As Bulls try to prove they belong, Vucevic remains a variable
Plenty of things went wrong for the Bulls during their lopsided loss to Brooklyn on Wednesday.
On paper, it certainly didn't look right that Nets rookie center Day'Ron Sharpe posted better numbers than Nikola Vucevic. Sharpe, the No. 29 pick of the 2021 draft, delivered 20 points and 7 rebounds in his first NBA start.
There were plenty of explanations. The Bulls had such a hard time guarding Kevin Durant and James Harden, there were openings for easy baskets, not to mention the Bulls' flurry of turnovers in the third quarter leading to fast breaks.
But a storyline seems have already developed: With DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine playing so well, Vucevic seems to be the biggest variable.
He's had a tough task having to fit in with two high-scoring wings, but Vucevic hitting shots and controlling the boards is what could make the Bulls an elite-level team.
Vucevic was on a good roll recently, with seven straight games of at least 12 rebounds and an 18-game run of scoring in double figures, which is still intact.
But many of his best games came against short-handed teams. Facing two tough opponents this week, Vucevic had 13 points and 6 rebounds against Dallas, 14 and 5 against the Nets. He's 3-for-16 from 3-point range in the last four games.
Vucevic was a two-time all-star in Orlando. When he moved from the Magic to Bulls, he was averaging 24.5 points and 11.8 rebounds. But an argument could be made that the Bulls would be better off now without the trade.
That's not even a knock on Vucevic. The Magic was in town last week and a tall forward like Franz Wagner -- the player chosen with the Bulls' first-round pick -- would be an ideal fit on the Bulls undersized front line.
And Wendell Carter Jr. played well on both ends during his first two years with the Bulls. The drawback was Carter suffering significant injuries in each of those two seasons, then he had trouble fitting into Billy Donovan's system. This season, Carter's numbers (13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) have been good.
Realistically, the Bulls needed the Vucevic trade to signal they were serious about getting better. Without it, maybe they wouldn't have been able to land DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.
If Vucevic can deliver some big performances to lift the Bulls to playoff victories, it will be a great trade. So it's odd for a two-time all-star to be the main variable, or the X-factor, for the Bulls, but that's how it's shaping up.
Having two leading scorers has worked well. The scrambling defense that utilizes the skills of Ball, Caruso and Javonte Green has been a strength. The second-team backcourt of Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu provides more optimism.
"Our confidence is there, nothing's going to break that," DeRozan said after Wednesday's loss. "It just stinks that DJ (Derrick Jones Jr.) went down tonight, we haven't had Alex in a while, Javonte out. Kind of the heart and soul of the team that we lean on to bring that super edge, especially defensively, we haven't had. We kind of feed off those guys, so once we get them back, pretty sure we'll be right where we left off."
Donovan talked about the Brooklyn beat down serving as a valuable lesson for the first-place Bulls to brace for the best effort from all opponents.
"I feel like we have and we had a chip on our shoulder," LaVine said. "I don't want to say we relaxed a little bit, but we can use this for fuel to get us back with that edge and start being the one that's on the attack instead of getting attacked."