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Nikola Vucevic's apparent run of success in Orlando has caused some Sixers fans and writers to wish the Sixers still had him. However, closer inspection reveals that while Vuce has shown some improvement, the Sixers still do not miss him.
Sitting down to write this, I tried to think of an analogy. An analogy involving a person who broke up with a temporary special someone, got another temporary special someone, but in the end, really just missed their first temporary special someone. But the best I could come up with was the story of a guy named James who had a girlfriend named Mary, broke up with her, started dating a girl named Marisa, but ended up missing Mary even though he discovered Mary had a new boyfriend who treated her like she was a Princess in 16th century Europe. It did not make much sense, and the only conclusion any rational person could have drawn from it was my analogy writing was as on point as a Kwame Brown free throw.
So instead of using a bad analogy to lead into a post about Nikola Vucevic, I'll just talk about Nikola Vucevic.
Drafted 16th overall in 2011, the Montenegrin center arrived in Philadelphia with little fanfare and little in the way of upside. His spot in the NBA was always thought to be that of a back-up big man on a good team. Don't get me wrong, back-up bigs are not without value, just when you are a team toiled in mediocrity like the Sixers were, drafting a back-up big man is a short-term fix to a long-term issue. It wasn't particularly wise considering who was still available at the time (Kenneth Faried), and seeing as how the 2011-12 season ended up for him, probably was still not considered the wisest of selections. Remember when Vucevic could not sniff the court in the playoffs against Boston despite Spencer Hawes getting absolutely dominated by Kevin Garnett night in and night out? Good times.
The 2012 offseason finally gave Vucevic some usage when the Sixers were able to package him along with Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkless, and a future protected first round pick in order to land Andrew Bynum in the Dwight Howard trade. Iguodala went to Denver, everyone else, including Vucevic, went to Orlando. It was a move much celebrated at the time and debated since with Andrew Bynum's knees spontaneously turning into rubble. I've already discussed this at length and this post won't be about Bynum. If you want Vucevic on how he relates to Bynum's situation, check out the story in the "discussed this" hyperlink above.
Instead this will be about Vucevic himself and his production compared to others. Vucevic has frequently been lauded for his play in Orlando, and his franchise record 29 rebounds in a single game has certainly gotten people to take notice, as the Magic are a franchise that once employed Dwight Howard and Shaq Diesel.
Last season, Vuce was, in short, not a very good basketball player. Per 40 minutes, his true shooting percentage was 46.3%, his ORR was 11.9, his DRR 21.7, and his PER 13.0, high enough to deserve a spot on the bench, but hardly anything to qualify him as a must-keep player. His offensive rating was 99; his defensive rating 97.
Compare that to Mr. Vucevic this season, and we see some improvements, but not overly significant ones. His true shooting percentage thus far this season is 50.9%, a nice increase that I'll get to later. His ORR is 12.3, his DRR has increased sharply to 27.0, and his PER has gone up to 15.77. His offensive rating 106, his defensive rating 103.
Nik has improved most facets of his game year to year. His playing time has almost doubled so his counting stats look way better, but if you adjust everything to per 40 minutes, you still see improvement. But he still has some massive flaws that have remained consistent in the two seasons, including free throw rate (1.7 attempts per 40 minutes last season, 1.9 per 40 minutes this season) and his defensive rating which has also gone up, although part of that can be explained away by the poor quality of his teammates in Orlando.
But let's put all of this into context. Let's compare Vucevic with some other NBA centers. First, true shooting percentage.
Among qualified NBA centers in the 2012-13 season, Vucevic is 30th in TS%, according to Hollinger's statistics. Directly ahead of Vuce at 29 and 28 are Anderson Varejao and Chris Kaman, respectively, and below him at 31 and 32 are Joel Anthony and Al Jefferson, respectively. The top 5 TS% leaders among qualified NBA centers this season are Tyson Chandler, Boris Diaw, Ryan Hollins, Brandon Wright, and Hasheem Thabeet [ed. note: !!!!!]. Andrew Bynum's 2011-12 numbers would rank 9th in the league this season. Spencer Hawes, bless his heart, is 40th.
