When the Chicago Bulls traded for the Swiss big man Nikola Vucevic, the deal seemed like a floor-raising move that prioritized the wrong things for Chicago. The Bulls missed the playoffs that season but it was hard to judge the Vooch trade since Zach LaVine missed so much time down the stretch.
Instead of playing it slow and building through the draft and around LaVine, freshly-minted executive vice president of basketball operations (I can’t wait for these job titles to go back to normal) Arturas Karnisovas pushed his trade chips in for Vucevic.
If the play was to find the best possible talent with what they were willing to trade, maybe Vooch was the best player out there, but his basketball fit is puzzling when looking at the highest forms of the NBA right now. The Conference Finals and Finals put a premium on versatile defenders, especially from the big man spots.
Vucevic’s inability to defend the rim at a high level has put a cap on every team he has played for. Teams can put the big man in any action when the playoffs roll around and force him to either defend in space or score over him in the paint.
While some announced the death of the traditional big man when the Golden State Warriors strung together championships with their small ball lineup, there’s still a role for the ground-bound big, they just have to bring something on the defensive end.
Are Nikola Vucevic’s defensive struggles too big and does his inability to defend at a high level put a cap on the Chicago Bulls?
This season, when Vucevic is on the court, the Chicago Bulls are 8.1 points worse on the defensive end according to Cleaning the Glass, a figure that puts him in the 15th percentile among all bigs in the league.
Vooch is also the single worst player in terms of opponent’s effective field goal percentage (eFG) as opponents see a 10.7 percent increase in their eFG when he’s out there using the same Cleaning the Glass metrics. Those numbers will likely regress a bit back to Earth as the season progresses, but Vucevic has been in the bottom half of all big men every season of his career except one in 2018-19.
If Chicago isn’t reaping the defensive benefits of playing a traditional center on defense and if his offense isn’t at an elite level, is it evn worth running him out there?
A team who has had to deal with a similar issue is the Denver Nuggets with Nikola Jokic. The Serbian big man faded in and out of being incompetent and uninterested on the defensive side of the ball and it was killing the Nuggets.
These defensive lapses were more excusable as Jokic grew into an MVP-level talent on offense, powering his team practically all by himself. Right before his first MVP season, Jokic started to care more about defense, going from a turnstile to a league-average paint protector who puts in supreme effort on that end.
When looking at Jokic’s defensive growth for Nugg Love a year ago, the best part about it was his effort. Instead of hoping defensive-minded fours like Paul Millsap or Aaron Gordon will make up for him on that end, Jokic just ran harder and faster.
Michael Malone doesn’t try and hide him anymore, he asked Jokic to get up to the level of the screen, contain the ball handler, recover back to the paint, and stay vertical. There are still times when he’s not fast enough on that end, like in Denver’s first-round loss to the Warriors, but it gave Malone the confidence to throw several different defensive looks out there.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that likes to work in the pick-and-roll, Brandon Ingram uses a screen to get around his man and Vucevic dropping either invites the offense to shoot a mid-range pull-up or in this case, help from Ayo Dosumnu and a drive:
Ayo is able to contest the shot, albeit while fouling, but the Bulls’ big man is a non-factor in the drive, consumed with a potential Jonas Valencuinas dump-off. All too often, Vooch looks lost in no-man land, obviously worried about his own man but not fully committing to help.
In the below clip, Gary Trent Jr. finds a glimmer of daylight and cuts after losing his man but Vucevic is once again a non-factor here:
On this play in the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors, Vooch does get up to the level of the ball handler but gets lost on the recovery before running away from the rim in a miscommunication with Javonte Green.
Now compare that to some of Jokic’s contests where he’s often stepping out beyond the 3-point line to help the ball handler’s man:
In the above play, Jaylen Brown finishes a tough pull-up but it’s hardly conceded, Jokic is right near him the entire way after the screen and was in a great position to meet him at the rim.
At the start of the next play, the Big Honey is above the 3-point line with Aaron Gordon as the two try and contain Jayson Tatum. Jokic recovers and is waiting at the free throw line to pressure a Marcus Smart drive or get to an Al Horford shot if it’s there.
There’s also an element of personnel here as the Nuggets have plenty of switchy defenders around Jokic in AG, Bruce Brown, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. If Vucevic is caught in a compromising defensive position, his supporting cast consists of DeMar DeRozan, Pat Williams, Green, or Derrick Jones Jr. there, a far less capable defensive unit as a whole.
Would the Chicago Bulls want to invest a lot of their roster-building assets into creating a better defensive ecosystem for Vucevic? Denver is content giving up what they can to put defenders around Jokic because he’s their engine on offense, the Bulls should be more worried about catering to DeMar and Zach.
Right after the trade for Vooch, I looked at the best and worst-case scenarios for Sir Charles In Charge. I was more interested in the asset play, giving up Wendell Carter Jr. and the pick that became Franz Wagner for an aging offense-first big man, but with the issues I’ve mentioned in this piece, it’d be easier to address them if Chicago still had a lot of their premium assets.
Hindsight is 20-20 and at the deadline, the Chicago Bulls didn’t know that LaVine wasn’t going to be on the court for the home stretch, but Vucevic’s flaws with the Orlando Magic still exist.
My best-case scenario for the Bulls after the trade had LaVine excelling on offense next to a true floor spacer, something that the addition of DeRozan definitely helped as well, but it still resulted in a first-round exit.
When Chicago gets to the playoffs this season and teams start focusing more on individual matchups, will Billy Donovan trust Vucevic as much as he does now? It won’t be a regular season flurry of drives, it’ll be the league’s elite getting to the paint at will.
As it stands, the Chicago Bulls won’t make serious noise in the playoffs with the defensive hole of Vucevic in the way. If this is the case, the front office should consider moving on from Vucevic and building around the true offensive engine of this roster, not its third option.