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2020 Talking Point: The peak of Nikola Vucevic’s production

Could the big man score another All-Star invite or are his best days now long gone?

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Welcome to the latest in a new series that aims to keep the basketball conversation flowing as we patiently wait for the games to return. With each entry I’ll be zeroing in on a different player, examining a key talking point to emerge from either the wins and losses already banked, the looming playoffs, or the seasons still to come. Expect a little less in the way of statistical deep dives as we head more in the direction of dialogue, debate, conjecture, and prognostications. Let’s get started!

Hypothesis: Nikola Vucevic’s best basketball is now behind him

Detroit Pistons v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

The case in favor

Unfortunately, the recently semi-completed regular season is as good a place as any to start if arguing that Vucevic is trending in the wrong direction. On the heels of last year’s appearance at the mid-season showcase he returned to the Magic as the team’s undisputed centerpiece, but has failed to reach those same giddy heights. Despite playing slightly more minutes per-game in 2019/20 the big man’s production was down in literally every single major statistical category: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, three-point accuracy, free throw percentage … everything. The advanced metrics paint a similarly dispiriting picture, with measures like PER, VORP, true shooting percentage, win shares, box plus/minus, rebounding percentage, and free throw rate all taking tumbles of relative degrees this season. In the space of twelve months Vooch went from a deserving and certain All-Star to an afterthought in the same discussion.

It would be easy to write this down season off as a blip that will rectify itself in the years to come, but it’s likely not that simple. When compared to his entire body of work, much of this year’s production looks fairly comparable to his career averages; there’s a good chance that 2018/19 was in fact the anomalistic outlier. The experienced reduction also extended beyond his own individual numbers and to the performance of the team as a whole when he was on the court. Last season the Magic were 8.9 points per-100 possessions better off with Vooch on the floor than not, while this year that number skidded down to just 1.4. A mild net positive, but certainly not a great one. Vucevic was undoubtedly amazing last year, but it’s probably safe to assume that what we witnessed was the peak of his performance as a basketballer.

Also working against Vucevic is the deadliest of all factors: age. The 7-footer will turn 30 before next season tips off, and it’s fair to say that the list of players who peaked sometime in their fourth decade on the planet is very small indeed. Although big men usually age more gracefully than their backcourt counterparts, it seems an inevitability that Orlando’s former All-Star will continue to see his output and effectiveness decline in the seasons to come simply by virtue of the fact that he’s getting older.

Finally, there’s a popular theory within NBA circles that may also go some way towards explaining why Magic fans should expect less from Vucevic moving forward: the contract year phenomenon. It’s a largely agreed upon occurrence in discourse among fans, and there is a growing body of analytical work that seems to verify such casual observations. Put simply, when money is on the line, players tend to find ways to make visible improvements in their performance. In particular it’s counting stats that expand and — as we all know — production inevitably gets paid. When the Magic re-upped Vooch for $100 million over four years, they essentially entered into an agreement to pay him based on previous highs as opposed to the expected performance moving forward.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The case against

It’s commonly said that shooting is the basketball skill that ages best, seeing as it relies more on mechanics than pure athleticism. Such a factor is undoubtedly in favour of those predicting a Vucevic bounce back. Across the 54 games he banked this season, not a single player in the league attempted more wide open shots per-game than Vucevic. On 5.3 occasions each night the big man was able to launch a shot with the closest defender more than six feet away, including 3.9 times from beyond the arc. It’s hard to argue that shot attempts without an immediate defender are a bad thing!

Theoretically this could be enormously beneficial because a sizable element of Vucevic’s struggles this year came on the back of a dip in accuracy from the field. He just didn’t shoot the ball very well — even when unguarded — whether it was close to the hoop, in the midrange, or from deep. Vooch converted ‘wide open’ two-pointers at a clip of 46.7% and similarly undefended triples at an icy 31.9%. And although Orlando’s center has been among the league leaders in terms of unguarded shot volume across each of the last four seasons, these were by far the worst field goal percentages on such attempts in that span. Even at the best of times there’s a volatility to shooting percentages, particularly when the sample size is relatively small; it feels safe to expect a bounce back as his figures regress to the mean.

Elsewhere, there are other reasons to believe that Vucevic isn’t on some precipitous decline to obscurity. Although his assist totals sunk a little last season, the drop off certainly wasn’t as stark as that of the shooting numbers. He still managed to put up 3.7 dimes each night on an assist percentage of 20.0%, figures which were undoubtedly impacted by the shooting malaise that engulfed the entire team (particularly in the early going). Like his own wonky accuracy, it seems fair to expect an uptick in this regard next season. One could also draw strength from the fact that Vooch turned in the lowest turnover percentage of his career — just 7.3%! — despite a still gargantuan usage rate. Clifford has turned the big man into Orlando’s offensive fulcrum, with nearly every possession running through him as a scorer, playmaker or initiator. He will continue to be asked to do a lot, which means he’ll continue to rack up impressive numbers.

One last point to consider is the fact that Vucevic picked up some serious steam as the season wound on, with basically every statistical measure looking better in February and March than it did during earlier stretches. Much of this was a result of the big guy’s health, with a serious ankle injury in November robbing him of continuity and fluidity in the month-or-so either side of the New Year; once he got that right both his and the team’s performance started trending in the right direction. All players go through rough patches, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that in having navigated the worst of it Vucevic was basically back to his 2018/19 self.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The verdict

Vooch is still undoubtedly a good player. Some nights that designation even extends to very good. But it’s hard to believe that in the context of the modern NBA, in a league that increasingly demands shooting and defensive flexibility in equal parts, and in a period of the game that has marginalized the impact of the center position in general, that Vucevic represents $25 million worth of value. Even with a contract that declines annually the Magic are going to be hard-pressed to get equal value out of their commitment.

Age. Injury. Regression. The team’s investment in Mo Bamba. Reasons to believe that Vucevic won’t ever return to last season’s peak are easy enough to find. The Magic would likely be happy if they get 80% of that production going forward, which they should in the immediate future at least. But it feels relatively inevitable that Vooch’s All-Star experience was a one-and-done situation.