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How the Bulls should approach Nikola Vucevic's contract extension

Will Gottlieb Avatar
August 11, 2022

Nikola Vucevic is one of the most controversial players in recent Bulls history. Some fans want him gone by any means necessary. Some see his value as near his former All-Star status.

Ultimately, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t answer the question of how to move forward with him on the roster. And in the last year of his contract, that’s exactly what the Bulls need to do as extension talks are reportedly starting.

With Vucevic heading toward unrestricted free agency following the season, it’s no surprise they would be beginning to talk about options. Here are the four they have for how the Bulls can proceed with Vucevic:

  1. Trade him for a longer-term option at center and longer-term salary
  2. Extend his contract prior to the June 30, 2023 deadline
  3. Let him walk when his contract expires
  4. Re-sign him as a free agent

The Bulls have until June 30, 2023 to come to an extension agreement with Vucevic. They’d be taking a huge risk by letting him get to unrestricted free agency and potentially lose him for nothing. Their best bet is to explore trades until the mid-season deadline and if they can’t find the right deal, extend him on a shorter-term contract to maintain flexibility.

Operating above the cap

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams, Alex Caruso and Dalen Terry account of $112 million in guaranteed contracts next offseason. In addition, Andre Drummond and Derrick Jones Jr. have player options. Assuming those get picked up, the Bulls will owe $118.6 million to eight players.

Though the Bulls are technically below the cap in this figure, it does not mean they have practical cap space. They have their own free agent cap holds to consider and roster minimums to consider.

In addition to Vucevic, however, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Javonte Green, Goran Dragic, and Tony Bradley will be free agents. Their cap holds count as placeholders on the Bulls cap sheet and add up to $64.6 million. 

When factoring in those cap holds, the Bulls are over the salary cap. But renouncing cap holds will not afford them any cap space because they’ll still have work to do to meet the minimum roster requirements.

In other words, whether or not the Bulls bring back their free agents, they will only be able to sign free agents using any exceptions or league minimums.

Therefore, if the Bulls don’t extend or re-sign Vucevic, they’ll lose him for nothing without an avenue to find a replacement. If they do bring him back, they’ll at least have a starting center and kick the can down the road while looking for trades.

Their only option is to keep (at least some of) those cap holds on the books an operate as an above-the-cap team the way they did during the 2020 offseason. At the same time, the more they pay Vucevic, the less they’ll have to re-sign Dosunmu, White and/or Green or use the mid-level exception without going into the luxury tax. 

Starting center market rates

The NBA is all about getting value out of contracts. Deals have to be fair market value so they can be tradeable. Otherwise you get trapped in salary hell, with no ability to improve your roster bogged down by overpriced players. 

So how do we determine fair value? Models that factor past production, future projections, aging curves and market scarcity are one way to determine the ballpark, but it only takes one asshole to overpay and then you lose your guy. 

Friend of the program Stephen Noh created a simple salary tool that projects Vucevic around $20M annually, before factoring in regression. That’s a fair place to start. A slight drop from the $22 million he is making in the final year of his four-year deal. But is that too much based on his age, projections and the current center market?

Here is how that number relates to starting-caliber centers who signed deals this offseason:

The direction of the market should also be considered.

Among the crop of unrestricted free agent centers are Al Horford, Myles Turner, Steven Adams, Brook Lopez, Dwight Powell, Derrick Favors, Serge Ibaka, Nerlens Noel, and Jakob Poeltl. Not the most inspiring.

How many teams will be in the market for one of these players? Most teams have a center that fits their timeline, or will be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Does that drive the price down for Vucevic? Or, as one of the better available options, will he be the one that cashes in?

You never know what another team might do or how much they’d be willing to pay. Locking Vucevic into a deal before he becomes a free agent mitigates the risk. It’s just a matter of how much and how that affects the rest of the Bulls ability to retain and add talent.

Navigating Vucevic’s extension

The Bulls would be wise to retain Vucevic on a 1+1 or 2 + 1 deal (one or two years guaranteed, plus an option on the final season). This would line him up to expire the same year as DeRozan and give the Bulls some flexibility to pivot another direction, should they so choose, heading into the 2024-25 season.

Though he’s four years younger, more injury prone, and without two All-Star appearances on his resume, Nurkic’s $17.5 million annually seems like a good starting point.

Let’s say we pencil Vucevic in for the same number as Nurkic on an extension. Here’s how that factors into the 2023-24 cap sheet.

Retaining Vucevic at this figure keeps the Bulls above the cap, but $20.2 million below the tax. And the Bulls will stay below the tax. That is how much space they’ll have to fill out the rest of their roster, re-sign Dosunmu, White, Green and bring in any other free agents using minimums and/or exceptions.

The more they give Vucevic, the less they’ll have to play with. There are various other factors at play, like potential trades, but fitting everyone in below the tax and trying to improve the roster externally could become very tricky.

Existential questions the Bulls must ask themselves

Is there a world where the Bulls do entertain just letting Vucevic walk? His 0.7 EPM ranks toward the bottom of the list of centers that got deals this summer. The Bulls were shockingly -3.1 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor compared to off. His three-point shot fell 5.3 percent below his previous three-year average. He’s only getting slower and less capable of defending in space as he ages.

A lot of this depends if he and the Bulls are successful this year. If they struggle, will the front office abandon its commitment to continuity? On the other hand, the Bulls can’t afford to take a step back — they’re without their own draft pick two of the next three years.

Like it or not, the Bulls only path forward is the one they’re on. That means bringing Vucevic back until they figure out the next plan. Their best bet is to find an at, or below, market-rate contract over a shorter time horizon to give themselves a better chance at continuing to compete, while opening up potential avenues for a trade down the line.

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