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Re-imagining Nikola Vucevic's role in the Chicago Bulls' offense

Will Gottlieb Avatar
October 4, 2023

“It’s an issue to be 24th [ranked offense] when you have the scoring power we have,” Nikola Vucevic told CHGO on Wednesday.

He’s not wrong. A team built on the backs of three offense-first players should have been a lot better than that. And having spent the summer thinking about ways to improve on that end, both Vucevic and the Bulls have a pretty good idea of how the team can adjust and improve.

“We didn’t run a lot of [off-ball actions] last year,” Vucevic confessed. “I’m not sure why we didn’t do it. But talking to our coaches, and studying our film, we realize it’s something we really need to do. I don’t know why we have been so stagnant in the past. We’re a heavy pick-and-roll team, iso team, which is hard to do all the time. Now, we’re trying to play a little quicker. Play with more pace, more movement, it makes it much harder to defend.”

First step: Identifying why the problem existed.

“When our initial actions were taken away, we weren’t good at initiating stuff,” Vucevic said. “Whoever had the ball at that point, it was like, ‘you create something.’ And that’s a lot to ask any one guy. Especially over and over and over. So we’re trying to get away from that this year. So if our initial play doesn’t work or our initial actions doesn’t work, we have options B and C.”

Vucevic is the key to getting from point A to B. It’s less about putting the ball in his hands and letting him go to work on the block as the primary option, and more about being the fulcrum that transitions the Bulls from the first action to their second or third.

“It can be many different things,” Vucevic said of the way he imagines how his role will shift. “And a lot of it will come out after our initial action. A lot of times guys get stuck and have one guy try to go one on one to create for others. I think there are opportunities to get to flash at the top of the key or on the elbows and we can run different things. High splits. We can go into DHO’s out of it. I can hit some cutters. I might just flow into a pick-and-roll.”

“So there are so many options that open up for us to get more movement. That’s been an issue for us. We haven’t been able to create as much movement after the initial play we run.”

[More ✍️ from Training Camp in Nashville]

The Bulls don’t have a primary table setter-type point guard and Vucevic is the best passer on the team. They need to utilize him as such in order to generate the spacing and movement they know will help juice their offense.

“Using me as a playmaker where I have the ball and guards can run different actions and allow me to really play off of what they do,” he continued. “Making reads. That’s what will give us the spacing we need.”

The Bulls struggles with three-point volume are well documented at this point, but adding more threes for the sake of adding more threes will only take them so far. They need to re-orient the floor, generate more driving avenues and extend advantage situations to get them out of the mud.

The hope is that they can create more high-quality three-point opportunities by virtue of ball movement and coming hard off of screens to keep the advantage alive, rather than moving the ball around the shell and hoisting a three just to bump up the volume.

That’s where there needs to be buy in.

The Bulls have three elite scorers, but fall victim to the fact that they are so talented at creating their own shot. Whereas a lot of teams will run actions to get their best scorers the ball in their spots, the Bulls, at times, defaulted to DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine isolations or pick-and-roll without setting the stage with an off ball action to get the defense tilted.

Vucevic has been on the record many times about his role within the offense changing more than others, but that’s not a complaint.

He knows that when big threes come together, one of them typically has to sacrifice more touches than the other two. And in situations with a big man, he can often be the one who must adapt the most — think Kevin Love with the Cavaliers or Chris Bosh with the Heat.

That’s not a coincidence. Most bigs are dependent on guards to deliver them the ball and with the way that the NBA has evolved to emphasize spacing and driving lanes, post touches aren’t going to solve the Bulls problems.

“With three big scorers, it’s natural that one of the three is going to have less shots,” he said. “I have no problem with it, it’s just about finding ways to be efficient and play my game within that.”

That takes us back to movement and motion based actions that can orbit around Vucevic.

With Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams continuing to grow, the Bulls have the personnel to run different actions depending on who is on the court. It’s possible they run more floppy and post splits with White and LaVine, or flow into secondary pick-and-rolls closer to the basket to keep DeRozan on the move and mitigate the way defenses may sag off of him if he’s just spacing the floor.

The Bulls have a lot of tinkering to do, but they’ve got the talent to improve their offense. They even showed glimpses of a more cohesive product on that end after the All-Star Break when they were smack in the middle of the pack at 15th. That may not seem overly impressive, but if the Bulls can play offense at that level on top of their top-five ranked defense, they will be formidable at worst.

Vucevic didn’t mean to over-dramatize his comments about this being the last chance for this core. Even though he exudes confidence in the group, with the way the NBA works, he knows what’s at stake.

“It’s just common sense thinking that way,” said Vucevic, clarifying his remarks that this could be the core’s last chance to figure things out. “It’s our third year right now, it’s our chance to do something, make something happen. But I think this team will do better this year and find a way to play better and be a better team. I was just saying, if it doesn’t that could be the reality of it.”

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