Chicago Bulls Must Tread Lightly In Nikola Vucevic Contract Extension Talks

Chicago Bulls Must Tread Lightly In Nikola Vucevic Contract Extension Talks

Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic saw his name in trade rumors after a frustrating 2021-22 campaign. While the Bulls made the playoffs for the first time since 2017, Vucevic’s play was a roller coaster and he often found himself as a punching bag for fan criticism. The big man even made several wisecracks on Twitter referencing the Rudy Gobert trade rumors.

Vucevic was not traded for Gobert or anybody else, and now Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting “both sides want him to stay with the team beyond the last year of his contract this coming season and will have initial discussions on what that might look like when training camp begins in the fall.”

The 31-year-old is set to make $22 million in the final year of his contract in 2022-23 and is eligible for a four-year extension worth over $118 million. It would be ludicrous at this point to give Vucevic a max extension, but would it make sense to come to terms on a short-term agreement?

It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he gets a short extension at a reasonable price that’s less than what he’s making now. While Vucevic was disappointing for chunks of last season, he’s still one of the most productive centers in the NBA. He averaged 17.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, a block and a steal in 33.1 minutes per game. He shot 47.3% from the field after a disastrous start to the season in which he was missing bunnies left and right. He’s still an excellent rebounder and his playmaking ability from the center spot is important to the Bulls’ offense.

One major red flag, though, was a huge dip in 3-point shooting. After shooting 40.0% from 3-point range in 2020-21, including 38.8% with the Bulls after the trade, he made just 31.4% of his triples on 4.5 attempts per game in the 2021-22 regular season. In the five-game first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, he made 31.0% of his triples on 8.4 attempts per game as the Bucks dared him to fire away from long distance.

The 40.0% mark is a clear outlier on Vucevic’s resume, likely fueled by playing in front of no fans for most of the season, but the drop to 31.4% was stark and his shooting stayed that way in the playoffs. Will he bring that number back up next season? Or is that poor 3-point shooting here to stay? His floor-spacing ability helped make him such an attractive trade target in 2021, but if that shooting doesn’t come back, defenses won’t worry as much about him.

Thanks to his poor 3-point shooting and tiny free throw rate, Vucevic’s true shooting percentage sat at 53.3% in 2021-22, below league average. He has never been an uber-efficient player (career 53.9% true shooting), but he was several percentage points higher during his All-Star seasons. If the 2021-22 level of efficiency is here to stay or continues to decline, that’s a problem.

Then there’s the defence.

Vucevic isn’t as bad as his worst critics claim. He’s typically a smart defender who positions himself well enough and uses quick hands to get steals and deflections. His defensive rebounding helps end possessions. When the Bulls were playing elite defense early in 2021-22, Vucevic did his job admirably while Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso wreaked havoc in front of him.

However, Vucevic’s shortcomings were exploited when Ball and Caruso missed time. The big man struggles at times in pick-and-roll defense and isn’t a rim protector who can cover for others’ mistakes. The Bulls can live with Vucevic’s defense when they’re healthy, but things totally fell apart when the injuries to their top perimeter defenders hit. Chicago’s defensive rating when Vucevic, Ball and Caruso shared the court was 97.3 in 204 minutes, per NBA.comand it was 115.9 in the 1,264 minutes Vucevic played without those two guards with him.

The hope, of course, is the Bulls will be healthier in 2022-23 so they can play their preferred style of defense and not leave Vucevic exposed. Questions remain about the status of Ball’s knee and Caruso needs to prove he can handle bigger minutes while playing his gritty style without getting injured, but a healthy Chicago team is one of the better teams in the East. Probably not title contender good, but still good.

So, giving Vucevic a short extension to make him happy and perhaps add some trade value because he wouldn’t just be an expiring could be worth it, especially if the front office has concern about finding a viable replacement in the immediate future. But the Bulls must still tread lightly and not overpay with a long-term investment. Yes, Chicago gave up a ton to get him (the trade isn’t looking good in terms of overall value), but that doesn’t mean this front office should be committed to him for a long time.


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