Raptors president Masai Ujiri has openly stated more than once he likes to develop his own young talent, but at some point the goal has to become winning and despite the recent slide, Toronto could be as close as one solid player away from upsetting the favorite Cavaliers in the East this year. That player could be Magic center Nikola Vucevic and there is every indication that he’s available.
“If there is one team that really has to look at the NBA trade deadline seriously it’s got to be the Toronto Raptors,” said Basketball Insiders editor Steve Kyler. “They are one player away from being legitimate challengers in the Eastern Conference.
“Let’s face it, they are not the challenger they would like to be and let’s face it, they could be. They got some assets they could move and the window is not going to be any more open for the Toronto Raptors than it is right now.”
The Magic are having a very disappointing season, the recent 114-113 win over the Raptors in Toronto notwithstanding. Vucevic, who put up 25 points and 10 boards (in a showcase effort?) in Toronto, has been bumped in and out of the starting lineup because, despite general manager Rob Hennigan’s best intensions this past summer, the Magic are a poorly constructed team. Too many quality big men needing minutes and too few quality guards to spread the floor and set up the bigs.
Sending out guard Victor Oladipo for pending free agent power forward Serge Ibaka last summer and signing free agent center Bismack Biyombo seemed like good ideas at the time, but it took minutes away from Aaron Gordon in a crowded frontcourt and left the Magic with a backcourt that’s suspect and unfortunately plagued by injury problems.
“The Magic are probably working the phones now and just seeing what’s available out there and if they find a right fit, then I think they ultimately make a move to help get their team some additional scoring power,” Basketball Insiders Cody Taylor said.
Re-signing Ibaka has become a career-saving necessity for Hennigan as pending free agents just don’t return much in trade during the season, so getting the most possible for Vucevic has become the best way out of this self-inflicted jam.
Fortunately for Henningan, Vucevic is tailor made for solving the rebounding allergic Celtics biggest problem and almost certainly would vault Boston ahead of Toronto this season and possibly beyond. That in itself should be enough to rattle Ujiri (it would certainly rattle the fan base), but the Raptors need to solve their own rebounding issues this season and they need to add another reliable scorer to the All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry if they want to advance their own cause.
That’s good news for the Magic. Henningan should be able to get value back for his double-double center despite the bargain contract he’s on.
Now in his sixth NBA season, the 26-year-old 7′ Vucevic has recorded a team-high 20 double-doubles during the 2016-17 campaign and now has 178 double-doubles during his NBA career. Bounced in and out of the starting lineup this season, he has 10 double-doubles off the bench and is averaging 14 points and 9.7 rebounds.
“We asked (Vucevic) for a while to come off the bench, but he’s back in the starting lineup,” Magic head coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s a team player, (has) a great attitude putting the team first when we asked him to do that. Back in the starting lineup, we are running more offense thru him.
“He has responded to me asking him to improve on the defensive end. For the most part this year, he’s been really good (on defense).”
Vucevic is known for his offense, but to get ‘smash-mouth basketball’ Vogel to compliment him on his defense is either a significant change or an overt sales job.
“Vucevic is a handful for anybody,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “He is so talented, so skilled with the basketball that he causes a problem for everybody. He’s not your typical back to the basket center. He’s going to face you first and if you don’t react properly, he’ll knock down a jump shot, so you got a multitude of things you got to guard. The face-up game, plus the back-down game, plus he has a very dominant left hand. He can use that left hand as well as his right.”
A scorer throughout his NBA career, Vucevic has added three-point range to his jump shot this season, averaging one deep attempt per game and hitting on 31 percent of them. Of course in Toronto, he went 3-4 from three as the Raptors failed to guard him standing just outside the three-point line at the top of the arc. It seems every center in the NBA is being looked as a potential floor-stretcher and Vucevic, at least, has legitimate range on his jump shot and should be able to become proficient.
“All centers now are kind of migrating out there (three-point line),” Casey said. “It’s the next evolution of centers. Lucas (Nogueira) is migrating out there and JV (Jonas Valanciunas) is migrating out there. I think that’s going to be the new wave. That’s the new thing with the NBA now.”
In Toronto, Nogueira has shown three-point potential in a handful of attempts, but Valanciunas is still working on hitting a consistent jumper at any range. Right now it’s just Patrick Patterson at power forward and an inconsistent DeMarre Carroll in small lineups. The Raptors could really use another big man to stretch the floor.
The hope in Toronto was the Hawks would part ways with All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, but with Atlanta now just one game back of the third place Raptors, the slim possibly of snagging the Hawks soon-to-be free agent have become even more remote. The Magic’s own soon-to-be free agent Ibaka would be a similar catch, but it would be very tough to part ways with the talent the Magic is going to want back in return for what could easily become a very short term rental.
Vucevic is a lot younger and cheaper than Millsap and unlike Ibaka, he has two years remaining on his contract after this season. In the two seasons prior to this year, Vucevic averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds. For a Raptors team in need of someone who could pick up some of the rebounding load and be a legitimate third scoring option, he seems to fit the bill.
Vucevic has 62 career games with 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, six career 20-point/20-rebound games and two career 30-point/20-rebound outings.
There’s nothing like having a player show up in your building and rub your team’s current deficiencies in it’s face. It would become especially painful for the Raptors if Vucevic was doing was he does for the (now) second place Celtics instead of the struggling Magic.