When the NBA season restarts, it is likely the Orlando Magic will be putting the most on the line, potentially gambling their Playoff spot.
The NBA is preparing to introduce its return to play plan likely this Thursday.
The machinations and pleadings that are going on behind the scenes are staying there — relatively, it’s the NBA and everything leaks. But the league will likely put out a united front and present a 30-0 unanimous decision to return to play in late July later this week.
Unlike MLS and MLB, the NBA appears to have included the players in every phase of the negotiations and they appear to be on board with whatever the NBA decides. They, like the fans, seem eager to get back to playing. Other issues will get resolved, but it seems the NBA will be making a final answer on its return soon.
While plenty of ideas have come out about how the season should end — and with so much time it is easy to dive into the rabbit hole of zany and gimmicky ideas — it seems like the league has ultimately decided to do something relatively simple.
The teams invited into the campus setting will be the teams that have a chance to make the playoffs. And the league will use the final regular-season games — somewhere between 5-10 games — to set up the Playoffs and get things back to normal.
Despite some entreaties to bring all 30 teams into the campus setting, even those outside of the playoff chase, Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported the league is planning to bring 22 teams to Disney in late July to finish its season.
Only one additional team outside a Playoff spot will make the trip to Disney from the Eastern Conference — the Washington Wizards.
To give teams the incentive to make the trip and play these games at Disney, it appears the league plans to have some kind of play-in tournament. While the rules of said play-in tournament are not clear, another thing is.
To finish the season, the NBA is asking the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies to put their most precious important possession on the line. They are asking these two teams specifically to risk a year’s worth of work for a couple of weeks.
They are asking the Magic and Grizzlies to put their Playoff spot on the line. And really these teams alone will bear the burden and risk competitively that comes from the return of the season. The whole pressure and “difference” between the regular season before the coronavirus and the season’s completion will be put on whoever finishes eighth.
The Magic, of course, will have the opportunity to play their way out of the eighth seed. The race in the final eight (or however many) games will be heated for the seventh seed in the East.
The Orlando Magic trail the Brooklyn Nets by one-half game and hold a 2-0 season series advantage. The two teams were supposed to play twice before the end of the season when the league shut things down. There is still something to play for.
It is not clear yet what that format will look like. The play-in tournament is still somewhat in flux. And with more teams coming from the Western Conference, each conference might have its own unique rules and tournament to determine the final seed.
With just nine Eastern Conference teams heading to the campus site at Disney, it will be the eighth-place team taking on the ninth-place team in either a one-off game or some kind of series for that final playoff spot.
The odds are that Orlando will have to fight for its playoff spot once again despite holding a 5.5-game lead on Washington and a 4-0 season series weep over that team. The Magic will still have to put everything on the line. Everything they have (frankly) already earned.
Playing eight regular-season games with Playoff seeding on the line is important. But they ultimately would become fodder for the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors. Lockout or shortened seasons sometimes lead to odd playoff results, but the odds are not in Orlando’s favor to get out of the first round.
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To get something out of the rest of this season and have an opportunity for some real growth then, the Magic should be hoping for some kind of play-in tournament. It is a chance to test the team and put them in pressure situations with real stakes. Orlando will be in a position where they must win and have a chance to succeed.
The most meaningful win of last year’s season was not the Game 1 victory over the Raptors. It was the win over the Boston Celtics in the penultimate game of the season. Coming from behind to clinch that playoff berth and avoid a play-in game in the final game of the season was a really big moment for the team.
The play-in tournament will give the team dual things to play for — to play for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and to avoid the play-in tournament. If the Magic do end up in the play-in tournament, then that is about as close to Game 7 practice as the Magic are likely to get.
Going through that fire and that experience is going to be vital for such a young team.
Every pressure experience and every chance for success, no matter how small, will be valuable ultimately. This team needs to feel the do-or-die pressure of an elimination game.
And to feel that pressure and win? That is an experience that not even the Playoffs can give this team.
The Magic are losers in this whole situation. There is no getting around that.
Whoever finishes eighth is going to have put their entire season on the line in one or two games. Maybe that will end up not mattering or maybe it will be an asterisk to put on this season — I am calling this a Playoff season regardless.
Orlando will have to make the most of the hand they are given. They will either fight their way to the 7-seed or go through the play-in game and put their entire season on the line.
That gamble and that risk may belong to a team like the Magic alone. We will see if the reward is worth that gamble.