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Improved East challenges Magic playoff hopes

During a youth basketball clinic recently, Magic coach Frank Vogel asked the kids a question that surely is on every grown-up fan's mind.

"Who's ready for the Magic to make the playoffs this season?" Vogel said.

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The kids raised their hands and roared.

Season-ticket holders are impatiently tapping their feet.

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The Magic last appeared in the playoffs in the spring of 2012, losing – ironically enough – to Vogel's Indiana Pacers in the first round. Everything went South after that, with Dwight Howard going West.

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So the rebuild was all Frank's fault – not Dwight's?

OK, Magic fans are not in a joking mood. After being dismissed by the Pacers, Vogel now is tasked with returning Orlando to the postseason. He's facing an unlikely obstacle as he heads into training camp on Sept. 27: The Eastern Conference isn't quite as forgiving as it used to be.

A sub-.500 record normally could get you into the playoffs in the "Leastern Conference." Now it's making demands.

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Last season the No. 8 seed had to win 44 games to qualify.

Let's put that number in perspective:

1) The 44 victories by Stan Van Gundy's Detroit Pistons in a full 82-game season were the most required of an East No. 8 seed in nearly 20 years, since the Washington Wizards finished 44-38 in 1996-1997.

2) The East's No. 8 seed last season had a better record than the No. 8 seed from the vaunted Western Conference – Houston was 41-41 – for the first time since 1997-98 (New York had a better record than Minnesota in 1998-99 during a 50-game lockout season).

What it means is that Orlando might have to make another significant leap to qualify for the playoffs.

Vogel agrees that the East has improved. He also believes the Magic can contend for a playoff berth – and shock folks when they get there.

"Everybody is better, but so are we," Vogel said. "We have a great deal of belief in our new team, the shape of our team and the new identity. The winning experience coming in with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka and the system that I have, we have a lot of confidence that we're going to be one of those teams that's in the playoffs and make some noise in the playoffs."

Well, so much for the new coach pumping the brakes on expectations.

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The Magic, though, need some teams to come back to them in the race.

Three 48-win clubs who reached the postseason last season – No. 3 seed Miami Heat, No. 4 Atlanta Hawks and No. 6 Charlotte Hornets – could be trending down. The Heat and Hawks lost their leaders, Dwyane Wade and Al Horford.

The No. 8 Pistons essentially return the same group.

The No. 9 Chicago Bulls (42-40) and the No. 10 Wizards (41-41) finished ahead of No. 10 Orlando. The Magic will still have to pass them first.

With 35 victories, the Magic won 10 more games than they did in 2014-15. But they could well need another 10 wins this season just to be in position to snare the eighth playoff spot. That's a big jump, especially with seven new players on the roster.

Kids, The Drive For 45 is on.

Future Hall of Famers

Former Magic C Shaquille O'Neal was among the greats inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday. Here's my look at some candidates currently playing and looking for a Hall pass:

LeBron James: A slam-dunk pick, a top 10 all-time great.

Dwyane Wade: A top 10 all-time great two-guard.

Kevin Durant: KD can practice his acceptance speech.

Dirk Nowitzki: Induction of the NBA's first foreign star is a no-brainer.

Chris Paul: Question his playoff portfolio, but he'll be enshrined.

Carmelo Anthony: See Paul, Chris.

Paul Pierce: He'll go in as another Celtic great.

Kevin Garnett: Won a title in Boston, but Hall legacy shaped as a teen wolf.

Vince Carter: Half-Man/Half-Amazing is entirely ringless, but he's in.

Tony Parker: Hard to deny Frenchman with four titles in San Antonio.

Chris Bosh: Two titles gets him in the side door.

Pau Gasol: See Bosh, Chris.

Joe Johnson: Iso Joe should know that Antawn Jamison scored 20,042 points and is not in the Hall.

Russell Westbrook: A bust of him snarling is in his future.

LaMarcus Aldridge: Chances increase as a Spur.

DeMarcus Cousins: Reputation ruining bid.

Al Horford: If only it were the Hall of Very Good.

Paul George: Under construction.

James Harden: Right now he's only headed to the Facial Hair Hall of Fame.

Steph Curry: Hall-of-fame game, needs a few more healthy seasons.

Dwight Howard: He was enroute to enshrinement in quaint, little Springfield until he left quaint, little Orlando.

This 'n' That

Shaq wasn't the only Hall of Famer to play for the Magic. Dominque Wilkins (1999) and Patrick Ewing (2001-2002) were both 39 when they arrived in Orlando, old enough to be enshrined in the Smithsonian as well. It was the final NBA season for each superstar. Magic alums Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady were terrific players for stretches during their careers, but injuries undermined their Hall chances. ... Carter, 39, in the final year of his contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, says he wants to play a 20th season. The former Magic SG currently ranks No. 29 on the NBA's all-time scoring list and could pass 2016 Hall inductee Allen Iverson this season, needing 399 points. … Shaq on leaving Kobe and L.A.: "Can't be two kings. Every great movie I've seen, the younger boss always takes out the older boss."

bschmitz@orlandosentinel.com

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