ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic’s name is littered all over the Magic’s historical record book and, even while playing for an Orlando franchise that boasts some of the NBA’s greatest players ever, the 7-footer has authored some of the team’s most prolific individual efforts.
All that work and all those accomplishments in seven years in Orlando have earned Vucevic zero winning seasons, zero playoff victories, zero all-star game appointments and, quite frankly, zero fulfillment.
The only thing hollower than Vucevic’s statistics over the previous six years – his words in describing the often-gaudy numbers that he’s posted – is the hollow feeling that he’s had while the Magic have struggled year after year.
``When you lose and have big numbers, it’s like, `OK, sure, I played well, but how much does it really mean if you didn’t win?’’ said Vucevic, who still holds the franchise record for rebounds in a game with 29 – a mark he set early in the 2012-13 season. ``At the end of the day, (winning) is all that matters. All people count are how many wins did you have? And how far did you go in the playoffs?’’
Now in his seventh season with the Magic and again playing some of the best basketball of his career, Vucevic finally has a few answers to those questions. Remarkably, he has the Magic (9-8) above .500 following a 2-6 start to the season thanks to an offensive revolution that he’s led. Orlando has won three in a row and seven of the past nine games thanks to Vucevic dominating games in a variety of ways. In those nine games, the 7-foot center has averaged 21.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor and 39.2 percent from 3-point range.
In the past three games, Vucevic has been even more dominant, hanging 30 points on Philadelphia, 36 on the Los Angeles Lakers and 28 points in Sunday’s defeat of New York. During that run, he became the Magic’s first player to score 30 points in consecutive games since March of 2015 and he’s also the first Orlando player since Dwight Howard in 2008 to have at least 28 points and 10 rebounds in three straight.
This time, of course, those impressive Vucevic numbers are coming in victories. That, he stressed, makes all of the difference in the world.
``It’s night-and-day difference,’’ he said. ``Hopefully we can keep winning and I can keep playing well. The main thing is for us to win and the rest takes care of itself.’’
Vucevic’s scoring, passing, shooting from the perimeter and overall decision-making has the Orlando offense humming at a speed it never has before. In beating the Lakers and Knicks over the past weekend, the Magic scored at least 130 points in consecutive games for the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise. Whereas 2 ½ weeks ago, the Magic ranked 30thin the NBA in scoring, 30thin field goal percentage, 29thin 3-point shooting and 14thin assists, they have drastically turned things around of late. Over the last nine games, the Magic have ranked fifth in the league in scoring, first in field goal percentage, first in 3-point shooting and first in assists.
The burning question, of course, is whether or not the Magic can sustain this torrid pace? After all, Vucevic was in Orlando when the Magic started 19-13 in 2015 and 6-2 and 8-4 last season before the offense ground to a halt. He is highly hopeful that Orlando can keep it up by playing in a manner where teammates trust the pass and trust one another.
``Not a lot of us have played on teams that have won a lot and obviously we know what loses because we’ve done a lot of that,’’ Vucevic said with a bit of dry humor. ``We understand that, even though it’s early, to keep winning and become a winning team, we have to keep doing what we’ve done the past (nine) games. That’s playing well defensively and playing well together and with a purpose on offense.’’
Vucevic, who was named a team captain prior to the season along with Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, has been in the middle of that purposeful play. First-year Magic coach Steve Clifford made the decision long ago to run the majority of the offense through Vucevic’s hands because of his knack for making the right decisions. Orlando’s center averaged a career high in assists last season (3.4) and he’s improved it this season (3.6 apg.). He set a new career high in assists earlier in the season in Philadelphia when had 12 for a triple-double. He just missed his second triple-double of the season and the third of his career on Sunday when he finished with nine assists against the Knicks.
``It’s good seeing him play like this because he had a rough couple of years. So now, I feel like he’s playing with a lot of confidence,’’ said Evan Fournier, a teammate of Vucevic’s for five seasons. ``He’s the focal point of our offense and we run a lot of sets through him. With pick-and-rolls, hand-offs and post-ups, he’s the only inside guy that we have, and we want to play inside-out. He has the ball a lot, he makes good decisions and he’s making threes right now. So, perfecto!’’
Added Clifford, who has long admired Vucevic as one of the NBA’s most skilled big men: ``Vooch is just, you know – inside, outside and with his passing – he’s just playing at an incredibly high level.’’
Able to become a free agent at season’s end, the 28-year-old Vucevic is well aware that he could be in line for another lucrative contract from either the Magic or another NBA team. But more than anything, his massive improvements this season have come for two primary reasons. Despite all the hard times in Orlando, he’s never looked to leave and desperately wants to help the franchise get back in the position of playing in the postseason. Secondly, he wanted to prove to himself and the league that he could once again be the dominant player he was as recently as three seasons ago.
In the summer of 2016, the Magic signed center Bismack Biyombo as a free agent and traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for power forward Serge Ibaka. Those additions not only failed, but they pushed Vucevic into more of a complementary role and his scoring average plunged from 18.2 points per game in 2015-16 to 14.6 points per game in 2016-17.
Ibaka was gone halfway through the 2016-17 season and Biyombo was traded this past summer, leaving Vucevic as the only remaining big man of the three. He has responded to once again being a team leader by notching two 30-point scoring nights, 17 20-point efforts and 11 double-doubles.
``It was difficult for me, especially two years ago with all of the roster changes and everything and my role kind of diminished a little bit,’’ Vucevic admitted. ``It wasn’t easy for me, but I kept working. I know how good I am and what I can do at this level. I’ve proven it and I knew that I was only going to get better with the experience. Last year, before I got hurt, I was playing some good basketball as well, but we weren’t winning. That didn’t feel as good as now when I’m producing, and the team is winning. When you’re able to play well and help your team win, there’s nothing like it.’’
In recent weeks, Vucevic has passed the likes of Tracy McGrady, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, Hedo Turkoglu and Jeff Turner in various statistical categories among the Magic’s all-time leaders. But those are just numbers, Vucevic stressed, and more than anything he wants wins to go with the statistics. Teammates, such as Gordon, know that their talented center will finally get his due among the best big men in the league when the Magic are able to find consistent success.
``He’s balling,’’ Gordon said of Vucevic. ``Let’s just keep winning and he’ll get that recognition and (publicity) that he deserves. … You’ve got to win games. That’s the only way that people will respect the numbers.’’
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