The Chicago Bulls front office has spent the better part of two years preaching continuity. Continuity with the same core season after season with minor tweaks along the way to improve shooting, effort, and defense will make the team stronger, more together, and ultimately more formidable on basketball’s brightest stages.
In theory, it’s a perfect recipe. The Bulls themselves built a dynasty off of continuity with a relatively stable core group of players in the 90s. The Spurs did the same in the 2000s to the tune of 5 championships.
The Warriors enjoyed a prosperous 2010s while recycling pieces around their stable big 3 of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Most recently, the Denver Nuggets, the former team of the Bulls’ current president, won their first championship in franchise history by sticking by their big 3 through all their injuries.
However, the Bulls are missing two ingredients to this recipe that all these championship teams that embraced continuity had in surplus. 1) Talent. Each of these 4 teams features a player that went down (or will go down) as the greatest player in their franchise’s history and unanimously a top 20 player in the NBA all time.
Yet, no one had any illusions about the Bulls’ top-end talent. There was no mistaking anyone on this team with anyone of the caliber of the champions mentioned above. However, the talent on the roster did suggest that they should be capable of consistent, meaningful playoff runs.
This is where the second ingredient comes into play: buy-in. While management has stuck by continuity and sought buy-in from the fanbase, the question has to be asked: have their own players bought in?
There is no greater example of this than what went down on opening night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In year three of this big three, they once again failed to do the one thing that results in proven success: playing through their big man.
Time after time, the Bulls start out trying to play through Vooch, find themselves in competitive games, other times leading by a wide margin only to fall back into bad habits and let go of the rope, blow a huge lead, and ultimately head back to the locker room with another loss.
After a summer in which the Bulls were unanimously criticized for once again sticking to continuity, the Bulls players themselves recognized the urgency for change if they wanted to continue playing together.
"We know we can do better, and we have to do better,” he said. “And we know it’s kind of our last chance as this core of guys to do something. – Nikola Vucevic to Jake Fisher of Yahoo Sports"
The opening night performance begs the question: Do the Chicago Bulls players even want to play together?
For a half, they showed signs of knowing what they needed to do, but for the other, they reminded us that this is still the same cast of characters falling back into their same old habits. In terms of usage rate, here’s where Nikola Vucevic ranked among centers logging 30 or more minutes:
- Joel Embiid (39%)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (30.5%)
- Nikola Jokic (30%)
- Julius Randle (27.3%)
- Bam Adebayo (26.3%)
- Anthony Davis (25.4%)
- Kristaps Porzingis (25%)
- Domantas Sabonis (23.5%)
- Lauri Markkanen (23.5%)
- Rudy Gobert (19.3%)
- Jalen Duren (18.3%)
- Zach Collins (17.9%)
- Nikola Vucevic (16.2%)
On this same list of players, Vucevic is 7th this year in average annual value of his contract. Ranking 7th in usage on the above list would put him at 25% usage, which only happened in 21 games last season.
Overall in his Chicago Bulls tenure (excluding post-trade 2021), Nikola Vucevic has played 156 games and logged only 53 with a usage rate of greater than 25%. In his 145 games since the start of the 2021-22 season, Zach LaVine has logged a usage greater than 25% 119 times. DeRozan has done it 123 times out of 150 played games for the Bulls in the same time span.
The point of this isn’t that restructuring the team around Vucevic will magically solve all the Bulls’ problems, it’s that their current structure is flawed and yielding no results. Additionally, the resistance to change by their two biggest, highest usage stars indicates resistance to continuity itself.
If the point of continuity isn’t to evolve as a group and change play style as needed, then all anyone is doing is running in place expecting different results from the same process; yet that is what the Bulls players have been trying to justify for the better part of two years.
Despite all of this, there is no greater indictment on the Bulls’ embrace of continuity than what happened in New York City on opening night.
If Kristaps Porzingis can join the Celtics, a team that features two perennial All-NBA caliber players who have been to the finals, and enjoy a seamless transition in which he drops 30 points and 8 rebounds against another eastern playoff foe on national television, the Chicago Bulls have no excuse for not achieving the same with Vucevic over 100 games into the continuity era.