The Orlando Magic will be relying on Nikola Vucevic more than ever now with all the injuries. For one night he stepped up, but his critics persist.
A player who on one hand has been the stalwart and stat-producer on five bad teams. A guy who is devoted to the city and loves being in Orlando. No player wants to see this team do well and feels as much personal responsibility for its success or failure.
On the other hand, he is a player that might be the reason for those bad teams. A player who produced empty stats, giving away on defense all the offense he created. He might very well be the position holding the team back.
No one expected him to replace Dwight Howard. But the league is trending away from centers like Vucevic (and like Howard, for that matter). His lack of rim protection and defense quickly became an obsession. And it is a continuing storyline against him.
It seems everyone recognizes Vucevic’s future with the team is running out. With every missed or late rotation, it becomes clearer the Magic need to move in another direction to become a consistently competitive team. Orlando’s defense may never get over the hump — no matter how improved Vucevic might become defensively.
But Saturday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks and much of this season offensively has continued to show what value Vucevic still has. It showed how varied his game can be. And exactly what he is going to have to do to help this team survive as they go through a sudden rush of injuries.
Whether the Magic like it or not, they will need Vucevic more than ever now. He is their last hope. And for one game, at least, he delivered in a possibly unimaginable way.
Vucevic became the first center in Magic history to record a triple-double in the 117-110 loss to the Hawks. His 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists were a form of dominance for the big man. He made shots inside and out. The offense ran through him and his skills as a passer shined through in a way they have not before.
Running the entire offense through Vucevic, he worked the pick and roll to perfection and hit jumpers with ease as the Hawks scrambled to cover him. He dove into the lane to get deep post position. He fired cross-court passes with pinpoint precision.
This was the multi-talented big who could space the floor and work the post the Magic had hoped he could be for so long. The big with the passing ability and finesse to work his way through a defense. His strengths overcame his shortcomings.
And he played with an intensity that has sometimes been lacking this year. He flew through the lane for difficult rebounds. He played with an outward passion that does not seem natural for him. Vucevic was going to do all he could to get the Magic this win.
That is what it will take to survive without Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Jonathan Isaac for the foreseeable future. The Magic’s outlook does not look good and Vucevic is seemingly the only one who can change it.
Of course, Orlando was playing from behind and trying to claw their way back against a now-six-win Atlanta team. Nikola Vucevic was going up against Miles Plumlee and Tyler Cavanaugh. That is not exactly a murderer’s row of defenders. Vucevic, at one time a borderline All-Star, should dominate those players.
The Hawks pretty much gave up on defending him at one point, sticking Ersan Ilyasova at center and hoping to expose him defensively by drawing him on the perimeter. Not even that worked.
Vucevic has experienced a bit of a defensive renaissance of late. He had only one block in Saturday’s game, but he was changing shots and attacking the boards. He has five blocks in the last three games now. It was a rare outburst of defensive energy from Vucevic. But one that has become more consistent in recent games.
This year has not been an easy one for Vucevic. His 3-point shooting helped the Magic’s offense emerge and play at a higher level. His numbers on that end have returned to their level before last season. He is averaging 17.4 points per game and shooting 50.1 percent from the floor.
Those are the numbers the Magic would expect from him.
Defensively, the Magic are not much better with Vucevic on the floor. But at least they have a positive net rating — +2.4 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor. Vucevic is that kind of contradiction.
Or maybe he is that kind of scapegoat. An easy target to pin all of the Magic’s problems.
The truth with Vucevic lies somewhere in the middle.
The numbers suggest Vucevic is not as bad defensively as some fans might believe — his 1.2 blocks per game this year are a career high and, per defensive box plus-minus, he makes a positive impact defensively. But the eye test definitely does not help him. He still gets trapped in no-man’s land on pick and rolls. Orlando’s aggressive switching scheme will never work with Vucevic because of his slow recovery speed defensively.
Coach Frank Vogel said before a recent game he has to push Vucevic a bit more defensively. A not-so-stunning admission from the coach that his big man is not always so locked in on that end. At least that push seems to be working of late.
Offensively, Vucevic still likely settles too much for mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers. Despite his stated desire to return to the post and balance his jump shooting. He averages 2.8 post-up possessions per game, 2.3 field goal attempts per game from the post where he scores on 0.87 points per possession. Vucevic has taken 120 3-pointers and 164 field goals within five feet.
It is easy to tell when Vucevic and the Magic are struggling by the shots Vucevic is taking — in the post or in the mid-range, where his efficiency varies — and by how well Vucevic is playing defensively.
Vucevic was never meant to be the perfect player. He was a promising young player the Magic acquired in that Howard deal. He developed fine in Orlando. But the team has known for a while it needed to move on. Rob Hennigan tried to do so in acquiring Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Neither seemed able to replace Vucevic, even as Vucevic struggled offensively last year as he drifted further away from the basket.
The big questions about Vucevic remain.
But with all the injuries to the team now, no one is more important than Vucevic. The Magic must rely on Vucevic even more to be the central focus. He will get the freedom to display all his offensive skills.
Vucevic seemed up to the task on the first night.