The Nikola Vucevic trade, jumping to conclusions, and revisionist history

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With Nikola Vucevic's unexpected play, many are revising history and jumping to conclusions that do not have much supporting evidence. A look at what we know, and why including Nikola Vucevic in the Andrew Bynum trade was not a mistake.

With the Orlando Magic visiting the Wells Fargo Center last night and phenom big man Nikola Vucevic returning to Philadelphia as a visitor for the first time, many fans and media members alike cried out about the mistake the 76ers made in trading Vucevic in the Andrew Bynum trade last August.

The main points behind that argument are that:

  • Doug Collins can't evaluate talent and/or hated Vucevic, which led to decreased playing time last year and eventual trade
  • Vucevic was a throw-in to the deal that the 76ers could have avoided, and the 76ers chose Hawes and Allen over Vucevic.
  • With Andrew Bynum's injury, trading Vucevic was the wrong thing to do.

I'm here to say, stop. Just stop. Stop jumping to conclusions, stop looking for blame, and stop reacting to what has been a disappointing start to Andrew Bynum's 76ers career.

Doug Collins can't evaluate talent

The main crux of the argument here is that Vucevic's decreased playing time towards the end of the season (he played 3 total minutes in the playoffs), which was immediately followed by Vucevic's inclusion in the Bynum deal, is proof that Collins didn't value Vucevic. When Vucevic then comes out and has the kind of season he has had with Orlando, the next jump is that Doug Collins can't evaluate talent.

Neither of those statements are true. They're directly contradicted by one simple fact: Doug Collins was the main man behind the push to draft Vucevic in the first place.

If you go back to the 2011 draft, I was at the Prudential Center for that draft, on the floor credentialed as a member of the media, as I have been since the 2009 draft due to my work with Draft Express. I called that the 76ers would likely draft Vucevic a full two days prior to the draft taking place:

"Vucevic is a guy to keep your eye on, as I've heard from multiple sources that there's a very good chance he may be the Sixers pick if he's available at 16". -- Derek Bodner, June 21st, 2011

Doug Collins was enamored with Nikola Vucevic. If the man could not evaluate talent and completely missed the obvious talent Nikola Vucevic had, Collins would not have been the one pushing for his drafting.

It's not as if Vucevic was a slam dunk prospect that everybody had rated highly, either. Back in May before that draft Chad Ford had him at 20 and we at Draft Express had him at 21. Vucevic had some very legitimate concerns translating to the NBA.

So you're telling me that the man who was the driving force behind the 76ers drafting Vucevic higher than most had him rated had no idea about the talent Vucevic had? Perhaps there's another explanation.

Drop in playing time

Vucevic was stapled to the bench. Stapled! Never in the history of the NBA has a non-lottery rookie failed to play 25 minutes per game, after all.

A few things to keep in mind on this one:

  • The 76ers were a playoff team last year
  • Vucevic struggled, mightily, in March and April
  • Vucevic has very legitimate defensive concerns

Even this season, Vucevic struggles as a defender. He has major struggles when his man pulls him away from the basket or when he's put in pick and roll sets. According to 82games.com, he's giving up a PER of 19.7 to his man. According to Synergy Sports, he's worse than 88% of the league defending the pick and roll, and worse than two-thirds of the league defending the post, even despite his length.

It's much easier to overlook these struggles on a 14-34 Orlando Magic team with no playoff aspirations than it was on a 76ers team who, on Februay 1st of last year was 15-6 and was in very real playoff contention.

When you combine that with the offensive struggles Vucevic experienced in March and April - Vucevic shot 34.2% in March and 38.3% in April - it's no surprise that Vucevic's playing time dwindled as the season wore on. Despite that, Vucevic still saw roughly 15 and 14 minutes in March and April respectively, only slightly down from the 16 and 18 per game he saw the previous 2 months.

Vucevic didn't really see the pine until the playoffs began, and that's not particularly surprising for a young player who had appeared to have hit the rookie wall and who had, and still has, very legitimate defensive concerns.

Simply put, Nikola Vucevic was not yet ready to be a 30 minute per game player on a playoff team last year.

The 76ers should have kept Vucevic out of the Andrew Bynum trade

Perhaps the most puzzling argument being bandied about has been this notion that the 76ers "decided" to keep Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen over Vucevic, acting as if Vucevic was just a throw in to the Andrew Bynum deal. As if the Orlando Magic viewed Vucevic, Hawes and Allen as interchangeable.

Of the (young) assets the Orlando Magic received (Vucevic, Moe Harkless, Josh McRoberts, 1st round picks in 2014 and 2017), Vucevic was the only one expected to make an impact in the near future. Vucevic started 5 of the teams 7 preseason games and was the opening day starter. The notion that Vucevic was included due to happenstance has no real basis, other than as a reason to deride Doug Collins decision making ability.

Neither Hawes nor Allen - both of whom were free agents on July 1st and cost considerably more than Vucevic does, while not being controlled for as long - have the same appeal to a rebuilding franchise as Vucevic did, even at this time last year. Neither could even be included in the trade. Unless there is evidence that Vucevic was a throw-in to the deal added because of Collins' searing hatred of Vucevic, this is a conclusion that is being jumped to without much merit.

Andrew Bynum's injuries change whether the trade should have been made

This one the authors here at Liberty Ballers have been arguing about for months: Andrew Bynum could never play a game for the 76ers and the trade was still the right decision to make.

We live in a world where we grade things based off of outcomes, but you have to look at the reasoning behind a deal perhaps more-so than results when determining whether it was the right decision. Despite an unfortunate set of circumstances that, to this point, have not worked out for the 76ers, the chance to acquire a potential superstar who could be a cornerstone of a franchise is one the 76ers could not pass up, and one the 76ers should not pass up should the situation present itself in the future.

Superstars are the hardest thing to acquire in this league. If guys like Nikola Vucevic are the opportunity cost to acquiring even risky cornerstones, so be it.

To put this way, if Andrew Bynum were on another team, say the Cleveland Cavaliers, and came back and played the final 20 games of the season, making a dynamic pairing with Kyrie Irving and vaulting the Cavaliers into the playoffs (bear with me and pretend the Cavaliers were in the 76ers situation), turning down that possibility so we could keep Nikola Vucevic's productivity would be an even bigger mistake.

Vucevic, even with his rebounding productivity, will never be a guy who will propel you into contention. Andrew Bynum was. Even if Bynum does live up to that hope, you can't pass on that possibility to keep Nikola Vucevic. The trade is still one that had to be made.

Would I have preferred to keep Vucevic over Hawes, Allen, or Kwame Brown? Of course. But we have no real reason to believe that was ever an option.

Vucevic has also wildly exceeded my expectations, and for that I applaud him. He's a hard worker and a good kid, so it's not entirely surprising he is exceeding the expectations of most.

For whatever reason, Nikola Vucevic being a success in Orlando means we have to find someone to blame for him not being a success in Philadelphia. That blame is being shifted on Doug Collins.

Many of the arguments surrounding NIkola Vucevic are being made based on conclusions that are being jumped to. "Vucevic was included as a throw-in." "Vucevic not playing down the stretch means Vucevic would have never played under Collins." "The combination of not playing down the stretch and his being traded means Doug Collins had no idea about Vucevic's talent."

All these conclusions being made from speculation. What we don't have to speculate about is that:

  • Doug Collins really wanted Nikola Vuceivc to be on his team before the 2011 draft.
  • The Orlando Magic stated multiple times after the trade that they valued Vucevic.
  • Vucevic struggled down the stretch last year on a team with playoff aspirations.
Perhaps there's nobody to blame.
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