Nik's one area of extreme strength appears to be defensive rebounding, so let's examine that further. Among qualified NBA centers, Vucevic is 5th overall this season in Defensive Rebound Rate, according to Hollinger. Directly ahead of Vuce at 4 and 3 are Al Jefferson and J.J. Hickson, respectively. Directly below him at 6 and 7 are Dwight Howard and Larry Sanders, respectively. The other top two include Omer Asik and Andy Varejao. Bynum's 2011-12 DRR of 26.1 would rank equal with Larry Sanders at 7th. Spencer Hawes, bless his heart, is 22nd.
Vucevic is decent on the offensive glass, though far from anything special. Among the same qualified NBA centers this season, he's 14th in ORR. Directly ahead of him are DeJuan Blair and DeMarcus Cousins, and directly below him are JaVale McGee and Brendan Hayward. The top five include Jordan Hill, Varejao, Andre Drummond, Roy Hibbert, and Tyson Chandler. Drew's 10.6 ORR of 2011-12 would be tied for 25th with Brook Lopez. Spencer Hawes, bless his heart, is tied for 29th with Joel Anthony.
Vucevic is not the most efficient center in the NBA, although, again, he is not horrible. Among the same qualified NBA centers this season, Vucevic is 23rd in PER this season. Directly ahead of him are Marcin Gortat and Joakim Noah, directly below him are Kosta Koufos and Chris Kaman. The top five include Brook Lopez, Anderson Varejao, Andre Drummond, Chris Bosh, and JaVale McGee. Andrew Bynum's 2011-12 PER of 23.01 would rank 2nd this season. Spencer Hawes, do you see the pattern?, is 28th.
Basically what this leaves us is a player who is excellent on the defensive boards, decent on the offensive boards, and fairly crappy everywhere else. Vucevic is a poor shooting, mildly-efficient player. On top of that, he only averages 1.9 free throws per game this season, which is not nearly enough to make up for what he lacks offensively. His rebounding is very nice, but it's not everything. He is still unathletic and although he has nice size, the lack of athleticism really hurts his game.
It seems pretty obvious that Vuce is a better player than Spencer and the Sixers would have been better off keeping Nikola. But it is important to note that the Sixers kind of trapped themselves with Hawes by signing him to a 2-year extension this past off-season that at the time of the Bynum trade (and perhaps still today) was undesirable. Vuce was the odd man out, Vuce was the man the Magic liked, and Vuce was the one that got packaged in the deal. So while having Hawes in Orlando and Vuce in Philly with Bynum would be nicer than the alternative, it was never a realistic outcome.
Nikola Vucevic is a player worthy of an NBA rotation. To suggest otherwise would be hyperbolic and argumentative. But the fact is he's a bench player on a good team, and a starter on a bad one, like Orlando. He's not a savior, he's not a key cog, and while he is nice depth, nice depth can be expandable when it lands you Andrew Bynum. The Sixers likely would not be in a much better position if they had kept Vucevic. In fact, if the Sixers had kept him and not traded for Bynum at all, they would be toiling in the same inane mediocrity of the past decade.
There can be value to having a player like Nikola Vucevic, especially on a contending team. He is not an awful player. But his ceiling is still not that high, his improvement, while real, has been overstated thanks to the doubling of his playing time on a per game basis, and he was never a fit for the Sixers when they drafted him in 2011.
We can't know if things will work out with Andrew Bynum, but they were never going to work out with Vucevic. Not without superstar help anyway. And in the end, he was part of the price to get that help. Be happy Vucevic was thought highly enough to be packaged to get that help. Just don't think he was ever going to be good enough to turn the Sixers around by himself.