What if the Chicago Bulls never traded for Nikola Vucevic?

Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Although the new front office duo of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley has felt like a breath of fresh air after the terrible tenure of GarPax, their track record isn’t completely spotless so far. Among their very few blunders, the Nikola Vucevic trade stands above the rest when it comes to decisions that may have backfired for the Chicago Bulls.

By coughing up Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round draft picks, the Bulls thought they’d be acquiring an All-Star big man to pair alongside Zach LaVine. Instead, Vucevic has disappointed thus far and Chicago has capitulated any hopes of building a great young core through the draft.

This all begs the question, what if the Chicago Bulls never traded for Nikola Vucevic in the first place? Obviously, there were worries about the team’s ability to retain LaVine on a contract extension if the Bulls didn’t demonstrate serious playoff potential, but the team also forfeited much of their future flexibility in the process.

For that reason, I think it’s worth diving into this rabbit hole and imagining how things could have turned out if Vucevic had never come to the Windy City.

How differently would things have panned out for the Chicago Bulls if they never traded for Nikola Vucevic?

Much of the not-so-pessimistic discussion surrounding the Vucevic trade has mentioned that without him, DeMar DeRozan would never have come to play for the Bulls. While Vucevic’s pre-existing relationship with DeRozan sure made things smoother, I highly doubt that DeMar would have entertained going anywhere else when the only other offer on the table was a pathetic MLE from the Lakers.

The same applies to LaVine, who I think would have in the end prioritized signing an extension with Chicago for the largest amount of money possible, provided the Bulls were able to put out at least a semi-competent product on the floor around him. For that reason, we’ll be continuing with the assumption that both LaVine and DeRozan would have signed with the Bulls, even if negotiations would have been slightly more difficult.

The interesting thing here is that although Vucevic was acquired in an attempt to win now, the Bulls actually attained a better record without him than with him in 2021. Chicago was 19-24 (36-win pace over a full 82-game season) on the day they traded for Vucevic and would go on to achieve a record of 11-15 (34-win pace) with him in the lineup instead of Carter Jr.

Who would the Bulls have drafted?

If we assume the Bulls would have maintained their pace before the Vucevic trade, they would have slid a few spots in the draft due to actually winning a few more games. However, the bubble-shortened season meant the Bulls would still have been on pace to finish with the 31-41 record that allotted them the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Franz Wagner — who the Magic actually drafted — and Moses Moody were the two players most commonly mocked to be selected in the 8th position, each of whom would have been fine picks, Wagner especially. Even if the Bulls reached for someone else in that range, Chris Duarte, Alperen Sengun, and Ziare Williams have all shown a lot of promise. That means the Bulls could have drafted Wagner (or one of these other players) and Dosunmu to form an extremely promising young core next to Patrick Williams, and Coby White.

Who could Chicago sign in free agency?

With Vucevic no longer on the payroll, his $26 million wouldn’t weigh down Chicago’s financial flexibility. Instead, it would be replaced by Wagner’s $5 million cap hit, effectively opening up over $20 million in cap space to use on free agents.

Chicago gutted their core roster in this offseason, keeping only LaVine, Williams, White, JaVonte Greene, and Troy Brown Jr. around. Given that the Bulls pushed up just right against the salary cap threshold before using the MLE in 2021, that means Chicago could have freely used that $20 million to sign free agents.

Instead of blowing it all on one good free agent, I’d expect the Bulls to spread the wealth and sign a replacement center for Vucevic like Richaun Holmes ($11.6 million annually), Nerlens Noel ($9.2 million), or JaVale McGee ($5 million). Plenty would be left for good role players such as Josh Hart, P.J. Tucker, Andre Drummond, and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball and DeRozan were acquired using the outgoing salaries of several old vets, meaning the Bulls could have still traded for Lonzo and DeRozan while reserving the MLE to use on Alex Caruso.

What would it have changed?

All of this would have allowed the Chicago Bulls to be a more well-rounded team that was capable of surviving the injuries that plagued this team all year long. Having a deeper bench instead of watching all that money be tied up on one underperforming player could have elevated this team from a temporary top seed in the East to a more permanent seat. This is just one of many possibilities the Bulls could have run out in 2021-22 if the Vucevic trade never happened.

  • PG: Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu
  • SG: Zach LaVine, Coby White, Troy Brown Jr.
  • SF: DeMar DeRozan, Josh Hart, Javonte Green
  • PF: Patrick Williams, Franz Wagner, Derrick Jones Jr.
  • C: JaVale McGee, Jarred Vanderbilt, Marko Simonovic

Whether or not you believe that roster would still have what it takes to go deep in the postseason, it’s hard to argue a team like that would have no trouble surviving the 82-game gauntlet to get there in the first place. Also, it’s worth noting that the Bulls would still retain their 2023 first-round pick as well as Portland’s future first-round pick as well.

With star talent and all of their draft capital intact, this would have helped form a team that was built to win now, later, and for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to be too made over where the Chicago Bulls are now, but it still hurts to think about what could have been, if not for Vucevic.

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