This offseason the Magic front office made a big investment. In locking up their All-Star center Nikola Vucevic they made him the 23rd highest paid player in the NBA for the 2019/20 season, with his four-year, $100 million pact kicking off with a figure of approximately $28.4 million in year one. It’s a big monetary figure for the big guy in the middle who was a big part of last season’s success.
The move also reflects an investment in being big. Orlando will now field one of the largest rosters in the league in terms of size. Their top thirteen features three centers and three power forwards, and that’s without accounting for recent draft pick Chuma Okeke (another power forward) and recent two-way signee Amile Jefferson (another power forward). As it stands, half of the extended roster occupies one of the two biggest slots on the floor.
All of which begs one big (I’m sorry, I promise I’ll stop now) question: is it wise to be spending this much money at a position that has undergone a radical shift in terms of traditional valuation in recent years?
Let’s start by figuring out the details of Orlando’s financial investment in the center position as we head into 2019/20. Put simply, the team has a lot of money tied up in this part of the roster. Vucevic’s contract makes him the second highest paid center in the entire league, behind only Kevin Love (who toggles between the position and power forward). Accounting for Mo Bamba and Khem Birch reveals that the Magic actually possess 3 of the 47 highest paid players at the position. It would also be remiss to not mention Timofey Mozgov, who’s stretched deal will cost the team $5.7 million across each of the next three seasons; a figure roughly equivalent to the 32nd highest paid center (coincidentally, Dwight Howard).
Add it all together and it looks a little something like this:
Nikola Vucevic - $28.4 million
Mo Bamba - $5.7 million
Khem Birch - $3.0 million
Mozgov cap hit - $5.7 million
TOTAL - $42.6 million
This total represents almost 40 percent of the 2019/20 salary cap, tied up in just one position. More generously, it’s representative of 32 percent of what teams can spend before they hit the punitive luxury tax threshold, a figure that the Magic will come within a whisker of breaching. So that’s a third of the side’s functional spending capacity allocated to a spot on the court that has shrunk in perceived stature in recent years.
Comparatively, it’s a figure that places Orlando in the top bracket of spenders at the position. With the addition of Al Horford the now jumbo-sized 76ers have $57 million locked up in centers, although they’ll certainly find ways to play their latest star alongside the incumbent Joel Embiid. The Cavaliers will be dishing out $50 million, the current hangover courtesy of the LeBron era binge. The Timberwolves are on the books for about $45 million, as are the Blazers. But if you’re looking for teams spending more than the Magic on the center position that’s it - that’s the entire list.
So, in the modern game, what sort of bang is required to make that buck worthwhile?
The NBA is no longer a game defined by the behemoths in the paint. The glory days of Shaq, Olajuwon, Robinson and Ewing are seemingly long gone, with speed, playmaking and, most importantly, shooting reigning supreme in the current moment. It’s been almost two decades since a center took home the MVP award. Hell, they even abolished the position on the All-Star voting ballot. Russell, Wilt, Moses and Kareem wouldn’t recognize today’s league.
The ability to shoot is at an all-time premium in the NBA, as evidenced by the sheer volume of three-pointers both being launched and connecting. For a long time it’s been expected of the players on the wings and in the backcourts, but it has also increasingly become a requisite for the league’s seven-footers. A center who can’t create space by stretching their opponent out to the arc better be elite at other aspects of the game or they risk riding the pine.
This evolution has been evident in Vucevic’s game over recent seasons. A guy who didn’t attempt his 20th three-point shot until his fifth season as a pro is now firing away approximately three times a game, emerging as a relatively dependent deep threat. Last season he settled on a seemingly more sustainable three point rate of .171 (down from .243 the year before), cashing in at a clip a shade above 36%. They’re very good numbers at the position, providing shooting and spacing for a Magic team starved of it at some other spots on the floor.
Interestingly, it’s worth noting that Vooch’s emergence as an outside shooter hasn’t required a massive overhaul of his game, but more of a minor adjustment. The seemingly gleeful abandon with which he’s now flinging up long distance attempts suggests a foundational alteration to his approach to basketball, but in reality all he has done is shift the longest of his shots a few feet further out. The biggest change in his shot chart is in the reduction of two-point attempts from 16-plus feet; down from 29.9% and 26.4% of his total attempts in the two seasons before the three-point boom, to just 16.8% and 12.6% across the last couple of campaigns. He’s still getting a good number of shots at the hoop, but he’s supplementing this with triples instead of the dreaded long-two.
