The Chicago Bulls made a big splash at the end of the trade deadline by acquiring Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic is having a strong regular season campaign so far, putting up averages of 24.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG, and 3.8 APG through 44 games.
He’s shooting well from deep too, making 2.7 out of 6.5 threes a game, good for a 40.6% clip.
The Orlando Magic, who also got rid of Aaron Gordon, are clearly going into a full rebuild, got two first round picks in 2021 and 2023 plus Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr.
Considering that Porter Jr. was averaging 9.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 2 APG on an expiring contract that pays him $28.4 million this season, the Bulls certainly come out on top in production.
However, the question for the Bulls is whether or not the move was a smart one for the future.
Well, there’s a few things to take a look at.
Vucevic’s age and contract
Vucevic is 30 years old, and his contract runs out at the end of the 2022-23 season. He’ll be 32 or so when that happens.
That age shouldn’t be too huge of an issue for someone with his skillset, though, as he’ll continue to be a long-distance threat. His shooting will help keep him relevant, even if his production in the paint starts to diminish a bit.
More importantly, he’s on a diminishing contract that pays him $26 million this year, then $24 and $22 million in the last two years of his deal.
By the time he’s on the final year of the deal, he will still be a productive player and the Bulls could potentially flip his expiring contract for assets to put around Zach LaVine.
LaVine’s getting paid $19.5 million this season and next, and is only 25. Considering that he’s just had his first All-Star appearance, the Bulls look like they want to show him that they’re serious about getting him help.
Vucevic’s falling yearly salary would help the Bulls come extension time with LaVine, freeing up a couple of million a year to add to the electric guard’s new contract.
In terms of expected production and age, the deal for Vucevic doesn’t feel like an unbelievable risk. The Bulls wouldn’t have wanted to extend Porter’s insane contract further anyway, and they got a great player who can both space the floor with his shooting and eat up rebounds.
The Laurie Markannen situation
Laurie Markannen has played well with the Bulls ever since he got drafted. This season, he’s averaging 17.7 PPG and 5.9 RPG on 48% shooting and 39% from deep.
He’s had his ups and downs, especially due to injuries, but is an important player in the Bulls’ rotation and would make a good pair with Vucevic considering both have a penchant for shooting the long ball. Not having to give them up was a good thing for Chicago.
The problem, though, is that Markannen and the Bulls did not reach an agreement on a rookie extension, which means he will reach restricted free agency. Another team looking for a versatile power forward could offer him some serious cash in the offseason, and that could complicate the Bulls’ cap situation.
Chicago will go over the cap if they match whatever offer Markannen gets, plus keeping other players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. The two of them only have partial guarantees on their contracts next year, but still add up to $11 million in guaranteed salary.
The roster’s potential ceiling
Yes, it’s great that the Bulls got another All-Star. The question that needs to be asked is where it puts the team in title contention, though.
The Bulls currently have a 19-24 record are in 10th place, which puts them in contention for the play-in tournament.
The Raptors aren’t far behind in 11th with an 18-26 record, so the Bulls will have to play some great basketball to make the playoffs.
That becomes a bit of a concern when you’ve made a move that looks more like a “win-now” trade. Is making the playoffs important enough to give up the 2021 and 2023 first round picks?
Granted, the last time the Bulls made the playoffs was the 2016-17 season, where they won the first two games before losing four straight to the Celtics.
Chicago fans are demanding, and expect some modicum of success, so appealing to them likely played a factor in the decision.
However, if Zach LaVine is going to get paid again after this current deal, and Lauri Markannen commands a salary of $15-$20 million after getting an offer matched, the Bulls are suddenly looking at three players (including Vucevic) getting paid upward of $60-70 million in a couple of seasons.
As presently constructed, the roster is far away from title contention, especially with teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers looking like Conference Finalists for at least another 2-3 years.
We’ll have to see what happens over the next year or two, but the Bulls certainly got better on paper, at least.
For now, I’d count the Vucevic trade as a win for the Bulls.