The Orlando Magic have been in campaign mode for several weeks. So let’s get the campaign ad out of the way early on this final day of fan voting for the All-Star Game.
The team probably has not been in this active of a campaign overdrive since Tracy McGrady’s MVP candidacy in 2002 (he would finish fourth that year). This has felt intensely personal, perhaps a team trying to give a player of one of its worst eras the recognition he finally deserves and to ensure he has a comfortable place in Magic history even while Nikola Vucevic rewrites the record books with his name and legacy.
It has not been an easy ride for Nikola Vucevic with Orlando, going through rebuilds and failed restarts and a franchise without direction. He got better slowly at first and then, when the Magic finally found some direction, quickly.
Vucevic has earned All-Star consideration this year. Despite the Magic’s poor record, Vucevic is in the conversation and getting recognition around the year for his season.
But the Magic’s sink down the standings is bringing the future of the franchise into focus. When a team craters — even with injuries — as much as this team seems to be or stagnates as this team certainly has, the franchise has to consider their future.
Orlando is expected to be very active when the trade deadline approaches on March 25. And no player on the roster is so good that they are untouchable.
But Vucevic’s All-Star evolution this season — on pace for the best season of the veteran’s career — has certainly put his place in the Magic’s lineup and future in focus.
Undoubtedly, teams will be sniffing around the Magic to see if they are going to be willing to sell off pieces. And they have plenty to offer as they begin to shift their roster toward the future.
For now, Vucevic should remain a big part of that future as the team’s most consistent player and someone who can stabilize the team while young players grow.
Nikola Vucevic has turned in an All-Star season this year. And he should be part of the Orlando Magic’s short-term plans as they prepare for the next phase of their team-building.
If the Magic are entertaining offers for Vucevic at the trade deadline, they should be looking for a king’s ransom or to improve their overall talent if they are entertaining such trades. But Vucevic should essentially be untouchable.
This is not to say the Magic should dig their toes in and turn down any offer for Vucevic. This is also not to say the Magic will re-sign Vucevic when his contract expires after the 2023 season.
This is to say that Vucevic with his consistency and All-Star-level of scoring and shooting will make developing the young players the Magic are bringing in that much easier. He is vital to the team’s stability and competitiveness.
Orlando has made its philosophy clear in the last two years. Jeff Weltman believes young teams grow and develop best when they are playing competitive games and have a chance to make the playoffs.
It is why the team is not throwing in the towel this season — and they should not, trailing the final spot in the play-in tournament by just 1.5 games. The Magic are rightfully talking about how they just need to hold the ship steady for when players are back healthy to make another playoff push.
Whether they can actually get there with a rookie point guard leading the team and the trades that feel likely to come at the deadline is another question entirely. But the carrot is there and it gives the team some purpose this year.
It is under these conditions that Vucevic has at least helped the Magic keep their head above water (if barely).
Nikola Vucevic will not get voted in when it closes Tuesday or be named a starter Thursday. Vucevic does not have the national popularity or the profile on a winning team to merit that discussion.
Pippen Ain't Easy
But the campaigning for the coaches who will vote on the team’s reserves is well underway. And they have long known how good Vucevic is.
Vucevic is averaging a career-best 23.7 points per game and a 55.7-percent effective field goal percentage. Vucevic is scoring efficiently in the post (0.91 points per possession on 5.3 post-ups per game), leads the league in catch-and-shoot points (11.2 per game) and is shooting a career-best 43.1-percent from beyond the arc on a career-high 6.2 attempts per game.
Undoubtedly, Vucevic is having a better overall season than his All-Star campaign in 2019. And while there is certainly stiff competition among centers alone — Bam Adebayo, Julius Randle and Myles Turner will get serious consideration to back up Joel Embiid on the All-Star team and they all have team success over Nikola Vucevic — Vucevic’s name should be right there in the conversation.
Vucevic may not be a player who can take over high-level games and will a team to victory. There are very few centers in NBA history who can do that.
But that is not what the Orlando Magic are asking of him or why he is so important.
Planning for the future
The Orlando Magic are using Vucevic exactly how they should. They look to post him up on occasion. They have him trail plays in transition to hit 3-pointers from the top of the key — where he is the most efficient volume shooter in the league — or work pick and rolls and pick and pops.
Steve Clifford has said often he does not get Nikola Vucevic involved enough because he is so good at playing the gaps. The offense finds him because he is so good at forcing attention onto others to free himself.
In other words: The Magic still need a perimeter creator to take the primary offensive role. And this team is still incredibly young and unproven to stay competitive without the safety net Vucevic provides.
Just as they are invested in Jonathan Isaac, whose offensive potential is still largely unexplored. And the team will likely bring in another high draft pick.
The team’s core for the long-term future is almost certainly those three players along with rookie Cole Anthony and potentially Chuma Okeke. This team is going to become incredibly young very quickly. Orlando is likely looking for some veterans to supplement the roster.
To get there, the Magic will need a player like Vucevic to help bridge the gap and they will need his consistency to help those young players remain competitive and grow into bigger roles.
That is the path forward for the Magic. It does not guarantee the team will make the playoffs again in 2022. It does not guarantee that Vucevic will be an All-Star this year or beyond.
But he is clearly good enough to be on that level. And there is no indication that will stop any time soon. Or that the Magic will not need it moving forward.