Monday December 15th, 2014

On August 10, 2012, three centers were traded. One was the premier big man in the NBA who turned rim protection into an art form. Another was an All-Star known for supple hands and polished post moves. The third was a rookie from Philadelphia, by way of Switzerland, Belgium, Montenegro and Los Angeles, averaging 5.5 points in less than 16 minutes per game.

The Lakers came away with the best center in the deal, Dwight Howard. The 76ers presumably landed the second best, Andrew Bynum. The Magic, demonstrating once again the perils of selling superstars, approached the transaction as if it were a second draft. Among the prospects they plucked was an anonymous seven-footer named Nikola Vucevic. He was an able defender, but not a rim protector like Howard. He had a soft touch, but lacked the interior repertoire of Bynum. In Philly, he played at times behind Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Tony Battie.

“You try to look beyond what a guy does on a nightly basis,” said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, another reminder that evaluating young players can sound a little like fortune telling. Front offices must use scant information to predict the future.

In the NBA, the team that wins a trade is usually the one that swaps a collection of spare parts for a proven star. Three clubs left the negotiating table feeling like winners: the Lakers, the 76ers and the Nuggets, who welcomed stopper Andre Iguodala. Orlando was the only loser. And yet, less than two-and-a-half years later, all three headliners are elsewhere and all three supposed winners are losing. The best player left from the deal is Vucevic, who may never be Howard, but could eventually remind observers of Marc Gasol.

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The last time the Lakers acquired a marquee big man was in 2008, when they pried Pau Gasol from Memphis, and sent back his pudgy younger brother as a sentimental throw-in. Now, Marc is probably the premier center in the league, and definitely the most dynamic. Vucevic’s skills are different than Marc’s, but his trajectory is similar, morphing from afterthought to potential All-Star in less than three years. Vucevic is averaging 18.6 points and 11.7 rebounds, still a disciplined defender, with a newfound knack for scoring on the block and sinking pick-and-pop jumpers.

Vucevic never viewed himself as Howard’s replacement and the Magic never treated him as such. They simply wrote his name into the starting lineup, 77 times in 2012-13, allowing him to grow on the job. For a young player, there are benefits to joining a 20-win team, and Vucevic realized them all. “They never put pressure on me,” he said. “They let me work, get better and play through my mistakes.”

He more than doubled his scoring and rebound averages during his first season in Orlando, then sustained those numbers during his second. Last summer, he signed a four-year $53 million extension and the Magic rejoiced, because a center actually wanted to stay with them. This season, Vucevic’s usage rate has crept toward Gasol territory, and his numbers have risen in accordance. “We’ve thrown him the ball more often than we ever have in the past,” Vaughn said. “His ability to post up for us, even command double teams, has been very good.”

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Few outside of Orlando seem to have noticed – “He’s probably the best player in the league that nobody knows,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said – but Vucevic does not appear disturbed by the lack of attention. He still feels charmed to be here at all.

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His father, Borislav, was a professional basketball player in Europe for 24 years. His mother, Ljiljana, also played professionally overseas. They met, appropriately, in a gym. Borislav starred in Switzerland, where Nikola was born, and in Belgium, where he was raised. He roomed with Drazen Petrovic on the Yugoslavian national team. When Nikola was 13, he declared his intention to enter the family business. “It won’t be easy,” his dad told him. “You’ll have to sacrifice. But you can do it. You have the talent.” Shortly after Borislav retired, the clan moved to Montenegro and settled in Bar, a town of 40,000 on the Adriatic coast. Borislav coached Nikola’s 16-and-under club team.

On the afternoon of Jan. 23, 2006, the team took a train back to Bar from a camp in the mountains. At some point during the trip, the train stopped on the tracks. “The conductor was walking up and down the aisle, trying to get it fixed,” Vucevic recalls. “Then all of a sudden, it started to roll downhill, really fast. I heard the conductor say, ‘This is going to be bad.’” Some of Vucevic’s memories are hazy, but he remembers the runaway train entering a tunnel, bouncing off the walls, then exiting the tunnel and flipping over several times.  He was thrown to the floor, a teammate fell on top of him, and a door flew off its hinges. The door landed on the teammate.  “How does this end?” Vucevic asked himself. He closed his eyes.

The train finally stopped just short of a cliff that hung over the Moraca River. Forty-seven people died in the wreck, including a member of the club’s 14-and-under team, and nearly 200 were injured. Vucevic, rushed by ambulance through freezing temperatures to the nearest hospital, escaped with a broken nose. A year later, he left for Stoneridge Prep School outside Los Angeles, in hopes of earning a college basketball scholarship. He learned English partly by watching the movie “Love & Basketball” with the subtitles on. He refused to board another train or discuss the accident, even with family and friends.

“We still don’t talk about it much,” Vucevic said. But every January 23, the players from that 16-and-under team text each other: “Happy 2nd Birthday.” They consider how fortunate they were that the train was slowed by the walls of the tunnel, that it halted so close to the cliff, and that their car was the only one to stop in an upright position. “It makes you look at life differently,” Vucevic said. “It makes you value things more.”  He played well enough at Stoneridge to secure a scholarship from USC, and after three years with the Trojans, was picked No. 16 overall by Philadelphia. As a rookie, he didn’t produce much, but the 76ers reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. Bynum was supposed to push them farther.

So much has changed since then. The 76ers are the worst team in the NBA and the Lakers aren’t much better. The Nuggets appear ready for a reboot. The Magic, having already endured one, are close to competing again with a core of Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris. Orlando extracted Harris from Milwaukee in a heist involving another free-agent-to-be, J.J. Redick. Just as Howard left the Lakers, Redick bailed on the Bucks.

NBA franchises are forever damaged by the loss of a megastar and Orlando is no exception. It’s impossible to give up Dwight Howard and declare victory. But less than two-and-a-half years after the fact, four teams are left to assess a deal that hurt all of them. The Magic, thanks to an emergent center with a healthy perspective and a rapidly expanding game, have fared the best. 

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