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Nikola Vucevic Could Be a Trade Deadline Difference-Maker

Why a post-up big man may be the key to securing a playoff spot for a team like the Clippers or Lakers

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The desirability of a trade target at the deadline depends on the player’s maintenance level as much as his skill level. Low-maintenance players—like 3-and-D wings and veteran shooters—can be integrated quickly without grand schematic changes. Someone like Miami Heat guard Wayne Ellington can play right away for 29 other teams without missing a beat. But big men, particularly ones who require plenty of post touches, may require a team to rethink major parts of their approach. Tempo and spacing may have to be altered on the new acquisition’s account. Pick-and-roll coverages might have to be shifted completely.

That may help to explain why Nikola Vucevic is still with the Orlando Magic, despite Orlando drafting his successor last year in Mo Bamba and needing more frontcourt minutes for players like Jonathan Isaac. On the surface, Vucevic is the perfect trade target: He’s 28 years old and in the prime of his career, and he’s on an expiring contract worth a modest $13 million. And though the Magic are just a half-game back of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, at 19-24, they would be better off long-term if they tank and land a top pick rather than somehow stumbling into a first-round sweep.

Vucevic has done nearly everything in his power to make himself as attractive as possible to contenders, either ahead of the February 7 trade deadline or this summer, when he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time. He is averaging career highs in points per game (20.1), assists (3.8), field goal percentage (52.6), and 3-point percentage (38), and is tied for a career high in rebounds (11.9). He evolved to stave off extinction where other centers have not, becoming a better perimeter shooter capable of picking apart defenses that double him on the block, and improving his defensive positioning as a drop-back big.

Vucevic should be an easy first-time All-Star selection in the East and would be a top candidate for Most Improved Player if voters could avoid the temptation to give it to a second-year player who simply received more playing time. They won’t, of course, but the fact Vucevic went from, like, the third-best dude in the NBA named Nikola to being seventh in real plus-minus and eighth in player efficiency rating, seventh in box plus/minus, and eighth in value over replacement player (VORP) this season is incredible. Orlando has posted a staggering minus-11.5 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic off the floor, but has played opponents a little better than even (plus-1.4) with him on it.

Despite Vucevic being the only thing keeping Orlando from turning into a dumpster fire, the issue with acquiring him might not be Orlando’s asking price. Even a lottery-protected future first-round pick and an expiring contract might do the trick, given that the eighth-year center may not be in the franchise’s future plans and could easily walk this summer.

The real question is: Does anyone actually want Vucevic enough to trade something of value for him?

The demand for Vucevic’s services may be limited, both because of his expiring contract and a lack of need on the market. If you filter out non-playoff teams and contenders that already have a quality starting center (Oklahoma City, Golden State, Denver, Portland, Utah, Houston, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Philadelphia), the list of potential suitors gets short pretty quickly. Milwaukee (Brook Lopez) and Toronto (Serge Ibaka) have been rolling and likely wouldn’t mess with their chemistry even if Vucevic was viewed as an upgrade. Indiana is just fine with its three-headed frontcourt rotation (Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis). Vucevic could take a backup role in Boston behind Al Horford, or even play in plus-sized lineups next to him, but Danny Ainge may be unlikely to sacrifice any young piece or a first-round pick for a rental. Washington president Ernie Grunfeld may spontaneously combust if he’s unable to trade a future first-round pick to put the Wizards “over the top” for the eighth straight season, but even he may have to sit this deadline out with John Wall injured and the Wizards behind in the standings.

That leaves just a handful of potential suitors for Vucevic at the deadline: San Antonio, Sacramento, the Clippers, and the Lakers.

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks
Nikola Vucevic
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Let’s start with the zombie Spurs and Gregg Popovich, one of the last coaches to still lean heavily on post-up and midrange scoring. Vucevic represents a massive frontcourt upgrade over Jakob Poeltl, Pau Gasol, and Dante Cunningham, so there are available minutes San Antonio isn’t projected to have cap room next offseason, so acquiring Vucevic and his Bird rights would allow San Antonio to add a third major piece to its core of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to sign this summer. The Spurs have enough intriguing young pieces (Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV) and similar-sized contracts (Gasol, Patty Mills, and Davis Bertans) to find something that works for both sides, although no one understands the value of roster continuity more than Popovich.

