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The Bulls need to break their Nikola Vucevic addiction
Vuc is too good to be a role player, but not good enough to be in any "core"
In many ways*, Nikola Vucevic is emblematic of this Bulls era. He was the first major acquisition for the new front office, in a risky win-now move with a huge outgoing trade package, one that’s still to be totally conveyed in a 2023 top-4 protected first round pick.
*I suppose in other, sadder, ways, that honor goes to Lonzo Ball
The motivation and execution of that trade wasn’t the biggest problem, if you assume it’s the kind of trade that usually nets you a star. Instead, Vucevic’s status as a player also shares characteristics of his team and front office: he’s limited and ultimately average.
Part of the value of Vucevic when he was acquired was that he was under contract for 2+ seasons at an appropriate, de-escalating contract.
But now that contract, like the outgoing trade package, has resolved. Vucevic’s unrestricted free agency this summer, entering his age-33 season, comes with baggage. But it really shouldn’t. And such a thing should be “needless to say”, but who knows with this front office: whatever cost there was to having him on the team, including the opportunity cost of not moving him at last year’s trade deadline, Vuc is not worth making special consideration for.
Any mention of ‘core’ should not include Vuc, going forward he should be considered a role player. In terms of the salary cap and roster construction, especially for this team, he’s a player who should be making somewhere around the nontaxpayer mid-level exception, not near (let alone above) the $24M he made last year.
Looking at Vuc’s free agency through that prism, it’s tough to see how he’s a fit here anymore. And that’s kind of the point: this team has done too much to build around Vuc, and he wasn’t good enough.
To me, the Bulls derisively-quoted “Big 3” really is more like a big 1.5 when considering impact towards a winning team: DeRozan a true positive, LaVine net-meh, and Vuc not depended on at all. Look at the brief and small-time postseason the Bulls just bowed out of: against the Raptors, Vucevic went 6-14 for 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 assists. Nothing exciting, but far better than his dud against the Heat: 12 points on 6-9 shooting, 9 rebounds (AK would say ‘close enough for a double-double!’).
And worse, there was not even much attention paid to it compared to how LaVine stunk up that game or how there was no outside shooting all season. Not a lot is expected of Vuc and we get what we expect: he plays every game, and he is a very good defensive rebounder. Everything else Vuc does is either not effective, or not so effective to where you have to really compromise other parts of the team to make up for it.
It seems like that latter point gets more applied to DeRozan when coming up with reasons to move on from him. But DeRozan is way more effective in a role that is more typical to have such strengths. Vuc’s strengths come with unreasonable trade-offs.
On defense, Vucevic’s limitations came as advertised. He offers extremely limited rim protection and practices a general “no touching” philosophy. He has decent hands, but doesn’t have the lateral quickness to truly disrupt the perimeter.
Now all that considered, how can someone at the most important defensive position play that many minutes, yet his team finished 5th in defense?
For one thing, and this is unfortunately something really hard to grasp for the Bulls front office: that was the regular season. If this defense made it to the playoffs, I have the utmost suspicion that it, and Vuc in particular, would’ve been exposed.
They perhaps wouldn’t have been completely bad. Yet the reason why also does not bode well for Vuc: the Bulls overcompensated in playing rotation and strategy to make up for Vuc’s limitations. Patrick Beverley and Alex Caruso had to start and play heavy minutes, because they can play havoc-inducing defense at the point of attack. The team was instructed to get back on defense as a paramount ethos.
And that’s how, even with two very good scorers alongside him, Vuc was not part of a good offensive unit. Vuc and his teammates never went for offensive rebounds, and they didn’t have enough outside shooting because, well, it’s tough to find reliable, effective, two-way players (pause for reflection on Lonzo…).
Vucevic is supposed to be an offense-first center. Even his weaknesses there involve the less useful traits: never gets to the line, never offensive rebounds. But while he has more important strengths, those too come with compromises elsewhere that he isn’t good enough to earn.
