Bulls insider offers surprising take on Nikola Vucevic trade rumors

Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

When you take into consideration the impending free agency of Zach LaVine, the multitude of potential trade avenues worth exploring, and the decisions to be made regarding the No. 18 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, this offseason looks to be a particularly turbulent time for your Chicago Bulls. Perhaps most uncertain of all, however, is what lies in store for Chicago’s incumbent starting big man and two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic.

At face value, Vucevic’s 2021-22 season may actually look to have been a success. After all, he was a double-double machine this year, averaging 17.6 points and 11 rebounds per game. Vucevic was also one of very few consistent sources of production for the Bulls, as he played the second-most minutes of anyone on the roster and joins DeMar DeRozan and Ayo Dosunmu as the only players who managed to suit up for at least 85% of all Bulls games this season.

That being said, Vucevic’s raw counting stats look considerably less impressive when you also factor in a steep decline in his efficiency all around the court. His scoring numbers dipped to the lowest they’ve been since 2018, while his 3-point shooting and free throw percentages also nosedived to the lowest mark we’ve witnessed from him in the last five seasons.

Whether this precipitous drop was caused by Billy Donovan’s coaching schemes, an awkward season battered by injuries and illness, or just plain old age — he’ll be 32 years old before next season tips off — remains to be seen. One thing’s for certain, however, and that’s the simple fact that Vucevic’s performance this year has raised much concern from the fanbase regarding his long-term fit with this team.

One apprehensive fan raised the question with Chicago Bulls beat reporter K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports in his most recent mailbag. User RoadDawg asked, “Is Nikola Vucevic a championship-caliber center in today’s NBA? Or should the Bulls look to shop him in the offseason?”

Looking at his body of work to date, this is more than a fair question to ask. While Vucevic has enjoyed a great deal of success during his tenure in the NBA, none of it has come while playing meaningful basketball for a team with big postseason aspirations.

In Chicago, Vucevic has been asked to be a dependable third option for a great team despite the fact he had gotten quite used to being the first option for a terrible team with the Magic. If he’s going to carve out his role with this team, it appears he’ll have to take a Kevin Love-esque approach and adapt if he wants to join the championship chase.

The Bulls are unlikely to entertain any Nikola Vucevic trades this offseason.

K.C. Johnson elaborated on this sentiment with his response to the big man’s long-term status with the team.

"I found it telling how strongly Karnisovas supported Vucevic in his end-of-season session with reporters.“He was one of our most durable players. And I think if you think about the rotations, guards going in and out, wings going in and out, I think he would have been probably the hardest guy to replace,” Karnisovas said. “But he stayed available, and he’s been a vital part of what we run on offense.”Now, Karnisovas did avoid a question on Vucevic’s status as an extension-eligible player. But Karnisovas paid a significant price to acquire Vucevic. I’d be surprised if he traded him after just one season and change."

This is quite the poignant stance from someone who has proven to have a fair bit of insight into the mind of Karnisovas and the general sense of direction he’d like to take this Bulls team. It’s highly unlikely that Johnson would take such a firm stance here if he did not have good evidence to support his claims.

Taking a further look into things, it’s not difficult to see how he’s come to this conclusion. As Vucevic enters the final year of his contract, the Bulls are in a great position to let him play things out and see if he can bounce back from a lackluster 2021-22 campaign. Even if he doesn’t return to form, $22 million is hardly an overwhelming burden for a legitimate starting-caliber center.

The Bulls are in a fortunate position where they can comfortably allow Vucevic the opportunity to play better without being contractually tied down for him for years to come. If he performs poorly next season, Karnisovas can just cut ties and let him walk. But if he plays well, the Bulls immediately become a force to compete with. That’s a risk this front office seems more than willing to take.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there aren’t many better options on the market than Vucevic.  As far as free agents go, Deandre Ayton is the crown jewel at the center position, but it’s highly unlikely the Phoenix Suns do not match an offer in restricted free agency for their prized big man. Jusuf Nurkic could be on the table, but that would be a lateral move at best, and then the pickings are increasingly slim beyond that.

Chicago certainly won’t be getting a haul similar to the package Orlando received for Vucevic, so it seems the best plan of action is to just ride things out and hope another year with the Bulls allows Vucevic to carve out his role and establish an interior presence as more than just a spot-up shooter.

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