The Magic have agreed to sign center Nikola Vucevic to a four-year contract extension worth up to $53 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel and Yahoo! Sports. The reported deal, which will kick in for the 2015-16 season and run through 2018-19, is fully guaranteed and does not include any team or player options. Vucevic will earn $2.8 million this season in the fourth year of his rookie deal.
Vucevic, 23, averaged a career-high 14.2 points and 11 rebounds in 31.8 minutes per game in 2013-14, his second season in Orlando. The No. 16 pick in the 2011 draft, Vucevic was traded by the 76ers to the Magic in the 2012 four-team blockbuster deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers. Since the trade, Vucevic has served as Orlando's full-time starting center, averaging a double-double in each of the last two seasons. Vucevic's Player Efficiency Rating of 18.8 led all Magic players in 2013-14, although he did miss time with a concussion and an Achilles injury.
SI.com named Vucevic to our All-Payday Team back in January, singling him out as one of five under-25 players who was set to cash in this offseason due to his reliable double-double production and the Magic's need to lay the groundwork for their future. These negotiations played out almost exactly as anticipated. A rebuilding Orlando team, searching for long-term building blocks, locked up its center at a price that is in line with the rookie extensions doled out last fall.
The three most relevant comparisons from 2013 are Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (4 years, roughly $60 million), Jazz center Derrick Favors (four years, $48 million) and Bucks center Larry Sanders (four years, $44 million). As noted in January, Favors was the best comparison of the three, as Vucevic lacks Cousins' star power and Sanders' red flags. Although Vucevic's contract winds up being slightly higher than Favors' deal, which would have qualified as a mild surprise back in January, the impact of the NBA's massive new television deal must be noted. The final three years of Vucevic's contract will take place after the implementation of a significantly larger salary cap.
Vucevic will make, on average, $1.3 million per year more than Favors, but his salary will account for a much smaller slice of the Magic's cap. Remember, the $13.3 million average annual salary must be judged against a projected $80-90 million salary cap, as opposed to this year's $63 million cap figure. Proportionally, a $13.3 million salary in an $85 million salary cap system is equivalent to a $9.9 million salary this season. By that standard, Vucevic could be viewed as a bargain by the extension's end, assuming he maintains good health, continues to develop as a defender and finds his place in an offense that may be dominated by young guards Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, and plays a role in improving Orlando's fortunes.
This deal looks like intelligent management for two reasons. First, an early extension prevents any chance of a bidding war for a reliable, skilled young center -- almost always a hot commodity -- in restricted free agency. Secondly, the price paid is slightly higher than the NBA is used to seeing for a young big who lacks both superstar upside and game-changing rim-protection, but the Magic avoided overpaying Vucevic next summer under next season's large salary cap, which is expected to inflate the prices of comparable players.
It's safe to say that this deal is unlikely to make or break Orlando's outlook over the next half-decade. Vucevic isn't a transcendent talent and this contract just isn't an eye-opening "steal" that opens up limitless possibilities. Similarly, the Magic's rebuilding effort has been thorough enough that, even in a nightmare scenario, Vucevic's contract is unlikely to derail their team-building goals. Even so, this contract amounts to a logical step, and it's definitely preferable to reasonable alternative outcomes that could have been significantly more painful.