The Chicago Bulls and unrestricted free agent center Nikola Vucevic have reportedly started contract extension talks, according to Sham Charania of The Athletic.
This news is not surprising. For several reasons.
The Bulls traded for Vucevic in 2021 with the understanding he would become a free agent following the 2022-23 season. Given the assets they traded to acquire him, it was always probable that they would opt to sign him to a second contract with the team.
Their options in the final year of his contract were to come to a contract agreement by the June 30 deadline, trade him at the 2023 trade deadline or allow him to enter unrestricted free agency, where he could still return to the Bulls, sign into another team’s cap space or work with the Bulls to organize a sign-and-trade to a team operating above the salary cap.
“Protecting the asset” has become a popular term in NBA cap jargon and it refers to the flexibility a team gains by re-signing its players rather than letting them walk for nothing in free agency. In coming to an agreement on a contract extension, they keep their player, allowing them to remain competitive in the immediate future while keeping their trading options open in the longer term.
All of this to say, given that the Bulls didn’t trade Vucevic at the trade deadline last season, and that the deadline to sign an extension is exactly one month from when this news dropped, it would be highly, highly, highly unlikely that the Bulls wouldn’t begin conversations on a potential extension with Vucevic.
How will both parties approach negotiations?
Given these conversations were always going to happen at this time, the next question is how these negotiations will go. What are the opening arguments?
There has been a general sentiment the Bulls can bring Vucevic back below his current annual salary, but according to KC Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, that may not be true. Coming off the final season of his four-year, $100 million contract, Vucevic could ask for a raise, citing his consistent averages and the full 82 games he played this season.
The Bulls, on the other hand, may argue that despite his production, Vucevic is still the third option on the current core and their limited financial abilities make it difficult to give him the full amount of what he might be asking.
But operating from a position of desperation is operating from a position of weakness. The Bulls have stated goals of competing. The optics of the trade to acquire Vucevic look far worse if he walks for nothing. The Bulls can retain some power by setting a walkaway number — a price they are unwilling to exceed, even at risk of losing Vucevic for nothing. Other than that, they are between a rock and a hard place.
Still, all of this hinges on what Vucevic wants to do. He is an unrestricted free agent after all. And would he even be interested in a deal with the Bulls understanding it might be in the team’s best interest to eventually move him somewhere he may not want to be?
Does extending Vucevic really make him a trade asset?
But let’s say Vucevic wants to return and the Bulls “win” the negotiations and are able sign Vucevic to a three-year, $54 million contract worth an annual average of $18 million, which is the number we came to in our simple salary projection tool.
There is a common thought that the Bulls can sign him to a tradeable, team-friendly deal they could flip down the line. Even if they get him to a lower dollar amount, that doesn’t necessarily make him more valuable as a trade chip.
Is a 32-year-old Vucevic on an expiring, $22M deal more or less valuable than a 33 or 34 or 35-year-old Vucevic on an $18M deal with two or three years left on his contract?
If their goal is to flip him eventually, they have to hope the answer is the latter. Being locked in for a few extra years of team control could appeal to a potential trade partner, but there didn’t appear to be a robust trade market for Vucevic at the 2023 trade deadline. Moreover, he likely would not agree to an extension before testing free agency if he felt he had options during the 2023 offseason.
In other words, if the Bulls bring him back, they must be prepared to keep him for the entirety of whatever contract he signs.
But let’s now say Vucevic won’t take less than three years, $70 million, or $23.3 million annually, a small raise on his previous contract.
Is he still worth the investment?
How does that number affect the rest of the cap sheet? Does he somehow become more tradeable on this number? How does it affect the Bulls’ ability to retain their other free agents (Coby White chief among them)? How does that number affect their ability to add more talent? How much worse off are you if you let him walk for nothing rather than overpaying him?
What happens if they let him walk for nothing?
There is an argument to let him walk for nothing. Maybe not a great one, but it exists. The Bulls wouldn’t create cap space by losing him, but they would have flexibility in other ways.
Because of their proximity to the $162 million luxury tax, the Bulls don’t project to be able to use the full $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception or $4.4 million bi-annual exception thus making it difficult to add to their current roster.
If they’re not going to use the mid-level exception and they decide they can’t or won’t pay Vucevic the money and years he wants, maybe it makes sense to walk away amicably. In this scenario, they may be able to use both the full bi-annual and mid-level exceptions to find a cheaper specialist using the mid-level exception on a center like Naz Reid, Xavier Tillman, Paul Reed or Jaxson Hayes, who could grow into the role and become a value deal down the line. They could still use their bi-annual exception on a wing without going into the tax.
Are younger, cheaper options (plural) plus longer-term flexibility a better option than an older, more expensive option (singular) locked in for three years? Maybe cap-wise, but it’s unlikely the Bulls view it that way considering their desire to remain competitive. This may represent the step backward the Bulls are unwilling to take.
Who do the Bulls want to be?
All of these variables feed into the larger philosophical question the Bulls must ask themselves as they take stock of their potential with the current group and whether it makes sense to remain on their current path.
Who do they want to be?
To be clear, Vucevic is a very good player. He is a double-double machine who anchored a top-five defense. He is the most complete center on the market and represents the Bulls’ best chance of remaining competitive next season.
But Vucevic can be a good player and still limit a team stylistically. Is that who the Bulls want to be for the foreseeable future? Is that style of play most conducive to the success and development of Zach LaVine, the man they paid to be their franchise cornerstone?
Ultimately, this is not just a question of Vucevic’s talents, the salary cap puzzle pieces, his future trade potential or the optics of the initial trade. This is an existential question of what they want their identity to be as a basketball team and whether they can get there with another year or three of continuity.