For years, Nikola Vucevic has drawn the ire of many Magic fans, becoming an easy target for criticism…some warranted, some not.
The longest tenured player on the Magic, Vooch has been ridiculed for his lack of rim protection, lambasted for his inability to defend the pick-and-roll, and been labeled a good-stats-on-a-bad-team type of player.
I love Vucevic just watching Isaac guard two guys by himself...— Michael (@Mjridiculouz) March 20, 2018
But on Thursday against the Sixers, Vucevic may have hit a new low.
The stat line in itself is indicative of his struggles: seven points (all in the first quarter), 3-for-11 from the field, four rebounds and zero blocks. But beyond that, he was toyed with down low by Joel Embiid, he watched rebounds fall off the rim, and on one possession he jogged back in transition, creating an open lane to the rim for Ben Simmons.
To be fair to Vooch, all of the Magic starters had a lethargic and inexcusable effort on Thursday. But in 15 games since returning from a broken hand, Vucevic has averaged 15.9 points and 8.1 rebounds. At first glance, those numbers do not seem alarming, given that they are only slightly below Vucevic’s season averages.
But with Vucevic having become the leading scorer by default for a portion of that stretch with the absence of Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, the Magic were in desperate need of a stabilizing force on the offensive end and Vucevic was unable to step up and become one on a consistent basis.
While some may say that’s too much to ask of him, Vucevic has show flashes over the years of being able to carry a team offensively.
During his Magic tenure, Vucevic’s production on the offensive end, with his increased range and ability to play with his back to the basket, has in some ways at least slightly compensated for his lack of defense. On nights like Thursday, however, when his offensive struggles are coupled with his defensive shortcomings, there is really no reason for him to even be on the court, which is probably why Frank Vogel elected to give Bismack Biyombo some minutes with the other four starters on Thursday.
While defending less than six feet from the rim this season, opponents are shooting 63.3 percent against Vucevic, the highest percentage he has allowed since joining the Magic. His defense rating is currently at a career-worst 107 points per 100 possessions. His defensive win shares of 1.8 is his lowest since his rookie season.
Of the players who defend at least 10 shots a game these are the players with the worst DFG%— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) March 20, 2018
Nikola Jokic (54.6%)
Nikola Vucevic (53.,6%)
Kevin Love (53.0%)
Tristan Thompson (52.3%)
Enes Kanter (52.0%)
With that being said, what exactly do the Magic do with Vucevic after the season? History shows us that it wasn’t long ago that the front office unloaded a player who posted impressive offensive numbers but suffered from severe defensive limitations, netting just a second round pick in return. With Vucevic set to enter the final year of his contract, with a reasonable $12.75 million salary, we could very well be witnessing the final days of the Vooch era in Orlando.
Would Jeff Weltman and John Hammond be able to pry a first round pick away from a playoff team in need of an offensive-minded center like Milwaukee? A first-rounder for a potential one-year rental seems unlikely.
Would the Magic hold on to Vucevic for the final year if they are fortunate enough to draft a center like Deandre Ayton or Mo Bamba, allowing the rookie to ease into the position? Probably not when the Magic are already saddled with Biyombo and his immovable contract.
Add it all up and Vucevic could go the same route as Elfrid Payton: a player set to become a free agent who is traded for pennies on the dollar to a team willing to give him a try-out. For a Magic team intent on rebuilding around its youth, unloading Vucevic could be viewed as addition by subtraction.