The Eastern Conference has gotten worse as the NBA landscape shifts this summer. The Orlando Magic can see the Playoffs, but patience is still the word.
The string of moves this offseason throughout the NBA has greatly shifted the narrative in the league. Or, perhaps hey have worked to entrench an already existing narrative about the league.
The Western Conference is king. The Eastern Conference is the dregs of the league.
A lot of this is the Eastern Conference’s own doing. The Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Western Conference, after all. Chris Paul opted to stay in the Western Conference, hand picking the Houston Rockets as his free-agent destination.
There is a lot of talent in the Western Conference. The Eastern Conference? Not so much.
Many Orlando Magic fans thought the early over/under that had the Magic at 40.5 wins was a joke. But that line may be more of a statement of how bad the Eastern Conference is. If .500 is supposed to be the final seed in the Playoffs, why could the Magic not get there with this competition?
Orlando will enter the season professing to have Playoff goals again. There is no reason why they should not. The Eastern Conference is wide open. Even a 29-win team can believe a little bit. The Eastern Conference fell to the Magic, even as they stood still.
It is either brilliant design from the Magic or something they do not focus on this offseason. Most likely, it is the latter. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman is likely more concerned with improving the team long term — that sustainable winning phrase team CEO Alex Martins likes to use — than winning in the short term. His moves so far have suggested that.
And that is exactly fine for the Magic. Let the Eastern Conference trip trying to climb over itself. Let the season happen as it will happen while maintaining a long-term vision.
The Playoffs are never a bad thing — sorry, tankers — but they are not a blinding goal.
The possibility of making the Playoffs and pushing in right now for the Magic certainly is tempting. Even after last year’s gambit to make the Playoffs with a wild-spending free agency. The Eastern Conference has made that possible.
The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks all likely got worse. That opened up three spots to make the Playoffs. Teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat will surely take that step up. The Detroit Pistons (37 wins last year) will try to take that spot, but they hardly inspire confidence. The New York Knicks have Carmelo Anthony (for now, the Rockets are still calling) and the Philadelphia 76ers seem to be knocking on the door with all their youth.
The Eastern Conference is wide open once again. And it does not seem likely the conference will see all of its Playoff teams finish at .500 or better.
That certainly opens the door for the Magic. The conference is a free-for-all race to the bottom. A team like Orlando could very well accidentally make the Playoffs through the right mix of internal development, luck and momentum.
From a competitive standpoint, coach Frank Vogel and the players should all talk about the Playoffs as their goal.
Realistically, the team made very few changes from last year’s 29-win team. It is hard to see the team making a dramatic improvement unless Jonathan Isaac becomes Rookie of the Year or Aaron Gordon takes some kind of star leap. Continuity with Vogel should be worth a few wins, plus a clearer and more comfortable direction with the team’s playing style.
It gets easy to begin believing.
But the problem with the Eastern Conference feels like it is a self-defeating one. Teams have had the Playoffs as such an easily attainable goal, mismanagement is glossed over for the hopes of short-term gains. As the Magic learned last year, that short-term thinking is a dangerous mindset.
The Paul George trade then was not so much a cause of the Eastern Conference’s poor play, but a symptom of it. The Pacers took a light package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom the Magic traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in an ill-gotten plan to make the Playoffs immediately, because of their own mismanagement.
As Andrew Sharp of Sports Illustrated wrote, the widespread mismanagement in the conference is the reason for its downfall:
"Teams in the East have suffered from consistently, amazingly mediocre management during an NBA era where smart management has become more important than ever. That’s how 75 percent of the league’s superstars end up in one conference."
The Magic are hoping the new management will fix this. Orlando was certainly a victim of its own mismanagement to end up in the salary cap, less-than-mediocre hell they find the team in.
But as the goal line seemingly moves closer to them, the Magic did not jump at the temptation to go for it again. They did not use their moderate cap room (roughly $11 million to start the summer) despite fan clamoring to do something of significance. They did not look to add players using the mid-level exception or dip closer to the luxury tax.
Orlando could have easily done some accounting to spend a lot more than it had this summer to make that push for the Playoffs — future consequences be damned.
The organization decided to play things slow and patient. Shelvin Mack at $12 million for two years might be a bit of an overpay — and an odd fit considering the team’s roster — but the second year is unguaranteed according to reports and the Magic can look forward to more flexibility as their big contracts expire.
Orlando is trying to avoid the management pitfalls that put the team in such a dire situation. The forbidden fruit of the Eastern Conference’s weakening is not going to tempt them into a rush. They are going to wait things out and play on their schedule, making moves when the time is right rather than for the sake of it.
It would seem the Magic are entering a season where there is no negative result.
If the team pulls together and makes a surprising run to the Playoffs, that is great. Fans get the excitement of seeing the team win games and play competitive games and all that. Their players become a bit more marketable and there are opportunities to improve in the trade market.
If the team struggles again to a 29-win season. Then the team gets a year closer to flexibility again and can add to their young core with another high draft pick.
Weltman and the Magic front office know these possibilities and both have their appeal.
If Vogel is willing to vouch and defend his players — he did throughout the end of last season despite the team’s 8-16 post-All-Star Break record and porous defense –what is the worst that could happen? Another 30-win season and a high lottery pick?
The Magic ultimately are trying to remake the roster in their new management’s image. While the Playoffs now seem tempting. Keeping the long-term view and remaining patient with their assets — waiting for the right deal — is the right path.