The trade deadline was bombastic for many teams. In a strange and shortened season, where the playoff rules are unique, many teams were forced to choose their own adventure: should we pursue the play-in spots or lean into the tank? As a result, the league experienced the most eventful trade deadline of the modern era.
If you’re interested in some deeper analysis of the larger deals executed this week, look no further than our most recent episode of Sense and Scalability. Above all others, there was no team who made a more impactful declaration of intent at the 2021 NBA trade deadline than the Chicago Bulls. New lead man Artūras Karnišovas sent a message: developing the GarPax core is no longer a priority. More specifically, it is time to win basketball games, and winning basketball games means building a roster that gives Zach LaVine the support he needs. With this intention, Chicago made two total trades (technically they roped the Celtics into the Wizards deal as a third team). Consequently, the Bulls overhauled the roster completely.
Bulls receive: Nikola Vučević, Al-Farouq Aminu
Magic receive: Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., 2021 first-round pick (top-four protected), 2023 first-round pick (top-four protected)
Bulls receive: Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr., Javonte Green, cash
Wizards receive: Daniel Gafford, Chandler Hutchison
Celtics receive: Moe Wagner, Luke Kornet
As you can see, Karnišovas turned over about 1/3 of the roster. The Bulls needed reconfiguration in the worst way. A losing mentality took root during the Boylen years. Significantly, the group had little faith when things got tough. That kind of culture does serious damage to the psyche of a team over time, and the Bulls were no exception.
Of course, resetting the deck is nice for a team that has performed poorly the past few seasons. That said, I don’t want to bury the lede here: the Chicago Bulls acquired the only all-star caliber player traded on deadline day in Nikola Vučević. Although we’ll discuss roster fit and on-court strategy later on, let’s first consider what these moves say about AK. Moreover, I want to talk about what this means for the Bulls’ goals going forward.
What does it all mean?
First and foremost, Artūras Karnišovas clearly stated that he is not afraid to take risks. He won’t shy away from making trades to improve the team. Given past heartbreak, it’s refreshing to see such candor about his willingness to evaluate and improve. To be sure, this respect for risk flies in the face of his predecessors, a duo so stingy and conservative that the Otto Porter Jr. trade was their biggest ever move.
Karnišovas is notoriously methodical in his assessment. However, he showed that he understands when enough evidence has been collected and the experiment is complete. When the time came to make moves, AK’s relationships around the league allowed him to find deals where less connected decisionmakers might not have.
Time for a Change
In past drafts, GarPax selected three consecutive dependent players at #7 overall. As we discussed in the offseason with good pal Mark Karantzoulis of the Bulls HQ podcast, Chicago never properly addressed primary creation concerns despite numerous chances to do so. The Bulls still have not added anyone that can fill this void. As a result, the developmental context was a mess, and it clearly affected the confidence of Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and Coby White. Ultimately, it was obvious to all that the time had come to shake things up.
As I’ve stated on countless past podcast appearances, vibes are important. The vibes should be better now. Of course, vibes aren’t everything. In the rest of this piece, I’ll break down each player acquired in the trade spree and discuss how they may fit into the bigger picture. More specifically, I’ll touch on micro-skills, consider the best utilization of these skills, and reflect on lineup synergy. No matter what Billy Donovan tries next, these deals guarantee the remainder of the season will be an exciting time for Bulls fans. In my completely unbiased opinion, it’s about damn time.
Nikola Vučević is a two time NBA all-star. A physically imposing and technically gifted offensive big, he utilizes his offensive versatility to make teams pay no matter how they choose to defend him. Notably, Vuc makes his money in P&R, where he can get two feet in the paint consistently as a roller, finish with soft touch near the rim, hit shooters as a short roll passer, or pop out to 3.
This offensive versatility has been a deadly weapon for the Orlando Magic so far this season. Vuc’s ability to score at all three levels synergizes extremely well with his court vision, spatial awareness, and willingness to get others involved. As a result, defenses struggle to predict what Vuc will do next, and he can leverage this chaos energy to wreck havoc on opposing units.
In the above clips, Nikola shows off roll gravity, advanced roll timing, secure hands on the catch, soft touch on the pop three, short roll playmaking, and a proclivity for rescreening that helps guards get open. These “soft skills” should make things easier on Zach LaVine, who frequently draws double teams but struggles to make plays out of pressure.
More importantly though, Vuc is a bucket. A center that shoots near league best on above-the-break threes is a constant threat that opposing P&R defenders must account for. Even a second of inattention can result in Nikola breaking free for an open three point shot.
