Bulls take big step toward turnaround with deal for Vucevic

The Chicago Bulls acquired an All-Star center and sent a loud message to the rest of the NBA with one blockbuster trade.

They’re serious about becoming a contender. And they’re ready to welcome top free agents.

The Bulls pulled off their first major trade since Arturas Karnisovas was hired to lead their basketball operation last spring by acquiring two-time All-Star center Nikola Vucevic from Orlando prior to Thursday’s deadline. They also added Al-Farouq Aminu in the deal and sent Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two future first-round selections with certain lottery protections to the Magic.

"We’re trying to improve our team," Karnisovas said. "That was an opportunity. You don’t get so many opportunities to improve with players like that. I think we’ve done pretty well today."

Vucevic is averaging a career-best 24.5 points and 11.8 rebounds in his 10th NBA season and ninth in Orlando. He has two full seasons remaining after this one on the four-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2019.

Vucevic gives the Bulls another go-to scorer to complement All-Star Zach LaVine in what could be a potent duo. He works well in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop and can stretch defenses.

The trade also signals a commitment to LaVine with one more season left on the four-year, $78 million deal he signed in 2018. And it shows they are serious about emerging as a contender and establishing themselves as a destination for top free agents.

"We want Chicago to be an attractive destination for free agents," Karnisovas said. "For us, we evaluated it, had a sample size of more than 40 games. ... We’re serious here about winning. We’re serious about the culture of being very competitive. Any opportunity we get to make this team better, we will."

That they can sell other players on teaming with two All-Stars is "a huge thing."

"You don’t get so many opportunities," Karnisovas said. "Teams for years chase those kind of players. And we did it at the trade deadline, so I’m very excited."

Carter, the No. 7 overall pick in 2018, never developed into the cornerstone player the previous regime hoped he would become. He missed time because of injuries in each of his three seasons and recently lost his starting job to veteran Thaddeus Young.

The Bulls are 10th in the Eastern Conference at 19-24 and on pace for their fourth straight losing season. But their outlook is far different than it was before Karnisovas was hired out of Denver’s front office.

The Bulls were 22-43 with the season paused due to the pandemic. And they were one of the eight teams not to qualify for the restart at Walt Disney World.

Karnisovas fired Jim Boylen and replaced him with one of the top coaches available when he hired Billy Donovan in September.

The Bulls remained busy after the Vucevic trade, completing a three-team trade with Boston and Washington.

They dealt forward Chandler Hutchison and forward/center Daniel Gafford to the Wizards and center Luke Kornet to the Celtics. The Bulls got forward Troy Brown Jr. from Washington, as well as center Daniel Theis (Tice) and guard Javonte Green from Boston.

One big question going forward is at point guard. Coby White has shown some promise in his two seasons, but lost his starting job to Tomas Satoransky.

"We’re satisfied right now (with) who we have," Karnisovas said. "Those guys have been playing pretty well. The last couple games the guys were a little uptight. I can feel that, emotionally, leading to the trade deadline. I think getting another additional facilitator on offense like Nikola is gonna make guard play much easier."

Lauri Markkanen’s future is also up in the air. The 7-footer from Finland has an expiring contract after he and the team were unable to agree to an extension prior to the season.

But on Thursday, the Bulls made a big and bold statement.

"Our opportunity today was great," Karnisovas said. "We improved our team today."