A common argument in favor of a big playoff push—and in turn, against tanking—is that the Orlando Magic’s young core would benefit from the heightened competition the postseason brings. Getting a taste of the playoffs will fuel future success, or so the argument goes.
More than one front office regime has made this argument, most recently Jeff Weltman on a few different appearances around the time of the All-Star break. On the Orlando Magic’s Pod Squad on February 12th, Weltman concluded the interview with this:
You start to pick up these good habits when you’re—the value of just being in the hunt. You know, people talk about exposing young guys to the intensity of a playoff game.
This time of year, waking up every morning, having practice mean something, you can see it on the court. What it does is, you start to serve each other. Nobody wants to be that broken part of the chain. And you can see it in the way they practice and the way they play. And I really feel that it’s a really, really important part of a young team turning the corner.
Like many sports tropes, this is one of those arguments that just sounds reasonable. Sports is all about competition, and competition breeds greatness. Only at the highest levels of competition are our greatest abilities revealed. That’s the fundamental nature of sports.
...but I’ve never been one for tropes. Let’s try to take a more objective look at the nature of the playoffs, to figure out if there really is any correlation between present and future success, specifically caused by the playoffs.
The first problem we need to acknowledge is that it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of a team’s natural growth with the intrinsic benefits of making the playoffs. Sure, a team might make the playoffs several years in a row after the first time, but is that because they got that first taste of the postseason, or just because they were always going to get better?
In other words, we have a chicken-and-egg situation. Getting better gets you into the playoffs, but does getting into the playoffs make you better? For example, the Philadelphia 76ers made a surprise leap into playoff contention last season after winning just 28 games the season before, including a 16-game win streak to finish the year.
They’re a virtual lock to make the playoffs again this season. Is that because they made the playoffs before? That doesn’t really sound right to me. I’d say it’s more accurate just to say they’re in the playoffs because they’re good.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at a graph I teased a couple weeks ago:
Don’t worry, this looks like a mess (because it is), but we’re gonna take it apart in a moment. This chart shows the final standings of the eastern conference over the last ten seasons, starting in 2009-2010 when the Cleveland Cavaliers held the top seed, followed by Orlando second. 2018-2019 shows the standings as of February 28th, before the Magic’s win over the Golden State Warriors.
This is a lot to digest all at once, so let’s break this down into a few buckets of similar teams. We’ll start at the top with...
The Perennial Participants
The Story: If you wanted to make a list of franchises you’d just call “solid” in the Eastern Conference, you’d probably start with these three teams, making the playoffs at least 8 out of 10 seasons. They’re not universally drama-free, but they’ve all been characterized by consistent talent. Only Atlanta recently has engaged in a full-on tank.
The Takeaway: Probably not evidence that breaking into the playoffs leads to more playoffs, considering these teams almost make it by default. Institutional stability is the key here, creating a foundation that consistently develops talent. Boston and Indiana transitioned from one talented core to another quickly, and Atlanta is in the midst of that transition themselves.
The LeBron Teams
The Story: Turns out that teams with LeBron James have historically been pretty good. It really is remarkable seeing the flip when he returned to Cleveland, exactly reversing the seeding of the two teams. Miami’s fortunes have vacillated since LeBron took his talents away from South Beach, while Cleveland’s consistently been miserable without him.
The Takeaway: Well, I think the clear trend here is “Making the playoffs with LeBron increases the chance you’ll make the playoffs with LeBron the next season.” Unfortunately, this isn’t super helpful for Orlando. On a more serious note, you might have weaved a narrative in either 2015 or 2017 that the Heat were breaking through with their new young players, but they don’t seem to have strung together any consistent success.
Up, Down, And In The Middle
The Story: Here we have three teams that have made the playoffs 6 or 7 times each, but followed very different paths. Chicago rode the high of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler before petering out and starting the tank last season. Toronto has followed the opposite path, reversing their fortunes when Masai Ujiri took over and acquired Kyle Lowry. Milwaukee has followed a middle path, falling in and out of the playoffs until Giannis Antetokounmpo blew up the league.
The Takeaway: Toronto provides perhaps the best case for a leap into relevance. When they jumped into the upper echelons of the east, their collection of talent spanned similar ages as the Magic’s, with a combination of players entering their prime (e.g. Nikola Vucevic and Kyle Lowry), younger “vets” (DeMar DeRozan and Aaron Gordon), and newcomers (Jonas Valanciunas and Jonathan Isaac). The problem is that the Magic clearly aren’t as good as that team was in 2013, and that may make all the difference.
On the other hand, Milwaukee may be one of the best counterexamples. Making the playoffs in one season offered no promise for the future. Only when they got a transformation talent did they become a fixture in the East.
The Story: These three teams have experienced a lot of turmoil, and each was able to escape that turmoil only briefly, thanks to some superstar talent. The Knicks and Nets are particularly similar in that they juiced their rosters with big trades, only to see those teams fall apart.
The Takeaway: The Knicks and Nets probably don’t offer much either way for the Magic, except to caution against hasty trades for questionable stars. The Wizards may be a more apt comparison, in the sense that they made the playoffs four out of five seasons after making a leap with a young core. It’s only been recently that their injuries and contract complications have put a damper on things.
The Sad Sacks
The Story: The bottom of the barrel is represented here, reflecting years of sub-mediocrity, excepting the Sixers’ recent leap. To be honest, I didn’t recall things being as lousy as they were for Detroit. On the other hand, they’ve managed to consistently win more than the Magic despite consistently getting worse draft picks.
The Takeaway: Being bad sucks. I would encourage being less bad.
So, based on recent Eastern Conference history, is there any evidence that sneaking into the playoffs (or getting close) is the kick in the butt the Magic need to kick-start the franchise? I’m not sure there’s a strong case. There’s a couple teams who may serve as solid comparisons (Toronto and Washington most notably), but it’s not clear that the Magic have the same top-end talent those teams did. There isn’t really a good example of a team who landed in the 7-9 seed range who went on to become a year-in, year-out playoff participant.
In fact, there are a few examples of teams who experienced the opposite. Milwaukee practically defined what it meant to ride the “treadmill of mediocrity” in the East, and it’s easy to imagine the Magic falling into that trap. Without true superstar talent, it’s hard to be consistently good.
Do the Magic have that talent? Has Vucevic peaked? Can Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, or Mohammad Bamba break out? I think that the development of those players matters will define the next era of Magic basketball, and I don’t think making the playoffs (or missing them) will affect that development.
In other words, it goes back to the problem we confronted at the start. It’s not that making the playoffs will make the players better...it’s that getting better will naturally lead to the playoffs.