Vuc weaponizes this unpredictability not just as a shooter (where he’s cashing 40.6% of his 6.9 3PA per 36min per Basketball Reference) but also as a passer (21.3% AST%, 93rd percentile among bigs per CtG).
Our own Scott Levine wrote a fantastic article on The Value of Stretch Participator Bigs, and Nikola Vučević demonstrates his value as both a participator and a finisher with a flourish. I’m drooling just thinking about the myriad actions one can run with a P&R duo of LaVine and Vuc.
Unfortunately, like many stretch participator bigs, Vučević has defensive concerns. In transition, Vuc is slow to get back due to his large frame and lack of downhill footspeed. In the half court, the Bulls utilize a drop scheme as their base coverage. This should help assuage initial integration into the roster as Nikola is familiar with drop from his Orlando days.
Drop fits well as a way to mask Vuc’s lack of lateral agility. A North-to-South removal of space is imperative with his skillset. Although he does well to use the rules of verticality when he does contest, Vučević arrives late to the party too often and is too conservative as a rim protector.
Sporting a low foul rate is nice (2.0% FOUL%, 98th percentile per Cleaning The Glass), but this foul rate is a result of lack of aggressiveness as a shot blocker. Indeed, The block numbers solidify the case. Vuc boasts an uninspiring 1.0% BLK% (per Cleaning the Glass) and it pops on tape. Generally, Nikola isn’t going to block the shot unless the driver jumps without a plan.
Unfortunately, these limitations mean that BD must play Nikola Vučević alongside a big forward known for his weakside help. This likely limits the spacing to a degree, although 4 in, 1 out is still plenty of room to operate.
Landing Daniel Theis was a stroke of good luck. Since Boston has slightly underperformed this season, ownership decided to duck the luxury tax. This meant that the Celtics had to trade a low-end starter in Theis. Chicago was more than happy to give him a new home.
I think Billy Donovan will deploy Theis in similarly to what he did with Steven Adams in Oklahoma City. Daniel Theis is an incredible screener. Whether rolling, re-screening, or handing off, he uses his wide base and strong lower body to deter defenders, creating more space for the ball handler.
Can you imagine how fucking frustrating it must be to play against Daniel Theis? Getting screened and re-screened into the shadow realm over and over again like a “so bad it’s good” basketball-themed “Groundhog Day” remake sounds like a nightmare.
However, Theis isn’t just a guy who knows how to take up space. He has worked hard throughout his career to develop as a shooter, and he’s useful there for sure. Theis shoots a passable 35.1% from 3 on respectable-for-a-center volume (3.3 attempts per 36 per Basketball Reference). At the very least, the threat and the willingness are enough to trick defenders into disadvantageous closeouts.
In addition, Theis is a pretty intelligent ball mover who corporealizes the principles of 0.5 second or less basketball. He likes to engage in the two man game, playing hot potato with the ball handler until a defender missteps and the jig is up. A starting caliber “pseudo-stretch” facilitator big that can come off the bench? That’s a dream come true for your boy.
Theis is surprisingly scheme versatile for such a strong guy. He acquits himself (mostly) well when forced to switch, although you wouldn’t necessarily game plan around it. He’s smart enough to soft hedge without giving up too much. However, his bread and butter is drop, and he does it well. Theis will probably step into the team as the best rim protector. This means he’ll be critical to making bench lineups work and countering specific matchup threats.
Troy Brown Jr.
Finally, calls to “free Troy Brown Jr.” have been answered.
TBJ gets a second chance after his development was deprioritized by a Wizards team that drafted Deni Avdija this summer. I especially love this acquisition because, although the Bulls sent out a worthy reclamation project in Wendell Carter Jr. in the Vuc deal, trading for TBJ brings one back (and from the same draft).
TBJ’s offensive game is the most compelling reason for optimism. He’s a pretty adept creator who sees passing angles others don’t. Although he’s mostly a reactive passer, he’s flashed some higher level reads. His physicality and size bely his savvy handle and manipulation of angles. The resulting combination is a walking mismatch.
For a handler his size, his strength gives him windows that others don’t have. He’s a good finisher at the rim (71%, 83rd percentile per CtG), but doesn’t take many there despite his touch and hang time. The tape suggests he’s taking tougher looks than he should. He seems unwilling or unable to get to the rim completely. The result is settling for tough floaters often, especially if he can’t attempt a pull-up jumper or pick a pass.
