Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic’s catch-22

Nikola Vucevic

It’s been eight years since the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. Since then, ‘Superman’ has become a journeyman, playing for five different teams. And he’s now in the midst of a second career NBA Finals appearance, this time for the Lakers, having lost to them on the same stage as a Magic player in 2009.

Without him, Orlando has compiled a 232-415 regular season record. They’ve also changed head coach four times, overhauled the front office and burned through a whole host of players, not one of whom is a bona fide franchise cornerstone.

Instead, Nikola Vučević, one of the lesser names acquired in the Howard trade, has emerged as the next best thing, leading Orlando to consecutive playoff appearances the past two seasons. But, after recording just 33 wins and a second consecutive First Round exit this season, the Magic appear to have reached their ceiling. This in turn has raised questions about the future direction of the franchise.

Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman, addressed some of those questions in a recent interview with The Athletic. “Nothing is ever off the table with us, and other teams around the league know that,” he said. “They know that we’re always willing to have any conversation”.

This suggests that despite the recent success, key players like Vučević, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are all available this offseason.

All three are far from straightforward trade assets though. Particularly Vučević, who’s led the team in both points and rebounds the past two seasons. He even came through in the postseason this year, scoring 35 points as the injury-riddled Magic shocked the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of their First Round series.

Vučević has averaged 20.3 points, 3.7 assists, 11.5 rebounds and 1 block per game since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. He’s also added a reliable three point shot that’s made Orlando a more versatile offensive threat and he became the Magic’s first All-Star since Howard in 2019. And yet he’s never quite succeeded in capturing the collective heart of the fanbase in the same way.

This is perplexing, because during Howard’s two most successful seasons with the Magic (2008-10), he averaged 19.4 points, 1.6 assists, 13.5 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game, not drastically dissimilar numbers.

The two players’ styles differ greatly though. In his prime, Howard was all about monster dunks and spectacular blocks while Vučević’s game is more understated. Howard was far better defensively than Vučević too, averaging a 6.7 defensive win share during that same period. Vučević, meanwhile, averaged just 3.8 these past two seasons and offers nowhere near the kind of rim protection Howard did.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two though is that Howard wanted to leave Orlando while Vučević chose to stick around.

In him, the franchise has finally found a good player who actually wants to play in Orlando, as the 4-year, $100M contract extension he signed in 2019 attests. This is something he made clear when speaking to Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype shortly after putting pen to paper. “It was important for me to be able to continue there and I’m glad we were able to agree on a deal that keeps me in Orlando for four more years,” he said.

It’s exactly the kind of thing you want to hear from your best player. It does, however, represent something of a catch-22 for Weltman and his team. On the one hand, keeping Vučević will likely make it difficult for the Magic to progress, while trading him risks plunging the team into another rebuild.

Unsurprisingly, the executive was evasive when tackling this particular subject with The Athletic. After all, he knows that Magic fans had to endure seven losing seasons just to achieve NBA mediocrity. He also knows what happened when his predecessors failed to trust the process not all that long ago:

The way Vučević’s contract is structured provides a clue as to the Magic’s intentions though. As Josh Robbins of The Athletic pointed out last summer: “The Orlando Magic’s new contracts for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and sixth man Terrence Ross are structured in a way that should make both players easier to trade, or keep, during the final seasons of their new deals.”

While Vučević earned $28 million this season, that figure falls by $2 million each year until it hits a cap-friendly $22 million in 2022-23.

The future flexibility this offers might attract a few potential buyers this offseason (Vučević has already been linked to the Golden State Warriors). It seems more likely however that by re-signing him, the Magic committed to competing in the short term. This means that they will likely try to reconfigure their roster around him for now, before potentially moving him in the third or fourth year of his deal if they haven’t seen significant improvement by then.

With both Isaac and Fultz due extensions next season and very little money dropping off the payroll this offseason (everyone knows Evan Fournier’s picking up his $17 million option), this in itself represents a challenge for the front office.

They will be relying on further improvements from Fultz, a breakout season from Mohamed Bamba and strong rookie campaigns from Chuma Okeke and whoever they take with the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft. Their tradeable assets beyond this group are frankly limited and Isaac, who perhaps represented the most likely source of improvement, is expected to miss the whole of next year with a torn ACL. Still, if the Magic can find a cost-effective way to acquire some much-need three-point shooting (they were 35th worst in this category this season), they may still have a shot at improving next year.

Whether they decide to stick or twist, they simply cannot afford to blow it this time. The ‘Dwightmare’ took a huge toll on the already embattled fanbase’s collective good faith. It also reminded those of us who are old enough of the mis-management that saw Shaquille O’Neal head West in search of competence and a clear strategic vision over two decades ago.

Seeing Howard play for the Lakers in the Finals will open all those old wounds once again. The impact it has on the franchise and his successor is what really matters though.