The schedule is set. The roadmap for the 2023-24 season is here and the Orlando Magic can now at least see the way to the postseason at the end of the long journey.
And it will be a long journey. There is no other way to put it. Every 82-game season is grueling. It is a challenge for every team from the top of the standings to the bottom.
Orlando is trying to do something special by returning to the postseason. And, as they hope, a string of several playoff seasons in a row.
That is putting the cart before the horse. All of it is putting the cart before the horse.
This is the time of the year to set expectations and goals for the season. And quite simply, the Magic’s goal this year is to reach Game 83. They want to play beyond the regular season that is before them.
The Orlando Magic’s goal this season is to return to the postseason. That is a simple goal and there is a simple mark the Magic should aim to surpass to get there.
Setting that as a goal is certainly the place to start. It is the obvious next level for this team.
The question then is what will it take to get there? What will the Magic need to do in the 2024 season to reach the postseason? And on top of this, are they capable of doing that?
There is no right answer to this question. Each season’s journey is different. But the shorthand is a simple one.
If the Magic finish .500, they should find themselves playing postseason basketball next season. It is a simplistic goal but an achievable one.
It is an important one too for a young team. It is a level the team has to reach at some point — like the Play-In Tournament, a stepping stone to something bigger.
It is the level the Magic believed they reached last year when they finished the season 29-28 — putting together a net rating -0.5 net rating after Dec. 7, a sure sign of a team touching on playing .500.
This is the reason why the team believes it can reach this goal this year. For nearly two-thirds of the season, they have already achieved this goal. They have reached this plateau. Or they believe they have.
And that is part of what this season is about. They need to figure out if they can hit this level and sustain it for an 82-game season. If they can do that, they will almost assuredly hit their goal of reaching the postseason.
The projections from Vegas so far seem to believe Orlando will miss that mark. As of Aug. 16, DraftKings has the Magic at an over/under of 36.5 wins. That would place the Magic in 11th place, tied with the Toronto Raptors and a game behind the Brooklyn Nets (37.5 wins).
On its face, it seems the projections for this season are for the Play-In Tournament to be easier to reach than usual in the Eastern Conference. The Magic might not need even need to reach .500 then to reach the postseason.
That should only heighten how important it would be for the Magic to get there and almost assuredly secure that spot.
In recent history, at least, .500 is a good benchmark to reach the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Last year, the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference (the Brooklyn Nets) finished at 45-37 with the 10-seed Chicago Bulls sitting at 40-42. That is the target it would seem for the team to assure its place in the postseason.
Of course, it is variable each season.
In the 2022 season, the Charlotte Hornets earned the 10-seed at 43-39 with the Chicago Bulls sitting in the 6-seed at 46-36. That year was particularly odd though.
The top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference have never all been better than .500 in the Magic’s entire history except for this season. Only twice was the 10th-place team in the Eastern Conference even at least .500 — the Washington Wizards in 2016 and the Orlando Magic in 1998.
This is to say, what happened in 2022, even with the added bonus of the Play-In Tournament, is exceedingly rare.
The last qualifier for the postseason (the 10-seed the last two years and the 8-seed the other years) averaged 40.3 wins (stretching partial seasons in 2020 and 2021 to 82 games based on win percentage).
That should very well be the Magic’s target if they want to make the postseason. That is the pad they have to land on.
And this year’s chase for the Eastern Conference postseason is going to be competitive. The Magic are not assured of their rise and their place in the postseason.
The Brooklyn Nets will fight for their spot. The Indiana Pacers will fight to reclaim what they lost due to injuries last season. The Chicago Bulls still have plenty of star power. The Toronto Raptors have experience. The Charlotte Hornets even reached the Play-In the previous two years before the bottom fell out with injuries last year.
The Magic will have their work cut out for them.
But the goals for this team are simple. They should be focused on themselves and what they have to do to achieve it. The Magic should not be as concerned with what everyone else is doing. They can take care of their own business.
If the Magic want to play Game 83 and postseason basketball, they will need to hit .500. That is the simplistic goal this team can and should achieve — Orlando has only made the playoffs with a sub-.500 record twice in 2007 and 2020.
This is not the final stage of course. It is not the only goal. And if the Magic are comfortably above .500, they should blow past this and get more ambitious.
But if the baseline goal is to make the postseason, then .500 is the first hurdle the team has to clear to assure they accomplish that goal.