Though Frustrated, Nikola Vucevic Says Team Must Keep Fighting and Stay Hungry

By John Denton
Nov. 28, 2017

ORLANDO – Much the way a painful and debilitating injury can linger long after a doctor’s diagnosis, the staggered Orlando Magic have once again been badly bloodied and their run of bad luck in recent years might be one of the causes.

So says 7-foot center Nikola Vucevic, a veteran of 5½ seasons of rebuilding struggles in Orlando. He wonders if the recurring pain around the Magic is the byproduct of franchise’s lack of success in recent years. The cumulative effect of so much losing can be downright crippling at times, Vucevic admitted.

``There’s definitely a sort of scar tissue that’s there for us because of what has happened and it gets harder each year, each day and each game,’’ Vucevic said candidly.

A model franchise that made the playoffs six straight seasons from 2007-12 and was in the NBA Finals as recently as 2009 and in the East Finals in 2010, the Magic have fallen on hard times over the past 5 ½ years. Finally, this season seemed to be different, what with an experienced new management team in place and the Magic off to a stellar 6-2 start. Then, inexplicably, those feel-good vibes were replaced with the piercing sound of a flat-lining tone. Damage, incurred from all of those losses of the past five seasons of rebuilding, might be to blame for strangling the air out of Orlando’s short-lived surge.

The 8-13 Magic still have plenty of life left in them this season provided they find a way to end a losing skid that has stretched to nine games – starting with Wednesday’s game at the Amway Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Vucevic, the franchise’s longest-tenured player over the painful past 5 ½ seasons, wonders just how much all of the lack of recent success has played into this season’s drop off.

``When I first got here, I understood that we were going through a rebuilding process and I was young and going through my second and third years,’’ Vucevic recalled. ``We were trying to develop guys and give them a chance, but then after two or three years we knew it was time to fight for something and play for something. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t happened for us.’’

Vucevic, who has endured consecutive seasons of 62, 59, 57, 47 and 53 losses, was just warming up while reliving the past and how it still creeps up and haunts the core of the current team. Guard Evan Fournier is in his fourth year in Orlando while rising youngsters Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton are as well, and Mario Hezonja is still stuck in neutral in his third Magic season. While sitting slumped in his chair and clearly perturbed by the recent skid, Fournier lamented the Magic’s current state.

``Losing is just awful, man,’’ he said. ``When you’re losing like we are now, none of it is any fun.’’

Vucevic wonders, sometimes, if the Magic struggle to move forward because of their painful past.

``The (2015-16 season) with (former head coach) Scott (Skiles), there were big signs of growth – we started 19-13 and we finished 35-47, which wasn’t great, but it was a big jump from the bad years previously,’’ the center opined. ``We thought we had something going and it should get better. Then, (personnel) changes happened last year and it was just a mess all around. Last year, was the hardest for me because we made all of these big signings and we were supposed to be good, but it went completely the other way.

``This year, we started off really well, but now we have another losing streak,’’ Vucevic added. ``It’s just really hard knowing that you are losing. It’s hard to live with it.’’

Magic coach Frank Vogel has had to live with the Magic dropping each of the last nine games, but he’s stayed strong emotionally while continuing to push buttons that might promote change. He recently benched Gordon and Payton when they blew defensive assignments or forced contested shots, hoping that accountability will help correct mistakes. On Monday, Vogel changed his starting lineup – inserting Jonathon Simmons and replacing Terrence Ross – and putting the team through a spirited morning scrimmage.

It seemed to help most of Monday night, but the Magic ultimately witnessed a fourth-quarter lead evaporate in a 121-109 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Afterward, Vogel tried putting a positive spin on the improved play, vowing that Orlando very well could start a revival on Wednesday against the star-studded Thunder.

``We had some improvements (on Monday) that we’ve got to focus on and not worry about the streak or anything like that,’’ the perpetually positive Vogel said. ``We’ve got to stay together, understand that it’s Nov. 27 and there are five months left in the season. We’ve got plenty of time, but we’ve got to get a win and it’s a long season.’’

Vogel, who had tremendous success during his six seasons as head coach of the Pacers from 2011-16, struggled mightily with his first Magic team winning just 29 games and falling well short of expectations. He seriously believed that the Magic would get a continuity bump this season from him being back and working with much the same core from the previous team.

That certainly seemed to the case early on as the Magic got off to their best start since 2009-10 and piled up all sorts of franchise records for scoring and 3-point shooting over the first eight games.

However, a rash of injuries all at one position – hamstring strains to point guards D.J. Augustin and Payton – knocked the Magic out of rhythm and that was followed by the team entering easily its most difficult portion of the schedule. Two lengthy road trips – one to the West Coast and another to the East Coast – had the Magic on the road for eight of 10 games and 15 of 20 days, including the Thanksgiving holiday. Ultimately, those trips did quite a number of the Magic. After winning the first game of the first trip – Nov. 10 in Phoenix against the rebuilding Suns – Orlando hasn’t come out on top since, dropping games to Denver, Golden State, Portland, Utah, Indiana, Minnesota, Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana again.

``We just had a bad time to play poorly,’’ Vogel said. ``You always go in and out of different stretches of your schedule where you are playing well. Sometimes you play poorly at home, but you’ve got six games there and maybe you win only three or four when you should win them all. We started playing poorly when we were playing the best level of competition of the season.’’

Even with the two lengthy road trips complete, that high level of competition continues this week with Orlando set to face OKC (Wednesday) and the defending champion Golden State Warriors (Friday).

What had to be particularly difficult for Vucevic to stomach of late was the manner in which the Magic lost their last two games. On Saturday, it was standout guard J.J. Redick – one of Vucevic’s first teammates in Orlando back during the 2012-13 season – who played inspired basketball and hit eight 3-pointers against his former team. On Monday, Victor Oladipo – a member of the Magic from 2013-16 – incredibly made his first 11 shots on his way to a 26-point, five-assist, four-3-pointer night for Indiana.

Vucevic has etched his name in the Magic record books and he’s posted a host of stellar individual numbers through the years, but he still hungers for team success. All the years of losing have only hardened his desire to win in Orlando and he is still holding out hope that the Magic can soon get their season back on track.

``Winning just takes care of everything,’’ he said. ``We were only (eight) games in and it was just so much fun around here because we were winning. We were having so much fun out there on the court.

``But when you are losing, games aren’t fun, after games it isn’t fun and you take it home with you a lot,’’ the big man added. ``My wife sees a lot of it. I speak to my parents and my agent and I have to let my frustration out to them. They understand it, but the only thing you can try and do is improve each day. Hopefully, things will turn around for us and I still believe these guys on this team still want it.

``I know, more than anybody, that this team has taken some big hits and has been through a lot,’’ he affirmed. ``I really think I’m the guy who wants this team to win the most, and right now, all we can do is keep fighting. Hopefully we can somehow find a way to turn it around soon.’’

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