McGraw: Decision day is looming for Vucevic's future with Bulls

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic enjoyed his latest return to Orlando, piling up 26 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in Saturday's victory.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking - not necessarily on Vucevic's tenure with the Bulls, but the team will have to make a tough decision on their center's future by the summer.

The NBA's trade deadline is approaching on Feb. 9 and Vucevic is in the final year of his contract. A trade seems very unlikely, because what team is going to have interest in the 32-year-old big man? The Bulls would likely have to take a bad contract in return, and that's not going to happen.

So let's assume Vucevic finishes the season with the Bulls. Then what? He'll be an unrestricted free agent and demand around the league will be ... low, medium? It won't be high.

It can be hard to tell what to make of Vucevic. He's definitely posting good numbers, at 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He's a good passer, can hit 3s. The biggest weakness is defense.

That part was on display this week when Indiana's Myles Turner scored 26 points against the Bulls and Charlotte's Mason Plumlee added 21, both about 9 points above their season averages.

The obvious question for the offseason is whether the Bulls should try to re-sign Vucevic or change up the roster with more of a defensive-minded big man.

One thing to remember: Even if the Bulls let Vucevic walk away in free-agency, they still wouldn't have cap room to spend much on other free agents this summer. That's because Zach LaVine is due to make $40.1 million, DeMar DeRozan $28.6 million and Lonzo Ball $20.5 million. Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams are both under contract for slightly below $10 million, so the Bulls will have to rely on the midlevel exception to add free agents, just like last summer.

If the Bulls want cap space, it would make sense to maybe sign Vucevic for one year; then they could have money to spend in 2024, when DeRozan's deal ends.

Would Vucevic even entertain signing for one year? Would he get better offers? It goes without saying the Bulls will be very wary of invoking two words that terrify ownership: luxury tax. According to Forbes, the Bulls rank 24th in luxury tax dollars spent over the last 20 years at $8.13 million. By comparison, the Warriors have spent $337.8 million.

Another question that's tough to answer: Would the Bulls be better off without Vucevic?

There is no perfect metric for measuring defensive impact. One that's easy to look up is defensive rating, which is the number of points a team allows while a certain player is on the floor, per 100 possessions. The number is affected by all players on the court, but it's what we've got.

Vucevic's defensive rating isn't great, but it is slightly ahead of teammates LaVine and Williams. Among NBA big men, Vucevic has a better defensive rating than Turner, Plumlee, Phoenix's DeAndre Ayton, New York's Julius Randle, Portland's Jusuf Nurkic, and the Clippers' Ivica Zubac. He's tied with Atlanta's Clint Capela.

The importance of centers in today's NBA covers both extremes. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid finished 1-2 in the MVP vote last year, but the starting centers in the NBA Finals were both low-usage, defensive minded players in Boston's Robert Williams and Golden State's Kevon Looney.

Whether Vucevic stays or goes, the Bulls need to improve their interior defense. Since opponents like to pull Vucevic out of the lane and involve him in pick-and-rolls, the Bulls need someone who can step over and protect the lane. Williams can do some of that, but he's still learning the ropes.

And if the Bulls want to replace Vucevic, who else could they get to play center, especially with limited dollars to spend in free-agency?

Should they keep him and for how long? Who could they get as a replacement? Is it worth running with the same nucleus of players next season, with the hope Ball finally healthy? Would Andre Drummond be a better choice to start at center? There's no shortage of brain teasers for the management team of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley on this topic.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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