After a back-to-back pair of wins versus the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets, the Orlando Magic surely imagined they were about to bounce back from the December slide, and fans surely shared the sentiment. Six losses later, broken up by just a single win versus the woeful Atlanta Hawks, sentiment once again turns the other direction, toward the lottery and tanking and all that fun stuff.
We, as fans, have gotten into a bad habit of rooting for the team right up to the moment they can’t reasonably make the playoffs, then rooting as hard as possible for them to lose every game after that. That’s a consequence of the Magic’s strategy each season, one that gives them a chance at the playoffs, but little in the way of “reward” for losing (which is to say, they get a worse lottery pick).
The results, of course, have been less than inspiring. The Magic’s persistent mediocrity is a direct consequence of a poor rebuilding strategy, one that fans have bought into and encouraged. The Magic’s “playoffs or bust” mentality isn’t bad just because it’s short-sighted, it’s bad because it’s reactive. It fails to properly weigh the reward of the playoffs versus the risk of missing them. If the Orlando Magic want to see real success, they need a real rebuilding plan.
Imagine going into the season trying to weigh your chances at making the playoffs. If you’re a sure thing to make it into the top eight of your conference, you have a few options insofar as how much you go “all-in” on this season’s run, but the general idea is that you’re trying to make your team better, to win as many games as possible. Maybe you trade picks for vets, maybe you pay the luxury tax, or maybe you just let it ride if you have the opportunity to play out your role as a “contender” for multiple seasons.
If you conclude you have virtually no chance at the playoffs, the strategy is fairly obvious: you tank. At this point, you’re only playing for future seasons, and ignoring the business implications, losses are more valuable than wins in a draft that rewards the worst teams. You play your young guys, you build up assets, you trade one pick now for multiple or better picks later.
What if, like many teams, you’re in the middle? That’s a much harder question, and the circumstances for each team are different. It’s not as easy as saying, “Well, if we’re at 49% we tank, and if we’re at 51% we go for it.” The upside of making the playoffs might be high enough that it’s “correct” to try to make it even if you only have a 1-in-3 shot at success.
...or, maybe it’s not worth it. Clearly, most teams think it’s worth it; after all, more than eight teams actively try to make the playoffs in each conference each season, so there must be some who try to beat the odds. I would argue that the Magic have tried to play those odds, and that they’ve been burned by that strategy.
Let’s get some perspective on the Magic’ preseason playoff odds, via FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-Elo system. I went back as far as the 2015-2016 season (the earliest that they listed playoff odds over time, as best as I can tell), investigating not just where they stood based on preseason projections, but also over time. Each month is measured from the earliest projection available (e.g. December 2015 was taken from FiveThirtyEight’s December 7th projection).
*January 28th projection
Except for this season, the Magic were just under a 50/50 proposition to make the playoffs, if you believe their projections. Each season had it’s own flavor of ups and downs, but by February each team had more or less faded into obscurity.
To tell the truth, these odds were better than I recalled. What’s the opposite of rose-tinted glasses? Whatever those are, I was looking through them when remembering Orlando’s past results. Since most teams probably overrate their own strength, they probably gave themselves even better chances than that. If I’m being objective, I can’t honestly say it was outright wrong to try to make the playoffs the past three seasons (ignoring, of course, the terrible, franchise-crippling trades and signings it took to get to those odds).
But let’s get back to that “except for this season” part from two paragraphs ago, because 1-in-5 odds are considerably different from 1-in-2. The Magic have more or less played themselves into the same spot this season as every other one...we just knew it was coming a lot earlier, or we should have. Like Aaron Gordon’s shooting last season, Nikola Vucevic’s likely run to the All-Star game temporarily buoyed a lottery team until their shallow bench caught up to them.
In a macro sense, without thinking about the particulars of each player, the Magic’s current predicament isn’t all that surprising. They took some trades that were asset-negative and used a large amount of cap space to sign players who ultimately were unhelpful. That led to a talent deficit that outweighed the gains of the starting unit.
The harsh truth is that there’s no easy way out of that deficit. Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba have some solid upside, but their timetable doesn’t match the rest of the team’s. Even if they end up being really good, it may be years before we see it. There’s no miracle trade looming to pick up the likes of a Jimmy Butler or a Paul George on the cheap (though those trades ended up being less one-sided than initially thought).
The Orlando Magic’s strategy only reinforces that problem. The team isn’t good enough to make the playoffs, but wins enough to stay out of the upper echelons of lottery talent. It’s the classic treadmill of mediocrity.
Of course, the reward is worth considering as well. The Magic have long stated publicly that they believe making the playoffs is important for the future of the franchise, that winning will beget winning. Is that true, though? I’m working on an article about that very subject that you should see soon, but here’s a preview:
...we’ll sort out this craziness later. For now, I’ll sum up things with a personal anecdote.
When I lived in Phoenix last year, a buddy and I decided to hit up some poker games at a casino from time to time. It was low stakes stuff, so it wasn’t exactly incredible competition, but we pretty consistently came out ahead. In the time I spent there, I realized one difference between the winners and losers. The good players played hands they thought, objectively, they would win (or at least, the odds were worthwhile). The bad players played hands they hoped would win.
That’s what makes strategies like “The Process” so powerful. You minimize the role of luck in your success by accumulating enough assets that you can’t help but stumble into good players. I don’t know that the Magic can or should emulate exactly what the Sixers did, but I know they can’t keep working off of hope forever.