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Three Nikola Vucevic trade ideas to chew on

before we blow it up, we could explore shipping out our starting center

Chicago Bulls v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Bulls struggling to begin this season, naturally things have turned to tank talk. That would mean trading from the ‘big’ 3 for assets and getting worse for this season, a scenario that is not likely all given ownership and front office plans. At least not before seeing what the team can do against this somewhat softer schedule coming up.

But while DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are likely here to stay, there’s a bit more urgency when it comes to Nikola Vucevic, since he’s on a fairly reasonable expiring $22 million salary.

Maybe the Bulls have this in mind and can eschew ‘continuity’ to get something of value for Vuc and perhaps reshuffle the roster a bit while remaining competitive? In the short-term, Andre Drummond when motivated has proven to be good enough around the rim that he could survive as a starting center.

Because Vucevic isn’t likely the change the Bulls fortunes one way or the other. This year, Vucevic is averaging 15.8 points a game on .478/.346/.855 shooting splits, along with 11 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He still has some reputation as a floor-spacing big man who’s also an above-average rebounder and passer. But outside of his two All-Star seasons (in 2018-19 and 2020-21), Vucevic has never shot better from deep, on volume anyway, than current, thoroughly mediocre 34.6% rate this season.

Perhaps that reputation means he will garner some interest on the trade market, though given his fading play and contract situation he’s going to return far less than what was sent out originally to acquire him.

All that said, some ideas. These all work financially, though you can shout in the comments if they make no basketball sense:

The Nets

Another MVP-caliber run from a mostly healthy Kevin Durant has helped Brooklyn weather the storm surrounding the erratic production of former All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. Could the team be looking to improve its roster around Durant to maximize the 34-year-old’s championship odds this season?

Sharpshooting forward Yuta Watanabe is on an insane bargain contract ($1.8 million), and is probably not someone the Nets want to surrender too readily, but one expects the team would be more than happy to ditch somewhat overpaid small forward Joe Harris and his $18.7 million salary this season. Chicago could use much more shooting, especially along the wing.

The Bulls may need to make further additions down the road were they to pull of this exchange, but it would behoove them to add elite shooters, like a career 43.5% volume three-point shooter in the 6’6” Harris (he’s knocking down a just-okay 36.8% of his 5.4 attempts this year, which would still make him one of Chicago’s better shooters) and a career 43.9% shooter in Watanabe, albeit in just 135 games across parts of five seasons.

Andre Drummond, who after all did start every game he played last season for Brooklyn at the end of the 2021-22 season, would become Chicago’s full-time starter.

From the Brooklyn side of the equation, the Nets would add an alternative to rim-roller Nic Claxton at the center position, someone who could theoretically help spread the floor for KD while also serving as an above-average passing option.

The Clippers

After letting Isaiah Hartenstein walk in free agency, L.A. doesn’t really have much in the way of a legit center beyond Ivica Zubac, but they do have a surfeit of switchy wings. Would the Clippers be amenable to freeing up its relative positional logjam so that they could boost their shooting and passing at the center position, and possibly clear the lane more for stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to drive?

I’ve got two ideas for an L.A. deal. One option would be to move Vucevic’s contract for the slightly overpriced salaries of combo forward Robert Covington ($12.3 million) and shooting guard Luke Kennard ($14.4 million this season, including likely incentives). The money does work, even if ESPN’s trade machine calculates Chicago’s win total would decline by six games. The 6’7” Covington is a slightly past-his-prime 3-and-D starting-caliber forward, the exact kind of player Chicago currently lacks (with apologies to Javonte Green, who at 6’4” is too small for the position when the games start to matter, and Patrick Williams, who is too raw). He is making “just” 34.1% of his triples this year on 2.9 tries, but for his career is a 36% shooter on a high-volume 6.1 looks from deep. Kennard has been thriving as a mostly-bench option for the Clippers this year, nailing 49% of his 3.4 treys a night. For his career, he is a 42.8% three-point shooter on 4.3 looks.

Another possible Clippers deal would be oriented around center Ivica Zubac and combo forward Nicolas Batum. After starting for the Clippers last season, the 34-year-old Batum has been demoted to a bench role on a possibly-too-generous new contract. Zubac, who was re-signed this summer to a three-year, $33 million deal, won’t become trade-eligible until December 28th. Batum, re-signed this summer to a two-year, $22 million agreement, won’t be movable until January 15th. If the Clippers want more floor-spacing and passing from the center position, the Bulls could certainly use the defense of Zubac and Batum, plus Batum’s three-point shooting (he’s making 38% of his 2.8 tries a night, but is averaging a mere 4.6 points overall in a mightily reduced role). Zubac gives the Clippers shot-blocking and defense, while Vucevic would give the team spacing without ceding rebounds. Would L.A. be open to this?

The Spurs

I hate to do this, but this means bringing old friend Doug McDermott back. Dougie McBuckets has certainly improved since his Bulls days. The 6’7” combo forward is connecting on 40.6% of his 4.8 triples this season, and is a career 40.9% shooter from deep, having long ago stabilized after an erratic few years in Chicago.

My proposal is that the Bulls send Vucevic to a tanking San Antonio team in exchange for Doug and the real star of the deal, Jakob Poeltl. Though the ESPN trade machine thinks that this would only represent a four-win swing for either side (+4 wins for Chicago, -4 wins for San Antonio), Poeltl is exactly the kind of intriguing, defense-first center option that would probably most suit stars DeMar DeRozan (a former teammate of the 6’10” big man’s) and Zach LaVine.

Given that the Spurs, losers of 11 straight, are already nakedly in their Tank-O-Rama For Wembanyama phase, there has to be some other incentive for them to make a move. It would save them a bit of money, as McDermott is signed through next season though Poeltl will, like Vuc, be a free agent at the end of this season. I’m thinking the Bulls would 100% have to throw in at least their lottery-protected Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick. The Spurs would probably seek even more for Poeltl, as Chicago would definitely not be their only suitor. Would the Spurs accept the Portland first and one or two second-rounders? Surrendering any more than that may not behoove the Bulls.

The Heat

After getting within a Jimmy Butler three of their second NBA Finals trip in three years, Miami has stumbled out of the gate, dropping to an 11-14 record to kick off the season. The Heat lack shooting and, like the Bulls, currently need a legitimate power forward. They have been trotting out 6’5” Caleb Martin at the four, and hoping against hope that he can become this year’s PJ Tucker. But there’s only one PJ Tucker, as Martin is clearly miscast at the position. 6’9” All-Star big man Bam Adebayo was initially drafted as a power forward before morphing into the team’s starting center. Could he be moved to that position if the Heat gain a shooting center like Vucevic?

To add more wing and forward shooting in a deal, Chicago could take on the reasonable deals of Caleb Martin and Illinois native (and ex-Bull) Max Strus, but along with the somewhat-bloated deal of marksman forward Duncan Robinson. Martin and Strus will provide solid two-way play for Chicago, and are both good three-point shooters (Martin is nailing 41.5% of his 3.6 threes this season, while the 6’5” Strus is making 35.5% of his 8.3 threes).

Strus, 26, is currently making a $1.8 million minimum salary and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but his bargain of a contract is countered by the excessive contract of Robinson, who is making $16.9 million in just the second season of his insanely generous five-year, $90 million deal with Miami. The 6’7” forward is making just 31.5% of his 4.3 treys a night, but as a career 40.2% shooter on 7.6 tries per game, the Bulls would need to be confident that his shooting will stabilize — and/or be high enough on Martin and Strus to take on Robinson’s salary.