Did the Chicago Bulls truly win the Nikola Vucevic for Wendell Carter Jr. trade from last season?
There’s no question that when the Chicago Bulls completed the trade to acquire Nikola Vucevic, they were in win-now mode. Even though it initially resulted in Chicago finding themselves two games out of the play-in tournament, they had one more year with Zach Lavine under contract to send this team to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The Bulls were willing to do whatever it took to upgrade their roster. That is why they sent away Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks (2021 and 2023) to the Orlando Magic, to obtain Vucevic for roughly 2.5 seasons.
The argument alone of who won this trade is an intriguing one. Porter Jr. is playing a key role coming off the bench for the Golden State Warriors, including a couple of spot-starts due to injuries. Franz Wagner, who the Magic drafted with the 2021 draft pick from Chicago is nearly a shoo-in to make the All-Rookie First Team, and will likely see his name on a few Rookie of the Year (ROY) ballots. Then, there is the sweetener of Chicago’s 2023 first-round pick, which right now projects to likely be later in the round.
However, there is one key piece of this trade, that stands above the highly touted aforementioned assets. A player who is having a breakout season. The 22-year-old center, Wendell Carter Jr.
At the time, the trade seemed like a clear win for the Bulls. Nikola Vucevic was coming off his second All-Star appearance, and averaging a double-double (24.5 PPG and 11.8 RPG) while shooting above 40 percent from 3-point land.
On the other side, Carter Jr. was a young former seventh-round pick. A player who showed a bit of promise, but didn’t project to be much past a good backup, or a below-average to average level starting center.
The number eight pick, which they got Wagner with also isn’t much to gawk at. Just look at the years prior: Players such as Frank Ntilikina, Marquese Chriss, and Stanley Johnson were drafted at that slot. Even the better picks were players in the realm of “We don’t want to pay him Collin Sexton,” or “Is he a center or power forward Jaxson Hayes.”
Even Otto Porter Jr. is looking like a productive role player again, albeit in a lesser role.
Nevertheless! We are not here to evaluate the trade as a whole, because I may fully lean towards Orlando if we did that (Hot take or not). I want to solely look into the battle of the bigs.
Both centers made sense for their respective teams at the start of the season. As I mentioned before, Vucevic was coming off an All-Star appearance, and with the offseason sign-and-trade to acquire DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls were clearly assembling a team to compete in the playoffs.
Orlando on the other hand, was entering their 10th year of a rebuild, despite making a couple of playoff appearances in 2019 and 2020.
There was never a thought which crossed anyone’s mind that Carter Jr. was the better player. Vucevic more than doubled Carter’s point production, on a more efficient clip last season.
The way this season has gone though, I feel like there is a slight debate between the two.
Now, I know people are going to attempt to bring up the “big fish in a small pond” analogy because that was always the argument for Vucevic’s high level of production in Orlando. Carter is playing alongside three ball-dominant guards and starts out of position with Mo Bamba logging the starting center minutes.
On top of that, Carter Jr. has averaged 29.4 minutes per game, with a usage rate of 20.2 percent up to this point of the season. Vucevic exceeds both of those stats, averaging 33.9 minutes per game, with a usage rate of 24.4 percent.
We can start by simply looking at efficiency. Carter Jr. is posting shooting splits of 50/32/70, eclipsing Vucevic in every area aside from the free-throw line, as he is putting up 47/31/77.
Look at this sweet 3-point stroke that Carter Jr. simply hasn’t possessed before this season.
If you read that and said, “Zach, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage are a terrible way of measuring efficiency!” To which I would reply, “I agree.” The thing is, Carter has a higher true shooting percentage (58.9% – 53.4%), and an effective field goal percentage (56.2% – 51.9%) as well.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just using these stats to proclaim that Carter is a better shooter. Lots more go into a shooting debate than a few statistics.
As far as defense goes, I’m not sure it’s quite close. The stats and advanced metrics would lean slightly in Carter Jr.’s direction, but the way he can switch onto the perimeter, and protect the rim, far exceeds the level in which Vucevic simply sits in the paint causing a deterrence.
As you can see, statistically and production-wise, the players have been quite similar this season. I think going by an eye test, you would still have to lean towards Vucevic. His footwork, and ability to create his own shot still eclipses what Carter Jr. can do with the ball.
However, stats and skill-level aside, are we sure that Nikola Vucevic is a better fit next to the duo of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan? Obviously, no one could have seen this level of production from DeRozan coming from a mile away.
As a Raptors fan, I’ve always fought for how underrated he is as a player. A mid-range assassin, and a guy who has grown as a playmaker, he has elevated himself onto MVP ballots.
So with two ball-dominant wings, both of whom are All-Star caliber players, why would you need a center who requires the ball to be productive? I understand simply by spacing the floor, Vucevic provides off-ball productivity, but as I previously mentioned, Carter Jr. has that ability too this season.
I know that none of Lonzo Ball, DeRozan, or LaVine necessarily thrive running pick-and-roll, and are much more isolation oriented (or run-and-gun for Ball), but wouldn’t a big who can dive or pop out be more effective than a big who prefers to sit in the post and wait for an entry pass?
Not to mention, having a springy, switchable, rim-protecting center is always the better option on the defensive end. Especially when your perimeter lacks defensive talent. Although I won’t be a full hater, I know the Bulls started off the season strong on the defensive end and then proceeded to lose their three best defenders in Ball, Alex Caruso, and Patrick Williams.
The Chicago Bulls currently sit in a tie for first place in the East, with the Miami Heat. So I’m sure they’re perfectly content with Vucevic starting at center. I would be too! This piece in no way was to blame Vucevic for any of the Bulls’ deficiencies. It was to raise awareness on a debate that I think needs to be more vocalized.
Wendell Carter Jr. has been having a fantastic season and one that is arguably better than Vucevic’s. So when you pair that with the fact that he’s nine years younger, roughly $15 million cheaper, the reality that the Magic drafted rookie sensation Franz Wagner with the Bulls pick, and they contain another first-rounder from Chicago, you can make a legitimate argument for which team won the trade.