Bulls mailbag: What's the grade for Nikola Vučević trade? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Is your glass half-full (three of four victories and holding those opponents under 100 points) or half-empty (hello, Cavaliers loss)? OK, your turn for questions.
What goes through your mind when you sit and watch the effort put forth by this team? Is the problem coaching, leadership or just the fact that they make so much money they really don’t care if they win or not? As a fan from the inception of the team, I am more than disappointed. --- Irv K.
I’ve joked before that covering the post-dynasty teams desensitized me to bad losses. But some still cut through that dynamic, including Wednesday’s loss to the Cavaliers. It went beyond the blowout loss. Those happen in the NBA. It was more things like the possession where Collin Sexton grabbed two offensive rebounds and then stuck in a putback while the Bulls looked flatfooted. The Cavaliers played like a desperate team chasing a playoff berth, not the Bulls. So plenty went through my mind Wednesday night.
Everybody must take some responsibility for an effort that poor. Though I’d dispute the money aspect contributing to a lack of care. You don’t get to be a professional athlete without a tremendous amount of commitment and pride.
I think I can speak for all Bulls fans that we’re tired of hearing players admit to coming out totally flat in an important game like the train wreck in Cleveland. I’ve been watching these types of games throughout this four-year (and counting, clearly) rebuild, when you can tell from the jump the Bulls have no chance and I’m able to turn my TV off in the 1st quarter until hopefully I can catch a wild comeback in the 4th that inevitably falls just short. It’s a disturbing trend that no longer has a reasonable explanation.
We’ve had a major front office overhaul, a total rebuild of the coaching staff, a touted top-four pick and made a major deadline acquisition for an All-Star along with capable rotation pieces. Yet we are basically no better off in the standings than we were last year. What more has to be done for this team to, at the very least, be counted on to be competitive on a nightly basis? I’m at the point where the 15 or so percent chance of jumping into the top four of the lottery seems more realistic than snagging the 10 seed and only losing the play-in game by 20 or so. --- Nick P.
So I guess your glass is half-empty.
Even more confounding about the loss to the Cavaliers was how ill-prepared the Bulls played in the first quarter following a rare practice day. This has been a challenging season for all NBA teams, and the lack of practice time exacerbates that issue. However, even though the Bulls held a morning meeting and walkthrough rather than a shootaround, they did practice the day before. And came out that flat.
Billy Donovan pretty consistently tells us he looks inward after every game, particularly the bad ones. So I’m sure he’d take some ownership of the situation, although he did call a timeout almost immediately after Jarrett Allen threw down his second, early alley-oop dunk. So he tried to address the defensive issues. As for the ball security and the general stuck-in-mud look the team had, that’s on players.
And, obviously, they looked engaged and prepared in the victory over the Hornets, who, it should be noted, sat in Chicago while the Bulls lost in Cleveland. Yes, the Hornets are banged up. But the Bulls finished a back-to-back with focus and energy.
As for the front-office overhaul, it’s probably best to reserve further judgement until after this offseason’s moves. Plenty of the roster is still what it inherited from the previous regime. This isn’t management’s team yet, although it started to significantly change its identity at the trade deadline. I’ve said this ad nauseum, but John Paxson completely flipped the roster save for Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler within two seasons. The new regime did plenty at the deadline, but more changes are coming.
Away from the injuries and needing time to gel, what’s the biggest reason in your view for the post-trade slide? It’s been a complete underachievement, which has disappointed both fans and players alike. How does this slide factor into Bulls' offseason plans? Looks like we’re too bad to make the play-in, but not bad enough to keep our top-four protected pick. One day I shall see you in Grant Park, basking in the sun during a championship parade providing joy to all the masses. But not yet. Not yet. --- Jojo S.
No, not even close to yet. And your worst-case scenario is exactly the point I tried to make in my post-Cavaliers game column. If the Bulls don’t make the play-in tournament but also land outside the top four in draft order so that the first-round pick conveys to the Magic, that’s a big yikes. Management told us the day of the trade deadline that it’s not done, so it obviously has offseason plans. But if the Bulls don’t right this season’s ship, the selling point of post-trade momentum could be somewhat lost.
My opinion for the biggest reason for the slide is just the overall disjointedness to the team. Players are in different roles. With the unpredictable nature to this season, those roles change back and forth. And Donovan has struggled to find the right five-man combinations. Throw in a lack of cohesion because of a lack of practice time and it’s a lot. Thad Young said it best: He opined that if the Bulls could hold a mini-training camp of about one week, they’d be better. But they can’t.
Also: Losing Zach LaVine to the league’s health and safety protocols isn’t nothing.
Assuming Zach LaVine and Bulls don’t reach an agreement with the contract renegotiation plus the extension on that new contract, should the Bulls trade him or hope for the best? Personally, I believe that without the agreement they should trade him unless the return is garbage. Keep in mind that the new destination not having cap space is not a problem in today’s NBA. (See Jimmy Butler to Miami). I’m hoping that the relationship between Arturas Karnisovas and Zach is good enough that will allow the heart-to-heart conversation needed before next season. (See Paul George and Indiana). --- William B.
There you have it. It’s about the relationship and being in communication with LaVine and his representation to have a good sense of what’s coming. Even in that situation, things can happen. The Raptors won a championship with Kawhi Leonard, did everything they could to try to re-sign him and he chose the Clippers in free agency. But the Bulls are far from LaVine’s unrestricted free agency. Plenty can happen.
Given recent rumors of LaVine intending to decline contract extensions, are you starting to worry about unrestricted free agency in 2022? I know we just committed to building around him at the deadline. But given how things have looked lately, I’m starting to wonder if we’ll lose him. --- Jack S.
I’m personally not worried about anything other than my teenage son rocketing past me in guitar-playing ability. If you’re asking if Bulls fans should worry about LaVine’s 2022 free agency, that obviously depends on your stance on LaVine. Plenty of fans still reach out to me thinking that a LaVine-Nikola Vučević base isn’t enough.
LaVine always stood to make more money by getting to unrestricted free agency rather than renegotiating and re-signing this summer. There’s also no guarantee that management wants to try to utilize its cap space this offseason by trying the latter approach.
Privately, LaVine is still -- what’s the right word, stung? bemused? -- about his 2018 restricted free agency. He had to go get an offer sheet from the Kings to get what he felt was fair value for his play. That situation obviously developed under the previous managerial regime. And while LaVine has played himself into max contract extension status, he’s also a smart and loyal guy. That’s not to suggest he’s going to be bending over backwards for a hometown discount, particularly after what happened in 2018. It’s more to note that he and Vučević are represented by the same agency and LaVine long has placed a premium on winning. So if he likes what the Bulls are building and both sides are committed to making a long-term partnership work, there’s a path to making everybody happy.
The Bulls are barely hanging onto the play-in tournament opportunity and fans had such expectations for making a strong playoff push. How would you grade the Vučević trade? --- Michael T Scott
Incomplete. There’s no question it was to improve playoff positioning this season, which the Bulls still have 13 games to do. At 6-10, it has been underwhelming in the short-term returns.
But the long-term plan is to build around two All-Star talents, hope Patrick Williams blossoms into the star management believes he can be and add more over this offseason and the future. Stay tuned.