Sacramento is definitely a little less stubborn about continuity, and Vlade Divac and Co. might feel compelled to capitalize on their unexpected hot start and make a splashy acquisition at the deadline. Current starting center Willie Cauley-Stein is set to hit restricted free agency this offseason, and it’s unclear whether he’s considered a foundational building block moving forward, or a great fit next to rookie Marvin Bagley III. Sacramento would probably have to sacrifice a little bit of pace (second in the NBA this season) and some defensive versatility with Vucevic playing big minutes, but no other team has the combination of expendable contracts (Iman Shumpert and Zach Randolph) that match Vucevic’s deal and available cap space to allow Orlando to dump Timofey Mozgov’s $16.7 million due in 2019-20, or perhaps even Evan Fournier and his $17 million per year deal which runs through 2020-21. Sacramento hasn’t typically been a hot free-agent destination, which might make the Kings more open to accepting dead-weight cap than most other teams.

That leaves the two Los Angeles teams, who are balancing hunting big game like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard in the 2019 offseason with contending for playoff spots this season. It would be a homecoming of sorts—Vucevic moved from Belgium to Los Angeles in high school, and played three seasons at USC, so perhaps the Lakers or Clippers could finagle a hometown discount for the 7-footer. Acquiring Vucevic wouldn’t tie up either team’s cap space for the summer and would help them contend over this season’s second half, as both have massive holes at center. JaVale McGee has been productive for the Lakers this season, but has typically occupied just 18-23 minutes per night. LeBron James earned Mozgov a lot of money in Cleveland and has spent a good portion of his career playing with lumbering centers with soft touches around the rim. The Lakers are playing with pace and get 17.6 percent of their points from transition, second most in the league behind Sacramento, but overall the Lakers are 22nd in offensive rating; scoring against set defenses could be a real issue when the game slows down in the postseason. GM LeBron has had little use for late first-round picks in the past, and the eyebrow-raising signings of last offseason may have been made just for this reason—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s $12 million expiring, for instance, is a perfect salary match in a trade for Vucevic. Any overtures made by Magic GM John Hammond to get Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma would likely be quickly rejected, and rightly so, but rookie Mo Wagner would be a nice fit for an Orlando frontcourt that would desperately need floor spacing and scoring.

The easiest transition for Vucevic would be to the Clippers, who play with a pace and style on both ends that suits a more traditional post-up big. The Clippers wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their chance at Leonard or Durant, but a Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Vucevic frontcourt could help make the Clippers more attractive with a deep playoff run or, worst-case scenario, give the team a look at a free-agency contingency plan should Leonard and Durant go elsewhere. Is the juice worth the squeeze, though, especially with Jerry West playing a big role in draft-day decisions? The Clippers are probably hesitant to move any picks he’s made or will make going forward, but the only real logical deal would center on rookie swingman Jerome Robinson, who has played a total of 40 minutes this season, or a future lottery-protected first-round pick. Marcin Gortat’s $13.6 million expiring contract would also need to be included for salary purposes.

Vucevic has the chance to be the biggest difference-maker at the trade deadline, but there are plenty of hurdles in getting him to his next destination. The whole Western Conference may still be traumatized from watching Golden State’s death lineup and James Harden’s ruthless isolation scoring exploit even the most capable defensive centers in last year’s playoffs. The eventual return of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors may ease some of those small-ball concerns (or be like Golden State adding the last Infinity Stone, we’ll see) but giving up real assets for someone you might have to hide on the bench because he can’t guard out on the perimeter is far from ideal. When you remember, though, that simply getting to the postseason isn’t a guarantee for his most logical suitors, you could see why a team would pony up to pry Vucevic out of Orlando. After all, you need arms to win an arms race, and there might not be a bigger or better player available at the trade deadline than Vucevic.