Oh how things can change in a (relative) heartbeat. Less than a month ago the playoffs looked like a distant and difficult proposition for a Magic side that had sunk to 10 games below .500. Many, myself included, had begun penning the obituaries, conditioned by years of post-New Years collapses to expect the worst.
Today, however, things feel different. Coming out of the All-Star break on a five-game winning streak, the team looks a real shot of making it back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. Snapping the league’s third-longest current playoff drought is a distinct possibility. The playoff push is in full effect.
A lot still needs to break right for that to happen. The race is tight, and because the Magic are playing catch up they’ll need to both win games and hope other results go their way. With only 23 games left on the schedule it doesn’t leave much room for error; one cold streak could be enough to sink a team’s hopes.
As we hurtle towards the finish line, the team here at OPP will update the playoff picture regularly, checking pulses and figuring out whose fortunes are trending in the right direction. For now, let’s take a look at the field, starting with our very own Orlando Magic.
Orlando Magic: 27-32, currently in ninth
Orlando might be the hottest team in the league across the last five games. During the recent winning streak started they’ve smoked opponents by a league-best 22.8 points per game, a mark almost 7 points greater than the second-placed Pacers. The gap between the Magic and the third-ranked team by differential (the Pistons) is as large as that between third and sixteenth. Also worth noting: three of the five wins came on the road. It’s been a dominant stretch.
It’s relatively easy to figure out how they’ve done it. During these five games they’ve logged top-ten percentages for each shot type (including a top-ranked free throw mark of 89%), locked down the boards (a league-best 51 per game), and minimized turnovers (just 10 per contest, good for second overall). Nikola Vucevic has continued his All-Star level play, Terrence Ross threatens to go nova basically every time he steps on the court, Evan Fournier has rediscovered some of his shooting mojo, and Aaron Gordon has thrived in a do-it-all role. Add to that the ascent of Jonathan Isaac and you’ve got a red-hot current success story.
However, before we start printing the tickets for Round One we should probably take a deep breath. Despite the recent surge the Magic are still on the outside looking in, a half game back of the eighth and final seed. Their net rating, a historically accurate indicator of team strength, has certainly improved during this burst, but they’re still being outpaced by the Hornets and Heat according to this measure. They’ve also already used up more home dates than any other team in the immediate race, so they’ll have to keep winning on the road. An untimely injury could expose the relatively shallow depth of the roster. It’s a tightrope walk with a thin margin of error.
But you know what? It’s hard to subdue the optimism! The Magic have one of the easiest remaining schedules, with an average opponent winning percentage of only 46%. FiveThirtyEight have recently become much more bullish on Orlando’s chances, pegging the playoffs as a 60% possibility for the perennial lottery loiterers. ESPN aren’t drinking quite as much of the pinstriped Kool-Aid, yet even their formula lists the postseason as more likely than your average coin flip. Any model you can get your hands on projects the race to be incredibly close, but the Magic are almost always listed as a slight favorite to snag the final slot. If they’re good enough they’ll get there.
Charlotte Hornets: 27-30, currently in seventh
The Hornets are currently in seventh, but it’s a slim half-game lead that’s keeping them there. Which, for a team with a brutal closing stretch, is probably bad news. Charlotte have the league’s second-most difficult slate of remaining games, with dates against the Warriors (twice), the Raptors (twice), the Bucks and the Celtics still to come. All up they’ve got 15 games left to play against teams currently sporting a superior record, and another 7 against those considered here as playoff hopefuls. Kemba Walker is an All-Star and has played like a top-20 player this season, but his production has noticeably dipped since his hot start and he doesn’t have much in way of help. It’s going to be a tough finish for Charlotte.
Detroit Pistons: 26-30, currently in eighth
Detroit are the only team that both FiveThirtyEight and ESPN agree possess a greater likelihood of making the playoffs from their current position than the Magic. Their chances are buoyed by a soft closing schedule (opponent winning percentage of .482, seventh easiest), but like the Magic they’ll be doing more work on the road than at home. Additionally, their point differential of -1.5 is one of the worst of the teams still in the race, ahead of only Washington. They’re probably going to go as far as Blake Griffin takes them, which, considering his great numbers and All-Star status, might make them Orlando’s toughest competitor.
Miami Heat: 26-31, currently in tenth
If anything is going to undo Miami’s chances it’s the quality of their remaining opposition. In the 25 games to come they’ve got dates against the Bucks (twice), the Raptors (twice), the Celtics (twice), the 76ers, the Warriors, the Rockets (away) and the Spurs (away). It’s a horrific run home that’s going to require more consistency than they’ve shown at any previous point this season; honestly, it’s hard to imagine that they’re up to the task, even though they’ve done this before. Ultimately, when it’s all said and done the five combined games against the Hornets, Pistons and Magic might decide things for the Heat.
Washington Wizards: 24-34, currently in eleventh
We’re getting pretty close to being able to cross off the Wizards, who have recently lost their franchise point guard John Wall to a devastating injury, shed key contributors like Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris, and generally stumbled in losing 7 of their last 10. They’re not exactly setting up for a blistering stretch run, which is undoubtedly why the projection models are so down on their chances of squeaking in. Still, they’re going to have a role to play in the final outcome, with games still to come against the Magic and the Heat, as well as a triumvirate of showdowns with the Hornets.
Although fans of the Magic could be forgiven for having forgotten this, it turns out that it’s fun to still be playing meaningful basketball games in February. It might be relatively low-stakes in the grand scheme of things -- they are, after all, fighting for the right to be ousted in the first round -- but it’s a genuinely exciting development for a team that has been mired in a seemingly interminable rebuild. 2019 is finally the year that we can leave the tanks in the garage.
Basketball is back soon, while the playoffs are only 50 days away. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment as the team here at OPP continue to evaluate the race for the eight!