Nearly everything wrong with the Bulls offense comes down to a lack of shooting and spacing. So like how the team defense uses this inverted positioning where the guards are more relied upon, the offense also attempts to rely more on outside shooting from the frontcourt.
And it’s not like Vucevic isn’t good at this, he’s just not good enough.
Vuc shot 4.5 three-point attempts per-36 last season. Patrick Williams gets lots of guff for not shooting more (including from AK), and he was barely behind at 4.3 attempts. Vucevic’s reputation as a great shooter for a center is almost entirely based on one season, the year where he made the All-Star team for the second time and was subsequently traded to the Bulls. In that year, he was at 6.7 3PA/36min, and hit 40% of them. The attempts AND make percentage has been down otherwise. In the prior year he was at 33.9%, then his two last years with the Bulls at 31.4% and 34.9%.
We see it on the floor: spacing is about the defense giving you respect, and teams are way too disrespectful of his outside shooting. Vuc himself shows a lack of self-respect in his outside shot, passing up attempts as if it’s more important to try and make Stacey King happy. And Vuc also doesn’t provide ‘vertical spacing’, in that he is not some rim-runner who can draw the defense when cutting towards the basket.
No, Vuc deploys his “simple game” in the mid-range. This isn’t unique among the Bulls “stars”, but while DeRozan is legitimately great at generating looks for himself and others, and LaVine has a likely terminal case of Kobe-brain but is an actually-great outside shooter, Vucevic is not good enough to justify breaking the offense towards the less-efficient part of the floor.
So when it’s speculated that the Bulls HAVE to break up their ‘core’ this summer, I think the answer of who should go is obvious: it’s the least important member who happens to be an unrestricted free agent anyway.
Again, Karnisovas already screwed this all up so badly: both in the Vuc trade package, and then the lost opportunity of doing nothing the last three transaction periods. He is in a very compromised position when it comes to free agency this summer. And everything public, from the acknowledged lack of negotiating an extension during the season (a fireable offense by AK, among many) and effusive praise from both sides, leans towards the Bulls re-signing Vucevic to a market-rate contract, perhaps a slight team discount.
Will Gottlieb at CHGO dove into what that salary number could look like this week, looking at comparable players.
But after seeing Vuc at the bottom of what he called “the best available all-in-one metric, EPM”, Gottlieb came to the wrong conclusion:
Vucevic is one of just four players to have made an All-Star team, and holds the most offensive responsibility of anyone on the list. He is likely the least replaceable center on the list given what the Bulls gave up to acquire him, his versatility relative to the other players and how he factors into the offense.
As I mentioned above, “what the Bulls gave up”, plus taking the last spot on the All Star team a couple times, is irrelevant. And as outlined in this post, Vuc’s offensive responsibility is a bug, not a feature.
Gottlieb pegs an average annual value of $18.2M and three years as “satisfactory” for the Bulls. I think, especially since we’re talking about a 33-year-old (he’s not going to get more mobile defensively), that is way too much.
And yes, if the Bulls share my opinion that very likely means Vuc is gone. He’d take more money (and probably bigger role) with a bad team, or take the non-taxpayer mid-level (~$11M) with a contender.
And that decision would come fraught with concern, because you’d then have a hole at starting center (Andre Drummond could literally die if asked to play starters minutes) and the cap doesn’t allow for any kind of one-to-one slotting to fill that hole, just the limited exceptions to try and fill center plus all the other holes up and down the team.
That makes for an even more significant challenge this offseason than expected, but I think if the team needs a shakeup, now, it can’t settle for bringing back Vuc even if the hope is that it’s a tradeable contract midseason (and that’s risky given his age anyway).
This summer, at the center position, they either need to get a lot better or a lot cheaper. This may actually be achievable with a better-fitting center, the shotblocking-and-dunks-only guys are usually affordable. They are extremely inflexible, but do have some assets, exceptions, and Vucevic himself can be used as outgoing money in a sign-and-trade.
Instead, if the Bulls keep continuity, like pretty much everything with them,they are stuck in the middle with Vuc.