Nikola Vučević’s Up-and-Down Season Has Left the Bulls in an Interesting Place

With the Chicago Bulls’ first playoff appearance in five seasons checked off the to-do list, I think we can officially call the 2021-22 season a step in the right direction. But we also know this aggressive front office isn’t going to be satisfied with a quick five-game series. The goal is to take another large step forward this offseason, and that process starts with understanding exactly where everyone on the current roster stands. 

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to review each member of the Chicago Bulls 2021-22 roster. We’ll talk about how they looked this year, what they need to improve on, and what the future might have in store for them.

Here’s a list of our previous posts in this series:

Ayo Dosunmu

Stats

Games played: 73

PPG: 17.6
AST: 3.2
REB: 11.0

FG%: 47.3
3P%: 31.4

A diminished stat line was expected this season after joining forces with two fellow All-Stars. But Nikola Vučević trended too far in the wrong direction. His 17.6 points were his fewest per game since the 2017-18 season. And his frustrating 31.4 percent clip from behind the arc was his worst since that same campaign. Overall, that inefficient 47.4 percent performance from the field was the third-worst in his career. Plus, it was the second-worst since his rookie season when he played just 15.9 minutes per game.

The most encouraging trend was Vučević continuing to rank among the NBA’s top rebounders. His 11.0 per game ranked 10th-best in the league and his 804 total boards sat 5th. Vučević also continued to add value as a playmaker, dishing the 7th-most total assists among centers (236), per NBA Stats.

What He Did Well

Despite several lackluster box scores, Vučević probably got too bad of a wrap this season. While I agree that he failed to meet expectations – and there is no question he needs to play better moving forward to justify the Bulls’ investment in him – he was still a vital part of the organization’s newfound success.

Not only did his mere presence put another All-Star caliber player on the scouting report, but he played an extremely vital role on the glass. His 11.0 rebounds per game were crucial for an undersized team that ranked just 17th in REB%. And he finished the year with the sixth-most double-digit rebounding games.

Look, I know there isn’t anything sexy about cleaning the defensive glass. But we can’t stress enough how lost the Bulls would have been without one of the better rebounders in the league on their roster. Before Lonzo Ball hit the injury report with his knee issue, the guard was the Bulls’ second-leading rebounder. And, after Patrick Williams went down with an injury, the next tallest player in the rotation was the 6-foot-6 DeMar DeRozan. The Bulls simply didn’t have enough size (outside of Vučević).

Speaking of things that aren’t sexy (no, not me), Vučević also continued to be one of the better screeners in the NBA. He averaged the 2nd-most screen assists per game behind only Deandre Ayton, per NBA Stats, and his bulky frame and smart positioning helped make life that much easier for the backcourt scoring duo of DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

I’ve also always been a fan of Vučević’s sneaky playmaking ability, which continued to be on display throughout the course of this season. When his shot wasn’t falling, he was able to help promote better ball movement in the Bulls’ offense through his ability to locate cutters and find shooters for open catch-and-shoot looks.

Vučević’s court vision has long been an underrated part of his game, but I have to imagine it’s part of the reason the front office went out and traded for the two-time All-Star last season.

Simply put, the Bulls don’t win their most games since the 2014-15 season without the big man as part of the equation. Particularly when we also consider he was one of the few to be so readily available:

Best Moment(s)

Vučević had some truly underrated moments against the Milwaukee Bucks this season.

Also, for as much as he struggled behind the arc, the dude deserves props for of his clutch shot-making:

Vintage Vooch:

Where He Can Improve

If we’re being honest with each other, then we can acknowledge that Vučević’s problems this season were so glaring that this section could stay relatively short.

The big man who vaulted himself up the league ranks due to his versatile offensive skills played like a shell of himself for much of the season. Vučević’s 52.0 effective field goal percentage ranked in just the NBA’s 22nd percentile this season. That represents his least efficient shooting display since the 2017-18 season (the year before he officially took the All-Star leap).

The most noticeable blemish in Vučević’s ugly stat line was easily his stroke behind the arc. Vučević shot just 31.4 percent from downtown while chucking up the team’s 3rd-most shot from long range. This performance came one season after he shot 40.0 percent from the 3-point line on a career-high 6.3 attempts per contest. The big man looked like one of the best big jump shooters in the league, which is a major reason why his price sat as high as it did when the Bulls traded for him.

Considering the lack of high-volume 3-point shooters on this roster, Vučević’s pick-and-pop game was going to be critical to establishing a balanced half-court offense. However, he continued to fall in and out of rhythm. And it came as no surprise that we saw much of the team-wide offense go with it.

Keeping Vučević as a core piece moving forward is still a more than justifiable decision (after all, we’re talking about a two-time All-Star), but the Bulls will be forced to reconsider things if he can’t re-locate his once-reliable and elite scoring.

For more on that, check out the post below:

To be clear, I’m not ignoring Vučević’s defensive shortcomings. I fully recognize he lacks the kind of rim protection that a team with two other sub-par All-Star defenders might need.

However, this was the expectation when the big man entered the fold. Aside from his defensive rebounding capabilities, Vučević’s lack of verticality and natural athleticism has always hindered him on this end of the floor. And we saw how the Bulls planned to plug those holes with the perimeter prowess of Ball and Alex Caruso (a developing Patrick Williams could also surely help make Vučević’s life that much easier). So, yes, Vučević needs to improve on the defensive end. That much is clear. But he’s likely always going to need help at times on this side of the ball.

What’s His Bulls Future?

Considering Vučević struggled to contribute in the way many anticipated this season, he currently has one of the hardest futures to predict on this roster.

The big man currently has only one season left on his contract worth $22.0 million, which is actually $2 million less than the amount he made this year. Not only does that mean he’s on an expiring contract that could be even easier to trade, but it also means that he’s up for a contract extension. Artūras Karnišovas was asked about whether or not he would speak with Vučević’s camp about a new deal this summer, and his response was expectingly diplomatic:

“We’re going to spend time as a group … there is 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 have a discussion.”

I have zero clue what to expect when it comes to a new Vučević contract. While the goal should never be to let a player walk for nothing in unrestricted free agency, I do feel like the front office needs more time to decide whether a future with the big man is the best path forward.

The other option, of course, would be to look for possible trades either this summer or at the deadline. The problem with going this direction, though, is that Vučević is still one of the better big men in the Eastern Conference. Despite his shortcomings, there might not be very many ways to improve at the position via trade. Unless Vučević was part of a bigger deal for a rising or establishing star (perhaps someone such as Deandre Ayton?), it feels a bit silly to send him elsewhere.

So … yeah. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see which path the Bulls choose. My guess is they try to offer him a low-ball extension this summer (that he’ll likely decline) before Vučević walks into a prove-it-again season.

written by

Elias Schuster is the Lead Chicago Bulls writer at Bleacher Nation. He started with BN full-time in 2019 immediately after graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign with a degree in Journalism (yes, he started with the Jim Boylen Era). Since joining, Elias has been the driving force behind Bulls and NBA content for both the site and social accounts. You can follow him on Twitter/X @Schuster_Elias.

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