Bulls position analysis: Nikola Vucevic is now the center of attention

While Vucevic has insisted that returning to the Bulls is atop his priority list as he enters free agency, he also made it very clear that he will shop around. Considering the Bulls’ cap situation, they need Vucevic more than Vucevic needs them.

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Nikola Vucevic

Big man Nikola Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will hold all the cards on his future.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic is no stranger to the art of negotiation.

He made that evident whenever the topic was brought up throughout the season.

One moment, he would be discussing the importance of roster continuity; the next, he would make it clear he would test the free-agent market. One day, he would praise his fit with the Bulls; the next, he would point to the two-year, $60 million extension Pacers center Myles Turner signed in January.

But what it always came back to was that the Bulls didn’t trade Vucevic and his expiring contract at the deadline in February, so there had to be some sort of understanding that the sides were destined to reunite this summer.

When that scenario was laid out to Vucevic, he usually gave a small nod and a smirk. That’s all he was willing to divulge.

‘‘The Bulls will have priority,’’ Vucevic said when meeting with the media at the end of the season. ‘‘I would like to stay here, but that’s on the front office to decide and work with my agent on the contract part. And also I’ll talk to them about their vision and plan and things like that.’’

That’s a discussion many would like to have with executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas because the Bulls’ plan is a bit confusing.

Karnisovas has said he wants to bring Vucevic and the other core players back, but he also wants to improve the roster. That makes for a financial jigsaw puzzle.

And as far as those who want the Bulls to let Vucevic walk away to save salary-cap space, it doesn’t work that way. The Bulls still will be an over-the-cap team because of their midlevel exceptions and free-agent holds.

Unless the Bulls plan a housecleaning, which Karnisovas already has dismissed, bringing back Vucevic would be smart business for a team that has little wiggle room to escape mediocrity.

‘‘I think we obviously can’t do some of the same stuff,’’ Vucevic said when he was asked what change it would bring if he returned. ‘‘We can’t play the same way we have and try to have different results.

‘‘I’ve been here for 2½ years now. I like my time here and built good relationships with my teammates, coaches, front office, people in the organization and around the city. So a lot of positives here. But we’ll see what their plan is and what they decide to do.’’

POSITION BREAKDOWN: CENTERS

WHOM THE BULLS HAVE

Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, Marko Simonovic.

WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE

Vucevic is a free agent and has said he would test the market this summer. Drummond has a player option at $3.36 million for next season.

THE DRAFT

The Bulls have defied the lottery odds before, hitting on No. 1 in 2008 and landing Derrick Rose. They need those same lottery gods to smile down on them again. That would change the trajectory of their roster construction completely.

Victor Wembanyama — all 7-foot-5 of him — has the potential to be a generational player and a new piece to build around. Might lightning hit twice in the same place in 15 years? There’s a 1.8% chance it will.

FREE AGENCY

The top four free-agent centers this summer will be Brook Lopez, Kristaps Porzingis, Vucevic and Jakob Poeltl. Early indications are that Lopez will be staying with the Bucks and that Poeltl is looking for $20 million per season and might get it to stay with the Raptors. The Raptors gave up a mildly protected first-round pick for Poeltl, and the idea of letting him walk out the door for nothing wouldn’t sit well.

The teams that would have the cap room to sign Vucevic aren’t ready to contend, which helps the Bulls. Expect a price tag at $18 million per year. Where it gets interesting is whether that will be a three-year deal or shorter.

WILD CARD

Vucevic hears the plan, doesn’t like it and walks, going back to the Magic, his former team. Meanwhile, the Bulls are left shopping for a lesser-known name, such as Naz Reid.

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