Orlando Magic 2019 Season Review: What Went Right — Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic is still the leader of a starting group that can beat anyone in the NBA. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic is still the leader of a starting group that can beat anyone in the NBA. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic burst through to make his first All-Star team and become a stabilizing force for the Orlando Magic to make a playoff push.

There was tension as media members and Orlando Magic staff members huddled around televisions before the Magic took on the Indiana Pacers at the Amway Center.

Everything was out of their control and there was a game to play in the midst of a playoff push that had a lot of uncertainty. But everyone seemed to be cheering for the understated big man to get his due.

The singer for the national anthem was getting ready to belt out the first notes of the Star-Spangled Banner the Orlando Magic logo and Nikola Vucevic‘s name came across the screen. He was the last name announced to the All-Star team.

The story goes that Nikola Vucevic looked to the Magic’s PR staff to get his confirmation he was named an All-Star. Others around the arena offered a small whoop of joy. This was an accomplishment for the team and everyone who has worked with Vucevic for the last seven years, as much as it was for the individual.

As he got introduced for the starting lineups, Paul Porter bellowed out, “And just named a NBA All-Star. . . Nikola Vucevic!”

He had arrived. The team had arrived.

The playoffs were far from certain at that point in late January. Plenty of players and media took their shots at Vucevic’s place on the All-Star team. When he finally got to Charlotte, he scored just four points and grabbed five rebounds. He was not involved much in the game.

But just being there was the point. Getting recognition was the point. He was no longer an also-ran in the league, but a featured player.

And he deserved all that recognition. Among the many things that changed for the Magic this year, none was bigger than Vucevic becoming the All-Star player and becoming the centerpiece for this team.

This season was Vucevic’s breakthrough in so many ways. He averaged career highs in points (20.8 per game), rebounds (12.0 per game), assists (3.8 per game) and effective field goal percentage (54.9 percent). The numbers alone made him an All-Star.

But most importantly, the team made the playoffs and won 42 games. They won. That is something Vucevic had never helped lead the team to do in his previous six seasons with the team. That final result is what matters most and how players are ultimately judged (more on that in the next post).

Vucevic was a big part of the equation.

Vucevic led the team in win shares with 10.1 and in box plus-minus, clocking in at 6.4 points per 100 possession better than the average player, according to Basketball-Reference. He was a stalwart offensively, scoring fewer than 10 points just twice all season.

Orlando ran its offense through Vucevic, using his ability to space the floor the run pick and rolls and his smart screening and passing abilities to free up shooters along the perimeter. He was one of the best passing big men in the entire league.

But what change most about Vucevic was his defense.

The team’s overall defense improved which helped boost his defensive statistics — he posted a career-best 4.7 defensive win shares and +3.4 defensive box plus-minus. The Magic had a 105.6 defensive rating with Vucevic on the floor, better than the team’s sterling season average.

Opponents shot 56.2 percent against him at the rim according to NBA.com’s Second Spectrum statistics. That compares favorably to the 65.9 percent they shot against him last year.

Vucevic is not a shot blocker nor a particularly mobile defender. But he made big strides in both areas.

Against pick and rolls, Vucevic gave up 0.93 points per possession to the roll man this year compared to 1.20 points per possession last year. Quite the jump.

There is seemingly no metric that Vucevic did not improve in. But his most important attribute was his consistency.

The team literally could count on him not only for a double-double but a relatively consistent 15 points at very least. He was the Magic’s most reliable offensive player and provided a stable foundation for the team to grow and build from.

Vucevic scored 20 or more points in 46 games this season, more than 15 or more points in 67 and fewer than 10 points in just two games. All this while missing only two games all season — one for the birth of his son and the other nursing an injury before the last game of the season with the playoffs already clinched.

light. Related Story. What Went Wrong: Aaron Gordon's star turn

This model of consistency was exactly what the Magic needed more than anything else. He constantly made the right play with his passing or his decision to roll or pop. He was rarely in the way and fit perfectly into the offense. Defenses always had to account for him and few could divert the attention to him that the Toronto Raptors did in the playoffs.

To be sure, Vucevic’s flaws did not disappear. The playoffs proved that. But Vucevic limited those flaws and fit perfectly into an offensive system.

The plain fact is that not only was Vucevic an All-Star this year, but he was also central to everything the Magic did. The offense did not work without him — 109.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 100.3 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.

That is going from a competent offense to an incompetent one.

The team ran everything through him and Vucevic stepped up to the plate in the regular season.

The debate about his free agency will rage among fans until July 1. There is definitely value in re-signing him and his importance to the team maintaining the spot is undoubted.

Those are debates to have in the next few months.

For now, Vucevic had a stellar season that is undoubted. The Magic got where they were because of the step-up Vucevic took on both sides of the court.

Next. What Went Right: Steve Clifford and the culture. dark

That All-Star recognition early in the season was deserved. He was truly the team’s MVP this year.