Heading into his seventh season, Nikola Vucevic has defined consistency for the Orlando Magic. The skilled center is a perennial double-double threat for the Magic, acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in the (in) famous Dwight Howard deal in the summer of 2012. Since then, Vucevic’s soft touch and solid play molded him into a quality starting center.
Unfortunately, Vucevic’s solid production has not amounted to many wins in the past five seasons. Languishing since the end of the Dwight Howard-Stan Van Gundy era, the Magic won only 132 out of a possible 410 games in the past five seasons. The team underwent several roster and stylistic iterations, with Vucevic standing as one of the pillars of the franchise. His soft touch and hustle around the rim made him the closest thing to a go-to scorer Orlando has had in the past five seasons.
Last season, with new coach Frank Vogel, Vucevic’s efficiency slid a little, with his field goal percentage dropping below 50% as he shot more jump shots to space the floor for Orlando. In his first two seasons with Orlando, 40% of Vucevic’s shots came from within three feet, per basketball-reference. Last season, only 21.5% came right at the rim, with a big uptick in shots from 10-16 feet and from beyond the three-point line. Prior to the 2016-2017 season, Vucevic shot only 32 three-pointers in five seasons. In 2016-2017, he shot 75 – making 23.
The perimeter shot is a work in progress, but his smooth stroke and solid mechanics may project well as a floor spacing center.
Defensively, Vucevic does not possess the smoke and flair (or pizzazz/Disney Magic) of the NBA’s most athletic centers. But he understands defensive positioning and guards space well. His defensive rating of 105 and defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) of 2.3 were the best marks on the 2016-2017 Magic. His defensive rating has been on a healthy uptick over the past few seasons. Additionally, Synergy ranks Vucevic in the 80th percentile of defending pick and rolls, allowing 0.748 points per possession on the NBA’s most popular action. He also ranked in the 65th percentile of defending post-ups.
But Vucevic is not a fearsome rim protector or a perimeter-switching savant. His effort has definitely improved, especially in 2016-2017, but his physical limitations could limit him against the NBA’s most chaotic teams.
While the Montenegrin forward is looking to expand his game to fit the pace-and-space NBA, Vucevic may be the odd man out in Orlando’s plans. The Magic, seemingly, possess solid depth at their big slots. Bismack Biyombo still has three years and $51 million left on his contract – as a bench player. Biyombo was not particularly inspiring as a starter. But still, his huge contract and decent production may warrant more minutes. The Aaron Gordon Experience continues to roll on, with the former number four overall pick entering his fourth season in 2017-2018. At this point, Gordon is best suited as a power forward, or as a small forward paired with a stretch big. His activity and energy may bode well in an open system.
2017 Draft Pick Jonathan Isaac is likely to see minutes at the big slots as well. Isaac’s length and motor make him NBA ready on the defensive end. Of course, it seems like every Magic player is a work in progress on the offensive end. But Isaac showed the ability to defend the perimeter and the rim at Florida State. Isaac could be the ideal long-ball center of the future for Orlando. The presence of Terrence Ross and new acquisition Jonathon Simmons could further push the tweener duo of Isaac and Gordon to play in the frontcourt.
New General Manager John Hammond crafted the current Milwaukee Bucks, a team filled with long, athletic prospects. He may choose to bring that blueprint south to Orlando. The signing of Simmons and the drafting of Isaac and Wesley Iwundu signify a possible new look for the Magic. Hammond may be looking to inject the Magic with athleticism after Rob Hennigan’s numerous missteps. The Magic's 2017 offseason seems to show an altered vision.
Unfortunately, Nikola Vucevic may not fit that mold. Vucevic is a fine player, yes. But he may not be part of Orlando’s future. It may be unfair to write off a solid center entering his prime, but Vucevic is already a known commodity. The Magic’s current roster is sorely lacking in shooting, and the only big that could pull defenders away from the paint on offense is the recently signed Marreese Speights.
Nikola Vucevic’s contract expires in 2018-2019, and Orlando may seek compensation for him rather than just letting him walk. The market for a slower, limited big man may be limited. The most recent trade for a similar player, Brook Lopez, involved the Brooklyn Nets swallowing the financial burden of Timofey Mozgov’s contract in exchange for the franchise’s star center. Of course, D’Angelo Russell was included in the deal as well. Vucevic could be ideal trade bait for a playoff team looking to shore up their big man depth. With the Orlando Magic looking to turn over a new leaf – and with big men in the pipeline – Nikola Vucevic could best be suited suiting up for another team in the future.