Nikola Vucevic is "totally fine" with sacrificing scoring opportunities as he adjusts his game

The Montenegrin center is averaging 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds through Chicago's first eight games.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Question: What do Nikola Vucevic, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Klay Thompson, Dennis Rodman and Robert Parish have in common?

Answer: They're all parts of NBA Big Twos Plus One.

Because for all the talk about how the Big Three in the NBA is the formula for ultimate success, it's really mostly a Big Two and The Other Guy.

For the Bulls, that other guy is becoming Nikola Vucevic, who is off to one of the slowest starts in his 11-year NBA career attempting to evolve with high scorers Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan. With the additions late last season of Vucevic in the trade with Orlando and last summer with the signing of DeRozan, the Bulls appeared to have prepared the classic blueprint for NBA success.

But the Bulls, like most of the teams before them who've attempted such a personnel coup, seem to be discovering that someone has to sacrifice a bit more than the others.

It appears to be Vucevic, averaging more than 10 points below his combined Chicago/Orlando numbers for last season and eight points behind his combined averages for the last three seasons when he was an All-Star twice.

Sacrifice was the preseason maxim for the Bulls with all the offseason additions. But Zach LaVine seventh in the NBA in scoring at 25.8 per game is about six points above his career average and close to his elite marks for the past two seasons. DeRozan has been a renewed revelation, fourth in the NBA in scoring as the Bulls titular closer, averaging 27 per game. That is seven points above his career average and barely below his career best of 27.3 per game five years ago. But also with the second most field goal attempts per game of his career. It's also his second best career shooting percentage.

But with the Bulls among the best in the Eastern Conference at 6-2 with a rematch with the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday, Vucevic says he not only understands the dynamic, but feels comfortable in his role to contribute to team success.

"Obviously, my role is a little different than what I had offensively last year when I came here than with Orlando," Vucevic admitted after practice Friday. "There's more talent and more guys who can score. So it's a little different offensively for me. So I just try to do different things, passing, defensively rebounding; there are many ways you can impact the game, screening and doing other things that I can to help the team. When you have so much talent around you, you have to adjust, a little bit change your game and play a different way. And that's what I've been trying to do.

"It's just us learning to play with each other," said the amiable Montenegrin. "For some of the guys maybe it's an adjustment to play with a big man who can pop and shoot and space the floor as much as I do. It's learning to play together and building that chemistry. There were games I had a lot of shots (17 for 48 the first three games). Last game I didn't have as many (two of seven). Nothing to worry about.

"It's just the way we play that they have the ball. I think as a big man that's usually how it is; it's just the rough life of a big man," Vucevic said with a laugh. "The guards have more of the ball. It's fine. I think it's just more for me how to find my fit within all that. I understand that I might not be able to average what I averaged in Orlando, but it's totally fine. I think the guys understand that as well, so we're just trying to work on that. Obviously, we know that Zach and DeMar are primary scorers. I think after that there's a lot of opportunities for a lot of guys."

Nikola Vucevic shoots a jumper over Boston's Al Horford.

Nikola Vucevic shoots a jumper over Boston's Al Horford.

Since the Bulls are barely a shot or two from a perfect record, it's difficult to suggest there's anything wrong or dramatic changes are needed. And Vucevic was playing against All-Star center Joel Embiid Wednesday. And last week Rudy Gobert when Vucevic was four of 19. Vucevic has shot uncharacteristically poorly, a career low in overall shooting at about 39 percent and a six-year low in threes at 28 percent. But at the same time, Vucevic is doing other things well, leading the team in rebounds with a double/double season average of 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds, tied with Lonzo Ball for the team assists lead, and third on the team in steals and among the league leaders for centers.

Though Bulls coach Billy Donovan still prefers a more equalized—if not completely equal opportunity—offense.

"I think we all have to do a better job helping him," Donovan said. "I think there's times where he's in position where maybe the ball's getting there sometimes too early and he hasn't quite got a chance to get set. Or we're finding him too late and maybe he's not expecting it. I've gotta try to do a better job. I think Zach and DeMar and Lonzo and Alex (Caruso), guys that have the ball in their hands, gotta do a better job of finding him. They're all gonna have to take less to really want to win. And they're willing to do that. But, you know, DeMar gets 37 points on a pretty efficient night offensively against Philly. Zach had a really good efficient night going until the fourth quarter, where he didn't make a shot. So those two guys, for the most part through three quarters, are pretty efficient. But we (still) can't get to 100.

"We need Vooch," Donovan emphasized. "We need to be able to facilitate more. Zach's probably not gonna average as many points as he did the last two years here. Vooch, maybe he's not gonna average as much as he did in Orlando. And same thing with DeMar. But they're fine with that. It's all about them coexisting and working together. It's not gonna help us if his usage rate is what it was against Philly. We've gotta find a way to get him more involved, get him some more touches in the flow. We need Vooch to be who he is. But I think all those guys, probably their numbers would come down a little bit as they put winning as the most important thing."

