Nikola Vucevic has become a whipping boy for Bulls fans as he struggles through an inconsistent season. Vucevic hit rock bottom (hopefully) against his former team on Sunday, putting up a truly atrocious 4-of-19 shooting line while getting embarrassed on the other end. I’ve tried to be patient with Vucevic this season given his track record, but that game against the Magic in an ugly blowout loss had me ready to totally give up on him.
Vucevic bounced back Monday night with one of his best performances of the season, going for 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal while shooting 10-of-18 from the field and 4-of-7 from 3-point range. An airball on his first shot seemed to be a bad omen, but he shook that off and put forth a great effort, with several stretches of dominance that helped the Bulls build up big leads. He even had a pair of and-1s on aggressive forays to the rim, which is something that would be nice to see more of down low.
Of course, the Bulls did almost choke away a lead that was 28 points in the third quarter and 17 points with 5:50 to play after one of those stretches of Vooch dominance seemed to put the game away. Chicago’s offense totally melted down, with Vucevic committing one bad turnover down the stretch and then mostly playing a bystander role outside of one awful shot that had no chance after Zach LaVine tossed him a grenade at the end of the shot clock. It would have been nice to see the Bulls go to the big man more in crunch time, but LaVine and Coby White really struggled with ball pressure and couldn’t get him the ball in good spots. Luckily, the Bulls squeaked out a one-point win.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Bulls fell apart as Vucevic got quiet, as he has been something of a barometer for this team this season. It’s no surprise that teams win more when their best players play well and lose more when they play poorly, but Vucevic’s win/loss splits are truly astounding and way more drastic than the Bulls’ other stars.
The Bulls are 25-14 with Vooch in the lineup this season. In those 25 wins, he boasts averages of 17.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals in 33.7 minutes while shooting 46.3% overall and 38.6% from 3-point range on 5.1 attempts per game. That field goal percentage is still a bit below his career mark of 49.2%, but it’s at least respectable and that 3-point percentage is excellent. His poor finishing around the rim is the main culprit for that overall field goal percentage not being quite as high in wins, though he has been more aggressive getting shots down there in these games:
In Bulls wins, they have a 116.4 offensive rating, 104.4 defensive rating and 12.1 net rating with Vucevic on the court.
Then there are the losses. In those 14 losses, his averages sit at 14.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.8 steals in 32.4 minutes while shooting a dreadful 37.9% overall and 23.6% from 3-point range on 5.1 attempts per game. Toss in 99.8/118.0/-18.2 on-court offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating splits, and things are really ugly when Vooch is going bad.
The major 3-point percentage swing plays a notable role here. Vooch has been solid around the rim (though not as many attempts) and from mid-range in losses, but that 3-point shooting has been a major struggle and his non-restricted area shots in the paint have been awful:
Vucevic knocking down 3s adds such an important dimension to the Bulls’ offense, completely opening things up and offering up an outlet valve on those pick-and-pop plays when the defense is keying in on DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine or any of the other Bulls guards. He’s also a threat as a passer, making him one of the more dangerous all-around bigs in the NBA when he has it going. It also seems as if playing well offensively helps energize his defense, which is something we saw for much of the night against OKC.
The problem is Vucevic simply hasn’t been able to string together enough quality games this season. The Bulls have still been able to win a bunch despite his inconsistency thanks to their overall talent level, but Vooch playing well really raises their ceiling. And when he’s going bad, things are typically going poorly for Chicago.
The concern for the Bulls is that these volatile swings will hurt them come playoff time. A number of fans would love to see Vucevic traded, but it’s hard to see a deal out there that would make sense. The Bulls will likely have to ride with Vooch and hope he can find a more consistent base of play the rest of the season.