Bulls position breakdowns: Nikola Vucevic remains central figure at center
The Bulls lacked real depth in the middle, even with the addition of veteran Tristan Thompson, but addressing that need won’t be easy. Vucevic is a movable piece, but the return for him might not match what they really need.
There’s something very comforting for Nikola Vucevic in wearing the red and white.
At least for one more season.
The Bulls’ big man made that very clear coming out of his exit interview with the front office and coaching staff, knowing that while he could be a movable piece this summer, he likely won’t be packing up the cardboard boxes anytime soon.
“They [the front office] want to have continuity, that’s for sure,’’ Vucevic said. “They want to see [how] this thing looks and what it can do. As far as moves they can make, I don’t really know that. That’s their job. But I know they want to continue to build a team that can win and can compete to the highest level, so that’s the goal.’’
A goal that also comes with a reasonable price tag as far as Vucevic is concerned.
The center’s salary actually drops from $24 million to $22 million in his walk year, making him the 46th highest-paid player before free agency starts.
Not only did executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas sound like he was all in on one more year of Vucevic, but he also didn’t rule out talking about an extension with the 31-year-old at some point before the 2022-23 season.
“He was one of our most durable players,’’ Karnisovas said. “And I think if you think about the rotations, guards going in and out, wings going in and out, I think he would have been probably the hardest guy to replace. But he stayed available and he’s been a vital part of what we run on offense and all year long just being available, he’s been great for us.’’
When asked about a possible extension, Karnisovas replied, “There’s going to be more focus right now on the draft, and once we get to it, we’re going to meet up with the group and gonna make decisions.’’
So what exactly would they be bringing back in Vucevic? A double-double machine who is a threat from three-point range, despite his worst shooting percentage from outside (31.4%) since the 2017-18 season. But also a center who struggled defensively at times, especially within the framework of being the third piece in the ‘‘Big Three’’ along with DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.
While the Rudy Gobert trade rumors are interesting, they just aren’t realistic for the Bulls financially, especially with LaVine a top priority for a max contract. Gobert, teamed with Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, would give the Bulls a potentially dominating defense, but Gobert is signed through the 2025-26 season and owed roughly about $167 million between now and then.
Deandre Ayton’s game would be a perfect fit, but the restricted free agent likely will stay with the Suns, who can match any offer.
That means unless there’s an unforeseen trade scenario out there, Vucevic will at least play out his current deal with the Bulls, and he’s comfortable with that.
“I mean almost all the great teams, they’re built over time. Nothing happens overnight,’’ Vucevic said. “I think they know that, I think that was the message of what we talked about in exit meetings.’’
WHAT THE BULLS HAVE
Vucevic, Tristan Thompson, Tony Bradley, Marko Simonovic.
WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE
Thompson is an unrestricted free agent and likely won’t be back, while Bradley has a $2 million player option he likely will exercise after a down season.
With the 18th overall pick in the draft, there are some interesting center projects who could be available. That starts with Auburn 7-1 big man Walker Kessler, who averaged 4.6 blocks per game and could be a defensive force at the rim.
The Bulls should do their due diligence and at least offer a contract to Ayton — just in case — but after that there’s a dip in talent. Mitchell Robinson is an interesting rim-runner/rim protector but often injured.
This is still a Bulls roster with a lack of physicality, especially up front. DeMarcus Cousins, anyone?