Orlando Is Thinking Playoffs. You Can Thank Andrew Bynum.

Seven years ago, Dwight Howard wanted an Orlando divorce. He was upset the Magic front brass, among other things, didn’t care he needed back surgery. That was the last straw in Howard’s world of no one loves me. Howard sat out the playoffs of 2012 and had surgery early summer. Afterwards, while recuperating in Beverly Hills, he demanded a trade.

The trade was complicated and had a lot of moving pieces, but the end result was Howard would finally be in Tinseltown, a place he desired for all the wrong reasons.

Dwight Howard went to Los Angeles. Philly scorer Andre Iguodala went to Denver. Nikola Vučević, the Sixers young center, went to Orlando. He replaced Howard. And Philly got damaged goods: Andrew Bynum.

Bynum showed up for his introductory press conference like he had been out shopping at Home Depot. He sported a large Afro and a white tee and Philly fan went berserk, as if Bynum was the second coming of Wilt. Bynum had always been lucky. He was drafted by the Lakers after Jim Calhoun of Connecticut considered him a project. Overweight, Bynum got in shape a month before team workouts, wooed Phil Jackson, and eventually won a title because he played with Kobe Bryant. But he had bad knees that Mike Brown made worse by overplaying Bynum.

In Philly, Bynum was a disaster. He never played a single game. Then he was traded and out of the NBA soon enough to make him feel irrelevant.  The Bynum mistake was what propelled the Sixers to create a  rebuilding strategy called The Process. The Bynum catastrophe forced the Sixers to make tough decisions, like trade Jrue Holiday. All because they thought Bynum was somehow better than a young Nikola Vučević.

Of all of the pieces involved in the Dwight Howard trade, Vučević was given the least amount of ink. Igoudala was an All-Star and helped Denver in the playoffs that year. A free agent, he signed with the Warriors and became Finals MVP. Howard landed with the Lakers in a terrible year playing alongside Kobe Bryant. His free agent year, he signed with the Rockets and it ended with a thud too. As did Atlanta, Charlotte, and he has been hurt all season in Washington.

Nikola Vučević went to Orlando and was forgotten. He was a trivia question: who did the Sixers give up to get Andrew Bynum.

But in Orlando, Vučević took advantage of an opportunity. His first year, he was a 13 and 12 player. The next year, 14 and 11. His third year with the Magic, 19 and 10. This year, his seventh year in Orlando, he is averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds and was an All-Star. What is Andrew Bynum doing? Retired.

This has been Vučević’s best season as a pro which aligns with what we know about players in their prime. He has scored more than 20 points 36 times. He has rebounded the ball 15+ times in 14 games including a 20 rebound game against the Clippers. His offensive rating of 115 is career best. His defensive rating of 103 is career best.  His 26.0 PER validates his All-Star nod.  He is ranked as the second best center behind Nikola Jokic, measured by Real Plus-Minus, better than Joel Embiid (5th) and Karl-Anthony Towns (6th).  He is having his best year shooting threes, 38%.

His flaws are still his flaws. He’s not explosive, isn’t a rim protector, doesn’t get the line like a big man should. For example, Embiid takes 10 free throws a game. Karl-Anthony Towns takes six free throws a game. Vuĉević only attempts 3 free throws a game.

But every NBA player has something they cannot do. This is what Vučević can do. 54% on his 273 hook shots. 41% of his jump shots, a higher percentage than LeBron James, taking more jump shots than LeBron James and has made more than James. He is Mr. Consistency. On the road 20.6 points. At home, 20.5 points. Against the  East, 20.5 points. Against the West, 20.8 points.

In March, when it counts for the playoffs, he has ratcheted his game up, 22 points and 11 rebounds, with an offensive rating of 123. He is the best player on the Magic. He is playing like it. One more thing. On the second night of a back to back, he shines. 22 points, 11 rebounds.

Vučević played college ball at USC and was drafted just outside the lottery in 2011, the 16th pick of the Sixers. Kawhi Leonard was drafted one spot ahead of him in the Kyrie Irving number one pick draft.  (Jimmy Butler was in that same draft, chosen 30th, the last pick in the first round.) Vučević’s father, Borislav played professional ball and was a member of the Yugoslavian national team.  His mother, Ljiljana played on the women’s team.

Here we are in March and the Orlando Magic have a shot at the playoffs. They play 10 games against teams that won’t make the playoffs and how they perform against lottery bound squads will determine if they can pass Charlotte and Miami, who they play twice, for the 8th spot. The last game of the season is in Charlotte and may decide who gets to play Milwaukee in the first round. If it is Orlando, thank Nikola Vučević and then thank the Sixers.

They gave him away.