Nikola Vucevic has clear statistical importance to Orlando Magic

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 6: Nikola Vucevic
ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 6: Nikola Vucevic /

Nikola Vucevic has been a divisive player for Orlando Magic fans. Statistically, it is clear he makes the team significantly better.

Until more players return from injury, Nikola Vucevic remains the most important player on the Orlando Magic roster. And, regardless of the fact, he is likely the most divisive.

It is clear the Magic will need a ton from Vucevic without so many players on the roster available. Even with Aaron Gordon returning, the Magic are still putting a lot on Nikola Vucevic’s shoulders.

As he has throughout much of the season, he is carrying that burden about as well as he can.

In Saturday’s game, he put up his first career triple-double with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Forced to play through Vucevic, he delivered in a big way. He popped out for jumpers and abused the Atlanta Hawks’ weak interior defense. Vucevic has always been able to put up big numbers like these when given the chance.

Performances like this are abnormal. But undoubtedly, Vucevic is capable of putting up great numbers.

That has always been the case for Vucevic. He has put up solid numbers for a long time. And this year has seen a return to his strong individual numbers.

After averaging 14.6 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game with a 48.1 percent effective field goal percentage, Vucevic is back to putting up near-All-Star-quality numbers. He is averaging 17.2 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game with a 54.8 percent effective field goal percentage.

It is a return to the level of play the Magic have become accustomed to with Vucevic. He is producing at a higher level. And without the Magic’s starters, they have relied on him more heavily.

Still, there is the sense he is not everything the Magic need. His weaknesses from previous years are still readily apparent.

Vucevic has a penchant for floating onto the perimeter and taking too few post up looks, where he is actually quite efficient. Vucevic’s expansion to the 3-point line has led to an increase of his opportunities from beyond the arc.

Like with everything else, it is all a balance for Vucevic. He has to balance his play in the post with his play from the perimeter. A balance Vucevic has acknowledged he has to get right in the past.

For many, the question with Vucevic comes on the defensive end.

In the last four years, his shortcomings defensively are fairly evident. He is not a strong pick and roll defender or rim protector. Among center who have played at least 15 minutes per game, Vucevic ranks has the 10th worst defended field goal percentage at the rim, giving up 64.0 percent at the rim. He has certainly helped himself with a recent glut of blocks as his defensive play has picked up.

Vucevic has a 40 percent contested rebound rate. The majority of Vucevic’s rebounds are “uncontested,” meaning no one is around him when he gets them.

Those all point to Vucevic’s struggles — a statistical confirmation of what many people think about him.

It feels for several years that the Magic are preparing to move on from Vucevic, looking for the length and athleticism many teams have at center. Even acquiring Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka were signs of the team perhaps moving in a different direction at center.

Vucevic still survived. And despite all the statistics suggesting he is not as strong defensively, he still makes a clear and definitive statistical impact for this team.

The plain fact is, the Magic are better with Nikola Vucevic on the floor. And the stats continually back this up.

This season, the Magic post a positive net rating with only two players on the court. The Magic have a +0.3 net rating with Jonathan Isaac on the floor. Even more amazingly, the Magic post a +2.0 net rating with Vucevic on the floor. The Magic have a 109.9 offensive rating with Vucevic and a 107.9 defensive rating. Obviously, the defensive rating could stand to improve.

But more astoundingly, the Magic are worse in every way with Vucevic off the floor. The Magic have a team-worst -13.3 net rating with Vucevic off the floor — 93.7 offensive rating and 107.0 defensive rating.

According to NBA Math’s FATS calculator, the Magic play like a 47-win team with Vucevic on the floor. Without Vucevic, the Magic play like a 27-win team. It is hard to believe Vucevic’s presence makes a 20-win difference.

Other models from NBA Math also suggest Vucevic is making an undeniable impact on the team as one of its best players, alongside Aaron Gordon.

This is, of course, among the many contradictions with Vucevic. It should be noted the Magic’s defense is slightly better with Vucevic off the floor. But the offense goes into the tank when he is off the floor. Vucevic, who averages a career-best 3.3 assists per game as a center, does a lot that may not get captured statistically to improve the offense.

The other question to ask is how much of this is what Bismack Biyombo takes away offensively. Biyombo’s defensive presence statistically is only marginal compared to Vucevic. But he is a huge negative offensively. That makes it tough to leave Vucevic off the floor for long or to keep Vucevic on the bench for long.

Yet, all those flaws remain. There is still a restlessness. And if Vucevic were so good and so impactful on his own, why are the Magic still losing with him playing heavy minutes and even shorthanded?

Vucevic did a lot of good things in the loss to the LA Clippers on Wednesday. But he struggled to shoot, missing some easy shots and open jumpers. That undoubtedly played a role in the team’s offensive struggles. As coach Frank Vogel put it after the game, the Magic need their best players to play well to make up for the losses around them.

Vucevic feels like he is enhancement talent for this team. He makes everyone around him better. But he is not on his own enough to deliver the team to victory. Maybe that is the conclusion after five years with Vucevic on the roster. And maybe that is not enough to think about making changes considering his defensive shortcomings that remain apparent despite improved play from him of late.

Next: Orlando Magic question effort after loss to LA Clippers

Whatever the future holds for the Magic and for Vucevic, for now, there is a clear impact and a clear importance for Vucevic to play on the floor.