Looking back at the trade that doomed the Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls duo (Matt Marton-USA TODAY)
Chicago Bulls duo (Matt Marton-USA TODAY) /

Looking back at the trade that ended up dooming the Chicago Bulls and their efforts to win now. 

It’s not hard to find NBA trades that became disasters for one franchise but incredible opportunities for another. However, the Chicago Bulls-Orlando Magic deal from two trade deadlines ago appears more lopsided with each passing day.

In March of 2021, the Chicago Bulls acquired center Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., and two lightly protected first-round picks. The trade came out of nowhere. The Magic and Bulls were both at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2021 and appeared to each be in rebuild mode.

But the Bulls had a plan. That summer, Chicago’s front office made aggressive moves to make the team a contender: they traded for a star in DeMar DeRozan and acquired some of the game’s best role players in Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball.

Almost overnight, the team transmuted into a win-now mentality. The front office had grown impatient with losing and wanted to expedite their rebuild. Indeed, the Bulls are one of the most prolific franchises in professional sports but haven’t reached an NBA Finals since they had Micheal Jordan.

Chicago’s plan has, unsurprisingly, backfired. The team made progress in the standings last season but was blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls have all but collapsed this year, falling at the moment to the ninth seed in the East with their best players being in constant trade rumors.

Where it all went wrong for the Chicago Bulls

Many fingers have pointed at Nikola Vucevic. Vuc has never been a good defender and all of his offensive statistics have decreased since he left Orlando. Advanced metrics paint a much more unflattering picture – he has a mere 1.7 RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement in 2022-23, in comparison with his peak of 10.2 in 2018-19. Not who the Bulls traded for.

By contrast, the assets given up have been absolutely golden for the Orlando Magic. At the time of the trade, Wendell Carter Jr. was a 21-year-old seventh-overall pick who was still unproven at the NBA level. Two years later, Carter is one of the best young centers in the league who is only getting better. He is a foundational piece to Magic’s rebuild and has a higher WAR this season than Vucevic.

The first pick that Orlando received became Franz Wagner, a German-born product of the University of Michigan. Wagner is just 21 but is already considered one of the best young players in the league. He quickly showed that he’s a winning NBA player and there is no telling how far a player of his athleticism and frame can climb.

Even this season, Carter and Wagner are each staggeringly more productive than Vucevic this season, and can reasonably be all-star or even all-NBA players in the coming seasons.

The other pick the Bulls gave to the Magic is a top-4 protected first-round selection this season. This puts the Bulls in an even tougher spot as tanking would just give the Magic an even better selection. At least they won’t lose the chance to draft Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henerson.

Vucevic has, to his credit, stayed healthy, unlike his teammates Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. He will become a free agent after this season and the Bulls don’t seem too eager to re-sign the 32-year-old big man. The Bulls lost some of the best young players in the league, and whatever this pick will become, for one pretty lousy playoff run.

Chicago’s failure should be a message to front offices trying to cut corners in their rebuild: be patient. The Bulls’ trade for Vucevic stemmed from anxiety that they hadn’t had a championship team in decades and needed to rejuvenate the franchise. It led very quickly to turmoil.

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The Magic, by contrast, was willing to take things slow with their rebuild, as small-market teams are apt to do. They have in turn developed one of the best young cores in the NBA, and much of it is thanks to Chicago’s misplaced aggressive team-building.