To Play-In or Not to Play-In
By: David Bernauer
The great William Shakespeare once said to a young Jamahl Mosley, “To make the play-in tournament, or not to make the play-in tournament, that is the question.” At the time, Coach Mosley didn’t know what this meant and left the theater confused as many young children do when comprehending something from Shakespeare. What on earth was a “play-in?” Years later, he and the rest of the Magic understand what the Bard of Avon meant all too well.
Just past the midpoint of the season the Magic are 16-28, just 4.5 games shy of the tenth seed and final play-in position. Orlando also has the fifth worst record in the NBA which means a 10.5% chance at the number one pick and selecting Victor Wembanyama, the 7’4” Frenchman who would immediately surpass Evan Fournier for best French-born Magic player. Even if they don’t get the first pick, there’s Scoot Henderson, the presumptive second overall pick, and a plethora of other great options at the top of the lottery.
So, which is it? Should the Magic push in their chips, or should they take it easy the rest of the way and test their lottery luck again. After all, Orlando has won the lottery two years in a row before, so why not us again, why not now? Same can be said for making a play-in push. Why not us, why not now? Let’s take a look at our options.
Let’s start with this: what’s the point of getting here anyway? It’s not like it guarantees a spot at the real show, the playoffs. Here’s the point: the best reason to make the play-in is the exposure which would come with it. It’s no secret Orlando is among the least talked about teams at the national level. Paolo Banchero and Bol Bol have certainly been given their flowers. But whether you call him the Franzhchise, Fourth Quarter Franz or simply The Closer, we all know sophomore Franz Wagner is criminally underrated. Not a peep is to be heard about Wendell Carter Jr. or Markelle Fultz either. Last year the play-in tournament averaged 2.45 million viewers per contest. For comparison, a regular season game on national television averages about 1.5 million viewers. Playing on such a large stage will boost the Magic’s reputation, a coming out party of sorts for a young squad looking for respect around the NBA for once. Respect from players, media and maybe the officials’ whistles too.
Realistically, the Magic are not likely to make the playoffs themselves should they make the play-in. While they stand a chance against the Wizards, Raptors, Bulls and Hawks, it seems unlikely they’d defeat Heat or Pacers in a win or go home game. The Heat could have a stupidly locked in Jimmy Butler, while Indiana has thrashed Orlando in two games this year. But the experience of making it there would be a boom to an inexperienced Magic team. Not only would the players get the pressure of playing important games late in a season, the coaching staff would be able to learn from the trials and tribulations too. Banchero would get to truly know what it’s like for a playoff level defense to game plan against your every move, and subsequently learn how to adjust in game to their schemes. Surely the same goes for his costar Wagner. Having this knowledge under their belts will allow the dynamic duo to unleash havoc across the basketball landscape in the coming seasons. While a loss in the play-in is likely, participating here would be invaluable. To learn to win, you have to have lost. Michael Jordan had to make the playoffs three times before advancing past the first round. Losing a play-in wouldn’t hurt.
How about bottoming out, huh? I know, I know, it’s not what you want to hear AGAIN. But hear me out for a little bit, please. What if I told you the Magic could have the number one pick again? There’s nothing I can say here which hasn’t been said about Victor Wembanyama before. He is freakishly tall and athletic with guard skills in a center’s body. But even if Orlando’s pick isn’t first overall, the rest of the best aren’t slouches. Scoot Henderson would be the first pick in almost any draft not numbered 2023. Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Villanova’s Cam Whitmore could be awkward fits (both are forwards), but both can provide another avenue to score. The Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, surely would love to return to the Sunshine State where they played high school basketball. The Magic could select both as the Orlando has their own pick and Chicago’s this upcoming draft. Nick Smith out of Arkansas could alleviate scoring struggles at the guard positions. In short, Orlando can get another valuable member of their super young core by sitting right where they are in the standings.
Every few months it seems an NBA star becomes disgruntled in their current surroundings and demands a trade. Who this mystery player could be next summertime is a whole ‘nother question. By acquiring a high pick, Orlando would have another significant asset to offer teams for their stars. As mentioned earlier, Orlando has Chicago’s pick this year too. They’ve also got Denver’s first rounder in 2025, and Orlando has all their picks moving forward. Jeff Weltman and company should be willing to part with any player not named Paolo Banchero or Franz Wagner to try and catapult the Magic into the NBA's stratosphere of contenders.
After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that this is too big a decision for a lowly serf like me to make. If you think the Magic should go for it, great. If you think they should stick where they are and try to find a third star to pair with Banchero and Wagner, also great. Because after all, to make the play-in tournament, or not to make the play-in tournament, that is the question.
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