Orlando Magic to re-sign Nikola Vucevic, commit to winning in short term

Nikola Vucevic has faced criticism his entire Orlando Magic career while quietly building an impressive resume. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic has faced criticism his entire Orlando Magic career while quietly building an impressive resume. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are set to re-sign Nikola Vucevic to a four-year deal. It signals the team’s commitment and expectation to win now.

The Orlando Magic had a difficult road to walk entering free agency. One that would see them balancing the team’s promising future with young players with the desire to stay competitive and in the playoff race.

For six years, Nikola Vucevic symbolized the team’s rebuild. He was the stalwart who did not seem to fit and seemed to put a ceiling on the team. As the one guy who lasted through all the bad years, he symbolized everything that went wrong.

And drafting Mohamed Bamba with the sixth overall pick — someone who came with his own level of buzz — seemed to signal the end of his time.

Nikola Vucevic forced the Magic to reconsider that notion, at least in the short term. He turned in an All-Star season and led the team to the playoffs as the fulcrum for the team’s offense and defense.

And, now, it appears he will be richly rewarded, getting a contract that both satisfies him in years and amount — reaching that $25 million per year average he reportedly was asking for.

Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Magic and Vucevic are expected to agree to a four-year deal worth $100 million when free agency opens Sunday at 6 p.m.

Momentum was clearly building over the weekend for the Magic to re-sign Vucevic. The question was always going to be how much and how long.

It is certainly surprising to see the Magic reach the average amount that puts Vucevic near max levels. It is also surprising to see the Magic give him the fourth year, considering Mohamed Bamba is waiting in the wings and seems to fit a more modern style.

There are long-term effects to this deal — especially involving Bamba and his development. This certainly signals the Magic are not optimistic that Bamba will be ready to start any time soon as he recovers from the fracture to his left tibia he suffered last year and continues to strengthen himself for the NBA grind.

This also will mean the Magic have a big number on their books for the next four years. It is likely the contract is structured as a flat $25 million over the four years of the contract. That would give Orlando $85.8 million in likely guaranteed salary for the summer of 2020.

That should give the Magic some spending money even with Vucevic’s big contract on the books next year. But Orlando will start to plan the eventual free agencies for Aaron Gordon (2022), Jonathan Isaac (2021) and Markelle Fultz (2021).

And this is really what the move signals — the Magic are in the business of winning in the short-term. Winning matters to this team more than anything — even at the low level of making the playoffs as a lower seed.

Orlando got proof of concept that they can make the playoffs in 2019. Now they are doubling down that they will not take a step back. They will make the playoffs in 2020 and accept nothing less. That will be the case for the next four years of Vucevic’s contract.

Whether they can do more will determine on a lot of other factors outside of Vucevic. But their investment in Vucevic shows they expect the base level established in 2019 moving forward.

Expectations have indeed raised around the organization.

If the Magic believed last year’s 42-40 season and seventh seed was the limit of what they could accomplish, they would let Vucevic walk and focus on developing Bamba. They would turn the page if last year was the end of the road.

That is clearly not what is happening here. Clearly, Orlando believes last year was the start of something. And thus running back the team — and returning the team’s All-Star and best player — was the beginning of taking the next steps.

No matter whether the Magic re-signed Nikola Vucevic or not, the team’s future relies on the development of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac.

The team was always a bit hamstrung financially — deciding on either re-signing their own free agents or using about $20 million to bolster the roster. It was always hard to see the team adding any real impact players on the roster — another reason why they might have decided to stick with Vucevic instead of losing him and being unable to find a clear replacement.

But whether the Magic are more than a lower-seeded team and can actually make some noise in the playoffs depends on whether Gordon and Isaac take a step in their development and become more assertive and aggressive perimeter players.

Vucevic serves as a support for their growth.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

He has been consistent throughout his career, putting up some strong offensive numbers and improving as a 3-point shooter and passer. His defensive jump last year was a big reason for the Magic’s surge. And Orlando playing through him helped his numbers but also opened up the offense some.

Not that it was any good — it was still bottom 10 in the league — but it stayed afloat. And coach Steve Clifford helped push the team defensively into the top 10 in the league.

That formula still remains to make the playoffs. The Magic have that roadmap. And now with their star back in the fold, they have the expectation they will be back there again.

That is the only expectation that matters for the team now. There is no other measure for success for this team anymore than wins and losses, playoffs or lottery.

Failing to make the playoffs is not an option. Not with the investment the team made in Vucevic and not with the direction the team is heading and committed to now.

This is the judge they ultimately wanted. After six years in the lottery, Orlando had finally laid the foundations to grow upon.

Their making the playoffs proved they could make the postseason. They proved what they had was good enough to clear this hurdle. Their foundation built last year is strong.

It is no guarantee of course. Orlando had some tremendous health luck last year with only Bamba missing significant time. Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic each had career seasons. There is the possibility they would regress to their mean.

That cannot be a mistake. Now they have to do it again.

Next. 5 under-the-radar free agents the Orlando Magic should sign. dark

There are no other options with the contract they have just doled out. The Magic’s intent is to win and nothing else matters.