Veteran Paint Protector, Former Lottery Pick Floated as Bulls’ Next Pivot

Jakob Poeltl Pascal Siakam Raptors-Pelicans

Getty Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors celebrate during a bout with the New Orleans Pelicans.

For all that has been said and written about the Chicago Bulls‘ point guard position amid Lonzo Ball‘s knee issues and Patrick Beverley’s impending free agency, the center spot presents the franchise with a quandary as well.

Make no mistake — Nikola Vucevic is a borderline All-Star in the pivot. He’s coming off something of a bounce-back campaign for Chicago, too, having averaged nearly 18 points and 11 rebounds once again while posting a career-best effective field-goal percentage of 57.3. And he played a big part in getting the club back to the playoffs in 2022.

That said, his glaring defensive deficiencies, less-than-ideal fit with stars DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine and free-agent earning potential combine to make a reunion with the Montenegrin something less than a slam dunk.

With that being the case, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley just pitched another veteran center as a potential replacement for Vucevic down low. Namely, Toronto Raptors big man and former lottery pick Jakob Poeltl.

Poeltl Could Elevate the Bulls’ Defense While Adding Key Elements Offensively

Although the Bulls’ D held up better than anyone could have expected down the stretch of the season — their defensive rating of 110.1 from Feb. 24 through the end of the year ranked second league-wide — there are shortfalls on that side of the ball. And Poeltl would knock out one of them.

“The Bulls need a paint protector in the worst kind of way, and that just so happens to be the specialty of Jakob Poeltl,” opined Buckley. “He’d land even higher on the list if it seemed likely Chicago could afford him, but the fit appears so perfect that the Bulls should at least make the effort.”

On shots within six feet of the hoop last season, opponents’ field-goal percentages dropped nearly four points when Poeltl was the closest defender. Meanwhile, he contested more shots per game (14.2) than anyone in the Association during the 2021-22 season.

So while his shot-blocking numbers have never been gaudy, he has been a clear deterrent in the paint throughout his career.

On the other end, he was a 12.5-point scorer for the Raptors and San Antonio Spurs last season, a 76.1% finisher within three feet of the hoop and, as ever, a willing/capable screener and passer. So while he lacks some of the offensive pizazz of Vucevic, his skills may be more complementary for the Bulls’ current roster.

Ultimately, Poeltl may not come cheap, either. But as a 27-year-old who can be a long-term piece for the Bulls while not taking many touches from the team’s top point producers, he may be more worthy of the financial commitment than Vucevic.

Bulls Insider Sounds Off on What a Fair-Market Deal Looks Like for Vucevic

For a recent mailbag column, NBC Sports Chicago’s KC Johnson was asked to throw out his idea of what a fair-market deal for Vucevic might be. And the numbers were significant in nature:

In a market where most teams projected to have significant salary cap space are rebuilding, can Vucevic get more than the $22 million he made last season on the open market? He and Brook Lopez are the biggest available names at center.

I think a good solution might be to do a short-term deal at slightly above his 2022-23 salary. Say, two years and $48-50 million or three years at $66-72 million. Remember: Letting Vucevic walk for nothing after what the Bulls gave up to acquire him would be a bad look. And for all the focus on Vucevic’s shortcomings, he remains a durable, double-double machine who has the skill level and IQ to fit with various personnel.

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