Orlando Magic should favor “playoff plus” format for NBA’s return

The Orlando Magic's Playoff-clinching win over the Boston Celtics was as rewarding as their Playoff victory. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's Playoff-clinching win over the Boston Celtics was as rewarding as their Playoff victory. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The NBA is officially moving closer to a return. As they weigh their options on how to get back, the Orlando Magic should favor a way to play themselves in.

Orlando Magic players have been working out at the Amway Center for nearly a week. By all accounts everyone seems happy to be back and focusing on basketball, as socially distant as everyone still is.

Jonathan Isaac spoke to the media at an event where he distributed pizza and food to students and families and said he had spoken to a few players around the facility and the team had a Zoom call together. That is at least something.

The NBA is starting to move again. The league is starting to move toward a return to play.

Saturday, the league acknowledged publicly it has entered negotiations with Disney to host the conclusion of its season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex likely in late July.

Things are now far enough along to publicly acknowledge them. The NBA has made its intention to return clearer now — this is no longer merely a rumor or a report. But there is still a lot of work to go before the league returns.

At least players and teams have a goal to look forward to. All that work will have a reward at the end of it.

The next step for the league is to announce how it will return.

The report is the league hopes to have this announced around June 1 (next Monday). And with that in mind, the league reportedly sent a survey to the league’s 30 general managers (via The Athletic, subscription required) asking their opinion on several return-to-play issues.

To be sure, the end of the 2020 season is going to be unlike any other. It is looking nearly impossible that all teams will reach 82 games. And the league likely will try to move to the Playoffs as quickly as possible.

Considering teams will need some kind of tune-up — a two- or three-week training camp for teams to get back into game shape and rhythm and likely some regular season or other exhibition games before they start any games of meaning — we are still a long way off from games getting played.

Teams are already beginning to wonder whether they can get into the campus setting at Disney early if they are unable to start training at home sites now. And the league is reportedly willing to tell teams that are too far out of the Playoff picture they can stay home and consider their season completed.

There are financial decisions being made all over the league and a lot of details to iron out.

The decisions facing the league come down to how they will complete the regular season and move on to the Playoffs. The league has always been open to experimenting and doing something different. This situation might be a chance for the league to test out some ideas that it has floated and discussed in the past.

But they essentially come down to playing a regular finish before heading into the Playoffs or creating some play-in tournament to reward teams that do make the trip to Disney.

No option is going to be perfect. The break in this season is unavoidable. There will be a pre-hiatus and a post-hiatus to this season.

For the Magic, they are in a strange position. They hold a sizable lead for the final playoff spot over the Washington Wizards. The Orlando Magic would like some regular-season games to try to catch and pass the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. But a play-in tournament of any kind would threaten their Playoff position as it stands now.

It is still unclear how the NBA will return. But the Magic should support at least some form of play-in plan — what Shams Charania calls a “Playoff Plus.”

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If making the Playoffs is valuable for a young team, winning a playoff game or series is even more valuable. And this is what a Playoff Plus would create. So long as the plan respects the advantages of the season to this point, the Magic would benefit from feeling and winning under Playoff pressure far more than a simple first-round exit.

What is a Playoff-Plus?

There are several options the NBA could explore to make their return to play.

The easiest is to have every team that makes its way to Disney or the “bubble” site play the same number of regular-season games (it could be anywhere from 5-10 it seems at this point) and the standings at the end of that regular season begins the Playoffs.

This is the most straightforward and least disruptive plan.

Sure, some teams would play an uneven amount of games. But that is about the best the league can do if it goes this route and tries to keep things normal.

The disadvantage of this is there are several teams that while not yet eliminated from the Playoffs likely would not be able to make up ground if there are only five games before the Playoffs. That would eliminate many teams — including the Washington Wizards trying to catch the Orlando Magic for eighth.

This essentially treats the regular season as a final tune-up before the Playoffs and a chance for teams to sort out their final playoff seedings.

This is likely why going straight to the Playoffs does not make sense. Teams certainly want competitive games to ramp up before the Playoffs. It feels like this idea is dead on arrival.

What the “Playoffs Plus” idea does then is give some incentive for teams that are shipped into the campus setting by giving them a chance to make the Playoff field.

This would create a play-in tournament that could be single elimination or mirrors the play-in tournament idea the NBA bounced around last offseason.

That idea would have the 7-seed face the 8-seed and the 9-seed face the 10-seed in a tournament. The winner of the 7/8 game gets the 7-seed and advances to the Playoffs. The loser faces the winner of the 9/10 game and would have to lose twice to miss the Playoffs.

It is not clear from any reporting what idea the NBA has settled on if it went to a play-in tournament. But giving more teams a chance to make the Playoffs seems like something the league will have to do otherwise a host of teams will play five games in the campus setting with little motivation or incentive to be there.

Why the Magic want a Playoff-Plus

For sure, if the league goes to a five-game regular season leading into the Playoffs, the Eastern Conference would already be decided. The Orlando Magic have a 5.5-game lead over the Washington Wizards. They would clinch their playoff spot if the playoffs started after the regular season.

If the league went this normal route and invited only teams within five games of a Playoff spot to Disney, then only 20 teams would make the trip to Orlando. And the teams in the Western Conference would be on high alert from the moment they touched down to play and win.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Eastern Conference teams would just be fighting for Playoff positioning and tuning up.

All the Magic would have left to play for is seeding with the Brooklyn Nets. That is something to fight for, to be sure. And the Magic and Nets would surely play a high-stakes game in the conclusion to their season.

But a Playoff plus comes with an added benefit. While a team like the Magic would risk their ability to make the final Playoff field, they would also get something just as valuable.

The chance to win a Playoff-caliber game. It is the chance to play a game with Playoff intensity — a Game 7, even — with a clear chance to win.

Much of the confidence the Magic got from last year’s Playoff run came from playing their way into the postseason, as coach Steve Clifford would often say. No team wants to back their way into the postseason, they want to be winning and playing well to get in.

The Orlando Magic needed a lot of mettle to come back and defeat the Boston Celtics in the penultimate game and clinch that Playoff spot. The scene in the locker room following that game was one of the most rewarding parts of last year’s season. They had to win to get themselves in.

That experience was valuable in itself too. The Magic likely knew they would enter a Playoff series where there was a low chance for victory. They stole a game from the eventual-champions. But that series was always a long shot.

The defining win for that team came in Boston. They needed a win to avoid a play-in game in the season finale. It felt as must-win as any game could be.

The young Magic team needs that again. They have played well enough to make the Playoffs comfortably. But nothing substitutes playing and winning under pressure.

The Magic need that feeling of success more than anything out of the rest of this season. They need to play their way in once again.

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If the gamble they have to make is their spot in the Playoffs, that is the gamble they should be willing to take.