Orlando Magic’s schedule should still give them edge for eighth

The Orlando Magic had one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. Even eliminating the worst teams, the Magic’s schedule should give them an edge.

The Orlando Magic were feeling good as they left Memphis. They had just come from behind to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies, completing a three-game win streak and a successful 3-1 road trip. Their offense was rolling and things were going well.

The Magic were playing their best basketball. And the next part of their schedule was set up for them to keep it rolling, building momentum to pass the Brooklyn Nets for seventh and clinch their playoff spot.

The upcoming schedule was set up for them too.

Eight of their next 10 games were at home with nine of their next 10 games against teams with below-.500 records.

They were eager to hit this part of the year. This was their chance to build some cushion and momentum for a tough closing kick — five of the final seven on the road with six of those seven against playoff teams.

Of course, none of that happened. The Orlando Magic returned home from Memphis for a few days off before the Chicago Bulls came to town. They would never arrive as the season was suspended the following day.

Everything went into hiatus as everyone waited for clearance to go back into practice facilities, let alone play games again.

After nearly three months of waiting, the NBA is forming its return-to-play plan. The league is expected to make an official announcement Thursday that 22 teams will descend upon Disney World to finish the season and get to the Playoffs.

Like everything else though, the return to play and the rest of the regular season schedule has to be fair to what was remaining.

Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo! Sports reports the league plans to use the suspended schedule as a guide to build the final eight games for each team. Teams will play opponents they would have played had their season not been suspended.

Obviously, everyone’s schedules will be tougher. Eliminating all the teams far outside the playoff picture is going to get rid of all the weakest teams on the schedule. The Magic will not get the advantage that was coming to them in March.

But the schedule should still set up well for Orlando. The team avoids some of the best teams in the league and most of the teams the Magic would play in the campus setting are at the Magic’s level — especially if the league favors games at the start of the schedule rather than the end, which was considerably tougher.

Compared to the potential schedules other teams face, the Magic should feel they have an advantage, provided they can take care of their own business and win.

It is yet another sign that Orlando should be able to get through these “seeding games” unscathed and fighting to climb to seventh.

The Magic’s potential schedule

The Orlando Magic then enter what the league appears to be calling “seeding games” to finish the regular season with at least a small advantage.

The team had 10 of its final 17 games against teams that will be in the campus setting at Disney. That is tied for the second-fewest among the teams heading to Disney to finish the season (only the Miami Heat had fewer).

Those teams? The Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets (twice), New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers (twice), Boston Celtics (twice), Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors. Of those teams then, four are against teams that currently have sub-.500 records.

Considering there are only nine teams with records worse than .500 heading to Disney, getting potentially four games against those teams is a huge advantage. And most of those games were at the start of the schedule, which it appears the NBA will favor to end the season.

Piecing together a potential schedule for every team is not going to be easy. It is going to be even harder to respect the strength of schedule teams were going to face had the season not been put on hold.

The Magic were slated to have the third-easiest schedule by opponent win percentage among the teams heading to the Disney campus. Obviously most of the worst teams on the schedule are gone, but the Magic should still project to have a relatively tame schedule.

I broke down the remaining schedules for all the teams heading to Orlando to come up with some idea of what it would look like. It is a puzzle and game of whack-a-mole that I do not envy the league for. But I was able to make the pieces fit.

I project the Magic to have a strength of schedule of .565, the 10th easiest schedule remaining in the league. There may be no getting around that Orlando’s schedule will be appreciably harder. They will be in the middle of the pack (just like it would have been after the team got through that soft part).

But the Magic should still have plenty of opportunities to get wins. They just might have to get themselves going early.

I project the Orlando Magic to play the Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets (twice), Indiana Pacers (twice), Boston Celtics (twice) and Philadelphia 76ers. Taking out one of those teams and playing the New Orleans Pelicans significantly drops that opponent win percentage. But that is really the only variable.

It is not clear what rules the league will use to construct the remaining schedules. Will they allow teams to play each other twice? Will national TV partners pick out which games they want to make sure get played?

There are still a lot of questions about the rest of the season. But it is clear the Magic have a slightly more difficult road than they would have. But certainly not as bad as it could have been. And not as bad as their main competition.

Judging the Orlando Magic’s competition

The focus for the Orlando Magic in the final regular-season games will be on the Magic’s battle to stay out of a play-in game. They can do that by winning enough to keep the Washington Wizards from getting to within four games of the final playoff spot or by passing the Brooklyn Nets for seventh.

The Magic certainly have their work cut out for them on that front. They are just 5-26 against teams with .500 records or better. That is the fewest wins of any team entering the bubble. Orlando is going to have to find a way to beat teams the team has struggled to beat all year long.

But the Nets and Wizards will have their own tough road.

The Wizards were slated to have the toughest remaining schedule among the teams in the bubble. Their 15 remaining games against bubble teams were the most in the league. So losing some of those opponents benefits them schedule-wise.

But they will still have a tough road ahead to make up that 1.5 games on the Magic to force a play-in game.

The Washington Wizards still have games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors on their schedule. I have them playing the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers but also the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. They get some reprieve, I suppose, with the Phoenix Suns on their schedule still.

But Washington’s road will still be tough. I have them with the third toughest potential schedule in the league by opponent win percentage. And the Wizards only had six wins against teams with records better than .500. They had the same issues and struggles the Magic had.

The Nets’ schedule projects slightly easier than the Magic’s. Brooklyn was just completing its West Coast trip when the season went on hiatus. And there are still some tough Western Conference teams ahead. But also had games against teams on the outside that could fill its schedule.

The reality is that with the battle for the 7-seed, the head-to-head matchups between the Nets and Magic are likely to determine who ultimately gets the spot. Whether the league gives the two one or both games to settle things is still to be determined. They should get at least one.

The Playoff Format is Fair

The format to get to the Playoffs in the NBA is still a bit to get your head around. The league had a lot of interests to balance and getting to a more normal finish to the season was a difficult task. Especially with so many teams coming to the campus site at Disney without much hope of making the Playoffs.

The regular season to finalize seedings and then the play-in tournament just about balances all these interests.

Giving the eighth-place team the cushion of having to stay four games clear of the first team outside the playoffs and then a 1-0 lead in a best-of-three series to get into the Playoffs gives them plenty of opportunity to hold their spot.

This is about as fair as the NBA could do. It gives every team enough games to get into playing rhythm and respects the sizable leads the Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic have over the ninth-place teams. But it still gives the teams outside the Playoffs a chance at sneaking into the final field.

The schedule will be the next piece of this puzzle. It is a different and more difficult one to balance.

The league is viewing this suspended season as a continuation of the regular season and not a restart of it. This distinction is important because what the NBA is essentially trying to do is maintain the integrity of the season as it was already.

The league opted not to follow through on some outlandish ideas in return for some sense of normalcy. And that is what the league is giving its fans. A fairly regular finish to the year (with the one twist at the end).

The bottom line though is this is what teams want. They want to play meaningful games and beat quality opponents. The schedule is a small thing that has to find some balance. But ultimately, teams have to take care of their business.

Next: Orlando Magic must find lineup stability when they return

The Magic have plenty of advantages both from their positioning and potential schedule to secure a second straight Playoff berth.

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