Extending Nikola Vucevic on the table, and it might be necessary for Bulls

The veteran big man had a frustrating 2021-22 season, but considering the way the team is built, the market on centers with his skill set and his status in the locker room, the free agent-to-be might have staying power.

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Nikola Vucevic

Center Nikola Vucevic was an easy target for Bulls fans last season.

At 6-10 and possibly a few summers away from entering dad-bod territory, the ire from the fan base was understandable. Misguided in many ways, but understandable.

After all, Vucevic was considered a key leg of the tripod on which the Bulls’ core was built. And with DeMar DeRozan having an MVP-type season and Zach LaVine still good for 24 points a game, it was Vucevic’s numbers that opened eyes — and not in a good way.

Vucevic averaged 17.6 points, his fewest since the 2017-18 season with the Magic, and his 31.4% shooting from three-point range was his worst since he added the long-range shot to his arsenal six years ago.

Forget the fact that Vucevic’s touches were down from his first 28 games with the Bulls the season before and way down from his days with the Magic — almost five fewer shots per game from the 2020-21 season. Fans want production, not excuses.

Then there was his defense. Vucevic never was considered a rim protector, but when the Bulls’ defensive-focused backcourt started turning up in the training room daily, his defensive shortcomings were on full display, especially in pick-and-roll.

Vucevic admitted he was bringing his offensive miscues to the defensive side of the ball during the first half of last season, and that is never a good look.

That’s why trading Vucevic became a common hot take on social media at the start of the offseason.

News flash: Vucevic is still with the Bulls.

And not only is he still with the Bulls, but a source said 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.

Why? Because if the price is right, Vucevic remains the type of player who fits in with how the Bulls were built on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, he spaces the floor and is a willing playmaker. Defensively, the Bulls have invested in playing defense from the outside in. Because of the personnel they have under contract the next few seasons, it would be hard to pivot from that.

‘‘I do think we have the talent to match up with all the teams in the East,’’’ Vucevic said at the end of last season. ‘‘Nothing happens overnight; nothing happens in one season. It takes time. As a group, you have to go through the ups and downs of the year, the successes, the failures, whatever it is. All that gives you an opportunity to grow and get better. For us, I think that could really happen.

‘‘We believe we have the pieces needed to build a successful group. All the guys are motivated, so, yeah, I don’t see any reason for us to panic and take the group apart.’’

Especially in a market in which options will be limited.

Sure, the Bulls can look for a trade, but their draft picks are drying up after acquiring Vucevic two seasons ago and real trade assets are limited. And a look at the free-agent center class next summer shows 37-year-old Al Horford, often-injured Myles Turner and little else.

Extending Vucevic on a one-year deal with a player option for the 2024-25 season would make sense for both sides, considering how long the contracts of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso run.

But that also would be predicated on Vucevic getting back to being a 39% three-point shooter, as well as playing a bit more physically on defense.

If that doesn’t happen, expect the trade sentiment from the fans to keep building

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