Orlando Magic Let Nikola Vucevic Down

Nikola Vucevic was once the Orlando Magic’s most consistent player and go to guy. What the hell happened?

The Orlando Magic have entered perhaps the most critical junction of their season, a six-game road trip out West.

Unfortunately, game one didn’t go as planned, with the Los Angeles Lakers running them off the floor.

The 111-95 defeat was their fourth loss in five games, plunging the team deeper into lottery territory as they now have a record of 16-23.

As armchair fans who clearly know best, it’s easy to look at this team and decide you know what would fix their problems.

As an example, the Magic only scored nine points in the third quarter of that loss to the Lakers.

As this was unfolding, I was pleading for more offense through the introduction of Jodie Meeks, who has been in good form recently.

Nov 16, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) celebrates after scoring against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at Amway Center. The Magic won 89-82. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

He entered the game with less than a minute to go in the quarter and with the game effectively out of reach.

This is but one example of the many problems this teams faces, so soon after I proclaimed that actually everything might not be so bad after all.

But if there’s one player who should feel more wronged by than anybody else in this current predicament, it’s Nikola Vucevic.

In 36 games so far this season, Vucevic has started 16. In more recent times, he’s been used as a sixth man of sorts off the bench.

This has been to accommodate Bismack Biyombo, a summer acquisition with a reputation as a far superior defender.

In theory, pairing him with Serge Ibaka, who the team gave up Victor Oladipo and the rights to Domantas Sabonis for, would make the team difficult to score against.

Only right now the team has a defensive rating of 1.049, the 19th-best mark in the league.

That pairing hasn’t worked out, and when you add Elfrid Payton to that group of starters, spacing on the floor can be difficult.

Which explains why Orlando currently has the 27th-best offense in the league (98.9), and ranks 28th in three point shooting (33.7 percent).

So with the offense clogged, and the defending not near the elite level we had hoped, why is Vucevic still being underused?

The 26-year-old averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds as recently as two seasons ago, and is averaging a double-double again this year (13.2 points, 10.3 rebounds).

This despite playing 27.9 minutes a night, the lowest mark since his rookie year. He is also producing these numbers, while playing with the second unit for periods of the game.

Fans appear to have short memories, as Vucevic was the best player to come out of the Dwight Howard deal that sent him to the Lakers.

After a shaky start, he became the crutch for this team to lean on through their terrible seasons.

When Oladipo, a former second overall pick, failed to catch fire and live up to the tag of face of the franchise, it was Vucevic who steadily provided points and rebounding.

The same could be said for Payton and Aaron Gordon, two guys who have taken some time to adjust to the professional game.

It is unfair to label any of the above three players the team drafted as anything close to busts.

But perhaps expectations were too great, and came too soon for them to live up to. Certainly all three are as good now as they’ve ever been.

Regardless, it was Vucevic who continued to turn up, with a Player Efficiency Rating (league average 15) more than 21 in the two seasons preceding this one (right now it’s a still respectable 17.9).

If only the team could have added a more gifted and complete two-way player to team with Vucevic, there’s no telling how important he could have been for the team.

Moving him to the bench this season made sense, at least until it became apparent that his spacing and scoring was sorely missed.

If the Magic were still anemic offensively, but were a top defensive unit, his downturn in minutes received would be understandable.

But they’ve only stopped opponents scoring more than100 points in a game four times since the start of December.

Those came in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and the Lakers.

Which brings me to the point which is the most baffling of all and that is that Vucevic isn’t even that bad a defender compared to Biyombo anymore.

Before the season it wasn’t a contest, Biyombo was the better defender all day long.

But Vucevic has a defensive rating of 2.5 this season, by far a career high. Biyombo on the other hand, has a rating of 2.9 (also a career high).

Biyombo’s number is higher, but admit it, it’s closer than you thought isn’t it? Vucevic has become better at contesting shots vertically around the rim.

He also corrals more rebounds than Biyombo (the aforementioned 10.3 to his 7.8), but he is playing just over two more minutes a night.

That’s the problem though, Vucevic still needs more minutes, and a bigger role in the offensive scheme.

Not only is he learning to shoot from distance (30 percent so far this season), his footwork and moves around the basket rival any big in the league (video via 3ball).

Biyombo? Well his 6.1 points a night are a career high, but they all come around the basket. It is also no exaggeration to say he hardly ever dribbles the ball.

He has value, and he gets up and down the court dutifully, but he cramps the offense. A PER of 11.7 is poor, while his offensive rating of -4.2 reflects how limited he is on that end.

It’s easy to forget, but the Orlando Magic have a guy in Nikola Vucevic who can carry them offensively for stretches.

He is not a star player, and if he is this team’s best player, the best they can hope for is a first round exit from the playoffs.

But he is worlds better than Bismack Biyombo offensively and defensively it’s closer than you think between the two.

He needs to be used more, the way he has become an afterthought here is criminal. It needs to happen soon, or else he should be moved while he still has some value.

It would be a sorry end however, as Vucevic has been as committed a player in that pinstriped blue as we have seen in recent years.

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