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Sports Saturday

Bulls position breakdown: Nikola Vucevic remains center of attention

After years of trying to find some consistency in the middle since the days of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, the Bulls found it with Vucevic. Now it’s about adding depth to the position.

Center hasn’t been an easy position to fill since the old Bulls front office pushed out Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol years ago.

This past season alone, the list of candidates were many. Wendell Carter Jr. — undersized for the spot — earned the starting nod, but his injuries and inconsistency led to Daniel Gafford, Lauri Markkanen, Thad Young and Luke Kornet getting auditions.

The position was unstable enough that Arturas Karnisovas, in his first year as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, said enough and began shopping for a big-time talent at that spot.

And big-time talent has big-time cost.

The Bulls felt it when they left Tuesday night’s draft lottery without a first-round pick — the result of a deal with the Magic at the March25 trade deadline in which they got center Nikola Vucevic for a package that included a protected first-round 2021 draft pick and another one in 2023. Had they received the No. 4 pick or better in the draft lottery, they would have kept that selection. Instead they got No. 8 and handed it to the Magic.

Vucevic thinks he was still worth it.

“I’ve said it before — this trade wasn’t just made for this year,” he said last month. “So I think it’s too early to judge it, so we’ll see. Next year will obviously show more, and then the year after that. Obviously, we don’t have five years to figure it out, but it also can’t be judged in two months, so it’s on us now to go into next year and play better, get to where we want to get.”

There are indeed places Vucevic wants to get to. The 6-11double-double machine got a taste of postseason play a few times with the Magic, but now it’s about ending the Bulls’ four-year playoff drought.

He feels confident he and guard Zach LaVine will be capable of doing that once they have an offseason and some serious practice time together.

On paper, it’s a winning formula: LaVine’s playmaking and scoring ability combined with Vucevic’s ability to pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll. Vucevic also is an uncanny passer for his size.

The 26 games Vucevic played in a Bulls uniform this spring just weren’t enough, especially when LaVine spent weeks in the league’s COVID-19 protocols during the last month of the season. But it has to click next season, and Vucevic thinks it will.

“[LaVine is] really about winning,” he said. “That’s something that was very important for me to see when I got here. And I saw it from Day 1. That’s something you want to have from one of your best players. . . . He and I are both motivated to help this franchise win. So that’s the first step you need.”

THE MEN IN THE MIDDLE WHOM THE BULLS HAVE

Nikola Vucevic and Cristiano Felicio.

WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE

Felicio finally comes off the books after former general manager Gar Forman gave him an ugly four-year, $32 million contract in 2017.

THE DRAFT

Without a first-round pick in next month’s draft, the Bulls would have to get lucky in finding a rotation-type center in the second round with the 38th overall pick. Those centers do exist. The Bulls could kick the tires on North Carolina’s Day’Ron Sharpe or go the Euro route and gamble on Filip Petrusev (Serbia) or Ariel Hukporti (Lithuania).

FREE AGENCY

Expect the Bulls to throw resources at Daniel Theis to return as a power forward/center, but if he walks, there’s a long list of big men who could come in, get backup minutes and play at a solid level. It’s a great summer for mediocre-center shopping.

WILD CARD

The Bulls need physicality and some serious attitude. Soon-to-be free agent DeMarcus Cousins (Clippers) has had many injuries . . . but why not?