It does appear to be an unselfish group of players who root for the other guys' success. Perhaps the conundrum Donovan faces is, as he said, DeRozan is shooting so well on so many shots. Should he then pass to someone else when he seems to have so much better chance to score? Similarly with LaVine, who is such valuable scorer, though perhaps hindered lately with his injured thumb.

It often was Michael Jordan's lament. "Heck, I've got a better chance against a double team than Earl Cureton or Ben Poquette wide open."

LaVine was averaging 33 points and seven of 14 on threes the first two games. In the four games since the injury in Toronto in Game 4, he's shot 24 percent on threes, but still averaging 26 points.

More for DeMar? Less for Zach? More for Vooch? Less for Lonzo, the point guard shooting 37 percent the last four?

Donovan wants that basketball moving a bit more than it has been the last few games, the opportunities coming for who's most open more than who's lately effective.

"I'm a big assists guy," said Donovan. "The first thing I always look at on a stat sheet is the assists. Vooch is the guy who's led us in assists the last two games; I think those guys' willingness to pass the ball or find the open man has been there. We certainly do not want DeMar or Zach just saying, 'Listen, all we want you to do is just score.' Because what ends up happening in games is teams scheme or trap ‘em or try to take the ball out of their hands.

"I think the best way a team can flow is if everybody's kind of involved, and if the ball does find the open man," Donovan continued. "It's not a situation where that guy hasn't taken a shot in two quarters, and now he's expected to make a shot because he's wide open. We've gotta find that balance. I think it's a hard balance to strike, but we've gotta find it. I want DeMar to be who he is. I think he's taking shots that he's really good at. I think Zach for the most part can be a little bit more aggressive and decisive in certain situations. But those guys I think have been pretty efficient, and we've gotta find a way they can help Vooch be more efficient, too. Because DeMar and Zach can do it off the dribble in screening actions with the ball in their hands. Vooch is gonna need, whether it's a post feed or somebody finding him in a pick-and-pop, he needs someone to find him. We've gotta find him more."

Which sounds good for a basketball clinic, but it may prove unrealistic for NBA games.

Nikola Vucevic is averaging 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds through Chicago's first eight games.

Nikola Vucevic is averaging 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds through Chicago's first eight games.

Vucevic just might have to be the guy who sacrifices a bit more offensively. Someone usually has to in these Big Three combinations.

It's perhaps why the Bulls formula was more feasible with Jordan and Scottie Pippen the principal actors, a clear hierarchy with a so called supporting cast of former and near star level players and the likes of Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc.

One ball into two is a lot simpler than one ball divided by three.

It all perhaps belies the popular conviction that a Big Three is the road to NBA riches.

Last season it was Giannis and two supporting occasional All-Stars. The year before it was LeBron and Anthony Davis, the latter a Pippenesque No. 2. And before that vacationing Kawhi with Guys Who Supposedly Had No Business Being There.

The Big Three lineage can be traced back to Boston and Russell, Cousy and Heinsohn and was perhaps most famously carried out by Bird, McHale and Parish and Magic, Kareem and Worthy. Even in those iterations, Robert Parish and James Worthy, respectively, ceded to supporting roles. Miami's infamous 2010 pairing of LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade sputtered until Wade began to defer to James in their second season and Bosh stepped outside the inner circle.

It may in the long run prove the Bulls most difficult puzzle to complete.

There seems little or no jealousy or resentment among the Bulls players, who appear to have welcoming personal chemistry. If anything, there may be more disappointment about not involving everyone and feelings and concern about how to do so.

What may be of larger benefit is while both DeRozan and Vucevic are in the prime of their careers, they've probably already negotiated their largest contracts. And LaVine no matter what he does seems assured of a substantial payday after this season as a free agent. The motivation for each appears at this point in their careers team success over individual accolades.

Which would presumably make it easier to sacrifice. Just how remains the question.

For now, it's been Vucevic.

"That was a huge part part of my game, the postups and something I did a lot," Vucevic acknowledged. "I don't get as many of those now. But we do have some plays for me to go there now as well and some games we do it more than others. But there are things for me to do out of rolls, out of play calls. So it is figuring out in the offense where I can get my touches and my spots.

"I always knew before I was getting my shots. In Orlando, everything was going through me," Vucevic pointed out. "Now I have to find my way a little bit and learning to play with these guys, learning how to play with DeMar and learning how to play with Lonzo and learning how to play with Zach and have a chemistry; that just takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. Some games are better; some not. Just part of the process."

Another process? And here come the 76ers.

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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