The Orlando Magic need to make a move to propel the team forward. The conditions are starting to form for the team to move Nikola Vucevic.
The Orlando Magic are on the clock.
Not only have the Magic lost their burgeoning star forward Jonathan Isaac to a posterior lateral corner injury when he hyperextended his left knee. The team has struggled of late, losing eight of its last 10 after a loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. The only team the Orlando Magic have beaten in the last two weeks is the Charlotte Hornets.
That struggle has had consequences. They lost their stranglehold on the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference to the Brooklyn Nets, falling 1.5 games back. While they have maintained their lead over the Chicago Bulls — currently at 3.5 games — for the final playoff spot, it looks like it will be a bigger battle to get into the postseason.
Orlando still has to pick itself back up.
Everyone expected Nikola Vucevic to help carry the load this season, and certainly in Jonathan Isaac’s absence.
Nikola Vucevic is having a decent year this year, but he is not averaging 20 points per game like he did last year, nor is he playing with the same efficiency.
Vucevic is averaging 18.6 points per game while snatching a team-high 10.9 rebounds per game in 31.8 minutes per game. But Vucevic is shooting just a 49.8-percent effective field goal percentage, a career-low and especially concerning considering Vucevic is a center who spends a lot of time near the basket.
It has been a frustrating season for Vucevic and the Magic for sure. Orlando still runs a lot of offense through him. The Magic relied on him to play like an All-Star. Part of their struggles to take a step up in the Eastern Conference pecking order is because of Vucevic’s struggles to remain efficient.
His struggles have brought into focus the team’s need to prepare for its future. Even though Orlando is still in the playoff hunt, things do not seem quite right. Ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, and even going into the offseason, it feels like every player is on the table.
And that includes Vucevic. At some point, Orlando is going to have to shift things toward its young players. But what conditions would it take to trade Vucevic?
The team needs perimeter and scoring help in a big way and Vucevic remains one of the team’s best assets at filling out the starting lineup with more balance. They need a small forward who can shoot from the outside in the short term to help maximize Aaron Gordon. But any deal involving Vucevic, or any starter for that matter, has to have a long-term benefit.
When it comes to dealing Nikola Vucevic, everything revolves around Mo Bamba and whether he is ready to step into the starting center role.
Lately Mohamed Bamba has started to look a lot better. He is averaging 7.6 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game and 2.2 blocks per game in 13.1 minutes per game in his last five outings. More than the statistics, his positioning and defensive understanding have looked a lot better.
Bamba is begging for more minutes for his development. And it seems like part of the Magic’s next steps are to free up more time and responsibility for young players like Bamba and Isaac.
There are still hiccups, of course. Coach Steve Clifford decided to play Khem Birch in the second half of Wednesday’s game, citing how much Mohamed Bamba struggled with the speed and versatility of the Celtics’ smaller lineups.
But one of the reasons why the organization selected Bamba with the sixth pick in the 2018 draft was they were looking to add a defensive-minded big to anchor their defense. There was undoubtedly some desire to move forward from Vucevic and add a more dynamic shot-blocking presence.
That has not happened yet. One of the reasons is because Bamba has not shown the ability to stay healthy for a full season. Bamba has also not shown he can handle the physical rigors of playing starter’s minutes at a winning level.
Bamba is playing well in 2020, he scored 12 points and grabbed seven boards in 12 minutes in a win against the Charlotte Hornets.
Vucevic became more like an insurance plan for the organization until Bamba could prove he is capable of staying healthy and contributing at a high level. Vucevic’s surprise All-Star appearance threw a small wrench in that plan it seems.
The Magic could take their time letting Bamba develop at his own pace.
The 2020 season has not gone to plan, however. Orlando finds itself struggling to overcome all those injuries. But the Magic are still stuck as the 7-seed.
It does not feel like the team has gotten demonstrably better. And so the question remains, how does this team take the step up to contention?
Nobody wants to be a Playoff team without a winning record — something the Magic seem on track to be.
The answer to this question seems to be for the team to shift responsibility to its young players. And that inevitably means exploring a trade involving the Magic’s All-Star center.
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As of today, it does not look like the Magic are comfortable trading one of the franchise’s best centers. There would be value in a trade if they elect to do so. And surely Vucevic, with his front-loaded salary, could become an attractive trade option this summer when few teams have cap room to add significant players.
It appears the Magic’s plans for the offseason are to take advantage of this odd market inefficiency. The conditions for trading Vucevic and taking that step forward may not be present at the trade deadline, but they appear to be coming together ahead of this offseason.
There should be some market for Vucevic, even after this frustrating season. He is one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference, and the organization should get a nice return for his services.
But are they willing to shake things up before things get testy?
There are a few players the Magic should keep their eye on before the trade deadline. Things can change and develop quickly as teams make their last-ditch efforts to improve their rosters.
The Magic have until 3 p.m. today to decide if they want to move on from Vucevic or not. If they do, they need a scorer in return to upgrade the potential of the team and make a Playoff push.
In all likelihood, the Magic will not find a taker for Vucevic in the first year of a four-year, $100-million contract. But things are developing quickly to where the Magic might feel comfortable to move on from him.
And that might be the change the Magic really need.