2021 Orlando Magic 3rd Quarter MVP: Nikola Vucevic is very much missed

Nikola Vucevic is still trying to fit in with the Chicago Bulls. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nikola Vucevic is still trying to fit in with the Chicago Bulls. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Vucevic got the call from John Hammond on the morning of March 25 with the call. As he told Alex Kennedy of Basketball News, it was not completely surprising that he might be traded. There were, according to Vucevic, ongoing discussions about what might happen at the deadline and Vucevic was aware the Magic were fielding offers.

Still, the shock of its finality was something unexpected. After eight years with the Magic, Vucevic would wear another team’s jersey. Not only that, the Magic would be completely transforming their roster and starting almost completely over.

The team saw the end of its road and the inevitability of trading away both Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. Vucevic might have been able to help a young roster stay afloat. But the question ultimately became: How does the team get better and get beyond even just the first round?

A move that was probably ripe to occur two years ago before the Magic’s surprising two-year playoff run became ripe again. The Magic pulled the trigger on a deal.

The team that started the third quarter of the season and had several questions to answer is not the team that will finish the season. An entirely new set of questions needs to be asked of this new group.

Among them: Who will step up and lead this team now that all the key players are gone?

The Orlando Magic’s trades at the deadline completely transformed the team. The struggles with new players have shown just how valuable Nikola Vucevic’s consistency was.

The one thing the team has learned through 10 games since the trade deadline is how much Vucevic did for this team to make them function even on a very basic level. It is not so easy to run an offense without the versatile big man.

Orlando’s offense has cratered to the second-worst offense in the league since the trade deadline. They have made the fewest 3-pointers per game and have shot the worst field goal percentage in that time.

Vucevic was never enough on his own to lift the Magic’s offense out of the bottom-10 in the league. But he gave them a base that could spring open a man in a pick and roll or create a threat from the perimeter in the pop game.

It is why he remains the team’s MVP for the third quarter of the season — just as he was for the first quarter and second quarter of the season.

In eight games during the third quarter of the season with the Magic, Nikola Vucevic averaged 24.3 points per game (trailing only Evan Fournier’s 24.4 points per game five appearances) with 12.5 rebounds per game and 4.1 assists per game.

This was not Vucevic’s best stretch of the season. He started to hit a bit of a wall with his 3-point shooting. But that still left him shooting 38.2-percent from the floor. Something the Magic could desperately use right about now.

Injuries remained the story for the year, keeping the team from finding any kind of consistency with its lineup. But Vucevic remained the constant the entire time.

Even when he struggled he seemed to help the team, giving them some stability and at least one option the team could rely on.

Orlando sure could use that right now.

Running Vooch’s offense

The Orlando Magic have not had much time to implement a whole lot of new plays. The team is still running a lot of the same plays they did beforehand. But the playbook is limited still.

Orlando is running a lot of plays through the center position — whether it is Wendell Carter or Mohamed Bamba. But without Nikola Vucevic’s passing ability, they are quickly handing the ball back to guards, setting up more simple pick and rolls. And without Vucevic’s shooting ability, teams are able to pack the paint.

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  • The Magic are probably running an offense that does not match their personnel. Then again, what offense would with everything the Magic lost and are still struggling to fill-in?

    Carter, for his part, has been the best of the team’s newcomers.

    In nine games since the trade deadline, he is averaging 13.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He does not have the 3-point shooting range, but he has been a solid finisher around the rim and is more willing to force his way to the basket.

    Defensively too, Carter has shown better ability to allow the Magic to mix up their coverages more. He is much more adept at defending the perimeter. This will become more valuable as he gets more comfortable. Among the team’s newcomers — and perhaps in these nine games — Carter has been the team’s MVP.

    But still, something has been lost with Vucevic leaving.

    The biggest area is on the glass. Orlando dropped from the best defensive rebounding team in the league before the trade deadline at a 76.0-percent defensive rebound rate to the ninth-worst in the league at 72.4-percent.

    A lot of that can be credited to Vucevic’s work on the glass that has probably long gone underappreciated. Vucevic posted a 29.5-percent defensive rebound rate in the third quarter of the season with the Magic. Carter has only grabbed 19.5-percent.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    Carter is certainly still an improving rebounder. But if there is a question as to whether Carter can be the long-term starting center, it starts with his rebounding ability more than anything.

    For the record then, in the 15 games he played in the third quarter of the season, Bamba posted a 19.4-percent defensive rebound rate. Both of the Magic’s centers need to vastly improve their rebounding.

    It feels impossibly unfair to make this direct comparison between Carter and Vucevic. They are different players. And the Magic will have to use Carter differently than they have used Vucevic.

    Big shoes to fill

    More than anything else, NIkola Vucevic has proven to be a solid player in many areas.

    He is a great screener with the ability to roll to the basket or pop out to 3-point range. He is one of the best rebounders in the entire league. And his defense, while not impactful to change games, is solid enough that teams can function if they have good defensive pieces around him — something the Chicago Bulls are struggling to fill in at the moment.

    The Magic probably made the right call decided to hit reset when they did. And trading Vucevic, as tough as it was, likely was the right call to maximize his value and get a lot for him.

    Orlando is certainly happy with the return Wendell Carter has delivered to this point. And the promise of two first-round picks — including a potential top-10 pick in this year’s draft — was too much to pass up.

    The Magic are essentially betting the Bulls will be where the Magic were the last two years — good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to advance.

    At least for the 2021 pick coming to them, that is looking like a good bet as the Bulls are fighting for the final spot in the play-in tournament.

    Vucevic has done well to help in that chase. He has averaged 21.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game with a 56.2-percent effective field goal percentage. He has played well and the Bulls will continue to learn his game and an offseason of planning will help.

    Just like it will help the Magic figure out their new players and improve. It is simply impossible to ask the Magic to reform itself this much on the fly in a season where practice time is extremely limited.

    Orlando Magic's final quarter must put focus on the present. dark. Next

    Still, the Magic miss Vucevic. As the team prepares to kick off the final quarter of its season in Chicago against its former All-Star, perhaps some appreciation is overdue for everything Vucevic did to help the team function consistently.