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Will the NBA’s infatuation with Zion cost the Magic a shot at the playoffs?

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The NBA has created an untraditional 22-team format to resume the regular season. In the proposal, the Washington Wizards would return as a potential spoiler to Orlando’s playoff hopes.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Orlando Magic held a nearly insurmountable lead (5.5 games) over the Washington Wizards for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with just 17 games to play in the regular season. At 30-35, the Magic faced the sixth-easiest remaining strength of schedule while the Wizards faced the second-most difficult.

A second consecutive trip to the playoffs was all but guaranteed.

When Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 9th all of that changed. The NBA could stand to lose billions if the season is suspended indefinitely. However, Sam Amick of The Athletic reported the NBA could recoup $900 million by simply returning to just playoff basketball.

Seems like the most realistic and safest option, right? Go straight to the playoffs. The Magic’s 5.5 game-lead should be substantial enough to quell any argument. While Western Conference fringe teams have more than a fair argument to challenge the 3.5 game lead the Memphis Grizzlies held, in the interest of safety it seemed to make the most sense to keep the status quo.

There’s just one problem:

Zion Williamson.

The Situation

The NBA isn’t only facing the probability of losing hundreds of millions in losses in ticketing and merchandise. They also stand to forfeit nearly 18 percent of the money secured in agreements with local television networks if they don’t play out 70 games.

But how can they make teams return to play meaningless games? Damian Lillard has already been outspoken in his disapproval of a structure that didn’t offer the possibility of meaningful basketball.

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team,” the Portland Trail Blazers star guard told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. ”But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now.”

The NBA could stand to lose that additional revenue in the interest of safety. They could come to an agreement with local networks or offer a favorable incentive in future seasons.

But, the revenue Zion is going to earn the league was simply too much to pass up.

How, you ask?

Zion’s inaugural appearance on Jan 24th was the second-most watched NBA regular season game on ESPN in 2019-20, trailing just Christmas day. The NBA already showed its favoritism to the number one overall pick when they awarded the Pelicans 30 nationally televised games, trailing just the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

Zion had earned numerous off-court sponsorships totaling $20 million according to Forbes, including the richest rookie shoe deal in NBA history.

New Play-in Format

And now it’s happened. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania reported a 22-team format will be presented to the NBA Board of Govertnors Thursday at 12:30 pm eastern.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst initially dropped the bomb last week on the latest edition of The Hoop Collective that has now created jaw-dropping implications for fringe playoff teams.

“I’ll tell you one thing: that scenario gets Zion Williamson in,” added Windhorst. “Look, I’ve just heard... I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in. It will be the first time in the history of the NBA that the league kicked the ball into the fairway for New Orleans.”

In this format, the Washington Wizards will be allowed to return, playing eight games and ultimately contesting the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets for the remaining playoff spots.

Seemingly, there was no path for the Wizards to the playoffs barring a catastrophe. In fact, the Magic trailed the seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets by just 12 a game. With Kevin Durant sidelined indefinitely due to a torn Achilles along with Kyrie Irving who was sideline March 3rd after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to his right shoulder, there seemed every bit the possibility the Magic would sneak into seventh and avoid the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.

Now, in this new format each team in the Eastern Conference will play eight games. Only now, the Magic’s slate is infinitely more challenging.

The Magic don’t need to simply outdistance the Wizards. They need to do it in substantial fashion.

Because of the NBA’s infatuation with Zion, the NBA has created a format for the Western and Eastern teams to trigger a play-in. The ninth seed only needs to finish within four games of the eighth seed to trigger it. If triggered, the eighth seed must be beaten twice, while the ninth would be eliminated with just one loss against the incumbent team.

It’s in the best interest of the Magic to outdistance Brooklyn as the seventh seed. Doing so will be a tall hill to climb given their challenging schedule.

Perhaps the Magic don’t mind a play-in with Washington. After all, the Magic did sweep the Wizards (4-0) and could get a healthy Jonathan Isaac back in time for such a matchup. Tommy Sheppard (general manager of the Wizards) has been clear that John Wall is not expected to return no matter when games resume (July 31).

Plus, the Magic will have the advantage of only needing to beat the ninth seed once, while the eighth seed must be defeated twice in the triggered play-in format.

The Magic should still have every chance to earn a playoff spot. But if they miss on the possibility, the league’s infatuation with Zion will be partially to blame.