Photo by Erik S. Lesser - EPA
It’s impossible to be the NBA’s MVP without unanimous consideration as one of the world’s ten best players. But specific to the first two months of the 2018-19 season, when identifying those who’re most consequential to their team’s success, who lift up teammates, carry immense burden, trigger migraines in opposing coaching staffs, and exhibit undeniable talent every other moment they’re on the floor, well, even though he can’t crack the mainstream conversation, Nikola Vucevic's MVP qualifications are intriguing.
It’s startling to consider, because for him to actually sustain this blistering start, turn the Orlando Magic into a snarling menace, and win the award would be an all-time historical anomaly, but that's why Vucevic is recognized here as more of a hipster's choice than realistic candidate. Everyone knows transcendent household names like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but, in an open race, Vucevic currently exists as a respectable choice for the league's most discerning fans, those who also enjoy being different.Heading into this season Sports Illustrated ranked Vucevic as the league’s 90th best player; right now his Magic may not be good enough to make the playoffs, let alone win a series. It’s safe to describe them as “OK,” but “OK” doesn’t typically cut it in this context. (ESPN’s Relative Percent Index—a measuring stick that weighs each team’s winning percentage, the average winning percentage of their opponents, and the average winning percentage of their opponents’s opponents—has them 14th out of 30 teams. For what it’s worth, Anthony Davis’s New Orleans Pelicans rank 18th.)In a superstar-driven league, that type of mediocrity is usually disqualifying and can be viewed as an indictment of Vucevic’s individual influence, but to look at it that way would ignore the pieces around him, which are either inexperienced, below average, or both—none of his teammates have ever sniffed All-Star-caliber production. Keeping this dominance up for the next few months won’t be easy, but right now Vucevic is finally the primary cause of Orlando’s success instead of a hollow, high-usage statue holding them back.
We’ll take a close look at all the ways Vucevic has unexpectedly shined, but his MVP case really crystalizes itself when you look at how the Magic fare with him versus without him. With, they’re outscoring opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions, owning a top-10 offense and defense that checks in comfortably above average. According to Cleaning the Glass, that’s a 52-win ball club. Not bad! (The Philadelphia 76ers won 52 games last year.)When Vucevic is off the floor, the Magic are bad enough to fill whoever’s watching with a sad mix of sympathy and anger. Their offense crumbles below even the league’s most abominable basement dweller, while on defense they foul everyone, can’t grab a rebound, and are (loud gulp) only slightly more competent than the Washington Wizards. Orlando plummets from a 52-win team to a 12-win team, a.k.a. they transform into what Sam Hinkie had in mind when he engineered The Process.That 40-game gap exceeds the impact Russell Westbrook had when he won MVP in 2017. For more references, right now Joel Embiid and Davis are +37, LeBron James is +8, James Harden, Kemba Walker, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are +13, Steph Curry is +25, Kawhi Leonard is +4, Damian Lillard is +17, Marc Gasol is +38, and Kevin Durant is +12. Nikola Jokic, who makes an appearance on Basketball-Reference’s MVP tracker, is -7. Several factors—including bench viability, minutes logged, etc.—sway these numbers in Vucevic's favor, but if we’re talking about any one player’s “value” to their employer, he's currently up there with the best of them.
