One of the most productive big men of 2018-19 is set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, and, without a doubt, he’ll have a bevy of suitors.
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic had a terrific regular season, averaging 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 triples per contest, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor and 36.4 percent from three. It was enough for the 28-year-old to receive All-Star honors for the first time in his career, and it may even be enough for him to get All-NBA consideration.
Vucevic’s impressive campaign wasn’t just enough for individual honors, though. He also helped lead Orlando to their first playoff berth since 2011-12, a major achievement for a team that many thought would still be rebuilding prior to the season opener.
And although Vucevic may have cost himself some money after a flat-out bad postseason showing (he shot 36.2 percent overall and averaged just 11.2 points and 8.0 rebounds over five games against the Toronto Raptors), he was so good in the regular season that he’ll still get a ton of interest as a free agent, primarily from teams in the latter stages of rebuilds who hope to make a similar playoff leap to Orlando’s.
Below, we break down four potential landing spots for Vucevic ahead of 2019 free agency.
Not only is it clear the Sacramento Kings are ready to take the next step in 2019-20 by trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, they also have a hole to fill at the 5-spot (that’s with or without Willie Cauley-Stein around next year), as well as money to spend in free agency.
There may not be a better option for them to fill that hole than with Vucevic, a big man whose game would fit in wonderfully with the rest of Sacramento’s young core.
The big man’s bruising screens and ability to space the floor would give burgeoning stud ball-handler De’Aaron Fox room to attack the basket, and his skill from the outside would mesh nicely with potential frontcourt partner Marvin Bagley, who uses his explosiveness to thrive in the painted area. The fact that Vucevic is European also adds to the intrigue of this theorized connection, since Sacramento’s front office features Euro legends Vlade Divac (general manager) and Peja Stojakovic (director of player personnel).
Without Cauley-Stein on the payroll, the Kings would have northwards of $35 million in cap space, more than enough to offer Vucevic a huge contract that could convince him to leave the Magic this offseason.
And even despite the poor playoff showing he had, Vucevic proved over a larger sample size last regular season that he may just be worth that type of investment, especially if the Kings believe he can be the missing piece between some regular-season success and a sustainable playoff push for Sacramento.
Both Trae Young and general manager Travis Schlenk have made it clear that they believe the Atlanta Hawks will receive interest from free agents this summer. Whether that’s a lofty expectation or a legitimate reality remains to be seen, but the fact that they’ll have over $40 million in cap space to use could make it the latter, at least among second- and third-tier free agents.
They probably won’t be in the running for the Kevin Durant’s or Kawhi Leonard’s of the world, but a player like Vucevic could be right up their alley.
Not only is he an All-Star-level talent who would raise both their floor and ceiling next season, Atlanta could have a hole to fill at the 5-spot anyway if Dewayne Dedmon walks this summer. Next to third-year power forward John Collins, Vucevic would help form an ultra-productive frontcourt, as both big men were at or near 20-and-10 averages in 2018-19 – and that probably wouldn’t change much as teammates.
Meanwhile, Young and Vucevic could become an insane pick-and-roll combo over time; Young, easily the best passing point guard the big Euro has ever played with, and Vucevic, the most talented all-around center the young floor general has shared the floor with as a professional.
Landing Vucevic wouldn’t turn the Hawks into contenders overnight, but it would give their still newish operation an air of legitimacy, and might even be enough for a run at the playoffs next season. Especially if they’re able to land another starter-level talent along with Vucevic this summer.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Los Angeles Lakers probably have their eyes set on bigger free-agent targets this offseason, but going after Vucevic as a Plan-B wouldn’t be a terrible fallback option, either.
The big man can score from all three levels, dominates the glass, protects the paint and is an underrated distributor, making him an attractive option for a Los Angeles team that lacked a second efficient high-scoring option outside of their best player.
Speaking of which, setting picks for LeBron James could help Vucevic unlock another level to his game and make him even more efficient. After all, we did just see JaVale McGee (another free-agent big man this summer) put up a career year as a Laker; the idea of Vucevic getting a similar LeBron-aided boost is downright scary, but a very real possibility if the marriage does happen.
Acquiring a superstar the likes of Durant or Anthony Davis is what Los Angeles fans want the most, but one shouldn’t forget that the Lakers were playing great basketball around Christmas, before James went down with the groin injury that tanked the team’s season. The young core was finally hitting their stride and the four-time MVP looked like his prime self.
Imagine that, but replace McGee for a 21-and-12 floor-spacing big man like Vucevic. Wouldn’t that be enough for the Lakers to change the recent less-than-glowing narratives around the team, and turn them into a legit threat in the Western Conference?
After the success they had last season, it would be crazy for Orlando not to do everything in their power to keep Vucevic wearing blue and white in 2019-20.
Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman recently talked about that, and more, regarding Vucevic’s impending free agency (via the Orlando Sentinel):
“Orlando Magic president of operations Jeff Weltman said Thursday the franchise wants to bring back leading scorer and rebounder Nikola Vucevic, who is set to hit free agency. Weltman added a caveat: the All-Star center will have numerous suitors. ‘Bringing Vooch back is a priority,’ Weltman said. ‘That being said, Vooch is going to have a lot of teams who will make him a priority for them, too. We will meet with his representatives at the appropriate time. Hopefully we can get something done. It’s the NBA, and I always say there’s a lot of real estate between the intentions and what gets done.’”
Judging by Weltman’s comments, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if another team (like Sacramento) offers Vucevic the max.
Would the Magic go that high in their bidding? Or are they hoping to keep the 7-footer around as long as his price tag stays around the $20-million-per-year range? Vucevic’s play, despite the big numbers, probably suggests he’s worth closer to the latter, but that won’t stop teams desperate for some level of success (like the Kings) from offering him the former.
Either way, it’s never an easy summer when your best player is set to hit unrestricted free agency; the Magic have an interesting few months ahead.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.