Nikola Vucevic received a too-rich contract extension, as Bulls follow-through on threats to gut-punch fanbase
predictably frustrating lack of imagination by the Bulls front office
The new league year begins Friday afternoon with the opening of free agency, and the Bulls jumped that by a couple days to give free agent to-be Nikola Vucevic a wildly exorbitant contract extension.
Shams/Woj had the initial reports directly from Vuc’s agents (and from their perspective, why not pub this?), saying the terms are for 3 years and $60M. Now, agents leaking the figures likely means they're going to be inflated so that the agents look better. It's possible that the final number is ultimately around $60M, but that's after non-guaranteed years, incentives, and 8% raises.
We don’t know any of those details, yet. The final year could be fully non-guaranteed, and the first-year salary could be as low as ~$17.5M. But even the most ‘team friendly’ terms will make this still way too much to give Vucevic, who turns 33 before the season.
As I went into a month or so ago, while Vuc is ‘productive’, what he does at his position has been more exclusively benefitting of Vuc himself than towards team success. And his limitations restrict roster construction and strategy on both sides of the ball.
I’ve read a lot of reflexive rationalizations from fellow ‘Bulls observers’, who try to reason:
Maybe not for this Bulls team, but with no team context: ~$20M annually for Vucevic is appropriate
We all knew this was going to happen, so why be upset?
To the 2nd thing, first: I think why anyone, including myself, would be red-faced is not in spite of it being predictable, but BECAUSE it was predictable. Whenever anyone did their Bulls cap speculation for this offseason, they were simultaneously lamenting how the Bulls had no wiggle room under the tax for additions, yet also penciling in Vuc at $20M. But Vuc didn’t HAVE to be extended!
I feel like I’m being taunted by this kind of response, and it was visualized directly by the Bulls in their press release:
And to the point of the contract not being too bad in absolute terms (you could say ‘in a vacuum’, but it’s more ‘like a vacuum’ in that it sucks)…that’s not how this is supposed to work.
If we’re being objective about Vuc’s market value: his production, age, impact, and, well, market, made him more a role player tier deserving of the mid-level exception of $14.3M. That’s what the Bulls should’ve considered ‘fair’, and if Vuc was indeed willing to give them a ‘hometown discount’ as reported in several places, that number should’ve been less than that above fair market value, not way more. Want the mid-level instead from a contender? Enjoy moving your family to Cleveland. Want more money? Enjoy cranking out 20 points for 20 wins in San Antonio.
The Bulls could’ve leveraged Vuc’s affinity for the franchise, but instead were duped by it. That’s because Arturas Karnisovas is easily duped. The only negotiation he’s won has been over failson ‘dorf to get the job in the first place.
After the draft, Karnisovas smirked and laughed through a press conference that included this reflection on the Vucevic trade being that it wasn’t a mistake:
It’d be bad enough if AK was merely stubborn. I think he doesn’t self-reflect on mistakes like that one because he doesn’t think they’re mistakes. He doesn’t think they’re mistakes because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I recognize some of the praise AK always has for Vucevic and the Continuity Crew is PR puffery, though they seem to also have open disdain for PR so I’m not sure that’s much of a factor. But it’s worrisome all the same that AK uses totally inaccurate valuation when describing Vuc, recently praising “double-doubles” as part of his total misevaluation of his team’s 2nd half performance, and now today plaudits in the press release Vuc include 'a special player', 'produced at an elite level', and 'an integral part of our foundation'. Well, maybe the last one is technically accurate because while integral the foundation is shaky (folks).
And - this is something I feel I say all the time - the words matter less but are more of a problem when the actions back them up. That they think Vuc is a $20M player is confirmed because they gave him $20M.
So yes, this was predicable, but shouldn’t be treated as fait accompli. The Bulls do not HAVE to have a front office that says little and does even less, locking in everyone as a ‘core’ simply because a ‘core’ has to have more than 2 players. By not dealing Vucevic last deadline (another mistake they don’t agree was a mistake), the team was somewhat trapped in that they couldn’t replace his production with a single exception or cap space.
But imagine instead a dynamic, smart, creative front office. One that would not overpay Vucevic, even if that meant him walking, and that decision opening up real flexibility instead of continuity. More exceptions could be gained (fully use MLE? Lonzo DPE? A TPE from a sign & trade of Vuc?), to spend more money before hitting the tax line. Starting center would be a new hole, sure, but it wouldn’t require a $20M filler that precludes them from addressing the other more important holes on this roster.
(There was some news after that post-draft presser when AK said he could go into the tax, but I’m more thinking it was his usual inability to effectively communicate, and it’s status quo: they’d go into the tax for ‘a contender’, and even if they went over a bit before this season, it’ll be over by very little so they could get under easily midseason.)
If there’s one silver lining here heading into free agency, it’s that there’s now more certainty: what they paid Vuc (and to answer an immediate question: no mulligans, they can’t trade him for six months) constrains what they can do in other additions this summer. Just like how trading so much for him in the first place constrained them. And the mistake wasn’t so much the mindset or the strategy of going win-now but the player. It’s all been for literally just Nikola Vucevic.