There’s impressing your future bosses, and then there’s what Nikola Vucevic did to the Bulls back on Feb. 5, still a member of the Orlando Magic.
The 30-year-old All-Star center overwhelmed anyone and everything Bulls coach Billy Donovan threw at him that night, finishing with 43 points, 19 rebounds, and oh by the way, hitting four three-pointers.
It obviously left an impression.
Hours before the Thursday trade deadline, the Bulls and Magic finally found common ground, as Vucevic, as well as Al-Farouq Aminu, were sent to the Bulls in a package that included former first-round pick Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks in 2021and 2023 with both being top-four protected.
The locker room clean-up didn’t end there, however, as executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas then traded center Daniel Gafford and forward Chandler Hutchison to Washington for small forward Troy Brown Jr. and stretch-five Mo Wagner. Then sent Wagner to Boston to add big man Daniel Theis.
So where did all the changing pieces leave the new regime?
Much better off than they were entering the day.
Not only do they add a true big to a lineup that was often engulfed by opposing centers, but an offensive piece that works perfectly with first-time All-Star Zach LaVine.
Vucevic works well in pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, can stretch the floor, and in doing so opens up the paint for players like LaVine and rookie Patrick Williams to attack the rim.
But there was an even bigger picture to come out of this deal.
Yes, the center has a favorable contract that actually goes down in price. He made $26 million this season, he’ll make $24 million next season, and then $22 million in the final year. What it also continues to show, however, is the culture change the Bulls are trying to establish.
Whether the Vucevic-LaVine combo can contend as big dogs in the Eastern Conference is debatable, but what’s not is the Bulls are doing what it takes to become a destination place for possible free agents, not only the next few years in this current window, but for years to come.
That’s what aggressiveness and ridding themselves of players who would get into their own heads far too often does. Players talk, and they haven’t been talking about the Bulls for quite a long time.
A player like Vucevic, who was averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and was shooting 40.6% from three-point range this season, gives the Bulls the “Big Two” they have sorely been missing.
Then factor in another versatile forward off the bench in Aminu, who was making $9.7 million this season, as well as having the player option next year at $10.1 million, and the potential of Brown, especially on the defensive end, as well as Wagner, and all of a sudden there’s a much more attractive foundation in Chicago.
WHAT THE BULLS ADDED
Nikola Vucevic, 30 – 6-11 Center — Contract: $26 million 2020-21, $24 million 2021-22, $22 million 2022-23. Key Stats: Averaging a career-best 24.5 points per game this season, and shooting a career-best 40.6% from three-point range.
Al-Farouq Aminu, 30 – 6-8 Forward — Contract: $9.7 million 2020-21, $10.1 million (player option) 2021-22. Key Stats: He’s been limited in Orlando the past two seasons (35 games), but in Portland was a nine and seven guy on most nights.
Troy Brown Jr., 21 – 6-6 Guard/Forward — Contract: On his rookie deal that paid him $3.3 million 2020-21, $5.1 million 2021-22, $7.2 million (qualifying offer) 2022-23. Key Stats: Averaged 10.4 points and 1.2 steals per game last season.
Daniel Theis, 28 – 6-8 Center/Forward — Contract: $5 million 2020-21. Key Stats: Averaging a career-high 9.5 points per game this season, and averaged 1.3 blocks per game last season.