To have been a fly on the wall in Nikola Vucevic’s home when Al Horford declined his option for the 2019-2020 season.
For Vucevic, the top free agent center this summer, Horford’s decision to test the market created some unexpected competition. The Mavericks and Kings, two teams with reported interested in Vucevic, now had another unrestricted center to consider.
Oddly, Horford’s impending departure from Boston benefited Vucevic in another way: it created an ideal landing spot for Vooch in Boston. Vucevic, with his passing ability and improving range, could fill the Celtics’ need for a stretch-five who can space the floor and give Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown room to operate, filling the vital role Horford played on the offensive end (4.2 assists per game). Reports of the Celtics interest in Vucevic began to surface.
The Boston Celtics have emerged as the frontrunner to sign Charlotte All-Star guard Kemba Walker once free agency opens Sunday at 6 PM ET, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 27, 2019
A longtime Magic killer, Walker is now in position to actually help the Magic. Should Walker sign in Boston as expected, the Celtics would effectively remove themselves from the Vucevic sweepstakes.
With Walker’s potential arrival in Boston and Horford’s potential departure - along with the Lakers clearing space to target a top-tier free agent to pair with LeBron James and Anthony Davis – the market for Vucevic seems to be somewhat drier than expected. Fewer teams in the bidding war means less leverage for Vucevic in his negotiations with the Magic.
All it takes, of course, is one team to drive Vooch’s price up, and reports suggest that the Kings and Knicks also have interest. The Kings, though, have a team built to play up-tempo, should new coach Luke Walton elect to continue to do so, and the Knicks likely won’t commit long-term to second-tier free agents unless they first land a marquee free agent, which is seeming more and more unlikely. The market, to this point seems to have worked in favor of the Magic, just as it did last summer with Aaron Gordon.
So, where does that leave Vucevic? Right where it has seemed all along that he wants to be anyway: Orlando.
The Orlando Magic are preparing a four-year offer believed to be in excess of $90 million to their All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in hopes of completing a deal shortly after Sunday's opening bell in free agency, league sources say— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 28, 2019
Regardless of the frenzy of free agent activity that took place even before the moratorium is to be lifted on Sunday, it always seemed unlikely that the Magic would let their All-Star walk after their first playoff season in seven years. But while they don’t want to take a step back, the Magic must also look ahead and plan accordingly. When it comes to the long-term relationship between the Magic and Vucevic, the important question was never “How much is too much?” but rather “How long is too long?”
With eight years of service in the NBA, Vucevic is eligible for a five-year deal worth nearly $190 million from the Magic, which includes eight percent annual raises. The most Vooch can be offered from another team is four years for just over $140 million.
Vucevic was/is the Magic’s best player, but by paying him as such on a four-year deal, Orlando’s financial flexibility could be further restricted at a time when Vooch’s skills are beginning to diminish and decisions and paydays are approaching for core pieces like Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Mo Bamba and Aaron Gordon.
Based on his production, Vucevic has been a bargain for the Magic, with Vooch’s career earnings totaling just under $48 million. And the concern is not that Vucevic’s career-year, in which he became a first-time All-Star at 28 years old, was the product of a contract-year bump. By making Vucevic the focal point of the Magic, with the offense running through Vooch in the post or pick-and-roll, Steve Clifford squeezed the very best out of Vucevic.
The bigger question is if Vucevic can replicate his regular season success, and if so, for how long? Was Vucevic being a non-factor in the postseason because Marc Gasol is a Vooch eraser, or did the Raptors just share the blueprint on how to contain Vucevic with the rest of the league? Does Vucevic regaining All-Star form equate to sustainable success for the Magic in a wing-dominated league?
“I really do believe this is the start of my prime and I have a lot of years in front of me where I can play at a very high level,’’ Vucevic told John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com in April. ”The game now comes easier for me than ever and it’s only going to get easier with the way that I read the game and read stuff on the court. That’s going to help me a lot with my body and I know this year I felt better than ever. Those are all things that I can build on and improve. So, I can come back as a better player.’’
If Marc Stein’s report that the Magic will offer Vucevic four-years, $90-plus million is accurate, to me, it is too high of a starting point for Orlando, unless the contract is extremely frontloaded. And that’s coming from someone who recognizes Vooch’s importance and wants him to remain with the Magic.
I’d feel more comfortable with a three-year, $80 million deal (I’d even say a ridiculously lucrative two-year deal if I thought there was any chance of Vuevic agreeing to it). The shorter the deal, the better it aligns with the free agency of Gordon and Isaac (and Fultz) and the better it merges with the timeline of Bamba and his development. Having Vucevic on the books for the fourth year could mean parting ways with a younger core piece, which is concerning given the potential of each, or missing out on other free agents that could fill other voids.
Low-balling Vucevic, on the other hand, could force him to consider whichever team comes forward with a more lucrative or more secure offer on Sunday. That is the delicate balance of NBA free agency, particularly for a team in the unusual position that the Magic find themselves.
To be a fly on the wall in Jeff Weltman’s office...