While interviewing Steve Clifford, a reporter mentioned how often the Magic put the ball in the hands of Nikola Vucevic last year.
”And we’re gonna this year, too,” Clifford quickly responded, cutting off the question.
There is no hesitation, no uncertainty, and no change when it comes to the Magic’s style of play and path to success this season. It will be the same as last season. That means the offense will run through Nikola Vucevic, with the goal on each possession in the half-court offense being to get him the ball in the paint and let him decide what he wants to do with it.
Executing the same offense that made Vucevic a first-time All-Star at the age of 28, and helped turn the Magic into playoff team for the first time in seven years, is one of the main components in the most commonly used buzzword surrounding the Magic entering the season: Continuity.
In recent years, the doors leading to the office of the Magic head coach and general manager had been of the revolving variety. This season, for the first time in a long time, the organization and fanbase know that the nameplates on those office doors are more permanent than they had been. There is no new system to learn. It’s simply a matter of replicating what worked last season and building off that success.
For Vucevic, fresh off becoming the rare player in Magic history to receive a nine-figure contract, that means maintaining a career-best level of play.
Vucevic is coming off a season in which he had a career-high usage rate of 28 percent and offensive rating of 115 points per 100 possessions. As the centerpiece of a team that played at one of the slowest paces in the league, Vucevic still averaged 70.6 touches per game, which was 31st most in the league overall and sixth most among centers (trailing Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Marc, Gasol, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns).
Vucevic was utilized more than nearly all in the league down low, averaging 9.2 touches in the post and 9.8 touches in the paint per game. He averaged 0.901 points per paint touch and 0.487 points per post touch, with the bulk of his shot attempts coming from 3 to 10 feet from the rim, where he shot a career-best 53.3 percent.
Once receiving the ball, Vucevic was quick to make a decision about his next move. Although releasing the ball after rebounds is factored in, overall Vucevic averaged 1.71 seconds and 0.66 dribbles per touch, meaning he was quick to make a move in the post, or launch while he had open space from the mid-range or perimeter, or kick it out to the open man.
Vucevic’s passing, as well as his ability to space the floor for Orlando’s developing young core, is just as vital to the Magic offense as his career-high 20.8 points per game. Vucevic also established a personal best with 3.8 assists last season, trailing only D.J. Augustin (5.3 assists) among Magic regulars. Clifford said during the preseason that Vucevic’s ability to read the game is his biggest strength, adding that his passing ability is similar to that of a floor general.
”His decision-making with passing, he’s like a guard,” Clifford said. ”To me, that’s why he was an All-Star. He plays in a way to where your team is going to function well when he’s out there because he makes the right play and he plays for his teammates.’’
Vucevic has been recognized for his abilities with an All-Star nod and a $100 million contract, accounting for a large chunk of the 40 percent of the cap the Magic have allocated toward big men. They key now is avoiding regression, and proving that his dreadful performance in the playoffs (11.2 points on 36.2 percent shooting), where he was muscled out of his comfort zone and faced a swarm of double-teams, was an aberration rather than a blueprint for a Vooch shutdown.
Should there be some movement back towards the mean for Vooch, the good news for the Magic is that the growth from players like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and even Vucevic’s apparent successor, Mo Bamba, could compensate. Vucevic, now saddled with the expectations that come with a hefty contract, doesn’t seem concerned.
For years, Vucevic was considering a good-stats, bad-team type of player. Now coming off his best season during a playoff year, some are wondering if Vucevic has hit his peak and will now begin his steady decline. Vooch, however, believes this is just the beginning of his prime.
“The way I see the game now, it comes to me easier than ever now,’’ Vucevic said during the preseason. ”I think as a big man, sometimes it takes more years to get to that peak performance and I think I am finally getting there.”