Nikola Vucevic, amid trade and demotion rumors, off to hot start for Magic

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The Magic traded for Serge Ibaka – then called Nikola Vucevic.

The Magic signed Jeff Green – then called Vucevic.

The Magic signed Bismack Biyombo – then called Vucevic.

After each move to add to a big-man rotation that already included Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, someone from Orlando – usually general manager Rob Hennigan – explained the rationale to Vucevic. The Magic wanted to add depth, get better defensively, become more energetic and positive and find a veteran leader. And Vucevic says he endorsed all that.

“I never felt like my position was in danger,” Vucevic said.

So many others thought it was.

Numerous analysts pegged Vucevic as the odd man out, likely to be demoted from the starting lineup if not traded. Then, a funny thing happened: Vucevic has held his job as starting center and been the Magic’s best player so far this season.

He leads Orlando’s frontcourt players in points (14.8), rebounds (12.8) and assists (3.0) per game. The Magic are way better with him on the court than off – scoring 7.4 more and allowing 19.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.

The sentiment behind expecting a Vucevic trade is understandable. After all, his four years in Orlando produced four losing seasons. If he had played better, the Magic wouldn’t need such a drastic overhaul. Vucevic, a skilled offensive player with defensive deficiencies, didn’t seem to fit the new vision.

Orlando added three players with higher salaries than Vucevic who will affect his playing time. Vucevic and Biyombo are centers. Ibaka is a power forward-center. Gordon and Green are power forward-small forwards. With the exception of Green, they all defend better than Vucevic – which would seem to hold particular sway under new coach Frank Vogel.

Yet, not only is Vucevic excelling, his frontcourt teammates aren’t. Ibaka has looked lethargic on defense more often than not. Biyombo still hasn’t settled in after being suspended for the season opener. Green has been (predictably) shaky. The promising Gordon looks displaced at small forward.

As a result, early returns on the Magic’s plan are negative. They’re 1-3 and seem likely to continue their streak of aiming for the playoffs and falling short. On one hand, dealing Vucevic for a perimeter player could stabilize the rotation. But how can you trade the only big man who looks comfortable?

Vucevic said he didn’t need the offseason phone calls, but he appreciated the reassurances. That has translated to a confident player – one who publicly stated that he should start over Biyombo and has backed it up on the court.

“I knew what my value is. I knew what I can bring to this team,” Vucevic said. “And so, I wasn’t afraid that my role or something was going to get hurt by that.”

Before this offseason, Orlando had given Vucevic every reason to believe his place is secure.

The Magic have had five players eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension under Hennigan. They traded one (Maurice Harkless), let another become an unrestricted free agent and leave (Andrew Nicholson) and made two restricted free agents and re-signed them (Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris). Vucevic is the only one to receive an extension.

That four-year, $53 million pact looked lofty at the time, but the new national TV deals have made it a bargain – part of the reason Vucevic appears to tradable. He’s making just $11.75 million this season and $25 million over the next two.

The market for centers has cooled, but at that price, many teams would love to have a big man who possesses crafty moves in the paint and a steady mid-range jumper, skillfully drops dimes and gobbles up rebounds.

Vucevic steals some rebounds from teammates, but Orlando rebounds much better with him on the floor. His on-off numbers are boosted by playing with other starters, though there’s a reason he’s untrusted with those minutes. He’s due for some regression to the mean, especially defensively, but he has already pleasantly surprised his new coach on that end.

“His natural talents are on the offensive end. There’s no doubt about that,” Vogel said. “But all you can ask of all your players is to give maximum effort, and he’s doing that right now.”

Said Vucevic: “I’m not an explosive, high-jumping guy that’s just going to go and get the ball on top of the backboard. It’s more about just being in the right position at the right time.”

The trade speculation probably won’t go away. If the Magic remain dismal, they could seek a shakeup. If they improve, they could lean more on the sparkling new additions and younger players and deal Vucevic.

But in a way few expected before the season, Vucevic might actually just be in the right position at the right time.

Now, Vucevic must keep it up, and the rest of the Magic must catch up if this isn’t going to be another lost season in Orlando.