The trade deadline at the end of March felt like it was an inevitable event that would happen at some point.
The national narrative involving the Magic on that day was that the team finally did what it should have done a long time ago. The team had a ceiling on how good it could be with its current group and was chasing, as Jeff Weltman would even term it, the sugar high of a playoff berth. Everyone knew the group was not winning a title any time soon as they were constructed.
That is what necessitated the team to pull the plug. If it did not happen at the trade deadline in March, it was going to happen eventually. The clock was already ticking to zero with Evan Fournier’s impending free agency and Aaron Gordon’s contract running out too.
The clock was not ticking on Nikola Vucevic, though. Orlando had a tough call to make with their best player. Their decision to trade him was not about his play on the floor or how he might have fit into the team’s future. It was about selling high at a time when restarting the franchise seemed to make the most sense.
For a season that was already well off the rails, Vucevic was the only thing that was consistently good on the court. He earned an All-Star berth, even on a team that was already among the worst in the league when All-Star voting closed.
Vucevic was not a player who could lift the team up on his own. But he provided enough stability to give the team something it could count on every single night.
The Orlando Magic had little consistency on the court. Nikola Vucevic provided consistency and carried the team as far as he could before moving on.
That is what makes Vucevic the clear choice for the Magic’s 2021 MVP.
He was the team’s best player all year long and the only thing keeping the team afloat. And ultimately, it was his trade that cleared the path to the team’s future.
At the end of the day, when it came to what happened on the court, Vucevic did all the Magic could ask for and more. And that made him both a valuable player on the trade market that netted the team a solid young player in Wendell Carter along with two future first-round picks — one of which became Franz Wagner at the eighth pick.
When it comes to listing the best player on the Magic for the 2021 season, Vucevic is the only answer. He always gave the Magic their best chance to win, even when it came time to decide to move on from him.
Vucevic put up All-Star numbers this year with the Magic. And that really goes beyond debate. He elevated his own game this year to a completely new level.
Vucevic averaged a career-best 24.5 points per game this year in 44 games for the Magic. He shot 48.0-percent from the floor and 40.6-percent from beyond the arc, for a 54.5-percent effective field goal percentage. He added his usually consistent 11.8 rebounds per game.
At each turn this season, Vucevic was simply turning heads with how much better he was than even his first All-Star year in 2019. His 40-point games and triple-doubles throughout the course of the season gave the team at least a little bit of hope Orlando could turn things around.
That might have been a false hope in the end, of course. But that is what star-level players do. When they are on the floor, the team has to have that belief they can still win. Vucevic provided that throughout the course of the season.
The issue the Magic kept running into this year was that they bumped into their ceiling. It was hard to imaging the team competing seriously for the Eastern Conference title, even at their most optimistic.
Everyone associated with the franchise believes if the group were healthy they could have competed with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks for homecourt advantage in this Eastern Conference.
But the Hawks proved that their star power in Trae Young would overcome even a strong defensive team like the Knicks. Nikola Vucevic is probably in the class of star that Julius Randle is in. That is not necessarily bad but it is clear both of those players are fighting for All-Star scraps.
That is necessarily limiting to a team.
Orlando needed to be able to flip one of their players like Gordon with future assets into a star that could help the team break through the ceiling of the 7- or 8- seed. What was clear when the team made its moves at the deadline was that this market was closing.
What Weltman did at the deadline, then, was to make the move while he still had some power. Being able to turn Aaron Gordon into a promising prospect like R.J. Hampton was a strong step. And creating a trade exception as massive as the one he got for Fournier was maximizing an asset in the end.
Everything though turned on the toughest decision — trading away All-Star Nikola Vucevic. This was the move that admitted to what was inevitable and showed whether the team was truly committed to starting completely over. With Vucevic in the lineup, the team was at least stable and could quickly bounce back to the playoffs.
The question the Magic kept asking themselves was whether that was enough to win a title. And the answer kept coming up: No.
Trading Vucevic and starting the team completely over was a step back to raise the team’s ceiling. Orlando fully leaned into the unique circumstances of this season — their poor record coinciding with a draft that had a lot of talent at the top — and made their bet to cash in on this draft.
Orlando was probably going to end up with one of the top picks regardless of these trades. The Magic could have tried to save their current group and simply add a promising rookie to the group.
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That was certainly a path the team could have walked. Maybe if the team had added Jalen Suggs to the roster they already had, it would have helped the Magic climb the ladder. Maybe even just dealing Fournier with his contract set to expire would have been enough.
Even adding just Vucevic to the current roster would give it a better short-term outlook.
Would that give the team a better long-term outlook? Would that move the team closer to winning a title or help the team settle into a middling seed in the Eastern Conference? Would that be enough to satisfy the franchise and its ambitions?
The Magic will never know those answers. The team opted to cash in that chip and got a lot in return for Vucevic.
Vucevic though delivered everything he could on the floor. He did everything he could and left his effort on the floor. Really he did that for much of his eight seasons in Orlando. Magic fans could not have asked any more from their big man in his time with the team.
And certainly not this season.
In the end, Vucevic could not carry the Magic beyond that first-round fodder for the contending teams. He just was not that kind of star and the Magic need the kind of star that lifts the team beyond the first round. Those are the truly transcendental talents.
Vucevic did all he could and had an excellent season. But for the Magic, it was time to move on one way or another.