Sunday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies proved to be an uneventful game for Orlando Magic center Nikola Vučević. The second-year center logged just 23 minutes and shot 3-of-7 for six points and four rebounds, marking the fifth time in 2012/13--but the second time in Orlando's last three games--that Vučević failed to exceed six points and four boards in the same game.
It's natural to wonder if the wear-and-tear of the season is catching up with Vučević, but Magic coach Jacque Vaughn dismissed that possibility after Sunday's loss. "When I talk to him, he says he feels good," Vaughn said. "I think we've done a good job in practice of being smart on when to bang and not bang. He's a guy that keeps himself in great condition. On off days, he comes in and gets his therapy and it's working. He takes care of his body."
If we take Vaughn and Vučević at their word, then fatigue isn't contributing to Vučević's slide, which has been precipitous and noticable: in the Magic's last six games, the USC product is shooting 46 percent from the field for 8.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, down from season averages of 12.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 52 percent shooting.
Something's up with Vučević, and a few possibilities, besides fatigue, stand out. Here are some of those reasons, which may be connected:
Vučević needs Redick
Orlando traded J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks on February 21st for a package including Tobias Harris. The trade sets the Magic up nicely for the future, but as Orlando Pinstriped Post explained the morning of the trade deadline, Redick's presence makes Vučević a better player. He'd played ordinarily at best without Redick on the floor and like a future All-Star with the Duke product, a shooting guard who excelled in the pick-and-roll and whose shooting range forced defenses to account for him, sometimes leaving Vučević open inside for easy finishes.
The similarities in the numbers are staggering: since the trade deadline, Vučević has posted 10.5 points per 36 minutes on a 47.5 percent True Shooting mark. Before the deadline and with Redick off the floor, those numbers were 10.6 and 46.3, respectively.
Vučević needs Nelson
Vučević hasn't played alongside Nelson, the Magic's top point guard, since Nelson suffered a knee contusion on February 20th. That Vučević's slide has aligned with Nelson's absence, as well as Redick's ouster, is probably not a coincidence. No player has assisted on more Vučević baskets than Nelson has, and Vučević's shooting percentage drops to 46.4 with Nelson off the floor from 55.6 percent with him on it.
That word E`Twaun Moore has taken over for Nelson hasn't helped Vučević. Though he's emerging as a playmaker, with two double-digit assist outings in his last four games, Moore's inability to get find teammates open at the rim renders Vučević an afterthought on offense. Since Nelson's injury, Moore has assisted on seven of Vučević's 23 field goals, but only two of those assists led to baskets at the rim: the other five led to jumpers from 16 feet and beyond.
Nelson's tendency to get injured--he's missed 17 games with various maladies--gives us more data from which to draw. In Nelson's six-game absence from November 4th-13th, during which time Moore started, Vučević shot 47.1 percent from the floor on 50 percent True Shooting.
Big frontlines confound Vučević
It's not as though Vučević has been entirely bad since the trade deadline; he put up 10 points and 19 rebounds against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, and he hung 18 points and 10 boards against the Houston Rockets on Friday.
His worst games in this six-game span were Sunday's against Memphis and Wednesday's against the Sacramento Kings, in which contests he played opposite Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins, respectively. Those two players are massive, strong, and play exceptionally physically. Two of his other really subpar games--with six or fewer points and four or fewer rebounds--came against the Boston Celtics (with Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (Nikola Pekovic and Greg Stiemsma).
Vučević also played below his ability on February 23rd against the Cleveland Cavaliers; though he shot 3-of-3 for seven points and seven boards in 30 minutes, his counterpart, the rookie Tyler Zeller, played more athletically and energetically than he did, helping him finish with 16 points in 25 minutes. Zeller's 12-point third quarter helped Cleveland open a seven-point lead as the Cavs would go on to win by 24.
It's safe to conclude, given the personnel of those teams, that physical centers take Vučević out of his game. Perhaps that's one reason why Vaughn said in February that Vučević would have to, long term, get bigger and stronger as his NBA career advances. "This is a physical game," Vaughn said then. "There's opportunities where maybe if we hit first we can get a few more rebounds going in our direction."
We'll have a better handle on what's up with Vučević as the season wears on. If Nelson's eventual return--he's "day-to-day," Vaughn said Sunday--gets the Magic's seven-footer back on track, then it'll be a strong signal that Vučević needs to play alongside a certain type of shot-creator in order to succeed. That answer could be a factor in how Orlando chooses to develop Vučević as his career advances. It's clear, based on his entire body of work in 2012/13, that he can play the game at the highest level. It's simply his play of late that's raised some red flags.