. Shaq finally wins that elusive MVP, just as he did in real life. Hungry after the previous year's loss to San Antonio's twin towers, O'Neal powers his way to a scoring title. Orlando reaches a third straight Finals where it faces off against a deep Portland Trail Blazers team. The Blazers have more depth but the combination of O'Neal and Hardaway proves too much as the Magic eek by in seven. Hardaway's alley-oop lob to O'Neal late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 caps off an amazing 15-point comeback. A signature moment in the duo's highlight reel.

2000-01: Out in the Western Conference, Jerry West and the Lakers are still mad about missing out on O'Neal back in the summer of 1996. Although they traded for Chris Webber to pair alongside Kobe Bryant, it hasn't been enough to get out of the West. With the loaded free agent class of 2000 that featured Duncan, Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, West was determined to land two of them despite only enough cap room to nab one. He somehow figured it out, signing Hill as a free agent and working out a sign-and-trade with the Toronto Raptors for McGrady. With Bryant, McGrady and Hill all on the same team, the Lakers suddenly had the most fearsome perimeter trio in NBA history.

To the surprise of nobody, the Lakers finally reached the NBA Finals. But instead of a much anticipated showdown with O'Neal and Hardaway, the Lakers instead faced the Milwaukee Bucks, who upset the Magic with Ray Allen miraculously hitting a corner 3 to win Game 7.

After Sam Cassell famously stepped over Tyronn Lue after hitting the game-clinching shot in Game 1, the Lakers rolled off four straight as Bryant won his elusive first ring.

2001-02: Magic. Lakers. The 2002 Finals generated more hype than any championship round in decades.

Not only was there the history between Shaq leaving the Lakers at the altar back in the summer of 1996, the unofficial "best player in the league" debate raged on between fans of O'Neal and Bryant. Not only would O'Neal himself refuse to entertain the question, he spent the better part of the year playing up Hardaway as superior to all three of the Lakers' superstar swingmen.

Want even more oxygen for that fire?

After getting bounced the previous year by the Bucks and perhaps feeling the pressure to form their own Big 3 after watching Bryant, McGrady and Hill win the title in their first year together, the Magic signed Chris Webber as a free agent prior to the start of the year. Webber, of course, was still fuming that the Lakers traded him away to Toronto in order to land McGrady and was so eager to win that he took less than the max with the Magic (who couldn't have afforded him otherwise) for the chance to team up with O'Neal and Hardaway.

Despite all of that talent on the perimeter, Orlando proved to be too much inside as the Magic went on to win in six games. Make that three championships for Orlando's dynamic duo and a third Finals MVP for O'Neal.

2002-03: The Penny Hardaway year.

Although he won the title the previous year, the now 8-time All-Star had something to prove. Passed over for All-NBA First Team each of the two previous seasons and with no Finals MVPs to his name, the 31-year-old do-it-all combo guard blasted out of the gates with his best season to date. With O'Neal spending the better part of the year playing his way into shape and Webber in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries, Hardaway led the team in scoring while starting all 82 games and leading the Magic to a franchise-record 66 wins. Hardaway claimed his first MVP award and would go on to add his first Finals MVP too after leading the Magic past Duncan's Spurs in a Finals rematch from 1999.

2003-04: Incredibly, not much changed.

The Lakers added both Gary Payton and Karl Malone, who were ring chasing. An NBA title felt all but certain, especially after the Magic got bounced by the Pistons in the second round. No way would a team with five future Hall of Famers lose to Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, right?

Wrong.

The Pistons shocked the world, Malone and Payton retired and the Lakers ended up trading away T-Mac after it became clear that either he or Bryant needed to leave.

2004-05: The final season for O'Neal and Hardaway as teammates in Orlando featured one more last valiant Finals push. Despite finishing with the six seed, the Magic were able to make it back to the Conference Finals where most expected them to once again lose to the defending champion Pistons, who knocked them out the previous year. Down two in overtime in the closing seconds of Game 5, Robert Horry - who chose the Magic over the Spurs the year prior - drained a game-winning 3 over the outstretched arms of Rasheed Wallace. That shot gave the Magic a 3-2 lead and ultimately propelled them to a sixth Finals appearance where they once more saw long-time Finals nemesis San Antonio. This time around, the now 33-year-old brothers in arms didn't quite have enough in the tank to keep up with the 28-year-old Duncan.

This proved to be the end of an era.