There’s always going to be a spot in the league for big guys that can patrol the paint, clear the defensive boards, and bully their way to buckets with the ball in hand. However, the modern game continues to ask more of centers, with those unable to keep up with the demand for outside shooting starting to increasingly look like relics of a bygone era. Put simply, superstars can shoot the ball; anything less puts a ceiling on one’s productivity, even for those most likely to bump their head coming through a doorway.
However, it might be a little hasty to write the eulogy for centers league-wide. While it’s true that the game is currently evolving in a way that prioritizes other skill sets, there will always be a place for an enormous body that can protect the paint and bully opposition bodies on the low post. Interestingly, there are a variety of advanced statistics that provide a compelling case for the current significance of the modern day center.
PER has become a catch-all figure that largely encapsulates a player’s box score contributions, and it speaks highly of the center position. In 2018/19 four of the top six, six of the top ten, and an astonishing sixteen of the top twenty-five players by this measure manned the middle. Win shares is almost as favorable, with eight of last season’s top fifteen listed as centers. Both box plus minus and VORP (value over replacement player) peg half of the ten highest ranked players as centers.
Some of this is about the counting stats that a team’s primary big man can rack up: points, rebounds, blocks and a healthy field goal percentage is a combination that catch-all metrics tends to like. Some of it also obviously speaks to the quality of players who account for the cream of the center crop. Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and their ilk are all absolute superstars, providing enormous contributions for the respective teams. Pleasingly for the Magic, Vooch also rates as a superstar by advanced metrics, consistently placing in the top ten of these categories. But are these players the rule or immensely-talented exceptions?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. For every All-NBA talent at the position we can identify, there’s an example of a ‘can’t play’ Kanter or Capela getting yanked in crunch time, or a salary cap albatross like Biyombo or Whiteside. We’ve seen recent contenders downsize at the position, with the Golden State Death/Hamptons Five lineup famously ditching a traditional center, and others like the Raptors, Cavaliers and Heat starting complementary pieces at the position instead of stars. In fact, you’ve got to go a fair way back to find an NBA finalist featuring a center as the side’s best player.
There’s also the fact that in examining a roster center is a role that brings with it some positional redundancy. A Twin Towers-esque dream is about as far-fetched as it gets these days, meaning that sides only need one starter and then the ability to fill the back-up minutes in an effective way. A third-string center for cases of injury emergency is a luxurious necessity, but one most teams will fill because of tradition. It’s a position that almost requires one to have more quality players than there exists minutes for.
What does it mean for the Magic?
Orlando now has three centers that they have a meaningful investment in. Vucevic is an incumbent All-Star and the fulcrum around which the team is built. Bamba is the high lottery pick with tantalizing upside. Birch is an eminently capable back-up being paid exceedingly well for someone who, in a best-case scenario, won’t ever leave the bench.
The obvious takeaway is that someone who either can or would expect to play isn’t going to get that opportunity. We can pencil Vooch in now for about 30-32 minutes a night, but what happens with the remainder? It’s no secret that Bamba was pretty ineffective as a rookie last season, consistently featuring in some of the team’s worst five-man lineups. Birch’s injection into the rotation at an injured Bamba’s expense coincided with Orlando’s surge to the playoffs, but it might be a bit reductive to simply conclude correlation and causation, because there were certainly other factors at play as well.
Muddying the waters further is the fact that Bamba also represents a greater monetary and draft capital investment than Birch, which will almost certainly result in him securing a position on the depth chart ahead of his Canadian teammate. The Magic have a vested interest in seeing him prosper, and coach Clifford will give him every opportunity to do just that. As a result, Birch becomes a relatively expensive luxury, as well as an asset that maximum value simply cannot be extracted from.
All of this also says nothing of some of the wilder dreams of Magic fans, who can imagine a matchup-based world that features minutes at center for either Aaron Gordon or (a bulked up) Jonathan Isaac, doing their best Draymond Green impersonation in a small ball configuration. There’s no guarantee such hypothesizing is even plausible, but we’re never going to find out considering how many other competing elements there are at the center position in Orlando.
The Magic have an abundance of talent and potential at the position. An All-Star. A capable backup. A tantalizing lottery pick. But what does it say of the investment at the position that it’s impossible to maximize the output of each player? Would some of these dollars have been better spent addressing some of the other concerns on the roster? Or is this sort of overindulgence an unavoidable component of roster construction?
At this stage the answers to these questions are not yet clear. But what is apparent is that the Magic will be keenly hoping for a big return on their equally big investment. Time shall tell.