Nikola Vucevic has recently become a popular topic of debate for the 2019 NBA All-Star as a representative to the Eastern Conference. The combination of elite-post scoring, facilitating skills, and deep range shot has pushed the Magic into the playoff conversation at 10-12 (with two narrow losses sans Aaron Gordon to the Warriors and Blazers after leading by double-digits).
At 21 points, 11 rebounds, four assists on 55% shooting and 41% shooting from three-point range, it isn’t difficult to see why the Magic’s starting center has kicked his way into the conversation.
Among NBA centers in either conference, Nikola Vucevic ranks:
- First in Player Efficiency
- Second in Field Goal and Points
- Second in Plus/Minus
- Fourth in Player Impact Plus Minus
- Third in Usage percentage
- Third in Three-Point Percentage (among players shooting one per game or more)
- Fourth in Assists
- Fourth in season Points Scored Over Expectation
- Ninth in Rebounding
- Eighth in Defensive Real Plus Minus
The last statistic certainly holds the most befuddling statistic of the 2018-19 season. Nikola Vucevic is supposed to be a turnstile in the post and restricted area, defensively. But with Aaron Gordon playing at an elite-level defensively, Terrence Ross and Wes Iwundu patrolling the perimeter, and Jonathan Isaac’s help defense at the rim, suddenly Nikola Vucevic is more than holding his own.
The two most notable defensive performances came against arguably the NBA’s best center, in Joel Embiid. In two matchups, the contest decidedly went to Nikola Vucevic on both ends of the floor.
In the Magic’s most recent victory, Vucevic forced Embiid to the three-point line. Embiid did make him pay (4/7) from distance but was held to just 2/13 within the safety of the perimeter stripe. Overall, Embiid would finish with 19 points on just 6/20 from the field, while Vucevic would finish with a final line of 30 points, eight rebounds, four assists on 10/19 shooting, 3/6 from three and a plus-minus of +21.
But hey, it was Jimmy Butler’s first game. Embiid enjoyed a bit more success in Philadelphia in the 76ers win with 32 points and ten rebounds on 13/26 shooting. However, his plus-minus of -8 diminished his effectiveness in a game that saw Nikola Vucevic with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists on an ultra-efficient 10/15, 4/4 from three, and a +12.
“Vooch’s defense, nobody mentions it, but with every coach I talk to, it’s one of the first things that they talk about,’’ head coach Steve Clifford said following the victory over Philadelphia. “He’s been so good defensively. His pick-and-roll defense has been very good, and he’s always rebounded well anyway. But he’s been very, very good for us.’’
With a distant lead over Andre Drummond and Serge Ibaka, Nikola Vucevic’s inclusion in the All-Star game is all but a certainty, barring injury.
But has Vucevic been too good? After all, the Magic have their center of the future warming the bench in Mo Bamba. The 7-10 wing-spanned athlete is the perfect complement to either Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon at the power forward position. Whether the three can share the floor at the same time is a debate for a separate occasion. But due to the Magic’s surprising success against Eastern Conference foes (Philadelphia, Miami, Boston), as well as some Western contenders (LAL 2x, San Antonio), how can Steve Clifford justify increasing Bamba’s 17 minute per game workload?
Nikola Vucevic carries a contract that should generate immense value in the trade market come later January. At just $13.25 million, any number of teams could offload troublesome salary and a first round pick to the Magic in exchange for the Swiss big man. The Magic could then utilize the pick along with their own to add a backcourt complement to their young core in the 2019 draft, or offload the pick in a separate transaction to bring one to Florida (hello, Bradley Beal!).
Vucevic’s spectacular play puts all that talk on hold. Now the Magic have to seriously consider re-signing the big man who will soon hold many of Orlando’s records in his eighth season in the pinstripes. He and Terrence Ross have given the Magic the consistency and playmaking on the offensive end, while Isaac and Gordon have teamed up to thwart opposing teams on the opposing end, with Vucevic’s help.
Vucevic will certainly cost a very pretty penny. At a fresh 28 years old (10/24), it’s entirely possible Vucevic continues playing at this level through the course of a four-year deal. That contract would overwhelm the Magic’s books in both the summers of ’19 and ’20. The Magic currently have over $82 million committed in 19 without considering the decisions forthcoming on the sixth man of the year candidate, Terrence Ross, and restricted free agent, Jerian Grant whom the Magic have heavily invested (two second round picks). In addition, the Magic will add a first-round pick to their books which should come close to matching Bamba’s $5 million annually should they miss the playoffs.
The Orlando Magic are looking at two options:
- Four years and even $80 million traps the Magic with their current core, with only the mid-level exception, the draft, and trades as an avenue for improvement.
- Package Vucevic and possibly even Ross for long-term talent in the backcourt, a position of desperate need for a team already carrying Gordon, Isaac and Bamba in the frontcourt.
But should Vucevic continue his play, and the Magic elect to bring him back at over $20 million per season, the question then becomes:
Will the Magic seek to move one of their youngers instead?
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