Even when things are going great, someone needs to be the scapegoat.
For the Bulls, that scapegoat is Nikola Vucevic. The two-time All Star was supposed to be a double-double, post-scoring machine. Instead, many believe that he looks like the Monstars stole his powers.
Even as a believer, it’s impossible to argue that Vucevic started the season on a brutal cold stretch. He’s shooting two percent below his three-year average from the field and seven-percent lower than his three-year average from deep.
Vucevic’s inconsistency is frustrating, but even if he isn’t the 20-point scorer he has been in the past, that is far from his most important attribute. He isn’t the offensive force Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid are and that’s OK. Even if his shot isn’t falling, he’s still providing value as the connective tissue and playmaking hub behind the league’s fifth-best offense.
Here’s a deeper dive on why:
Screening creates open looks
More than 20 percent of the Bulls’ total offense comes from the pick-and-roll, good for third most in the league. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are surgical scorers and that deservedly draws most of the team’s attention. While they are more than capable of getting their own shots, Vucevic is sixth in the NBA in screen assists providing them room to operate, and tasty mismatches to exploit.
Vucevic is one of the league’s premier screen setters, as Mark Schindler noted in his piece over the weekend. That was on full display against the Bucks last Friday when DeRozan got loose in the second and third quarters.
DeRozan’s defender Wes Matthews hardly slams into a brick wall, but Vucevic is tactical is his body placement. He toes the line between rolling to the basket and setting illegal moving screens. That extra half-step he creates is all the space DeRozan needs to get his shot off.
Passing out of short-roll
While screening is a skill in its own right, what happens after the screen is set is even more important. Short-roll playmaking is one of the most crucial aspects of NBA offenses and perhaps Vucevic’s best skill. It’s also why he shouldn’t be turned into a spot-up shooter when sharing the court with Tristan Thompson.
Vucevic is second to Jokic in secondary assists among centers and sixth in potential assists. He gives the ball energy because he understands the geometry of the floor so well.
Vucevic leads the league in possessions as a roll man, with nearly twice as many as the next closest player. He’s able to quickly identify where the defense emerges and promptly exploits it before the rotations are able to recover.
Vucevic is great at filling open space on the floor. When he does, he draws help freeing up corner shooters. This becomes even more important in the playoffs when DeRozan and LaVine inevitably face double-teams. When that happens, the Bulls can safely rely on Vucevic to execute in these advantage situations.
Here’s another great example where Vucevic sees Clint Capela is hedging to contain LaVine. He dives hard to the basket and receives a pocket pass, creating a four-on-three matchup.
Rather than barreling to the rim and picking up a charge, he immediately sees Trae Young’s rotation. He’s able to stop his momentum and find Ayo Dosunmu in the corner for an open three.
He is able to adjust to any slight movement the defense makes, dishing it to the open shooter whenever the help comes.
Vucevic plays fast without getting sped up. He thrives as a decision maker amid the chaos.
Vucevic has had a ton of trouble as a pick-and-pop big this year — his worst shooting season since he started attempting threes with volume back in 2016-17.
That said, he’s still a threat in the post. Especially when he draws a switch.
On this empty side post up, he waits to see where the help comes from the top and makes the pass to Coby White.
The Bulls have famously faced a ton of zone this year and Vucevic is really the only way they can bust it.
Vucevic is such a good passer from the middle of the floor because of the pressure he puts on the rim. When he forces help, he is brilliant at finding the open shooter or cutter.
It would be great if Vucevic got back up to 40-percent on threes. The inexplicable shooting dip is frustrating, but his value goes far beyond those shooting percentages.
DeRozan and LaVine are one of the NBA’s best scoring combinations. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso are one of the best defensive 1-2 punches. But so much of the Bulls success hinges on the small things that Vucevic does every night, so don’t get too angry with him when his shot isn’t falling.