He ranks 11th in Real Plus-Minus—just ahead of Curry and Walker—and has scored more points than Karl-Anthony Towns, with a higher PER than Embiid and LeBron, a better True Shooting percentage than Harden and Davis, and more Win Shares per 48 minutes than Lillard. To actually contend for MVP, though, not only do the Magic need Vucevic to chaperone them up the standings, but his counting stats need to feel like an atom bomb. Instead, the 21 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists he averages don't quite clear the bar. Part of that is he doesn't log the same number of minutes as every other real contender for this award, but efficiency at a high volume always matters.Here’s a fun stat: Only three players have a usage rate that’s at least 26 and a True Shooting percentage that’s above 62. They are Curry, Durant, and Vucevic.Once dogged as a skilled albeit sedated center in a sport gravitating more and more towards dynamism on the perimeter, Vucevic was destined to live out the rest of his career on the same endangered species list that’s claimed so many others his size, centers with the turning radius of a parade float. He couldn’t shoot threes or defend them, but year eight has welcomed a necessary step towards modernity. Last season, Vucevic only shot 31.4 percent from deep. Today, he’s at 41 percent while averaging only one fewer attempt per 36 minutes. That's good enough to create real gravity: The shot is feared by whoever’s guarding him, even when he’s not behind the arc. Watch him freeze Embiid below:
So much of his individual triumph can be attributed to the improved accuracy on that long ball—Vucevic is the only player in the NBA who ranks in the top ten for made field goals while sitting outside the top 20 for field goals attempted—but his bread and butter will always be on the block. It’s there where he’s most clearly “a nightmare to match up with.” According to Synergy Sports, only five players have logged more post-up possessions this season. Vucevic spends his time screening, rolling, then jostling for real estate in the paint. Few can force the defense to switch like him, then seal a smaller guy with his off hand as the entry pass smacks against his raised palm. His rapidity from that moment on is merciless and succinct. And when he feels like showing off, Vucevic transforms into Montenegrin McHale: his counters have counters and the way he combines brute force with nimble gentility makes defending him one-on-one a losing proposition:Watch Steph Curry’s reaction from the bench after this jump hook.The Warriors would rather live with this shot than double the post and open up space for a cutter to zip by—the only center who averages more potential assists (passes that would tally as an assist if the shot went in) is Jokic, who’s already the best passing big man of his generation—but a poison must be picked.While the blend of three-point shooting and low-post craftsmanship helps make Vucevic a valuable commodity, a significant slice of his value has shockingly materialized on defense. Generally speaking, Magic head coach Steve Clifford wants to funnel ball handlers into the paint, towards dropping bigs who cement themselves near the basket. At the rim, opponents are shooting 56.6 percent when Vucevic is the closest defender to their shot. That number, along with the attempts faced, neighbors respectable shot blockers like Rudy Gobert, Jarrett Allen, and Myles Turner. (Vucevic has never before finished below 60 percent.)
This strategy is not necessarily ideal in an NBA that feasts from behind the three-point line; it helps Orlando take away shots from the corner but pull-up threes above the break are a free for all. That’s not great. Vucevic isn’t Davis, Al Horford, or even Steven Adams, a big comfortable shuffling his feet and contesting outside shots without fouling. But, in flashes, he’s showing he can survive when forced to do just that.Here he is holding his own after a switch onto C.J. McCollum.The actual definition of an MVP is more ambiguous than it has to be, but if used to reward standout players on teams that would disintegrate in their absence, Vucevic deserves even more attention than he’s already received. We’re working with a 23-game sample size, and time will tell if Vucevic is able to sustain his scintillating start over the next few months—ending the season with 55.3/40.9/84.3 shot splits as a center on a playoff team would be, um, incredible—but it won’t be easy, particularly as more and more defenses appreciate how dominant he’s been and force his teammates to beat them. Vucevic has struggled in fourth quarters all year, and he still doesn’t draw the number of free throws you’d expect from a seven footer who posts up as often as he does—a snag that harks back to how quickly he attacks in the post.Vucevic has done a decent job running shooters off the line and not allowing ball handlers to turn the corner on side pick-and-rolls (something they religiously try every chance they get), but if the Magic make the playoffs—Vucevic has logged three postseason minutes in his entire career—their opponent will attack him ruthlessly over and over again.Positionally, Vucevic is handicapped as a big man, prevented from having the same effect as some of the game’s most dynamic ball handlers. He can’t create his own advantage (especially behind the three-point line) like Walker, Lillard, or even LeBron. But he’s impacting games right now as a net positive who’s indispensable from his team’s identity, and that matters. At 28, he’s matured from a stat-stuffing albatross to an authentic All-Star and, if he continues at this rate, an All-NBA center. When it's all said and down, odds are long that he'll elbow his way into the MVP conversation, beside the likes of Giannis, LeBron, Harden, Davis, and Embiid. But right now, a quarter of the way into his career year, Vucevic has defied all expectations and reshaped his own narrative. Keep an eye on him.