Orlando Magic centre Nikola Vucevic is a free agent this offseason, creating a major dilemma for the Eastern Conference’s 2018/19 eighth seed.
Vucevic enjoyed a career season in his walk year (handy, that) before struggling against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the playoffs.
Orlando put a great run together late in the season to snatch the eight seed from Charlotte and Miami. The Magic’s rebuild is meant to be coming to an end and getting back to the postseason was a huge part of that. This was their first playoff series since 2012 – Vucevic’s role in getting there cannot be overplayed.
While he hadn’t been an All-Star until last season, Vucevic still ranks as one of the best players in Magic history. Only eight players, including Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O’Neal, have more win shares per Basketball Reference than Vucevic.
Despite being paid just over $19 million last season (per Spotrac), Vucevic will likely receive much more than that on the open market this summer. A max contract might be just out of his reach, but something in the twenties is certainly possible for the Swiss big man.
Losing both veterans who were pivotal in a turnaround season is a gamble. It would, however, free up a fair bit of cap space to acquire other, cheaper veterans.
The looming question around Vucevic’s future is linked to Mohamed Bamba, the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft. Bamba had a rough time in his rookie year, playing 47 games before suffering a tibia fracture.
Bamba was too lightweight to be an NBA centre and is obviously a project player, while Vucevic is their guy right now. With the East still shallow, and Orlando’s rivals unlikely to get much stronger, sticking with Vucevic could see them return to the postseason in 2020. Bamba’s development – assuming he returns from his injury okay – will take a hit, though, as he’d be forced to settle for bench minutes.
Committing to a costly, long contract for Vucevic into his early thirties doesn’t fit with Orlando’s timescale. It works in the short-term, but the progress of Jonathan Isaac, Bamba and possibly Markelle Fultz puts the 2020/21 season as a target year for the Magic to take another step forward. Ideally, they’d have cap space then, perhaps having traded Aaron Gordon’s team friendly deal.
Deciding on Vucevic is a test of Orlando’s faith in their rebuild. It’s a balance between this season and the long-term future. Letting their best player go after returning to the playoffs will not be easy, but it might be their best chance of constructing a contender in the coming years.