R-E-L-A-X. Aaron Rodgers famously said this after the Packers 1-2 start in the 2014 season but now it has a newfound purpose calming down Chicago Bulls fans about the Nikola Vucevic “problem.”
I agree that Nikola Vucevic is not having a great start to the season. It’s also likely that if he was playing up to his potential, the Bulls could very well still be undefeated. However, in spite of all this, the discourse about cutting his minutes and even exploring trade options is all too premature for a Bulls team that is still 6-3 and clearly still finding their groove on offense.
These last two games against Joel Embiid and the 76ers have really caused fans some angst regarding Vucevic since the level of his play likely controls the ceiling of this team, especially given how lethal Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have looked to start the year.
Over the last two games, Nikola Vucevic has scored 15 points on 7/23 shooting (1/9 from 3P), pulled in 21 rebounds, and dished out 8 assists. Not a great performance from your third all-star and third scoring option.
It’s true that if the Bulls want to make a playoff push this season and even get out of the first round, Nikola Vucevic will have to get back to his old form. However, a slump in back-to-back games, only 9 games into the season is not enough of a reason to panic or make drastic roster changes.
Of all the players on the Bulls team, Vucevic is the only one who looks unsettled in his role. His shot taking isn’t decisive and often times it looks like he takes shots for the sake of taking them instead of within the rhythm of the offense. On top of this, his shooting slump has put more on Lonzo Ball’s plate as the point guard as he now needs to score and facilitate if the Bulls want to keep up with the better teams in the East.
However, why does Vucevic look unsettled in his role? Is it because he’s suddenly over the hill at 31 years old? Perhaps, because he forgot how to play basketball? No, it’s neither of these things as his problems are simply the result of the growing pains expected when you retool an entire roster where no one has played together.
Nikola Vucevic is the Chicago Bulls’ third scoring option which takes adjustment.
For about seven seasons before being traded to Chicago, Nikola Vucevic had the offense run through him as the primary scoring option. Those Orlando Magic teams relied on him each and every night which is why he made the All-Star Game in 2019 and 2021.
In 2019, he even led the Magic to the playoffs where they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in round 1 of the NBA Bubble Postseason. However, after being traded, Vucevic became a second option to Zach LaVine and was still learning that role when LaVine hit COVID protocols, missed games, and the Chicago Bulls’ postseason push was cut short.
Now, only eight months later, he’s trying to settle into yet another new role as the third option behind two wing scorers in LaVine and DeRozan which is a role he’s never played before. Now, he needs to find other ways to get himself in a rhythm even though he’ll be having the ball in his hands for less time than he did in Orlando.
This is an adjustment that will take a while and so, what’s happening isn’t out of the ordinary. Chris Bosh had to transition from a primary option to a third option. So did Kevin Love and so did everyone on the Golden State Warriors when Kevin Durant showed up.
In his last three games versus the Philadelphia 76ers (when Joel Embiid played) as a member of the Orlando Magic, Nikola Vucevic averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds on 49 percent shooting, and 39 percent from three-point range.
His shooting is going to return and the Bulls clearly know the hardest part of figuring out their offense will be developing new ways to get Vucevic involved in games early on. Additionally, they absolutely need to let him close out games no matter what. The big 3’s long-term chemistry far outweighs any short-term “benefit” from benching him.
Granted, if his struggles persist around the All-Star break and trade deadline, all bets are off. The excuses must stop eventually but I don’t think it gets to this. When Nikola Vucevic does carve out his role, the Chicago Bulls will start soaring but until then we’ll have to be patient through their slumps and just R-E-L-A-X.