When the Magic were rolling early on it was easy to just want to go with the flow. Why consider breaking up or tinkering with a squad that was figuring out how to win? But with recent results trending in the wrong direction, it might be time to rethink that.
As currently constructed the team lacks an impressive ceiling, and major salary cap flexibility in the future will be difficult to come by, making it hard to add meaningful pieces during free agency. The path to improvement likely involves a trip to the trade market.
The man most often in the middle of this speculation is seven-year pro Nikola Vucevic. Despite making solid improvements to his game since arriving in the Dwight Howard trade, he’s never really been able to move the needle for the Magic. Let’s dive in and make a case for both sides of the argument as we try to ascertain where ‘Vooch’ fits for the Magic going forward.
The argument for trading Vucevic...
The biggest reason for wanting to move on from Vucevic is undoubtedly his poor defense. The general ineptitude he displays at this end of the court means that it’s always going to be hard for him to be a net positive to the team. The opposition consistently targets him in high pick and roll sets because of his difficulty switching and containing the ball handler, while his rim protection numbers have never been anything to get excited about. As it stands, his block percentage of 2.3% this year places him well outside the top 100 in the league in terms of deterrence, and Magic fans would be well aware of how often he fails to meaningfully contend shots in the paint.
When evaluating whether or not to move on from the team’s longest tenured player it’s also worth noting that his value may be at its highest point right now. A healthy per game average of 17, 7 and 3, along with a block and a steal a night, looks pretty solid for a starting centre making only a shade over $12 million a season. There’s also the fact that Vucevic is under contract for another season after this one, which means teams wouldn’t just be getting a rental. Add in his burgeoning three-point game and the eye-popping 41-point performance from a few weeks ago and you’ve got a solid resume to dangle in front of other teams. If Orlando doesn’t pull the trigger soon, they might be stuck with a player with declining value and who doesn’t really project to be part of the long-term core.
There’s also another reason that emerges for wanting to move on from the team’s starting center that reveals itself not in the box score but instead in the eye test: his attitude. Vucevic is a player who has always been quick to drop the shoulders and display questionable effort when things get tough. In such instances his body language radiates a negativity that often appears to be catching. It’s obviously a very subjective thing to argue, but he just doesn’t seem to have that competitive edge that you want from players at the top of the team’s pecking order. The guys has never played meaningful minutes in a winning situation -- a fact sure to have some impact on his general on-court demeanor -- but it’s hard to craft a compelling case to suggest he has the intangibles of a winner.
If Vucevic is indeed sent packing from Orlando, it’s probably going to be as the primary salary attached to other assets with greater potential. In such a case, it would be a team who has failed to meet expectations and has come to the internal realisation that a rebuild is in order. Here the Magic could find themselves in the position to add an impact level player not quite at that superstar tier. What sort of names are we thinking about? Well, the Clippers are in free-fall and whispers involving DeAndre Jordan continue to swirl. The reason to trade Vucevic might simply be because circumstance and opportunity has coalesced into the perfect storm.
The argument against trading Vucevic....
The primary argument against is a relatively simple one: Vucevic is more valuable to the Magic than anything they would receive in return. He’s under contract until the end of 2019 at a very reasonable average of $12.5 million a season, so immediately there is a limit as to the type of players Orlando could get back in any hypothetical deal. Including him as the centerpiece of a larger package is feasible, but again that presents some difficulties in regards to roster management. The team likely wants to hold onto their draft picks, and roster depth makes it tricky to move on from certain players. If you’re not improving the team, why make a move?
It also isn’t easy to find a team that makes sense as a trading partner. A quick glance around the league shows a number of teams with a settled center rotation, while others are in various stages of rebuilding but unlikely to want to take on a mid-career veteran that doesn’t immediately vault them into the playoffs. Without a robust market the return is going to be deflated. You don’t ever want to be the team that comes to the trading table lacking leverage, and that is precisely where the Magic would find themselves.
There are, of course, also on-court reasons for wanting to keep Vucevic around. His offensive numbers have bounced back to start this season. Both his per game average and his field goal percentage are up after a down year, while his true shooting percentage currently sits at a career-best .580. This is largely a result of his blistering stroke from downtown; he’s dropping in almost two triples a game on 4.4 attempts, both of which are marks that represent an increase of over 400% on seasons past. ‘Vooch’ has seen the game and the expectations of his position shift over the last few seasons, and he’s making real strides towards maintaining relevance in the modern NBA.
Even though he is routinely criticized for his performance in this area, it is worth noting that Vucevic has displayed some improvement at the defensive end of the court in recent seasons. He doesn’t have the foot speed to stick with players when he’s dragged away from the rim, nor is he the type of inside presence that makes the opposition think twice about entering the paint, but there have been glimmers to suggest that he could be at least serviceable. His general body positioning and footwork when being attacked in the post has improved, and last season was the first when his combined steal and block totals cracked two per game (he currently sits at 1.9 per game this season). He also set career highs last season in both defensive win shares (3.1) and defensive box plus/minus (2.3 points per 100 possessions above league average). He’ll never be Dikembe Mutombo, but if he can at least be okay the Magic would be thrilled.
So, there it is: the case both for and against the trading of Nikola Vucevic. How it will actually play out is anyone’s guess, and in the meantime it makes for an interesting discussion point. Be sure to let us know in the comments which side of the debate you find yourself aligned with.