As an impending free agent, there was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Nikola Vucevic to come out and play like the two-time All-Star he once was. While the official accolade may have evaded him this season, Vucevic did the best he could to prove to the Chicago Bulls he was worth the massive investment they made in him at the 2020 trade deadline.
Achieving the seemingly impossible feat of replicating his box score stats from last season, Vucevic somehow averaged 17.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game this season — identical to his averages from the 2021-22 campaign.
That doesn’t mean Vooch retread his performance from 2021-22. however, as I believe most people would agree he played much better this time around with a better supporting cast around him. Looking more engaged on the defensive end and playing smarter on offense, Vucevic did everything in his power to propel the Bulls to wins, while at the same time boosting his value on the open market.
After a disappointing 2021-22 season, did Nikola Vucevic do enough to win back the hearts of Chicago Bulls fans?
One of the biggest critiques of Vucevic’s performance in his first full season as a Bull in 2021-22 surrounded his inability to be a consistent scoring threat from any one area of the court. He refused to consistently set up shop in the post, took less than 25% of his attempts from the mid-range, and dramatically dropped off as a three-point threat, with his percentage falling all the way from a superb 40% to an abysmal 31.4% in just one year.
He got things back on track this year, however, and was a far more consistent offensive threat for Chicago this season. Despite somehow averaging the same box score statistics, his efficiency rapidly rose relative to last season.
- 2021-22: 15.8 FGA, 47.3 FG%, 31.4 3P%, 76 FT%
- 2022-23: 14 FGA, 52 FG%, 34.9 3P%, 83.5 FT%
By selectively choosing his opportunities this season rather than forcing his offense to live up to his former All-Star billing, Vucevic was a much more dependable player this year. As a result, Vucevic posted the third-best box plus/minus of his career this season and made progress toward restoring his reputation as a dominant center in this league.
Not a perfect fit
As the third-best player on a team where all three of its best players are primarily offensively-oriented players, Vucevic is of course going to receive (at times an unfair amount of) criticism when he’s not on his game. I don’t think he’s solely to blame for this problem, but even in a season where he played fairly well, the numbers speak for themselves. Just look at his net rating — points scored minus opponents’ points, per 100 possessions — alongside Chicago’s other stars this year:
- Vucevic & LaVine: -0.6 net rating
- Vucevic & DeRozan: -1.0 net rating
- Vucevic, LaVine, & DeRozan: -0.7 net rating
This starting five just isn’t working as intended. The roster is clearly imbalanced with three pure scorers in the starting five, which is clearly evidenced by the fact that Alex Caruso had excellent 2-man net ratings with each of Vucevic (+7.6), LaVine (+7.6), and DeRozan (+6.8) off the bench.
Having a center that could dominate the boards, play great interior defense, and be a reliable threat from either three-point range or at the rim would make a massive difference for this team. Unfortunately, Vucevic just isn’t that player.
Reading my previous statement, you may think Vucevic checks off two of those boxes, so perhaps we’re closer to the solution than we think. Don’t be fooled, however, as Vucevic’s 11 rebounds per game come largely due to Chicago’s insistence to play small, often leaving him as the only player within a reasonable range of the glass after missed shot opportunities.
While Drummond led the league in rebounding percentage by an overwhelming margin, Vucevic was 16th in the league and 36th in offensive rebounding percentage. As a team, the Bulls were 22nd in rebounds and 28th in offensive rebounds, a direct correlation with Vucevic’s deficiencies on the glass.
As big as he is, you’ll rarely, if ever, see him crashing the boards for extra shot opportunities, which is why the Bulls were dead last in the league in second-chance points this season. That is just inexcusable from a player who isn’t a great defender or lights-out shooter either.
All this isn’t to say that Vucevic can’t be successful in the NBA. It just won’t happen with this team. We’ve seen players of this mold find great success to varying degrees, from Denver’s Nikola Jokic to Houston’s Alperen Sengun. I appreciate Vucevic’s improved play and everything he did for this team, but I cannot give him a glowing review knowing that his on-court play is at the root of many of the Bulls’ problems.