The NBA trade deadline is now only days and away and, if it actually hasn’t happened already, all hell is threatening to break loose across the basketball landscape. What’s still not entirely clear in all of this though is what we should expect from the Magic.
Is this a team looking to buy in a bid to boost a playoff chase? Or will they emerge as motivated sellers scrubbing the roster clean ahead of a renewed rebuilding effort? It’s difficult to know which way the decision makers in the front office are leaning.
Without getting into the debate about whether or not the team should even be considering the playoffs (hint: they probably shouldn’t), let’s look at what recent history says about the likelihood of such a chase being successful. Can an eleventh-placed team, currently three games out of the final slot, fight their way into the postseason?
Zeroing in on the standings the day of the deadline for the last five seasons should provide some contextual insight into the hurdle facing the Magic. At this point in the race how have the eight incumbent playoff teams in each conference fared in terms of still being there at season’s end? And what might that mean for the Magic this year? Let’s dive in!
Comparatively speaking, last season actually saw a little more movement than expected in terms of the playoff race seeding post-trade deadline. In the East, Philadelphia went on a late-season winning streak that propelled them all the way to the third seed, knocking Detroit into the lottery. The West was a little more brutal, with both the Nuggets and the Clippers ultimately being mowed down as Anthony Davis and the Pelicans (RIP) and Rudy Gobert and the Jazz were able to leapfrog the teams ahead of them.
While the fact that three teams were able to force their way into the playoff picture is interesting, it’s also worth noting how big some of these jumps were. The 76ers ripped off an astounding 26-5 finish in securing a homecourt series, admittedly buoyed by a weak schedule and some impactful mid-season acquisitions. Still, it’s an impressive feat, and one that likely indicates they had underperformed to that point. The Jazz were almost as good, coming from two games below .500 to finish in the fifth slot. What these teams both proved is that massive gains are still possible, even at this late juncture.
2017 was a pretty average year in terms of how much change to expect in terms of playoff seeding post-trade deadline. Each conference saw one team force their way into the postseason, with Milwaukee making it at the expense of Detroit out East, and Portland finishing fast in the West to dislodge Denver.
The Bucks were able to close at 42-40 despite being five games below .500 at this point of the season. However, they only actually had to make up one game in the standings thanks to a pretty weak Eastern Conference. The Blazers roared back from a whopping 10 games below .500 to finish at 41-41, edging the Nuggets by a game as they closed a two-game gap. Both teams saw furious play from their superstars, Giannis Antetekounmpo and Dame Lillard, with Portland also benefiting from the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic. Neither team was as impressive as 2018’s big movers, yet they emphasized the importance of big-time players stepping up when things count the most.
In 2016, less than five games separated fourth in the east from ninth, so it’s no real surprise that Chicago ultimately lost their way down the stretch of the playoff race. The Bulls finished two games out as the Pistons came from two games behind at the deadline, a swing that was surely contributed to by the injuries experienced in the Windy City; Butler, Rose, Gasol and Noah combined to miss almost 100 contests on the season.
Out West it was the Rockets who were able to swipe the eighth seed from the Jazz. Ultimately it was a 1.5 game shift that determined this, indicating precisely how close this race was and just how difficult it can be to make up larger swathes of ground. Sure you have to win games, but you’re also relying on other teams to lose. When chasing from behind a team is only in control of their own destiny to a certain extent.
Alright, now things are getting a little wackier! A wretched Eastern Conference allowed both Brooklyn and Boston to emerge from at least 10 games below .500 and secure a playoff berth (sorry Charlotte and Miami), while an absurdly strong Western Conference saw Oklahoma City and Phoenix slide out of the picture to accommodate the late-season surging Pelicans. The main takeaway in 2015? The strength of the conference matters.
In 2014, the only team that was able to muscle their way into the postseason was Memphis, who made up a 1.5 game gap at the expense of a surprising Suns squad who ran out of steam. By comparison, the East remained rock solid, with some shifting of seeds but the eight franchises remaining the same. 82 games may make for a long season, but more often than not the cream rises to the top well before then.
So what does this mean for 2019?
This trip down memory lane has revealed a few things about a late season playoff push. Finding form at the right time is essential. An easy schedule helps. Having a superstar that can put the team on their back increases the likelihood. The relative strength of the conference will play a role. Injuries can derail an incumbent team. Finally -- and crucially -- other results have to go your way. So with these lessons learned, how should we feel about the Magic’s chances of pulling off a late surge into a first round match up?
Honestly? Not great.
As the season has wound on, Orlando have found themselves losing ground in the playoff race. They currently sit three games out of the final spot with a record that is nine games below .500. Before the recent two-game winning streak, the team dropped 7 of 8 to relatively weak opposition, and they haven’t had a winning record since mid-November. This makes it pretty hard to argue that the Magic are in good form.
As we have learned over the length of this latest rebuild (six years and counting!), the team also lacks a bona fide superstar. The roster simply doesn’t feature a player who can sustain the type of elite level production that will doggedly drag the side to win after win after win. Nikola Vucevic has had a monster season, no doubt about it, but he’s already jammed right up against his ceiling as a ‘very good player and All-Star in an okay Eastern Conference’ and it hasn’t been enough. No one else even comes close.
Also, keep in mind that the Magic have already enjoyed relatively good health to this point of the season. The six most important players (the starters plus Terrence Ross) have combined to miss only 13 games total, which is one of the most fortunate marks in the league. Theoretically, this means the team has already been playing pretty close to expectations; there’s no talent injection coming from guys shedding their street clothes.
However, there are a few things working in the Magic’s favor. Orlando have the third-easiest schedule left to play, with multiple games against the Knicks and the Cavaliers. These contests provide a very real opportunity to make up ground in the standings. Speaking of which, it’s also worth noting that the Magic ply their trade in the Eastern Conference, which again this season is the little brother to the tougher sibling out West. There’s a really good chance that something in the range of 37 to 39 wins might be enough to punch your playoff ticket.
At 22-31 the Magic aren’t out of the playoff discussion just yet. The team at FiveThirtyEight don’t like their chances (just 11%), but that they’re still in it at all feels like some level of progress when compared to seasons past. The trade deadline presents the last chance for the team to shake things up and add some pieces that could sufficiently vault them up the standings.
Whether or not such a push -- and the prioritization of the short-term over the long-term that it would require -- is in the best interests of the franchise is another question entirely. As sure as the sun setting in the west there exists an argument that can be made for tanking. To sell off any players who may hold value around the league in the hopes of securing assets for the future, while also ensuring that the team loses as many of the remaining 29 games as possible. Ping pong balls at the expense of playoff prognostications.
The Magic are in a difficult place. On the absolute fringe of the playoff race, but also too far removed from the true lottery heavyweights to go full tank. It’s a middle ground that doesn’t present an easy path forward.
By 3 p.m. on Thursday we’ll know for sure what the front office believes the best course of action to be. But if the goal remains the playoffs, they would do well to remember that history suggests it’s an immensely difficult obstacle to overcome.