In the post, on the perimeter and everywhere in between, the Miami Heat had no answer for Nikola Vucevic on Sunday. He scored 38 points on 15-for-27 shooting, with 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals, making five 3s in the third quarter alone. Vucevic was so dominant that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra compared him to his idol.
"He's been great for several years and he's particularly given us nightmares, but this year it's even different," Spoelstra said. "It feels like you're looking at the modern-day Dirk Nowitzki out there. Tonight he basically did everything, and he knows how to go early before you can get your coverage to him."
Vucevic seemed genuinely touched, calling it one of the nicest things anyone's ever said about him. "I don't know if I'm the modern-day Dirk, but, you know, I'll take it," he said. "I won't complain about that."
Even with Vucevic looking Dirk-like, though, and even with Terrence Ross scoring 31 points and hitting eight 3s of his own, the Orlando Magic lost 102-97. It has been more than three weeks since their last win, and their eight-game losing streak has dropped them to 13-26 and 14th place in the East. Worse, despite Vucevic's absurd averages -- 25 points, 11.6 rebounds 3.7 assists in 33.9 minutes, 41.6 percent from 3-point range on 6.5 attempts per game, a career-high 29.8 percent usage rate with a career-high 57.7 percent true shooting percentage -- the Magic have been outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst net rating in the NBA. The trade deadline is March 25, and 30-year-olds this good typically don't belong on teams this bad.
There are extenuating circumstances, however. Orlando has been without Jonathan Isaac, one of the best defenders in the league, all season, as the 23-year-old recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the bubble. Eight games in, Markelle Fultz tore his ACL, too, and the Magic followed up their 6-2 start with eight losses in nine games. Evan Fournier, now out with a groin injury, has missed 18 games. Aaron Gordon, still dealing with the lingering effects of an ankle sprain, has missed 19 games. The front office could decide to sell off some of the veterans, keep Vucevic around and use the offseason to draft another core player and rearrange the supporting cast.
According to league execs, that is the most likely outcome, per Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer. No one is suggesting that Vucevic is untouchable, but if Orlando's asking price is significantly higher than any team is willing to pay, he might as well be. Still dependent on Vucevic's offense to an unhealthy degree, the Magic are reportedly looking for a starting-caliber player and more than one first-round pick in return, i.e. not necessarily as much as the Milwaukee Bucks got for Jrue Holiday, but something in that neighborhood.
In a vacuum, that's not crazy. Holiday was effectively heading into a contract year, while Vucevic is making $26 million this season, $24 million next season and $22 million in 2022-23. Vucevic's improved 3-point volume has made him one of the deadliest offensive weapons in the league. (Only Joe Harris and Duncan Robinson have made more catch-and-shoot 3s this season and only Robinson has attempted more.) Finding a logical trade is difficult, though, because of his defensive limitations. Any team acquiring Vucevic would have to be confident that it can make up for the fact that he struggles to defend in space and isn't much of a rim protector. It would also have to be able to match his salary without gutting its roster.
The Boston Celtics have an advantage because of their massive trade exception, but they have reportedly have been unwilling to offer the kind of deal Orlando might accept. Earlier this month, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that the Charlotte Hornets are another suitor. Shortly after that report and one from The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor listing the Heat and San Antonio Spurs as teams interested in Vucevic, The New York Times' Marc Stein reported that the Magic are "sending strong signals that they have no intention" of moving him.
For what it's worth, there's no sense that Vucevic is desperate to get out of Orlando, either. Prior to his second All-Star appearance, in an interview with Stadium, he said it's special to be with one team for a long period of time and he cherishes the legacy he's built over nine seasons with the Magic. More directly, he told the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Bianchi that he thinks the team is going in the right direction and he's happy where he is.
"I love it here," Vucevic said.
The leap Vucevic made in 2018-19 -- his first All-Star season and his first year playing for Steve Clifford -- was unexpected and, frankly, strange to see from a player who had been so steady for so long. It has been profoundly stranger to see him take another step forward in his 10th year in the NBA, on a team that is otherwise so uninteresting. This year's Magic are not going anywhere. For now, it appears the same is true of Vucevic.
Unless some team brings a real offer to the table, that is.