ORLANDO, Fla. -- There was no question that Horace Grant was the best available free agent when last season ended. With three championship rings, seven playoff appearances in seven seasons with the Chicago Bulls and an unquestionable work ethic, Grant could have asked for a blank check from any number of NBA teams -- and gotten it.
Instead, Grant will be paid a modest -- by NBA standards -- $2.1 million this season to play for the Orlando Magic.
"The attraction was the players," Grant said yesterday, "and the fact that it's a team that's going someplace, a team that's growing now."
Brian Shaw was the best free-agent point guard available, and teams dangled starting jobs and millions of dollars. Instead, he accepted $682,000 this season to be a backup with the Magic.
"The organization seemed like it was on the right track, as far as building for the future," said Shaw, who played 2 1/2 years with the Miami Heat. "They made me feel like it was a family, and things just added up to make me want to come here."
With Grant and Shaw, the expectations here are sky-high. One season after being swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Magic is considered among the league's premier teams -- with Sports Illustrated even picking it to reach the NBA Finals.
The praise is flattering, the attention that goes along with it nice. But the Magic, at home tonight looking to avenge its season-opening loss to the Washington Bullets, has decided to proceed with caution.
"It's a lot of expectations, but it's all on paper," center Shaquille O'Neal said. "We have a pretty good team -- now we just have to go out and put it all together."
O'Neal bragged before the season that his team had the game's best starting five, but he has learned in Orlando's 3-2 start that there will be growing pains.
"We've never won a playoff game, so obviously we don't know what it takes to get to the next level," O'Neal said. "I'd rather take it real slow instead of coming out on fire. Get some speed and be real strong at the end."
To coach Brian Hill, it's a matter of blending a lot of new faces into a team that won 50 games last season.
"There's a transition period you have to go to any time you add new players, and we're going through it right now," Hill said. "We have to mature a lot more to grow into the type of team that everybody's predicting that we are right now."
Most of that maturity will have to come from O'Neal and point guard Anfernee Hardaway. O'Neal, whose ambition is to score 90 points in a game, is averaging a league-leading 34.6 points and has led the Magic in scoring in each game. After a summer with Dream Team II, he has added a few post-up moves and seems ready to establish himself as the best player in the game.
"Having [Grant] helps, because teams can't really double me with the power forward as much," O'Neal said. "And defensively, we don't have to double anyone because we can all play our man straight up."
O'Neal's role as a dominant low-post player remains the same, but Hardaway's will be different. After starting last season as off-guard, he's the full-time starter at the point -- although not in the traditional sense. At 6 feet 7, Hardaway is able to post up most teams' point guards.
"By posting, I'm getting looks that I want," Hardaway said. "And because of my height, teams have to double-team both me and Shaquille, so we wind up getting good, open shots for our shooters. If teams keep doubling, it's going to make us a hard team to beat."
Grant pretty much will do the same thing he did in Chicago -- hit open shots and rebound. He's averaging 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds. But what the Magic really wants from Grant, 29, is leadership, and he's not at all shy about leaning on some of the younger players.
"In Chicago, we had a lot of playoff experience, so with the youth here, it's going to take time to jell," Grant said. "There's some things I'll be able to share. For me, it's just really nice to be appreciated by the organization. My leaving had nothing to do with the team, just the organization. And I've been able to find a better place here."
And the dollars? They can wait for Grant and Shaw, who should be due for hefty raises after this season since teams are allowed to go beyond the salary cap to sign its own free agents.
"In Miami, the guys were more into just trying to make money and not into developing," Shaw said. "There, it was an expansion team that didn't expect to win. Here, the expectation level is high, so it's good to have a purpose and go out and play for it.
"They have the potential to win a couple of championships here, and I just wanted to be a part of that."