By John Denton
April 7, 2017
ORLANDO – An Orlando Magic season that has fallen well below expectations has been especially difficult on the likes of head coach Frank Vogel, guard Evan Fournier, center Bismack Biyombo and young players Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.
Vogel, who is in his first season leading the Magic, has coached in the playoffs five of the past six years. Fournier and Biyombo were free agents back in July and both signed with Orlando because they strongly believed in the franchise’s direction. Then, there’s Gordon, Payton and Hezonja – X-factors heading into the season who wanted to be major reasons why the Magic reached the playoffs this spring.
But no one – not Vogel, Fournier, Biyombo, Gordon, Payton or Hezonja – has taken the struggles of another non-playoff season harder than center Nikola Vucevic.
The 7-footer is the longest-tenured player on the team, having endured the past four seasons of rebuilding. He expected so much more from this fifth season with the Magic, especially after they were so active last summer in hiring Vogel, retaining Fournier and adding several proven veterans to the core of the roster. Those lofty expectations caused the fall to be an even steeper one for Vucevic, now 26 years old.
“It’s been a very difficult season for me personally because I really had high expectations for the team and for myself personally,’’ admitted Vucevic, whose Magic (28-51) host the Indiana Pacers (39-40) on Saturday night (6 p.m. start time). “Neither of those (goals were reached). I didn’t achieve anything for the team and I didn’t play at the level that I thought that I would. I felt like I’ve progressed every season that I’ve been here, except this one. I’m very disappointed. I’m trying to finish off the season the best that we can and then it’s going to be a big summer. We’ll see what happens.’’
Usually good-natured and exceptionally mellow – almost to a fault sometimes on the court – Vucevic has admittedly struggled to keep his frustrations under wraps at times this season. Whether it’s been barking at the referees, jawing with teammates or imploring the team to show more fight in a postgame diatribe (See: Jan. 18 in New Orleans), Vucevic has often been in as much of a battle with his own emotions as he has been with opposing teams.
“A lot of times I haven’t been myself and I’ve shown a lot of frustration on the court. That’s not me,’’ the center admitted. “(Magic fans) have seen me for a lot of years and I wasn’t like I was this year. So I’m going to take some time off to cool down and then get back to work to make sure this doesn’t happen again next season.’’
Part of Vucevic’s frustration is rooted in the Magic’s falling short of their preseason expectations to be a playoff team and some of it is because of how his play has lagged on the court. The Magic’s leading scorer the previous three seasons and their leading rebounder for what will be a fifth consecutive season, Vucevic showed up to training camp and found himself in a big-man rotation with Serge Ibaka and Biyombo. The Magic traded for Ibaka and signed Biyombo in hopes that they could bring some much-needed toughness and rim protection to Orlando’s defense.
However, the plan to try and rotate three big men caused Orlando’s offense to be slow and clunky and its defense was often exposed by faster, better-shooting teams. No longer the clearly defined go-to option in the offense, Vucevic started slowly, was replaced in the starting lineup by Biyombo in the 17th game of the season and he didn’t return to the first five until 24 games later back on Jan. 11.
All those changes took a toll on Vucevic’s usually steady production. After averaging a career-best 19.3 points in 2014-15 and a solid 18.2 ppg. in 2015-16, Vucevic’s scoring average has dropped to 14.7 ppg. this season – the lowest it’s been since the 14.2 ppg. he scored in 2013-14 when he was still a raw, developing big man. Even more discouraging for Vucevic has been the fact that he’s gotten just 13.8 shots a game on average – down from the 16-plus he got the previous two seasons.
“I’ve shown glimpses of it, but a lot of things happened that didn’t let me do what I wanted to. It’s disappointing when you put in a lot of hard work and it doesn’t really pay off the way that you want it to,’’ said Vucevic, who has shot just 47 percent from the field – his worst accuracy since his rookie season in 2011-12.
Worst of all, Vucevic felt that the Magic played too individualistically early in the season and that severely hurt the team’s chemistry. Vogel insisted several times that the Magic were not “instinctual’’ when it came to making the extra pass and that led to problems with the offense.
“It was the way that we played,’’ Vucevic said. “We had a lot of lineup changes. We didn’t play basketball the right way and it wasn’t easy for anybody on this team – not just myself – to show what they can do. I don’t think any player on this team will say that they are happy with their season personally and received what they wanted.’’
Vogel said he’s actually been pleased with how Vucevic has played this season, calling him a far better defender than he had heard before he coached the big man. He still feels that Vucevic is a key piece that the Magic can build around going forward.
“I think he’s had a really good individual season, but obviously he’s at a point in his career where team results are all that matters. I understand his frustration and I share it,’’ Vogel said. “But I thought he made a lot of strides on the defensive end and he showed me a lot more than I thought he was going to show me. He’s had bigger (offensive) numbers in the past, but he’s been asked to do more and his minutes were kept pretty low. He’s certainly capable of carrying more of a load with more run.’’
Vucevic said his biggest outlet for his frustrations is his father, Borislav, who played professionally in Europe for 24 years. Vucevic, who was married last summer to his high school sweetheart from his native Montenegro, said wife Nikoletta, has also helped him deal with the pain of the Magic coming up short again.
A die-hard fan of European soccer, Vucevic has said his favorite players are the ones who stick with one team for years and develop them into winners. He is hopeful that his career will continue in Orlando well beyond this season and he – quite possibly more than anybody on the roster – wants to see the Magic in the playoffs someday soon. Vucevic got a taste of the postseason as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers and he desperately wants Orlando to experience the same sort of intensity again.
“It’s sometimes hard to separate yourself from basketball when you go home from practice or games,’’ Vucevic admitted. “It’s hard because there is such disappointment from having high expectations and then it all fell apart. That’s the hardest part for myself.
“Although I didn’t play that much (in the 2012 playoffs), seeing every game and how the preparation is for every game, the intensity and the fans – everything is so much different,’’ he added. “Those are the biggest moments in your career and we all want to be a part of that. It’s why we all work so hard to get to that point and when you don’t it’s disappointing going home each year in April and watch the games on TV. You have to plan a summer of five months of what you are going to do. It’s just very difficult when you’ve lost so many years in a row.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.