Playoff expectations followed by a 6-10 start to the season inevitably mean the warming up of some seats in the clubhouse, and in a sports city as intense as Chicago, the heat is dialed up an extra notch. Injuries usually are a crucial factor, along with personnel changes to justify slow starts, but in the Bulls’ case, neither one is tampering with any playoff aspirations. This team featured a top-five MVP candidate a year ago and is only missing point guard Lonzo Ball in the injury department. This shifts the focus in-house, and most call for Nikola Vucevic to come to the stand.
New Kid On The Block
The Serbian big man came to Chicago via a blockbuster trade at the 2020-21 trade deadline. The deal featured Nikola Vucevic recently having earned a second all-star nod heading to the Bulls at the steep cost of a 21-year-old Wendell Carter Jr., two future first-round picks, and a veteran swap at the tail end of the agreement. Vucevic had just played against the Bulls in February, carving them up for 43 points and 19 rebounds to lead the Magic to a four-point victory. He immediately impacted Chicago, scoring over 20 points and grabbing nine or more rebounds in seven of his first eight contests for a Bulls team that sorely needed an established center.
Having rising star Zach Lavine one short season away from a free agency decision that would alter the entire franchise for years to follow, newly hired front office leader Arturas Karnisovas decided both to make his presence felt in the Windy City and provide Lavine a 6’10” fellow all-star with hopes of molding the two into the next dominant Chicago Bulls duo for years to come.
Playoff Performance Silences Doubters
Questions began to rise when Nikola Vucevic’s first entire season as a Bull resulted in fewer points, rebounds, blocks, and assists per game than his final Orlando campaign. The new Chicago center averaged a lower field goal percentage and a shattering nine percent lower three-point percentage than his prime Magic days and was not selected to the all-star game that he’d been to twice in the last three seasons. Concerns were rising that Vucevic would not push the Bulls to serious contention, and then the playoffs arrived.
Losing to the reigning NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks in five games was hard for Bulls fans to be upset with, but accountability still needed to be assigned. Vucevic was able to evade most of that finger-pointing thanks to a respectable 19.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per contest. All of which were elevated from his regular season averages. This was the version of the former USC Trojan that the Bulls nation had in mind when trading for him just a year prior. Chicago fans were headed into the 2022-23′ season dreaming up a roster with a bouncy rising star in Zach Lavine, a fresh MVP candidate in Demar Derozan, and this newly reformed Nikola Vucevic playing his best ball since being acquired.
Drummond Pressing for Vucevic’s Job
Andre Drummond has acquired this off-season after it was made painfully evident that the Bulls lack depth in size and strength. While being exciting to watch, new-age “small-ball” lineups can only coast in the regular season and are abruptly stonewalled by teams such as the Bucks or Celtics in the playoffs, where Chicago fans quickly realized that the likes of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson are not nearly enough resistance for those championship level teams. Drummond, known for his rebounding and defensive abilities, is the proper type of grit and grind that this team, especially the bench unit, has needed for years.
The 29-year-old journeyman leads the team in offensive rebounds at 3.1 per game, including a stretch this season of three games where he had over 12 rebounds off the bench. He’s been pushing for Vucevic’s job sometimes, and if he could consistently knock down the three-ball, it would be a no-brainer. Shooting a staggering 8% better from inside the arc and only three fewer rebounds per game, despite only playing a mere half of the minutes in each contest, proves he could quickly fill the void and provide muscle and heart to a starting lineup that desperately needs it right now.
Head coach Billy Donovan sent a statement heard ’round the country with the recent benching of his fan-favorite star Zach Lavine, and a similar message is for Vucevic. This one will be a stricter maneuver; Karnisovas is undoubtedly in his ear, reminding him how much of a haul we gave up for the two-time all-star center and how expensive a bench piece he would become. Paying him over seven times more than his counterpart Drummond is realistically the only thing standing between Vucevic and a one-way ticket to the bench. Donovan agrees, eluding to future rotational changes, “I think with some of these guys, you’ve got to try different units and see what it looks like.”
What’s There To Lose?
The Chicago Bulls are now a measly 59-57 with Nikola Vucevic on the roster, translating to a seven or eight-seed for win-percentage in any given season. That is far beneath the expectation when trading for a multi-time all-star and having three all-stars on the team for the majority of that tenure. The starting rotation, in particular, has been historically bad, as a unit being -222 in point differential and being saved by the +205 point differential of the newly reinforced bench crew. If it weren’t for the reserves’ performances thus far, we’d be staring down the barrel of a much worse record and team morale. Vucevic alone is -23 on the floor, while Drummond stands at +15 on the flipside. Given the alarmingly slow start to the year, the consistently underwhelming performance of Nikola Vucevic, and the electric resurgence of Andre Drummond, Billy Donovan needs to pull that trigger and spark some newfound passion both on the court and in the stands!