The elephant in the room here is the shot. Despite improvement since his college days, Brown Jr. still struggles from three point land, shooting an ok 35.1% but on miniscule volume (2.6 attempts per 36 per Basketball Reference).
As a career mid-60s free throw shooter, I’m not banking on TBJ ever becoming a plus shooter. That said, adding a somewhat reliable shot would make his off the dribble game more effective and create larger lanes, both for passing and finishing purposes. Sometimes I wonder if he prefers not to get all the way to the rim because he doesn’t want to get fouled and have to shoot.
TBJ seems to be an ok defender. As much as he lacks in the events creation department, Brown Jr. stays with his man and doesn’t get back cut often. I’m curious to see what lineups he plays with and what role he fulfills most often. Specifically, the bench unit sorely misses someone who can fight over a screen. Helping Coby White in this department would be a big value add.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Javonte Green
Listen, I know these guys are very different players and should probably have their own sections. I hear your concerns and I’m learning and growing. Just going to be honest here, I wrote this whole thing in one day and it’s getting late. More than likely, these guys won’t play that much. That said, I like their fit as rotational options on a team that desperately needs defense. In addition, the team has received complaints about competitive spirit in the past. These two should help there too.
Aminu has been in the league forever. The man is timeless. He’s had injury troubles that have slowed him down, but he still competes, and his positional savvy is impressive. Surprisingly, Aminu played more minutes than I thought this season and has performed well on the defensive end. AFA is a willing and able events creator. That could be a boon to a Chicago Bulls defense that ranks 20th in defensive TOV% per Cleaning the Glass.
Javonte Green hasn’t played much for Boston this season, but when he has, his athleticism and motor pop on the defensive end. He’s a really good lateral, north-south, and vertical athlete. He fights hard around screens and is strong enough to switch a little. While the Bulls did lose a highlight machine in Daniel Gafford, Bulls fans need not fear. Javonte Green is capable of some rim rockers too!
Lineup Construction, Fit, and Synergy
In the past, I have called for more actions with guard screeners and more dribble handoffs, and trading for Vuc should be able to unlock more avenues to both play types. In addition, adding another premier scorer gives structure to the hierarchy of the Bulls’ offense. No longer will Zach LaVine have to butt his head into the proverbial wall, forced to illuminate with his creation in rooms where no other light source exists. Now, Chicago can shift responsibility back and forth between their stars, leaving role players to move off ball and benefit from the increased space unlocked by the gravity of the leading duo.
Furthermore, rotations can be created with some degree of redundancy, if desired. The acquisition of Known Screen God Daniel Theis, who is recognized league-wide for his willingness to do “the little things”, means Chicago has a smart facilitator in the frontcourt no matter whether the bench or the starters are playing. On top of that, Troy Brown Jr. offers some creation from the wings, similar to what Patrick Williams has flashed.
From a defensive perspective the Bulls are lucky to have two strong combo forwards with some defensive versatility in Thad Young and Al-Farouq Aminu. Both guys are intelligent in rotation, especially in weakside help, and should pair well with Nikola Vučević in starting units and with Markkanen in bench looks.
Notably, PatWill also has a reputation as a savvy secondary rim protector, which means you can play with lineup size in lots of fun ways. That said, my personal pick for starting PF is Thad Young, as AFA is probably past his best days. On the other hand, Young has been a revelation this season.
Unfortunately, Billy Donovan’s picked Lauri Markkanen to partner Vuc in the front court. This makes little sense to me, as Markkanen provides next-to-nothing outside of three point shooting and the spacing it provides. In addition, Lauri is an awful defensive fit with Vuc as neither is a rim protector and neither is quick enough to defend anyone in space.
Admittedly, Billy did say early rotational decisions would not be indicative of any concrete lineup decisions. On top of that, it’s possible that Daniel Theis missing the Spurs game meant Thad was required to make the bench unit playable. However, once the roster is set and everybody is available aka tonight at 9pm central, I expect Lauri to move to the bench. Time will tell whether I’m correct.
To close this one out, I just want to say that I’m really happy. It’s nice to have direction. It’s fun to know the Bulls are trying to make the playoffs. As Ricky O’Donnell wrote in his recent piece, they’re finally acting like a big market team. I’m looking forward to future playoff series, competition, and growth. Sometimes, change is necessary. It’s time to evolve.
I have admittedly felt a little burned out by basketball at times this season, but the trade deadline has reinvigorated my love for the game. This new-look Bulls squad is a springtime breath of fresh air, and I’m excited to see what the future holds. First time in a long time. Let’s go.