Before the season began, it felt certain Nikola Vucevic was on his way out. A quarter of the way through the season, who could imagine it without him?
Entering the season, the narrative on Nikola Vucevic had a bit of an inevitability about it.
This was the final season of his contract — a sweetheart deal signed four years ago that was never onerous but was never one the team could shed. The team had drafted Mohamed Bamba as his seeming heir apparent. The writing was on the wall, or so it would seem.
Nikola Vucevic had put in yeoman’s work for the Orlando Magic throughout the last six years. He was a solid producer on offense with a varied offensive skill set. When he was at his best, the Magic were at their best. But he was also someone who did not quite fit the future of the NBA or the team.
It always felt like there was a ceiling whenever he was the featured player.
For the longest time, his defensive inconsistency held him and the team back. It felt like so long as the Magic started Vucevic, they would get someone who put up good numbers but kept a lid on their potential. Finding a center who could roam the paint, block shots and run to the rim with power seemed paramount.
In fact, Orlando tried that on several occasions.
Dewayne Dedmon, Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka all came in with the seeming idea of pushing Nikola Vucevic to the wayside. Vucevic beat them all. His raw offensive output too much to ignore and his agreeable team-first demeanor something valuable for the team.
The first quarter of the 2019 season put a lot of those narratives to the side. The Vucevic that Magic fans saw for the first six years with the team is completely different than the one they have seen this year. Or, maybe better, this is a Vucevic that is unleashed, finally optimized and made the central figure within the offense.
There is no doubt, the Magic are not sitting at 11-12 a little bit past the quarter mark of the season without Vucevic’s efforts. He is changing a lot of perceptions about him — locally and nationally — and raising big questions for the team’s future and offseason that are completely unexpected.
For all of that, there is no other option. Nikola Vucevic is the Magic’s most valuable player through the first quarter of the season.
When the All-Star ballots come out in the coming weeks, Vucevic is the guy the Magic should and will likely push for inclusion. The coaches, who have long respected Vucevic more than fans, will likely send him to Charlotte if he continues this level of production and the Magic continue to win.
It is hard not to see the two correlated at the moment.
In the Magic’s first 21 games — through games played Nov. 26 — Vucevic averaged 20.8 points per game and grabbed 11.3 rebounds per game. He added 3.7 assists per game, fourth most among centers behind Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol in that time period. He is shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 39.0 percent from beyond the arc, with a 58.4 percent effective field goal percentage.
Within the context of the team, Vucevic has never been better. Orlando had a +2.9 net rating with Vucevic on the floor. Only D.J. Augustin was better. The team’s defense was as solid as ever with Vucevic on the floor. There was no drop off from him there.
In fact, Vucevic’s defense has been better than solid. He is a more than passable defender. That is not something anyone could say about him in the past. At his best, it felt like Vucevic was at least average and that was still exceedingly rare.
But every available metric suggests Vucevic is playing defense better than ever. Or at least at a passable level. And with his improved efficiency, it has made Vucevic extremely valuable.
The All-Star whispers feel a whole lot louder. Vucevic was feted with national stories about how his game has transformed. It helps the Magic are winning to bolster that priase.
Now those strong stats — and even these stats are beyond his previous career highs — come with some meaning. They are not merely empty stats.
Not anymore at least.
Steve Clifford has extolled Nikola Vucevic’s virtues throughout the preseason. While a jaded Magic fan base — and media — thought they had seen it all with him, Clifford honestly praised his offense and what he could be for this team. It felt like it might be pumping up his trade value with his contract expiring.
But Clifford had a much different plan. Instead, Vucevic is the fulcrum for the offense.
The team runs its offense through him. Clifford unlocked Vucevic’s passing ability to have players move off him and set up pick and rolls and pick and pops. Vucevic’s basketball IQ has filled in the rest.
He also put Vucevic back in the post more. He is no longer floating around the perimeter as often. The Magic are not afraid to lose his outside shooting to sacrifice planting him in the paint.
The question is whether this will last.
Vucevic played like this once before. Out of necessity, the Magic ran everything through him with almost the entire lineup injured last year in December. He put up bonkers numbers — including his first career triple-double — for a team that had nowhere near the talent to compete. Maybe those games were the clue to what he could do — on both ends — when given the trust to be that team leader.
Of course, he broke his hand just as he was getting a rhythm at this high level and the Magic’s other starters were coming back. Vucevic never regained that level in what was an otherwise middling season for him.
Through a quarter of the season, though, this kind of play does not seem to be going away. He has always been one to do whatever the team needed him to do. A coach finally fully empowered him and unlocked all of his talents.
That has kept him engaged on both ends and has made the Magic a far better team.
The long-term narrative with Vucevic may not have changed. The free agency decision that is coming up in July is still coming. And it likely reaches a similar conclusion. A quarter of a season is not enough to completely change the direction the team wants to go.
But there is still the team’s success so far. Vucevic has gotten himself off to a great start. And what seemed so certain at the beginning of the season now feels very different.