Another season is lost for the Orlando Magic and with change on the horizon, the writing is on the wall for Nikola Vucevic.
The Orlando Magic have nowhere else to turn to these days.
Injuries have continued to decimate the team’s starting lineup and left them with few offensive options. One player has done his job dutifully putting up numbers in the last five years and is someone coaches from Jacque Vaughn to Scott Skiles to Frank Vogel have relied on for simple offense.
Nikola Vucevic is the centerpiece of this iteration of the Magic. With Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon out, there was nowhere else to turn. Vucevic was the team’s remaining leading scorer. He was the guy the Magic would have to rely on for offense.
It has been this way for three games now. As much as it has been for five years. Those three games do not erase observation from the rest of the season or a five full seasons growing and becoming the consistent offensive producer for the team.
But things should take on a much more urgent tone these days. With new management in town and this season of evaluation quickly coming to a close, Vucevic’s future with the Magic has to come into question. And most likely to an end.
If he is going to prove he still belongs as a part of this team’s future, he would have to do so in this stretch.
Instead, Tuesday saw the Magic’s worst defeat of the season. And Vucevic was at the center of many of the team’s struggles, although far from all of them.
Vucevic led the team in scoring with 10 points (yes, 10 points) on 5-for-14 shooting. After struggling through much of the first quarter, he found some footing in the second half. But by then it was too late. He had already given up boatloads of points to LaMarcus Aldridge in the low block. The team’s defense was in shambles.
Vucevic for all the points he scores and rebounds he gets did not make any discernible impact on the game. Not when it mattered.
And that has quickly come to define Vucevic’s entire Magic career.
Sure, this year he has been solid statistically. He is averaging 17.2 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game. He is shooting 49.4 percent from the floor and finally expanded to the 3-point line, hitting fairly consistently at 33.9 percent.
Those are in line with his career averages — 16.0 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game and 50.5 percent shooting in six seasons with the Magic entering Wednesday’s game. No one questions whether Vucevic can produce on the offensive end.
But at this point in his tenure with the Magic only one stat matters. And that has not fared well for him. Those are 20, 23, 25, 35, 29… and now 20-48 through 68 games.
The Magic’s malaise through the last five years of rebuilding is not all on Vucevic. Not even close. The team has been full of turmoil at that time. But Nikola Vucevic has also been the one constant — the only player left from that infamous Dwight Howard trade that nobody won.
Vucevic’s flaws have been apparent throughout his career. While he is a skilled jumper shooter for a player his size and a solid post-up option, his defense was always lacking. And for a league that is increasingly requirement rim protection and athleticism from their big men, that held the team back.
This year, the Magic have a 108.7 defensive rating with Vucevic on the floor. That is not the worst among Magic center. The supposedly stronger defensive player in Bismack Biyombo has struggled more overall with the porous defensive units.
Vucevic is giving up 65.4 percent shooting at the rim this year, according to NBA.com. Last year, he gave up 61.8 percent at the rim.
Either way, this weakness in Vucevic has always made him the subject of trade rumors. There was always some level of dissatisfaction with his play and a recognition it was time to move on. Perhaps this statement was long overdue.
But as this season closes, it is becoming clearer the Magic need to move on from this last piece of the original puzzle and create a new version of themselves. Vucevic has consistently not been able to step up to the plate.
Tuesday’s latest frustrating blowout loss is only the latest example of this. Throughout his career, these games have happened too often under his watch.
Orlando turned the ball over to him to create and be the team’s leading scorer and he looked at times invisible.
The real truth might very well be that the Magic have always asked too much of Vucevic. That is a sobering reality for much of their players in this rebuild. No one ever seemed able to step up to the plate. He was not the player who would make things happen. Rather, he more passively takes what the defense gives him as he diagnoses play.
Asking him to be the main creator has always led to mixed results. And mixed results typically means losses at the end of the day. The Magic have suffered plenty of those in the last six years.
Everyone seems to recognize that change has to come to this roster. There is no getting around it. After six years of perpetual rebuilding, president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman needs to put his imprint on this team.
That change will likely start with Vucevic. Next year is the final year of his four-year, $48-million contract signed in 2015. That could give him some value again on the trade market. But with the crop of centers in this year’s draft — not to mention the amount of money already invested in the position — it feels increasingly like it is time to move on.
It feels unfair, but a cold reality of the situation.
No one on this team bleeds for this team more than Vucevic. If anyone deserves to be here when this team turns things around it is him. He has scored and put up numbers and done his job for six years with this team. He is a solid NBA player.
Just not the player the Magic need right now. And that is more evident (if it was not already obvious) with each passing game.
Even with the Magic’s current depleted roster, the team’s inability even to compete with the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday with Vucevic as the lead player was yet another sign of his inability to lift the team up higher.
And another reason why it looks like it will be time to move on this summer.