It’s obvious that Nikola Vucevic is as offensively polished as anyone in this league, but the question still remains: can he play defense?
Defensive ability is one of the hardest things to statistically measure in basketball, and every team does it a little differently. Unlike on offense, where things can be ultimately boiled down to a make or miss – defense relies on the most minor of adjustments. Defense is not a pass/fail; it’s about how and when things happen, such as help, switching, handling screens, and double teams.
Furthermore, these factors are largely dependent on the other four players on the court. A great defensive team can hide a few slow or dull cogs, just as one great player cannot save an otherwise awful defensive team.
That being said, the easiest way to evaluate a player is how the team looks when they’re off and on the court.
Last year these stats didn’t look great for Vucevic, as the Magic were much worse defensively with him in the lineup. Opponents enjoyed a 3.1 percent higher shooting percentage, 3.1 percent more of their shots were assisted, and opposing teams’ offensive rating went up from 105.9 to 109.1 (+3.2).
Before we continue, let’s take a look at offensive and defensive rating. Offensive rating is basically the amount of points that a team scores per 100 possessions. Though it is an advanced stat, and there is a huge formula behind it, the concept is that simple. The Warriors (shocker) lead the league with an offensive rating of 114.7.
Defensive rating is the opposite, factoring in how many points are given up in that same 100-possession sample. Ideally you want a high offensive rating and a low defensive rating. The San Antonio Spurs currently hold the lowest defensive rating in the league with a 97.9.
For context, the Magic as a team are 16th in defensive rating at 106.2, and 26th in offensive rating at 103.8.
A bad defensive player is a gift, and his lack of resistance can turn a sputtering offense into the Showtime Lakers – just by the fact these are individually the best basketball players in the world.
That seemingly tiny difference of +3.2 offensive rating that Vucevic added to opponents is enough to transform a poor offensive team like the Magic into the 9th ranked Celtics.
With opposing teams enjoying a 109.1 offensive rating while Vucevic was on the court last year, the Magic were effectively playing against the sixth-best offense in the league every night.
The good news is, he’s improving. Under the reign of Scott Skiles, poor defensive play has particularly been treated as unacceptable. Though the team still plays better defense without Vucevic, the margin is much closer this year. Opposing teams are shooting 1.6 percent better from the floor, getting 1.7 percent more of their shots from assists, and enjoying a 2.9 better offensive rating with the Montenegrin big man on the court.
Another stat that’s commonly used to determine a player’s defensive value is defensive box plus minus. Defensive box plus minus is similar, in that it uses 100 possessions to model a single player’s effect on games. This stat is helpful because it compares every player with the league average, meaning that anyone over a 0 rating is adding some value to their team.
There have been 17 big men with similar minutes per game to Vucevic since he entered the league. Among them, Joakim Noah is first with a DBPM of 4.8 (which is very good) and Jahlil Okafor is last with a rating of -1.9 (which is awful).
Vucevic fits in at 14th place (0.9), worse than Al Jefferson and Greg Monroe and half of former Magic big man Marcin Gortat's rating. It’s worth noting that many players never see this many minutes because of their inability to play defense, so Vucevic’s rating may actually be worse than it appears.
Finally, the most scrutinized part of Vucevic’s defensive game has been his inability to defend the pick and roll. According to NBA.com/stats, he is in the 38th percentile in defending the roll man, giving up a team-high 49.3% scoring frequency.
This is partially because he fouls at a five percent higher clip than the next highest Magic player.
None of these numbers are at an Enes Kanter or Jahlil Okafor level of awful, and nearly every team has a player that’s worse. However, Vucevic’s lot in life can be summarized by this:
Scott Skiles is a defensive minded coach with Nikola Vucevic as his center. Something’s got to give.