Orlando Magic’s playoff hopes are on the line in final three weeks

Dwayne Bacon has had to carry a heavy burden in lineups beset by injury as the Orlando Magic continue to struggle. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon has had to carry a heavy burden in lineups beset by injury as the Orlando Magic continue to struggle. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

Fans do not want to hear coach Steve Clifford or myself talk about this.

Everyone recognized the potential carrot of a high draft pick in a loaded draft class. The temptation to drift to the end of the season and accept the results of the Draft Lottery is very tempting. And it is probably the best outcome for the franchise in the long run.

In the heat of the season, everyone is trying to scratch out whatever wins they can. Players are not focused on the franchise’s future just their own.

Plans to tank the season — however you define it — always run counter to the interests of the team on the court.

It is one of the reasons tanking destroys franchises and creates negative cultures. It is a sign the front office is not working on the same wavelength as the team itself. In many ways, it is a sign the front office is working against the team.

But business is business. And decisions will have to be made at some point. And some will sacrifice the short-term for the long-term.

That trust the front office is working to help the team — both players on the team now and the ones who may join it in the future — only comes if they are allowed to exhaust all their opportunities to succeed.

That opportunity and that window to succeed though are running out.

The Orlando Magic have eight games before the All-Star Break. And they need a strong finish if they want to keep their fleeting playoff hopes alive and avoid drifting deep into the Lottery.

As much as fans do not want to hear about the playoffs or those possibilities, the playoffs are still very much in view. But the chances for the Orlando Magic to stake a claim in the playoff race are going to run out.

They have the next three weeks to make their case or lose the season entirely.

Entering Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks, the Orlando Magic are 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat for the 10th and final spot in the play-in tournament. The Orlando Magic are three games behind the Charlotte Hornets for eighth and 3.5 games behind the New York Knicks for the sixth spot, avoiding the play-in tournament entirely.

Of course, the Orlando Magic are also only 1.5 games ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the worst record in the Eastern Conference. The team currently is in line for the fifth-best odds to win the Lottery.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic currently have a 21-percent chance of making the playoffs.

That should give a clear picture of how the season stands in the balance. Before the team reached the All-Star Break, they are either going to make a push to stay in the playoff race or fall into Lottery irrelevancy.

Encouragement and concern

Steve Clifford has been encouraged by the progress the team made on its road trip. He said the team’s defense started to play a lot better — and it did ranking 11th in the last four games — and the team is starting to find a way to play. But they also went 1-3 on that road trip as injuries consumed the team and left them with just eight healthy players for much of the four-game trip.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This year’s Orlando Magic team has struggled with injuries. It has deprived Orlando of some of its best players and taken every preseason plan and thrown them out the window. The group that is on the floor for the Magic right now is not the group they envisioned at the beginning of the season.

Still, the numbers are not encouraging.

For the season, Orlando ranks 28th in net rating at -6.9 points per 100 possessions. That would suggest the Magic are among the worst teams in the league. Even in the last 10 games, the Magic are 29th with a -10.8 net rating.

The team’s usually stout defense ranks 20th in the league giving up 112.3 points per 100 possessions this year. In the last 10 games that is 23rd at 116.3 points per 100 possessions.

For those who believe in the playoffs still, it is hard to find it on the play on the court where the Magic have lost 16 of their last 20 games.

Orlando has not found its footing. And the team has certainly missed opportunities too. According to ESPN’s RPI standings, the Magic have played the second-easiest schedule in the league so far. The team still ranks 28th in that overall metric.

Clifford often likes to say that things change quickly in the NBA. That with one good or bad week, fortunes can shift and perceptions are made. The league is about consistency, of course. But the Eastern Conference has been forgiving enough to keep the Magic in contact thanks to that fast start.

And that is what makes the final three weeks of the season so important.

Opportunity on the horizon

The Orlando Magic will play seven of its final eight games in the first half of the season at home at the Amway Center. That includes five games against teams with records worse than .500. In essence, there are some winnable games for the Orlando Magic if they want to consider themselves a playoff team — including Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks.

According to Tankathon, the Magic have the 14th toughest schedule remaining based on opponent win percentage. So this path will not be easy.

But to be sure, if the Magic want to make the playoffs, they have to make their move now. By the midpoint of the season, it might well be too late.

The Magic knew entering the season they had one of the most advantageous first-half schedules. It only makes sense then that the second half of the season will be significantly tougher in terms of quality of opponent — the brutal scheduling of the season has already taken its toll and added to the layer of difficulty the Magic have faced this season.

Orlando always had to be in playoff position by the midpoint of the season or else they would lose the ship. To be sure, the Magic — both because of injury and their own poor play — have failed to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them.

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These next three weeks are their last chance to build some cushion once again.

Fortunately for the Magic and their belief in playing meaningful games, the play-in tournament has had its intended effect. Every team in the East can reasonably believe they can make a push for a playoff opportunity.

There are no teams that are outright tanking, as everyone seems to understand it, quite yet.

The future looms

But the trade deadline looms and that is usually the point of pain for teams to decide which way to take their season.

Three years ago, the Magic opted to keep Nikola Vucevic on an expiring contract despite trailing the last playoff spot by 5.5 games. That bet proved wise as the team took advantage of a home-heavy schedule and made a 22-9 run to make the playoffs.

It does not appear the Magic will be able to rely on that this time.

Evan Fournier, similarly on an expiring contract, is very likely to be traded and will inevitably deplete the team of its best shooter and bring back a more unproven player. The team may finally decide they have reached their peak with this group and begin to turn the wheels of change.

The team may very well look at its position and its future schedule and understand it is time to reset some things. It may be at that time the Magic accept their fate organizationally.

But the team is not at that point yet. The Magic are still pushing and striving to make the playoffs.  It is still within reach and still possible to catch.

They will get healthy at some point. Aaron Gordon and Cole Anthony are expected back at some point in the second half of the season. Evan Fournier and Al-Farouq Aminu are likely not far from returning. That will make the team better.

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But this push is not going to happen easily. And if it is going to happen, the team needs to make their moves before the All-Star Break begins.