NBA’s play-in tournament a double-edged sword for Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic’s schedule and chance to make the playoffs is laid before them now. It is a double-edged sword for a team hoping to keep its spot.

The NBA announced the 2021 season will be conducted in two phases and finish with a play-in tournament similar to the one conducted in the NBA campus before the beginning of the playoffs. The season will begin Dec. 22 with the full schedule set to be released at the start of training camp in early December.

The important details are that each team will play a 72-game schedule, playing each team within the conference at least three times.

In an effort to reduce travel, the NBA has assigned each team within a division to play all the teams in another division twice at home while they will play the teams in the other division twice on the road.

Each team will also play teams within their own division three times — two teams twice on the road and two teams twice at home.

That is about as holistically fair as the league could create for a schedule under the circumstances. There are still a lot of other things to figure out.

The league also announced the season will be conducted in two phases. The first half of the schedule will be released around training camp and last until March 4. The league will then take a week “All-Star Break” on March 5.

The second half of the season will begin on March 11 and consist of any games that need to be made up due to cancellations from COVID-19.

The new wrinkle is the return of the play-in games that were largely successful inside the NBA campus.

Under the league’s rules for the 2021 season, the seventh and eighth place teams in each conference will play each other for the seventh-seed in the playoffs. The loser of that game would play the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th place teams to determine the final seed in the playoffs.

All this is to say, the Magic’s chances of playing meaningful basketball and making the playoffs, in a form, have just increased. That may be something the team would welcome especially with Jonathan Isaac out for the year.

The Orlando Magic finished last year eighth in the Eastern Conference, but a full 7.5 games ahead of the Washington Wizards for the final playoff spot. That helped the Magic avoid a play-in game for the final playoff spot inside the bubble.

But this year, the race for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs is expected to be much more heated.

The Atlanta Hawks are expected to take a leap with Trae Young’s continued maturation and signs they will be aggressive this offseason — already the Hawks have been rumored to be hunting for Buddy Hield or Gordon Hayward.

The Chicago Bulls were quietly a solid defensive team and added coach Billy Donovan to give that team more legitimacy. The Washington Wizards are likely getting John Wall back and have more star power than any of these contending teams between John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Charlotte Hornets were a surprising story last year and stayed in the playoff hunt longer than expected. They could remain a dangerous team.

There is also not a lot of prospect of teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture falling out or down toward the bottom. Perhaps the Indiana Pacers could if they start to sell off pieces in anticipation of Victor Oladipo’s impending free agency.

That is a crowded field for the final playoff spot.

But the Magic, even without Isaac, should consider themselves capable of being in this field. And now the field has expanded to 10 teams. Orlando should feel very capable of competing for this play-in spot at a minimum for the season.

Getting there will be the biggest challenge in this bizarre season.

The Southeast Division will play two road games against teams from the Atlantic Division — meaning two road games against Eastern Conference favorites in the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. The Orlando Magic will also play two road games against the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets.

They get two home games against the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, both key matchups in this chase for the top-10 and a chance for the postseason.

Does the expansion of the playoffs — or the chance at the playoffs — mean the Magic are less willing to hit reset this offseason? That is unlikely to change the Magic’s plans. They likely knew this was coming down the pike and was part of their plans.

The Magic still want to make the playoffs without the need for any hoops to jump through or play-in games. But the reality is likely that even if the Magic play their best, they will have to play in these play-in games anyway.

Regardless of if the Magic have their best outcome or one of their poorer outcomes this season, competing for a spot in these play-in games will be a reality.

They should give a young Magic team the opportunity to play meaningful games and the chance to win a meaningful game. Even if the team ultimately falls short and ends up back in the Lottery in the end.

The Magic certainly do not want to be in a position where they are warding off teams taking a spot they had seemingly earned. But they certainly would welcome the chance to steal a spot in a year where they are down one of their most important players.

Either way, the Magic’s bottom-line goal should be to be in the playoffs or play-in series — one way or another.