The Orlando Magic are facing a unique situation following a draft day trade and an offseason filled with signings reflecting the new inflated NBA salary cap. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando’s primary starting center since the departure of Dwight Howard, who was the Magic's highest paid player following the mid-season trade of Tobias Harris, suddenly finds himself the fifth highest paid player on the team and the team’s second highest paid center.
The Magic pushed many of their chips to the center of the table with the signing of Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo, who posts career averages of 4.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, is coming off of a strong playoff performance with the Toronto Raptors that helped his free agency stock skyrocket. He fits with Magic head coach Frank Vogel’s plan to maintain 48 minutes of rim protection, becoming the second primary rim protector alongside the Magic's other big offseason acquisition, Serge Ibaka.
It's hard to imagine that a team that hasn’t made the playoffs or had an above .500 record in four years like the Magic would make a bench player their number one offseason priority. Everything the team has said leads us to believe Biyombo was their main priority this summer, despite the incumbent Vucevic's standing on the team.
Saying Biyombo was their main target seemingly shows the Magic are doubling down on a defensive identity, something they've yearned for over the past four season. That identity is one that Vucevic doesn't necessarily fit into.
"He [Bismack Biyombo] was our primary target in free agency," said Vogel during the introduction of Biyombo last month. "Biz is a guy who’s going to come in and help us establish this identity that has been successful for me in Indiana that we want to bring here."
The identity Vogel hopes to bring is impossible to achieve with Vucevic as the starting center.
There was once a desire for a rim protector to play along side Vucevic to make up for his defensive shortcomings. Now, two rim protecting acquisitions later, that desire has already been replaced with a desire of some to trade Vucevic away from the franchise completely. However, with a need for some punch offensively, waiting to see how Vucevic compliments the Magic's new acquisitions is their best move.
This is a good problem to have if you're Vogel, but it still begs the question of what the most effective starting lineup will be. Vogel has all but said Ibaka already has the starting power forward position wrapped up for himself. This leaves things narrowed down to the starting center position between Vucevic, a four-year starter during the Magic's rebuild, and Biyombo, one of the most successful, and versatile, defensive centers in the league.
"The toughness wasn’t there," said Biyombo in regards to playing against the Magic last season. This comment, while intended to reference what he is bringing to the team and to the table, could be received as backhanded.
Meanwhile, Vucevic believes he will continue to be the starter and a leader on the team.
"I don’t believe there is any reason for me to come off the bench," said Vucevic in a recent interview on Sirius XM Radio. "I have spoken to the Magic about. They know that. That’s no disrespect to Bismack and he proved a lot last season and had a great playoff."
This is where Vucevic can make things interesting. The most motivated version of Vucevic has finally made an appearance after having his starting role called into question. He seems to value the idea of being a starter and it is a point he has always made sure to defend seriously.
While many believe the Magic will ultimately start Biyombo, Vucevic should say he deserves to continue to start.
Can Vucevic display undeniable value in the face of a larger strategy that he doesn’t necessarily fit with? Can he extend his range while maintaining his consistency? Is it outrageous to think that he can develop defensive ability under Vogel to the point he is no longer a liability? These questions, and many more, are ones Vucevic has earned the right to find answers to.
While he has provided his services at center exclusively, developing a skill set that would allow him to bleed over to power forward in certain situations would likely strengthen his case to maintain his position as the teams starting center. Having Vucevic feel threatened and pressured could be good for the Magic, as it could pump up his trade value as the trade deadline approaches in the middle of next season.
Should Vucevic show a willingness to continue to increase his range shooting the ball, it could open up the chance to play with Biyombo in certain situations. Both Vogel and general manager Rob Hennigan seem to value versatility and Vucevic has been public about developing a three point shot this offseason. Adding that floor stretching ability could also ultimately lead to Vucevic remaining in Orlando for the long haul.
If he is able to add the three as a weapon that defenses must respect, this adds tremendous value to his game and his case to remain the starting center -- a position he has locked up for, at the lease, the season opener due to a one game suspension for Biyombo. With the team needing offensive production in anyway they can find it, any additions Vucevic makes could leave a good first impression on the new coaching staff.
Although there is a case to be made that a spot in the lineup at the end of a game can have more impact than a spot in the lineup at the beginning, the label of "starter" is one that has always carried weight around the league. In the case of Vucevic, it is a role that he will have real competition over for the first time in his career with the Magic.
As Frank Vogel likes to put it, "We have two starting centers now." Whether Vucevic’s offense is productive in a way that warrants keeping his starting position, or he turns into the Eastern Enes Kanter off the bench, the competition can create an iron sharpening iron situation.
As of right now, there are two guys vying for one spot and the winner could ultimately be the Magic.