Matchups against the Orlando Magic will always raise “what if” issues for Chicago Bulls fans.
That was as true as ever in Saturday’s 114-108 overtime loss in Orlando. The Bulls are 4-7 against the Magic in the nearly three years since acquiring Nikola Vučević, and are 0-3 against Orlando this season despite finishing every game with a margin of six points or less. Saturday’s loss kept the Bulls stuck in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, while the Magic jumped to seventh place with just a half-game separating them from a playoff position.
Three years after Vučević arrived in Chicago and two days after the Bulls stood firm in his third consecutive termSaturday’s loss raised a familiar question: How does that game-changing trade hold up today?
Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas began one of the most aggressive stretches of his entire career as an NBA executive on March 21, 2021, when he sent out Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and a pair of first round players. he chooses the Magic in exchange for Vučević and Al-Farouq Aminu.
The Bulls front office does not highly value the deadline to make changes in the general scheme of negotiation opportunities. Karnišovas made it very clear this week.
“I think at (the) trade deadline, usually those trades don’t make you better,” Karnišovas said. “Last year we were 14-9 after the trade deadline and that was one of the best records. So how can you get even better at (the) trade deadline? It is very difficult to do.”
But the 2021 deadline trade was the first step in a larger plan, followed by a flurry of four trades over the next five months, resulting in the arrivals of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, as well as the signing of Alex Caruso.
Since then, the Bulls have made just one trade (moving to the second round of last year’s draft to select Julian Phillips) as they try to find success with the core of that roster as originally assembled. So perhaps it was fitting that two days after Karnišovas decided not to make a move at his third straight trade deadline, the Bulls stopped in Orlando for a semiannual look at one of their most exciting alternate universe scenarios.
Some assets in 2021 trading had no impact. Porter was traded to the Utah Jazz this week after two years of playing few minutes with the Toronto Raptors. Aminu is no longer in the league. Anthony Black, whom the Magic selected last summer with the Bulls’ last pick, hardly makes the rotation when the roster is completely healthy.
But three players stand out: Vučević, Carter and Franz Wagner, whom the Magic selected at No. 8 in 2021 with the first of Chicago’s first-round picks.
Carter took a step forward in his first two seasons in Orlando, averaging 15.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists. This year has been a slight regression as he had to deal with a fracture in his left hand (the one he doesn’t shoot), getting closer to his Chicago numbers with an average of 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 27 games. . He had a quiet night against the Bulls on Saturday, posting six points and three rebounds and coming off the bench in overtime.
While Carter’s improvement has drawn attention, Wagner’s breakout success (and the promise of his potential ceiling) is the most pressing question mark for the Bulls.
Wagner earned Rookie of the Year votes after bursting onto the scene with the Magic and has since averaged 17.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists in his first three seasons in the league. He showed off his explosive scoring on Saturday, dropping 21 points in the second half and overtime on 4-of-10 shooting from behind the arc.
Wagner’s promise and Carter’s growth are undeniable. So the question for the Bulls is simple: Was it worth giving up that for Vučević?
The first 18 months in Chicago were difficult for Vučević. He struggled to fit into his new role and became frustrated when the offense left him stranded behind the 3-point arc. But over the past two seasons, the center has taken on a crucial role for the Bulls as a facilitator through the paint.
Vučević has been adaptable during his time in Chicago, accepting a lower volume of shots and embracing a recent switch to a two-big lineup alongside Andre Drummond. And although he is no longer the offensive centerpiece, Vučević is a key contributor to the Bulls’ offense, posting his fifth straight 20-point game in Orlando.
Although Vučević will always prioritize matchups against his former team, the center said he no longer feels the pain of the trade. Vučević established a relationship with Carter after the trade and the pair now train over the summer with the same coach in Orlando. Despite early problems, Vučević believes the exchange was ultimately positive for both sides.
“I think it worked out pretty well for both of us,” Vučević said. “He has been playing very well for them and I think he fits very well into the team they have. And for me, Chicago has been a good fit. He was in a situation of finding a new place to reset and to me, he was simply trying to go to a team that he was trying to beat now. So it worked out well for both of us.”
Analyzing the success of an operation means working on the hypothetical. There’s no guarantee, for example, that the Bulls would have selected Wagner if they had kept that pick. Or that Carter would have made the recent move on him if he had stayed in Chicago.
But three years later, the Bulls and Magic are still stuck on a conflictive path: stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference as they fight for play-in qualification.