Polarizing Star Has Unique Ability to Make or Break Season

Chicago Bulls

Getty Head coach Billy Donovan of the Chicago Bulls talks with his players during a time out.

The Chicago Bulls have been happy with starting center Nikola Vucevic. With a 52-47 mark when he plays, Vucevic has done well for the organization on and off of the floor helping to re-establish credibility to a once-wayward franchise.

But the court of public opinion is very different and fans have had to juxtapose any benefits of having Vucevic with the limitations that come along with that.

They set out to find a complement for Vucevic, as general manager Marc Eversley said.

And their early whispers of a potential contract extension have stirred up fans on both sides – those that want to keep Vucevic around and those that can’t wait to see him on any other team than their own. The correct answer likely has more to do with which version of the two-time All-Star they can expect this coming season.

Vucevic’s Big Chance

The Bulls’ talks with Vucevic on an extension will move at their own pace irrespective of outside opinions. Acquiring Vucevic helped Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas show that he was serious about remaking the Bulls into what he sees as a contender.

Players entering contract years have a little extra built-in motivation.

As Darnell Mayberry explained for The Athletic, this presents Vucevic with a fairly significant opportunity to earn another lucrative contract.

“Vučević remains the Bulls’ third-best player and, at his best, a matchup problem for opponents thanks to his versatility. Chicago needs him to be that consistently. When he isn’t, the Bulls’ ceiling is considerably lower. But if Vučević performs up to his ability…no player can change the Bulls’ fortunes as he can.”

There remains a big divide over whether or not the Bulls’ trade for Vucevic was worth it in the end. ESPN’s Tim Bontemps called the move a “disaster”. But the Bulls’ front office surely appreciates his recruiting efforts if nothing else.

But Vucevic has also drawn praise from Karnisovas and head coach Billy Donovan for his efforts since he arrived and, specifically last season, his durability.

Vucevic’s Place in Bulls’ Hierarchy

With so much talk of Lonzo Ball’s continued absence into the regular season, it can be easy to forget that the Bulls went most of the season without him. Their record was not great but there were other factors aside from Ball that played a part too.

We cannot effectively judge whether or not the Bulls are better off without Vucevic because he has missed just 12 games out of the 111 possible since being acquired.

For what it is worth, they have gone 6-6 in those games.

Vucevic was also one of just six players to average at least 17 points and 11 rebounds last year. And the Bulls went 18-7 in games where the 11-year veteran scored at least 20 points last season and 26-15 in those games since his arrival.

And, perhaps to the surprise of many, his defensive efficiency differential ranked in the 53rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

That was better than both DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine last season.

Vucevic Knows He Must be Better

For all of his warts, Vucevic is indeed still a key cog in what the Bulls want to do. His ability to stretch the floor is key for a mid-range maestro such as DeRozan. And his playmaking makes him a perfect feeder for LaVine’s drives to the cup.

As Mayberry points out, Vucevic admitted to not feeling comfortable last season as he went from the top option in Orlando to a secondary option in 2021 and then a tertiary option in 2022.

Both he and the Bulls need a bounce-back season from him.

He shot just 31.4% on threes last season. That was a down year, sure, but expecting him to recreate his 40% rate from 2021 also seems unrealistic. Since he started taking more than one three per game, Vucevic is a 35% shooter on triples.

Is that 40%? No. But it is far better than what he gave them last season and could indeed go the furthest towards changing the Bulls’ fortunes for the better.

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