Hardaway retired at season's end while O'Neal, sensing a rebuild in Orlando with an aging roster, amicably agreed to a trade to the Heat. In all, Shaq and Penny ended up winning four championships together and reached the Finals seven times in a lengthy partnership in Orlando that lasted 12 years.

2005-06: O'Neal wasted no time making his presence felt in Miami alongside new wingman and budding superstar Dwyane Wade. Though he may not have been the Shaq of old, he somehow still managed to make All-NBA First Team and exert his dominance down low. With Wade leading the charge, the Heat made it to the NBA Finals as O'Neal once more dispatched the Pistons in what had become arguably as tense of a personal rivalry as the ones he shared with the Spurs and Lakers.

When the dust settled on a historic individual Finals performance by Wade, who eviscerated the Dallas Mavericks, O'Neal had claimed his fifth and final NBA title.

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2006-07: For the first time in his career, O'Neal averaged fewer than 20 points per game while playing fewer than half of the season. The Heat unceremoniously dipped out in a disappointing first round series loss to the Bulls while LeBron James made his first trip to the Finals where he was in turn schooled by Duncan's Spurs.

2007-08: The return of Penny!

After two seasons in retirement, Hardaway is convinced by O'Neal to join him in South Beach for one more ride. Reluctantly, he agrees, though it doesn't last long as Hardaway re-retires after 16 games.

The final game that Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway played together came on the road in Utah in the same building where they won their first championship back in 1997.

Picking up the pieces

OK, so that's our alternate reality.

Too rosy? Perhaps. But after rolling through the weeds it's fun to zoom out and think about what actually could have changed beyond simply their time together in Orlando.

Is Michael Jordan's legacy different with five rings instead of six? Though still 5-0 in the Finals in this parallel universe, gone would be the prevailing aura of invincibility that is omnipresent in any big picture debate.

In turn, does that change the GOAT discussion? This all played out before LeBron James ever steps foot in the league but in 2020, how different is the LeBron discourse without the double MJ 3-peat?

No Kobe and Shaq. No Lakers 3-peat. Let's face it, had the Lakers not scored O'Neal in the summer of 1996, they still would have made a big splash. This scenario included a play for Chris Webber and the coup for Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Could they have chased Alonzo Mourning? Dirk Nowitzki? Kevin Garnett? Would Phil Jackson have ever gone there? The Lakers are the Lakers, so again… they would have done something. But it's fascinating to think what exactly that might have been.

No Lakers dynasty means a wide open West. Would the Portland Trail Blazers or Sacramento Kings have broken through? What about the Phoenix Suns? Or perhaps Tim Duncan and the Spurs would have just rattled off an even more obscene tally of Finals appearances?

Speaking of the Spurs… let's head back to the summer of 2000. Duncan seriously considered leaving for Orlando. Would he have instead considered bouncing for the Lakers and the chance to team up with Bryant? How many titles would a Bryant-Duncan partnership have netted? And if that happened, the Spurs… well, they don't become the Spurs.

Shaq's legacy probably doesn't change much. As the fulcrum of a dynasty in either Los Angeles or Orlando, we likely wouldn't think of him much differently assuming there's still a healthy stack of rings and Finals MVPs.

What happens to Dwight Howard? Look, it's impossible to play what if on every single draft pick and that's a slippery slope even more ridiculous than literally making up 20 years of NBA history. But clearly, Howard's not going to Orlando. This is a future Hall of Famer and someone who was unequivocally the best centre in the league for half a decade. He immediately changes the fortunes of another franchise looming out there.

The biggest - of course - is Hardaway. Maybe the lingering injuries happen even if Shaq stays. It was after all against the Pistons in 1996 that it first occurred while O'Neal was still on the team. But let's be honest, nobody daydreams about "what if" through the lens of one without the other.

Penny had the opportunity to be what neither Kobe Bryant nor Dwyane Wade truly were: equals. Their timelines matched up in ways that neither Bryant's nor Wade's did. Could Hardaway have blossomed into a Pippen-esque sidekick? Could he have been even more, someone that operated on a 1A/1B level next to the most dominant big man in the modern era? Could there have been a world in which an in-his-prime Shaq was the one deferring to Hardaway?

It's impossible to know. But as we continue to celebrate duos all week here on NBA.com, I can't help but get lost in the world of "what ifs" in thinking about what could have been the league's most magical duo.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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