Bulls Insider

Bulls mailbag: Will Big 3 return? What's fair Nikola Vučević deal?

Throughout the year, NBC Sports Chicago Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson answers a wide variety of reader questions


The Chicago Bulls may be out of the ongoing NBA playoffs, but they always remain at the forefront of readers' interest. Thanks for all the questions.

In your column from the NBA Draft Combine, you wrote the Bulls “landed predominately in leaguewide speculation.” How likely do you think it is that they break up their core? --- Mike S.

Well, Nikola Vucevic has a say in that, given that he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 if he and the Bulls don’t reach terms on an extension before then.

It should be noted that this speculation came from executives on other teams, ones who seemingly have watched enough of the Bulls to believe, like many fans, that this core has a ceiling. There remains the very real chance the Bulls re-sign Vucevic, hold onto Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan and try to upgrade the margins to give this group another shot. Remember: That, for now, is management’s public stance.

But several rival executives who NBC Sports Chicago talked to at the combine are skeptical about the long-term marriage between Zach LaVine and the Bulls. LaVine, who has been loyal to the Bulls, has grown tired of consistently landing in trade rumors, although talk of the New York Knicks’ interest at the trade deadline was overstated. LaVine also represents the Bulls’ most dynamic scorer in terms of his ability to heat up either beyond the arc or attacking the rim. Again, the Bulls publicly have backed LaVine at every opportunity so believe that for now over rival executives’ speculation. But that speculation is prevalent enough to acknowledge.

What do you think is a fair deal for Nikola Vucevic? --- Todd R.

This may be better answered by posing my own question: Do you think a player who just played all 82 games and finished third in the NBA in double-doubles is going to ask for a raise? Because I do.

Now, in a market where most teams projected to have significant salary cap space are rebuilding, can Vucevic get more than the $22 million he made last season on the open market? He and Brook Lopez are the biggest available names at center.

I think a good solution might be to do a short-term deal at slightly above his 2022-23 salary. Say, two years and $48-50 million or three years at $66-72 million. Remember: Letting Vucevic walk for nothing after what the Bulls gave up to acquire him would be a bad look. And for all the focus on Vucevic’s shortcomings, he remains a durable, double-double machine who has the skill level and IQ to fit with various personnel.

What’s the latest on Lonzo Ball? --- Rich C.

The Bulls made it pretty clear in March when Ball underwent his third left knee surgery in 14 months that any timeline for his potential return would be nebulous. Nothing I’ve heard since the surgery has changed the low expectations for Ball regarding next season. Ball is attempting to come back from a cartilage transplant, a rare, but not unprecedented, path for a professional athlete. It’s such a sad story for such a young player who plays so selflessly and tries to impact winning by making his teammates better. I talked to Brandon Roy at the NBA Draft Combine after he represented the Portland Trail Blazers on stage. Roy made three All-Star and two All-NBA teams by age 25 before retiring at age 27 because of degenerative knees. Injuries remain the worst.

Taking a closer look at the Wemby frenzy and just realized that over the last 20 years, only two No. 1 picks have won the most valuable player trophy---LeBron James and our beloved Derrick Rose. Is that enough for people to understand that, first, relying mostly on the lottery to build your team is a high-risk/low-reward strategy; second, the amount of pressure and unrealistic expectations it puts on those young players is unfair; and third, Rose was so much better than what he likely will be remembered for by many? --- Simon M.

This is well said, particularly the relying on the lottery part. Because not only do you need to get lucky at the lottery, but that has to happen in the right year. There has to be a surefire talent there. Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, Anthony Bennett, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are all No. 1 picks from this time frame that didn’t fully live up to expectations, either through injury, circumstance or both. The jury also remains out on Zion Williamson because of his injuries.

As for Rose, those who watched his rise from Rookie of the Year to the fateful day he tore his ACL know. More important, his peers know. The way former NBA players have talked about prime DRose tells you all you need to know. Simply put, he was that rare combination of speed and strength and elite athleticism. He was a problem.

Are you surprised by the Miami Heat’s playoff run? --- Mario L.

Isn’t everybody but Jimmy Butler? I keep thinking back to what he told The Athletic’s Sam Amick after the Heat started 2-5: “We’re still going to win the championship, and I don’t care what nobody says.” His playoff run obviously is one of the all-time greats.

Given the fact the Bulls owned the Heat in the regular season, the Heat lost at home to a very average Atlanta Hawks team in the first play-in game and then sat on the ropes waiting for the Bulls’ knockout punch that never came in the second play-in game, yes, I’m surprised. But I’m also impressed by a tough-minded franchise delivering consistently in big moments. That they’re doing it without Tyler Herro and with role players, including local product Max Strus, repeatedly hitting big shots and making important defensive stops makes it even more impressive.

In closing, is now the time to mention that Strus, a career 37 percent 3-point shooter, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason?

Click here to follow the Bulls Talk Podcast.

Contact Us