The Orlando Magic released the first half of their 2021 schedule. It shows the team will need a fast start to make a playoff push or face a daunting future.
The Orlando Magic will open their 2021 season Dec. 23 against the Miami Heat at the Amway Center as the league announced the first half of the league’s schedule.
The path to the Magic’s third straight postseason is only halfway laid out. But undoubtedly, it will be a tough one. As it will be tough for everyone.
For a Magic team fighting to keep its playoff spot amid offseason changes from teams around them, the early part of the season is going to be vital. The Magic might well know whether they can make the postseason or not by the time they hit the All-Star Break in March.
And with the trade deadline occurring shortly after the second half of the season begins, the team will be able to make decisions then.
Orlando’s first-half schedule looks comparatively easier than its second half.
The Orlando Magic will not play either of their games against the Los Angeles Lakers, two games against the Milwaukee Bucks, three games against the Miami Heat and both games against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of the season. That leaves a lot of games against clear title contenders for the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic play both of its home games against both the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls in the first half of the season. The team also plays both of its home games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons in the first half of the season.
Those are important and (on paper at least) winnable games the Magic knock out early in the season.
If the Magic want to make the playoffs, they will need to get off to a much faster start than they have the last two seasons. They started 20-31 in both seasons, needing to rally in the final two months of the season.
Several players have talked about hoping to leverage their continuity to get off to a faster start, banking on the trend that coach Steve Clifford’s teams tend to improve as the year goes on. That has certainly been the case for the Magic.
They certainly have the opportunity to do so.
There will be no time to waste with the competition stiffening in the Eastern Conference. And what is sure to be a challenging and difficult schedule.
Some of those difficult elements are going to be felt by everyone.
The Magic have six back-to-backs scheduled in the first half of the season, including two home back to backs. That will not be the challenging part.
Orlando will take a first-half-long 10-day road trip in late January. At least that will include two trips where they will spend three days in the same city — playing back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics followed by a pair of games against the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks (a noon Martin Luther King Day tip-off).
The Magic will have to navigate this to get the reward of three four-game homestands that will keep the team in town for up to a week. All of the games within those homestands are against non-playoff teams except for the Jan. 29 game against the LA Clippers (they will play the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 19 as part of these homestands).
If Orlando wants to be a playoff team, it will have to virtually sweep these homestands.
The Magic will have to bank up wins before that first long road trip. They open with the Miami Heat and then hit the road for a pair of games against the Washington Wizards, a chief playoff competitor, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then they play at home against the Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder and twice against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In their first 10 games, they play four against teams that did not make the playoffs. Two of those are against the Wizards. But two of the playoff teams they face are the Thunder, who are expected to take a step back after trading Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder in the offseason.
The Magic then are going to control their destiny.
A fast start before the gauntlet East Coast road trip in mid-January — and really the first eight games with a Texas trip to face the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks before a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks meets them before that road trip.
Then the team will be in the thick of things.
By the time the league goes on its All-Star Break, the Magic are going to know exactly where they stand. They will have the opportunity to set their mark and stake a claim to a playoff spot.
But if they struggle out of the gates and have to rely on the second half of the season to build their playoff resume, they may run out of time. The changes that everyone believed were coming this offseason are going to come eventually.
A rough start and a fading team out of the playoff race might be enough to force the Magic to change their calculus and their considerations for how to take their next step.
Of course, it will not just be the standings that make this determination but the progress of young players who would be expected to take on larger roles for the short- and long-term benefit of the team.
Still, the next three and a half months are going to do a lot to set the Magic’s future, one way or another.