Nikola Vucevic fighting back against becoming Orlando Magic scapegoat

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Orlando Magic is defended against by Amir Johnson #5 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Orlando Magic is defended against by Amir Johnson #5 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic is already receiving the ire of a fan base ready for a change. But Vucevic continues to produce and prove his importance to the Orlando Magic.

Nikola Vucevic was staring down Joel Embiid on defense. It is a matchup that likely any center worries about to some extent. There is only some time when you can just do whatever you can to slow him down. The impact will be sudden and it is difficult for anyone to hold their ground.

These are the moments that show where Vucevic still has a long way to go as a player. It is where his shortcomings become more apparent.

Just like they did Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets. He is instructed to drop and contain any players in the pick and roll, but all too often it feels like he is in “no man’s land,” dropping too far to contest a pull-up jumper but not committed enough to the roller to stop him from running to the rim.

The Philadelphia 76ers did not abuse the Orlando Magic in the pick and roll in the same way. In the critical moment of the game, J.J. Redick and Joel Embiid ran a two-man screen game where Redick caught Terrence Ross trying to get over and Nikola Vucevic dropping back. Redick had hit seven 3-pointers and it was his eighth that delivered Philadelphia a win.

These are all the known weaknesses for Vucevic — a mixture of a conservative defensive scheme (perhaps to protect him) and Vucevic’s poor rim protection and comparative athleticism — and the reason why as his contract expires it feels like his time with the team is running short.

But describing Vucevic based solely on these attributes is to sell him short as a player. It is to look only at half the picture. It is to forget the Magic would not be anywhere near that potential game-winning situation without Vucevic’s efforts on offense.

On a night where the Magic were uneven offensively, Vucevic was a constant, keeping the team afloat as they got themselves organized.

Vucevic recorded his second career triple-double with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. He was the fulcrum for much of the Magic’s offense.

They gave him the ball in the high post and let players cut off him, using his shooting to create space and the Magic’s motion and movement to get the defense to shift and rotate. He could take the ball in the low post and find cutters that way or finish over whatever defense he faced. Here, he had the advantage over Embiid in the same way Embiid had over him on defense.

This year, Vucevic is averaging 17.0 points per game, 9.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. Small sample sizes for sure. It is still a bit too early to trust statistics as a measure of anything. But these are strong numbers regardless. Orlando is getting everything it could want from him offensively.

The eye test does plenty to encapsulate everything that is Nikola Vucevic.

On offense, Vucevic is as reliable as ever. The team has trusted to run a lot of offense through him leveraging his passing in a way the Magic have not done to this point. When he touches the ball, typically a smart decision and good things will happen for the Magic. Orlando turned to him for easy baskets throughout Saturday’s loss to the 76ers.

On defense, he still has holes in his game and leaves a lot to be desired. The team has a 116.4 defensive rating with Vucevic on the floor, the worst mark of any rotation player on the team. Again, it is hard to trust stats fully yet. But this will only feed narratives awaiting his departure from the team.

At best, Vucevic has been inconsistent defensively.

He has done plenty of good things and looked better on the pick and roll at times. He swiped the ball directly from Dwyane Wade on one drive in the season opener and smothered rollers fairly well in the second game against the Hornets and 76ers.

But you could hear the collective groans when Vucevic re-entered the game in that opener. With the Magic up eight points and Mohamed Bamba getting the crowd roaring, Nikola Vucevic’s re-entry seemed like a harbinger of a collapse.

It ended up being that and Nikola Vucevic was at the center of one hard-luck play — a jump ball he won that Goran Dragic stole from the Magic. And then against the Hornets, Nikola Vucevic was front and center as Kemba Walker made shot after shot in a familiar and frustrating pick and roll coverage that was not working.

While no one will say or admit that Mohamed Bamba is the starter in waiting, Magic fans feel that way. And there is a considerable call to throw Bamba directly into the fire from outside the organization.

Coach Steve Clifford has shot that down completely. He said before Friday’s game that Bamba is not anywhere near ready to start and continued to sing Vucevic’s praises.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Throughout camp and the early regular season, he has pushed back on the perceived fan narrative about Vucevic. Clifford has praised his passing ability — on full display Saturday — and his shooting. Clifford has called Vucevic one of the 10 or 12 best starting centers in the league.

Vucevic said he does not feel threatened with Bamba’s presence and has been an important veteran presence in Bamba’s ears, teaching him the tricks of the league. Vucevic has taken that role seriously.

Nothing probably changes the Magic’s future.

Everyone understands the reality that Vucevic is on an expiring contract and the Magic used the sixth overall pick on Bamba. Bamba has looked like a rookie through the first three games but has shown plenty of signs of promise. It is already hard to keep Bamba out of the lineup (thus the “twin tower” look Clifford has opted for).

For fans, Vucevic is representative of the last six years of futility. And that will make him an easy target for fans when things go wrong. He is certainly not blameless in the team’s defensive breakdowns. He certainly could improve a lot.

But Vucevic is doing what he has largely done for the last six years. He produces, putting up gaudy numbers and being the player the Magic really cannot live without on offense.

The question remains whether Vucevic’s offensive prowess overcomes his defensive deficiencies. At this point, it feels like it is on a night-to-night basis.

Friday, Vucevic was a solid player offensively, but the team’s defense was so ragged it did not matter. Saturday, Vucevic’s offense superb and vital to the Magic’s eventual comeback.

But then again, he was involved in a defensive play at the end of the game that left Clifford frustrated and disappointed with his team’s late-game execution.

The future will be what the future will be with Vucevic. It seems like it is clear the direction the Magic will eventually turn.

Next. Orlando Magic Daily Roundtable: Preseason predictions. dark

But for now, the Magic have reliable Vucevic. He is clearly their best center — their most consistent offensive player and on occasions a strong enough defender. And Vucevic is going to remain a key part of the Magic and their offense while he remains on the roster.