The Orlando Magic have made several damaging moves since they sent a disillusioned Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a four-team deal in 2012, but that deal - which objectively wasn't a bad trade - has always been seen as the one that broke them.
In the six-plus years since Howard's departure, the Magic have crossed the 30-win threshold just once, finishing with 25 or fewer wins four times. No Orlando player has made an All-Star Game during that period. However, Nikola Vucevic - the young center Orlando acquired in the Howard trade all those miserable years ago - looks poised to become the team's first All-Star since Superman left central Florida.
Vucevic, now 28, is having by far his best season, averaging 20.2 points, 12 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.2 blocks with a 59-percent true shooting mark, all career highs. He has long been one of the game's more skilled offensive bigs, but this year he's sharpened those skills into razor-like talons; he's gotten a bit better, and a bit meaner, in every conceivable way.
He remains an inhaler of rebounds and a handful on the block; a low-post brute with a feathery touch. But he's also polished his handle, developed a reliable 3-point shot, and honed his footwork. He's been more decisive attacking mismatches, more willing and able to put the ball on the floor, and quicker to pass out of double teams. He can pop, dive, post up, spot up from three, create from the elbow, or scavenge from the dunker spot. Also, his improved positional awareness as a drop-back defender in the pick-and-roll has papered over a lot of his physical limitations at that end of the floor.
Among big men, Vucevic ranks in the 95th percentile in assist rate, the 97th percentile in defensive rebound rate, the 87th percentile in mid-range shooting accuracy, the 83rd percentile in 3-point shooting, and the 92nd percentile in defensive foul avoidance, per Cleaning the Glass. Virtually every advanced metric - be it PER, Real Plus-Minus, Box Plus-Minus, Player Impact Plus-Minus, Win Shares per 48 minutes - pegs him as a top-15 player in the NBA so far in 2018-19.
But Vucevic is a few months from unrestricted free agency, and the roster around him makes little sense. The Magic - clearly planning for a future without him - have used three top-six picks in the last five drafts on frontcourt players (Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba) while their backcourt and wing rotations have gone underdeveloped. They've lost nine of their past 12 games to fall to 17-24 and posses the league's 28th-ranked offense and sixth-worst net rating. They've been a net positive with Vucevic on the floor, but they've been outscored by a staggering 13.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.