Nikola Vucevic is part of modernizing the Orlando Magic’s offense

Despite his flaws, Nikola Vucevic has continued to be a consistent producer at the Orlando Magic's most solid position. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Despite his flaws, Nikola Vucevic has continued to be a consistent producer at the Orlando Magic's most solid position. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are still looking to modernize their offense. Pace will be key, but so is Nikola Vucevic, who quickly is becoming a modern center.

The NBA is constantly evolving. It changes on a dime.

Playoff series and the results in the postseason and who ultimately wins a championship changes how teams build and think about the league. Even teams who do not win the title can have a massive effect on the league’s understanding of what works and how the league will shift.

The Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns sped the game up to immeasurable speeds (OK, they were measurable, but go with the hyperbole). The 2009 Orlando Magic proved the 3-pointer could win, paving the way for the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks legitimized the unicorn at point guard.

The game is always evolving. And in a copycat league, everyone is trying to mimic other team’s successes — even in the way teams try to rebuild (but more on that once we get to the Conference Finals).

The 2020 Playoffs did reveal something about the Magic offensively. Something that has become a bigger trend throughout the league.

Nikola Vucevic was the undoubted star for the team in the Playoffs. After a poor 2019 playoff performance, he found some redemption in scoring 28.0 points per game on a 58.6-percent effective field goal percentage.

The way Nikola Vucevic did this though was something revelatory.

True, he took advantage of a Bucks defense that aggressively drops to protect the paint. Vucevic nestled in the mid-range in the cushions the Bucks defense gave him and tore them apart.

Jump-shooting centers that stretch out to the 3-point line are still a recent phenomenon in the NBA. The days of the earth-bound post-up centers have quickly died off. And really only the Boston Celtics of the teams remaining do not use a 3-point shooting big man.

The Toronto Raptors spent most of their double-overtime win with their championship and elimination on the line with OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam at center. Positionlessness is in around the league.

So those centers who are able to stay on the floor have to have some versatility. They have to be able to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line. And increasingly, they have to be able to make plays and pass the ball as fulcrums within the offense.

The current iteration of the Magic do not have anything that resembles a modern offense. The team is a poor 3-point shooting team — 25th this year in 3-point field goal percentage (they finished 11th in 2019) and they have not finished in the top half of the league in offensive rating since Dwight Howard left in 2012.

While the Magic have had some offensive spurts and found their rhythm for brief times, the Magic have struggled to generate offense when it matters most. The 2019 Playoffs were a disaster offensively. And while Orlando got some breath in 2020, the team again went through long spurts without scoring.

The team hopes that playing at a faster pace will help it get out in transition and get to the basket more consistently. This is when the team started to score and move freer to get open shots.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

At least a small part of that offensive push came because Vucevic also played significantly better. From the All-Star Break until the season went on hiatus, Vucevic averaged 21.8 points per game, 12.0 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game.

The going thought has long been that Vucevic as a more traditional post-up center and a somewhat slow-footed would slow the Magic down and hold the offense back. But, in reality, he may be as much a key to the Magic’s offense working and becoming more modern.

Rob Mahoney of The Ringer wrote about this phenomenon of the playmaking big last week. He highlighted how players like Draymond Green, Bam Adebayo and Nikola Jokic are changing the roles of big men throughout the league.

"“The spatial creep of NBA offenses has changed the value structure of the entire league, and most of all, our understanding of what makes an effective big,” Mahoney wrote. “Whether a center can space the floor—and defend in space—is now their defining feature. It has become a shorthand for whether a big will be able to survive in the unforgiving climate of postseason basketball, in which defenses will exploit any player who doesn’t present an immediate threat to score. Shooting at the 4 and 5 offers the simplest form of relief. Passing from those positions, however, unlocks the greatest possible advantage.”"

Vucevic is not among these big men, as much because the Magic are still relatively inconsequential nationally and do not quite fit into this neat narrative. Nikola Vucevic is a big man more like Marc Gasol, who notably did not play at the end of that double-overtime victory Wednesday.

But he is much more a modern center than people give him credit for.

On a raw statistics basis, Vucevic finished seventh among centers with 3.6 assists per game — he is still third among center with 4.0 assists per game this postseason.

Vucevic is one of the best passing big men in the league. Essentially every metric and Z-score tracked by Basketball Index rates Vucevic among the best passing big men in the league. Vucevic is not making any highlight-reel or complicated passes, but he is good at finding players.

And more importantly, he is still very efficient as a 3-point shooter when he gets them in catch-and-shoot situations. Steve Clifford often says the best part about Nikola Vucevic is they can run the offense around and through him. They rarely run direct plays for him — aside from a stray post-up or two.

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  • Most of Vucevic’s shots are open. He has still struggled to be a consistent 3-point shooter. Vucevic certainly falls in love with the volume at times. Whether Vucevic can be part of a modern offense will depend on how Vucevic improves as a 3-point shooter.

    But this is where Vucevic can fit into a modern offense. He can be a passer from the high post and have players cut and move off of him. If he can become a better 3-point shooter, then he will fit this mold a whole lot better.

    This is not a perfect match. Players like Jokic and Adebayo probably fit the ideal of this modern big far more than Vucevic.

    Vucevic still struggles to defend in space and he does not have the athleticism to take up space given to him. Vucevic will settle for mid-range jumpers. Even Jokic will make forays to the rim.

    The Magic’s defensive schemes also have helped protect Vucevic in the paint, but he still struggles to protect the rim and especially with guards who can get downhill on him fast.

    Vucevic is similar to Jokic in this way, although Jokic has found a way to be more disruptive getting deflections where Vucevic settles into the paint a bit more.

    There is a modern NBA offense somewhere in the Magic. But it will undoubtedly take adding more shooting to get there. And that will include from Vucevic.

    But there is at least the possibility that modernizing the Magic’s offense will include Vucevic. He has proven he can do at least some of the elements modern offenses have come to expect from the center.

    Next. Orlando Magic cannot stand still, but still need patience. dark

    Whether Vucevic can meet this new wave and become a modern center is still to be determined. He might be closer than we all think.