NBA Free Agency, Orlando Magic

Orlando committing to Nikola Vucevic makes Mo Bamba the most fascinating buy-low candidate

The Orlando Magic invested a lot at center the past two seasons, creating a logjam that could make Mo Bamba available — and extremely enticing.

The four-year, $100 million contract that 28-year-old big man Nikola Vucevic will sign with the Magic cements Orlando’s focus on the now and makes 2018 No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba one of the most interesting buy-low candidates in the NBA.

The 7-foot-1 big man with a 7-foot-10 wingspan broke physical profile comparison models during his pre-draft process and even as a rookie was one of the league’s most imposing young defenders. Blocking shots is like riding a bike for Bamba, and he picked up where he left off at Texas, blocking 7 percent of opponent attempts while he was on the floor as a rookie. Yet as the Magic geared up for a playoff push late in the year, Bamba went down with a stress fracture in his left leg and missed the final 35 games of his rookie season.

A few weeks later, Vucevic made his first All-Star game. The big man celebrated the best season of his career and the Magic ultimately busted through to the playoffs, where they won a miraculous Game 1 over the Raptors on the road before losing the series in five games. It was Orlando’s first playoff appearance since Dwight Howard was on the roster.

Logic and loyalty dictated that the Magic act swiftly in retaining Vucevic, the team’s best player and leader. Yet the emotion that may have swept up the organization as they considered Vucevic’s free agency ignored the realities of the roster.

Bamba is not the only player who waits behind Vucevic. Orlando’s second-best player, Aaron Gordon, is a combo big man at his best, but often was squeezed into the 3-spot next to Vucevic and 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac. The Magic’s recent draft history is coming to roost as the franchise looks to keep the momentum of an impressive 2019-20 season while also developing its young talent.

Bamba appears to be the obvious loser. The 21-year-old is still what he was when he was drafted — a potential unicorn big man who can shoot 3s and protect the basket. Rare playing time in that crowded Orlando frontcourt made it difficult for Bamba to show the secondary skills many grasped for when he played at Texas, but that core skill set is plenty valuable to be worth a splurge for a team that needs a player like Bamba.

Attracting perimeter gravity as a big man requires far less efficacy from deep than a guard. Bamba shot 31 percent on wide-open 3s this year. He was also in the 70th percentile as the screener in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy.

The ball sticks to his hands in traffic and he is developing an off-the-bounce game to complement his spot-up ability. Offense was supposed to be the problem for Bamba, but it didn’t hold him back as a rookie.

This second season will be about proving that he can put on weight and flex it inside and grow his perimeter game. Bamba held up well for a rookie in the Magic’s drop pick-and-roll coverage thanks to great on-ball energy from Orlando’s wing defenders, but if the first line of defense failed, opposing guards minced Bamba up.

The low crouch that Bamba kneels into when defending the post isn’t there in space. Crafty ball-handlers can get Bamba on his heels and he hasn’t read athletic, creative drives from NBA guards enough at this point to be predictive in his defense. He is at the whim of the man coming toward him.

A lack of functional strength also followed Bamba from Texas to Orlando. The big man is freakishly long and moves fairly well, but strong veterans pushed him around like a pool noodle.

Strength is mostly discussed as a measure of how hard someone can push or pull. In Bamba’s case, it’s going to be important that he can generate thrust from his legs and pivot his hips in the mess of a halfcourt possession. He needs to be able to keep up with the game.

While Bamba is older than most second-year players, he played just 766 minutes as a rookie. Time has not passed him by. Development is coming. By trading for Bamba, a team is getting a player with perhaps the rarest NBA skill set who will also contribute as a role player right away.

Atlanta opted not to select a big man this year despite entering draft night with three first-round picks. They may lose Dewayne Dedmon in free agency and don’t have a great long-term answer at center on the roster. With two extra future first-round picks and a heap of second-rounders, why not throw a pick and a young role player closer to contributing like DeAndre’ Bembry to Orlando for Bamba?

Bamba may not be a snug fit alongside Kristaps Porzingis but if Dallas agreed to use their cap space to absorb Timofey Mozgov’s expensive expiring contract, the risk would be minimal for the Mavericks, and Orlando might be amenable. A massive Porzingis-Bamba front line wouldn’t be the most mobile duo in the league as the game becomes increasingly perimeter-oriented. But if both stay healthy, they could wreck matchups on a nightly basis and make Dallas one of the biggest teams in the league.

After agreeing with Shaun Livingston to move the veteran’s guarantee date back as he is expected to retire, Golden State could use that non-guaranteed contract to give Orlando greater maneuverability this season and in the future. Kevon Looney will be the Warriors’ top priority now that they have his bird rights, but Bamba would be a fascinating backup plan and projects to stretch the floor better than Looney.

Many other teams could swap a spare wing or guard on their roster for Bamba and help upgrade Orlando’s depth on the perimeter.

Next: Where did the top free agents sign?

Players like Bamba are rare. This is why, despite Vucevic’s presence blockading Bamba’s path to heavy minutes in Orlando, the Magic drafted him in 2018 anyway.

The veteran Magic roster is ready to build on last year’s success. Bamba is at best a backup on the team next season. He can’t play with Vucevic, and the Montenegrin big man isn’t going to be the most tradeable asset if his stats regress or he gets injured now that he’s making over $20 million per year.

The Magic don’t need to trade him, but the right deal could give Orlando financial flexibility in the future or upgrade its depth now, and present a new team with the opportunity to cash in on Bamba’s serious potential.

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