Restarted NBA season must give Orlando Magic playoff advantage

The Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets separated themselves from the Eastern Conference pack before the league's hiatus. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets separated themselves from the Eastern Conference pack before the league's hiatus. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Through the first 65 games, the Orlando Magic established themselves as a playoff team. As the league ponders how to restart, they cannot forget that.

At this point, it is not clear when the Orlando Magic and the NBA will take the floor again. At this point, it is not even clear what that will look like.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver continues to keep the league closed and await guidance from the CDC for the clearance to begin games again.

All the reporting has suggested the league has every intention of playing again this season. There is almost a determination to do so to deliver the season a champion and to mitigate losses from the dustup in China at the beginning of the season and the current hiatus.

Reality though is starting to intervene.

Brian Windhorst reported on SportsCenter yesterday the league is beginning to consider the pessimistic options more seriously. As the course of the virus remains unclear and recovery uncertain, the league is preparing for a doomsday scenario.

It does not seem like any decision on the future of the 2020 season is imminent. The league wants to finish the season in some fashion and play a postseason. At the very least to keep record continuity and provide some entertainment for fans in self-isolation.

There is still a long way to go to get there.

What is clear is the NBA will look different for the rest of this season. The league is considering a number of different things to kickstart the season.

That might include several of their pet project ideas they pitched to owners and players during the course of the season — notably, the mid-season tournament and play-in game. The rushed finish to this season might require one or both of those ideas to get a test run this year.

As they map out the league’s finish to the 2020 season, the league has to do one thing — ensure the integrity of the season to date. With the idea of a possible play-in tournament for the final playoff seed, the league has to bake in advantages that will ensure the first 60-plus games mean something.

A playoff tournament for the 8-seed may make sense in the Western Conference, where the four teams 8-12 are separated by four games. But it does not make sense in the Eastern Conference, where teams 7-9 are separated by six games with the Orlando Magic holding a 5.5-game lead over the Washington Wizards for the final playoff spot.

The Magic should not have to face a single-elimination tournament with their playoff spot on the line in a four-team or larger tournament. That might make more sense in the Western Conference (although those teams would surely have their complaints). But it does not make sense in the East.

Not if the regular season matters.

Orlando has so far earned as easy an advantage to make the final playoff field as reasonably possible. The regular season before the hiatus has to matter.

The NBA figuring out a format or formula to determine this that applies evenly to everyone and serves the league’s interest is going to be the trick. But there are plenty of things they can do to cook advantages in for teams further ahead in the standings and gaining higher seeds in these tournaments.

Some variation to the end of the season is almost guaranteed to occur now. The league is not likely going to get its 82 games.

As things stand, it is looking more and more likely the league will have every team gather in one location like Las Vegas to complete the season. This will keep everyone in one place for easy testing and isolation so they can get the season done without any more exposure to the virus, especially if the league tries to return sooner than later (not that they will not get the OK from health officials before they implement this kind of plan).

Teams undoubtedly will get a mini-training camp of a week or two to get back into game shape and rhythm before the league plays a few regular-season games to help regain that rhythm further. To make it worth the time for teams at the very bottom of the standings, giving them some chance to make the playoffs makes some sense.

The league will get to experiment with this play-in tournament format.

The original plan for the NBA’s play-in tournament would seed the teams 7-10 into a play-in tournament. The 7- and 8-seed would play each other with the winner getting the 7-seed. The 9- and 10-seed would play each other to face the loser of the previous game.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The winner of the 9/10 game would then have to defeat the 7/8 loser twice to advance to the playoffs. At every turn, the team that finished in the traditional playoff spot would have the advantage and the easier path to make the playoffs.

If the NBA wants to use every team in some form of a play-in tournament, they need to maintain the advantages for the teams that put themselves in position to make the playoffs throughout the course of the season. Making it so teams in the bottom half of the standings have to beat teams in the top half of the standings twice to advance would more than suffice to make regular-season success an advantage in this setup.

That may not avoid the Orlando Magic have to play the Washington Wizards in a single-elimination semifinal game, but it would avoid a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers from scoring an upset and ending the Magic’s season prematurely.

There is a formula and a process that would work to quickly get to the postseason, give every team a last chance at the playoffs and honor the regular season so far.

There may be no avoiding rough play at the end of the season so results might get screwy.

The 1999 season began fairly quickly after the lockout ended and despite an abbreviated training camp, everyone looked out of shape and unprepared for the season.

The New York Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals as the 8-seed and they certainly could have risen above that low seeding if given more time. A pretty ragged and poor Magic team finished third in the Eastern Conference that year, tying for the Atlantic Division title with the Miami Heat, the one-seed that lost to the New York Knicks in five games.

Players and teams learned from that experience. Play was much better during the 2012 lockout-shortened season. And players now are doing better staying in shape while team facilities are closed. But not every player has access to a court or hoop to keep their basketball skills sharp.

On top of the potential for some rough basketball coming out of the hiatus as teams try to get back into game shape, there is a real possibility the league will use best-of-five series again in the early rounds to help speed things along and eliminate some of the drek. But that can also lead to more potential upsets as each game takes on a lot more heft.

Undoubtedly, however this season ends, this will be a unique year.

The NBA is going to do what it can to finish its season and give the year some finality.

What If? Series: 2009 Orlando Magic vs. Denver Nuggets. dark. Next

No matter what the league decides, it has to honor the work these teams put in through the first 5.5 months of the season. That cannot get thrown out simply to create a made-for-TV single-elimination tournament, rescuing teams that had long abandoned their playoff hopes at the last minute.