Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic Creating Flexibility
Nikola Vucevic has returned from injury firing on all cylinders and looking like the key to the Orlando Magic creating future roster flexibility.
The Orlando Magic have looked like a more functioning unit in recent weeks.
Equally as important, but also understated, has been the return of Nikola Vucevic to the team after missing time with an Achilles injury.
Not only does it look like he hasn’t missed a beat, he has already replaced Bismack Biyombo in the starting lineup once again.
He also looks to be expanding his already impressive offensive game in ways we have never seen before.
So could this latest version of Vucevic, and all he brings to the team, be the real key to a postseason run next year?
A look at the basic numbers in Vucevic’s box score would suggest yes. Once again he is averaging a double-double for the season (14.6 points, 10.1 rebounds).
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Should Vucevic keep that current pace up, and with the regular season coming to an end soon it is likely, it will be the fourth time in five seasons he has achieved this feat.
That is the kind of consistency you can build a team around and it is something the Magic desperately need.
The team ranks 29th in points per game (99.9) and 24th in rebounding (42.9). It is scary to think where they’d be without Vucevic’s nightly production.
But whereas before that was enough to keep opponents wary of Vucevic’s considerable offensive arsenal, times are beginning to change in Orlando.
The big man now has some help and that improvement along with Vucevic’s improved play means he is creating a versatility that the Magic have not had for a long time.
To start the year the roster looked cramped and disjointed, but the trade of Serge Ibaka for Ross helped free up all kinds of space.
How can anyone deny @NikolaVucevic is the best player on the Magic? He’s one of the best players in franchise history!
— RPGporter (@PorterMagic) March 14, 2017
We have already seen the positive influence it has had on Payton and the ability of Ross to shoot three-pointers (career 37 percent) has also helped.
Vucevic is now starting to take full advantage, with Monday’s entertaining loss to the Sacramento Kings a glimpse into the future.
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Vucevic scored a team-high 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds, healthy numbers. But in an unexpected and pleasant twist, he was perfect from beyond the arc.
This wasn’t a result of a shot chucked up as the shot clock wound down, either. Vucevic hit all three of his long range efforts.
He did so with the same textbook stroke that accompanies his smooth mid-range jumpers in what was an encouraging sign for this team.
It was almost reminiscent of how Marc Gasol started the season for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The three ball was falling with such ease, fans were surprised he hadn’t tried doing this more often.
Vucevic has now attempted 59 three-pointers this season, making 19 (32 percent). In the previous five seasons he had been in the league, he had attempted 26 total.
So if he can continue to stretch his game beyond the paint, as he has been doing for nearly two seasons now, what would it mean for this team?
This didn’t work when some combination of Ibaka and Biyombo/Vucevic shared the floor, but Ibaka wasn’t entirely the same player he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He wanted to be the star player, the go-to guy. As a result, his rebounding and blocks were the lowest they’d been in five seasons.
Most nights it looked like Ibaka wanted to be the featured player offensively, moving away from the two-way play that made him such a threat with the Thunder.
He was also averaging career highs in three-point attempts (3.8) and field goal attempts (12.6).
There’s no guarantee that pairing Vucevic and Biyombo at the 4 and the 5 with Payton, Fournier and Ross around them, would work.
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But on nights when opponents are scoring predominately in the paint (it won’t happen often, but teams such as the Thunder and Chicago Bulls usually play this way), it would be a nice lineup to use.
The Magic currently rank 21st in the league in points allowed in the paint (42.1 per game), further proof that playing Vucevic and Biyombo together a little could help.
This is all dependent on Vucevic continuing to prove he can shoot from outside more consistently, but it is a possibility.
Perhaps best of all, Vucevic’s defensive plus-minus is not only a career high at 2.4 this season, it’s also better than Biyombo (2.2) and Ibaka (0.5 while in Orlando, 0.4 on the season as a whole).
So not only would Vucevic playing with Biyombo bring something different to the team, they would not regress defensively either.
In fact, they might improve, as Vucevic’s footwork would mean he could stick with the bigger players that Gordon struggles to contain.
At worst he would be a more engaged version of what Ibaka gave them before. The alternative? Ibaka 2.0 and with it, the most complete roster this team has had in years.
Which is all to say Nikola Vucevic continues to be the one constant for this team.
He was the lone bright spot through some lean years and now that he has help, he’s finding new ways to help the Orlando Magic win games.
As he enters his prime, that will only become more evident as he is deployed in different ways.