The Orlando Magic have been a pleasant surprise so far this season. Nikola Vucevic’s emergence is a big reason why they could finally crack their Playoff hex.
“Playoffs? You talking about Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game.”
They have been teased before.
A 19-13 start in 2016 had the team sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference in January before a two-win month and a devastatingly bad trade before the deadline sank all hope for breaking through. Last year’s 8-4 start had optimism riding high until the team lost 27 of its next 31 games and sunk to the bottom of the standings thanks to injuries and poor play.
This year has felt different. Even though Howard and the trade that sent him out is an afterthought at this point in Orlando, this young team has their eyes on the prize that they have been trying to capture since the franchise scoring leader departed.
And a big reason why is one of the key players the Magic acquired in that trade so long ago — Nikola Vucevic.
The Magic are aiming to make the Playoffs and stay in this race for the long haul. Even with a sub-.500 record at 14-17, Orlando finds itself squarely in the Playoff hunt as the season inches closer to its midpoint.
The Orlando Magic have lost five of their last seven games but still find themselves a half-game behind the Miami Heat for the final Playoff spot. That all leads up to Sunday’s showdown at the Amway Center where the Magic can retake the pole position for the final Playoff spot and clinch the season series and the attendant tiebreakers.
For many in this group, this is uncharted territory. And the team is talking — if not always playing — like they know their game has to step up to finish this path.
The common denominator is Vucevic, he has been a starter on this team for the last seven years, a double-double machine who has been recognized nationally for his play this season.
Rightfully so, Vucevic is having a career year thus far averaging a career-best 20.5 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game in 31.0 minutes per game. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week in November, thrusting him into the conversation of the best scoring centers in the NBA, alongside Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Jokic.
Vucevic’s All-Star caliber play has been vital to the team. The Magic are simply better with Vucevic on the floor — the Magic +3.0 net rating with Vucevic on the floor is the best on the team, as is its 107.8 offensive rating and 104.8 defensive rating (at least among rotation players).
There are several reasons for Vucevic’s emergence.
Certainly part of his success is urgency. Nikola Vucevic’s contract expires at the end of the year and the team drafted his potential replacement in Mohamed Bamba this offseason.
To fans, it seems like there has been a never-ending quest to find a replacement for Vucevic as everyone respected his offensive game but understood his shortcomings defensively. It always felt like there was a ceiling on what the team could do. Mohamed Bamba would lift that ceiling with his length and shot blocking.
Bamba was always going to need time to develop. He was not ready to step in and play major minutes immediately. And Vucevic has been more than gracious as a team leader trying to teach Bamba the ropes in the NBA.
But Vucevic has undoubtedly stepped up his game with that motivation — plus the potential for a long-term, lucrative contract in mind. The Magic have reaped those benefits as Vucevic’s defense has improved — a solid +3.1 defensive box plus-minus according to Basketball-Reference — and he has become the team’s most indispensable player.
A lot of that goes to Clifford’s willingness to run the offense through Vucevic consistently. There are fewer distractions offensively and everything runs through Vucevic in the high- or low-post as players cut and move off him. This takes advantage of his supremely gifted passing ability and shot making.
Vucevic was and still is the number one option in Orlando. Clifford has put Vucevic in more positions to succeed than ever before.
Clifford clearly has a different expectation for what this team is capable of doing if they are able to score consistently. He has gone to bat for his players publicly while also being not afraid to call them out for poor play.
That in itself is leadership. Sometimes the best way to lead is by example, and the example Clifford showed his young players was applaudable to say the least.
Clifford’s leadership has the Magic trending toward the Playoffs, albeit an eight and final seed.
Orlando still has work to do, of course. The team’s 27th-ranked offense is abysmal and is holding the team back in many ways. Although the Magic’s defense has climbed to 15th in the league. That is not where Clifford wants it either, but trending up.
The Magic’s -4.3 net rating is 24th in the league though. That is not the profile of a Playoff team. Orlando’s success in close games (10-8 so far) might skew the team’s record. The Magic are outperforming their statistics. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have just a 20 percent chance of making the Playoffs and are on track for a 34-win season.
It seems to be a win-win situation for the Magic approaching one of the most talented pools of NBA free agents in recent memory.
Orlando will have the option to keep Vucevic depending on what his market brings while still working to develop the young players on the roster. Although the Playoffs are the goal and the ultimate judge of “success” for this season, playing meaningful games with this roster into February, March and April would be an invaluable experience.
The team needs to understand how close it is to its goals and maybe feel the pain of falling just short.
Of course, if the Magic make the Playoffs, that could make them a far more attractive destination for future free agents and make the players on their roster more valuable in trades. This is still a long-term rebuild after all and the Magic understand they have flaws that require some changes to correct.
All those goals are still completely in front of the Magic.
Whether the Magic achieve them likely goes through their sometimes overlooked big man in Vucevic.