When the Chicago Bulls acquired two-time All-Star Nikola Vučević midway through the 2020-21 season, they saw him as a cornerstone of yet another franchise remodeling during yet another playoff drought. They swapped Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks for the steady production of Vučević, who joined Chicago amid the highest-scoring season of his career1 after nine seasons with the Orlando Magic.
“He can score, he can score down low or from the three, he’s a facilitator,” Bulls executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas said of Vučević. “He’s going to make everybody’s life easier.”
Less than a calendar year later, Chicago has rejoined the Eastern Conference elite as the Bulls brass had hoped. But it’s been the other team transplants — DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso — who have exceeded expectations, complementing All-Star Zach LaVine’s continued ascension. With the team beset by injuries, including significant setbacks for Ball and Caruso, the Bulls need Vučević more than ever. Can he help keep the Bulls afloat by turning around his middle-of-the-road season?
Vučević is currently on pace for his lowest scoring average since 2017-18 (16.6) and worst field-goal percentage as a pro (43.9 percent). After shooting a career-best 40 percent from deep last season, Vučević has seen his long-range accuracy regress to 33.3 percent, also on pace for his lowest mark since 2017-18.
Key to his 3-point shooting woes has been an inconsistency with knocking down open shots. In 2020-21, Vučević shot 41.2 percent on threes with the closest defender standing at least 6 feet away. This season, his efficiency has fallen to 34.6 percent on wide-open 3-pointers on just under four attempts per game.
“It’s tough when you want to go out there, play well and help the team win. You want to do your job,” Vučević said after a Dec. 11 loss to Miami in which he had just 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting. “It’s obviously frustrating. I obviously have a lot of pride in myself, and I put [in] all the work and everything. It’s not working for me right now, but, you know, it’s part of it. You know, obviously, I’ve never been through a slump like this, and I just have to work myself out of it. There’s no other way.”
The Bulls bounced back from that South Beach loss with a season-best nine-game win streak, during which Vučević averaged 17.6 points and 14.4 rebounds while making nearly two 3-pointers per game. His true shooting percentage was 55 percent during the streak, compared to a 46.9-percent mark over his first 20 outings. But in the 11 games since, during which Chicago has gone 4-7, Vučević has been up and down: He followed a 27-point game on Jan. 15 with a 7-point effort two nights later, and he recently bounced back from a 13-point, 4-of-19 shooting performance on Jan. 23 with back-to-back efficient nights, including a 17-point, 15-rebound, eight-assist gem against Toronto on Wednesday before recording 26 points and four threes in a 1-point win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday.
Even during his shooting slumps, Vučević has stayed a net positive because of his passing abilities. In the past five seasons, he ranks fourth among centers in potential assists per game (6.8) and 20th across the league in total passes (16,176). The Bulls are shooting 41.7 percent on jumpers off his passes this season, ranking Vučević eighth among 47 qualified centers.2
He has also anchored a small-ball lineup that materialized after second-year player and former lottery pick Patrick Williams tore ligaments in his wrist in October. Chicago is outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in the 95 minutes that Vučević has shared the court with DeRozan, LaVine, Ball and Caruso. That figure outpaces the net rating of any five-man unit used by Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Miami or Philadelphia that has played at least as many minutes.
Because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols, that reshaped Chicago core hasn’t played together since Dec. 4. But even once that group is reunited, whenever that may be, the Bulls are likely to struggle due to a lack of size. Vučević and Tony Bradley are the only two true big men in the rotation; rookie center Marko Simonović is the only other Bulls player listed at 6-foot-10 or taller.
Chicago currently ranks 17th in defensive efficiency after finishing 12th last season. The team ranks just 20th in rebound rate, per NBA Advanced Stats, and has struggled to consistently protect the rim. Opponents are averaging 48.4 points in the paint per 100 possessions against the Bulls (22nd in the league); in the playoffs, the Bulls can’t afford to allow such easy looks against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and Joel Embiid’s 76ers.
Limiting either star big, or even Kevin Durant, is certainly easier said than done over the course of a playoff series, but it is also necessary to advance out of the Eastern Conference. As Chicago’s only viable interior threat, Vučević will be the team’s primary hope to keep those stars in check, but he is allowing opponents to shoot 66.1 percent on buckets within the restricted area, ranking him 53rd among 87 qualified defenders this season. And though Vučević is on pace for a career-high in blocks per game (1.2), Chicago’s defensive rating is roughly the same with him off the court (108.6) as it is with him on (108.7), per NBA Advanced Stats.
Vučević recognizes the importance of dialing in on defense to better support the Bulls’ seventh-ranked offense, which is on pace to be the team’s highest finish since the 2011-12 season (fifth).
“[Our] defense is just not consistent enough, but throughout games we have stretches where we’re really good and we’re able to make our runs, and we have stretches where we’re not focused enough,” he said after the Dallas Mavericks snapped Chicago’s win streak on Jan. 9. “We’ve shown that we could do it. I think it’s just being more consistent, and if you wanna be the team that we want to be and that I think we can be, it just has to be for 48 minutes.”
Even with so many key pieces sidelined, Chicago is well-positioned to snap a four-year playoff drought. But the Bulls want more than just a taste of the postseason. They need Vučević to hold it down on defense while returning to his All-Star form on offense to grab a top seed and make a deep playoff run.
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