Michael Jordan‘s career with the Chicago Bulls is almost universally seen as the best in the history of basketball with him leading the franchise to six NBA championships in eight years, winning five MVP awards, and setting a slew of team records. But not even Jordan ever posted a stat line as dominant as that of Bulls center Nikola Vucevic on Monday night in Chicago’s 130-118 demolition of the Atlanta Hawks.
While putting up 24 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and four made 3-pointers, the 7-foot Vucevic compiled a do-everything, stellar stat line never before duplicated (or exceeded) by an NBA player, per Statmuse. That sort of performance further affirmed why some NBA experts see Vucevic — and not star guards DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine — as the vital cog in the Bulls’ quest to rejoin the NBA’s championship chase at long last.
Vooch no stranger to putting up big numbers
Nikola Vucevic did a little bit of everything in Monday’s throttling of the Hawks, a usually stout defensive squad that swept the Bulls a season ago. He made nine of 19 shots and four of eight 3-point tries and grabbed four of his 17 rebounds on the offensive glass. After LaVine and DeRozan battered the Hawks for a combined 44 first-half points, Vucevic hit Atlanta with 19 points over the final 24 minutes. The dagger was the center’s banked-in 3-pointer with slightly more than three minutes to play that boosted Chicago’s lead to lead and sent it on its way to a fourth straight victory.
Vucevic, a two-time NBA All-Star, is no stranger to huge performances for the Bulls. On Nov. 29, he reminded the Charlotte Hornets and his former coach with the Orlando Magic, James Borrego, just how dominant he can be when he’s aggressive and seeking out shots. That night, Vucevic hammered the Hornets for 30 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and six made 3-pointers. In addition to making 12 of 19 shots and all six 3-point heaves, he helped the Bulls to a somewhat astounding plus-31 on the scoreboard during his time on the floor.
That dominant performance — and the one he authored on Monday in Atlanta — is what the Bulls expected when they dealt for the big man at last season’s trade deadline. At times, Vucevic’s unselfishness and team-first mentality have led to him deferring to LaVine and DeRozan. But on Monday, Vucevic offered a reminder why long-time NBA coach Doc Rivers once referred to the center as “the most overlooked player in the NBA.”
Of course, many NBA fans overlooked Vucevic early in his career because the Magic teams he played on were mostly awful. Vucevic quietly developed into one of the NBA’s best all-around players despite playing in relative anonymity in Orlando.
In 591 games with the Magic from 2012-21, the center compiled 354 double-doubles and three triple-doubles. However, most of Vucevic’s work was in vain as the Magic were stuck in rebuilding mode for years and were never even in the playoff picture. He finally made some headway in 2019 when he made the NBA All-Star Team for the first time in his career and led the Magic to the 2019 NBA playoffs.
Vucevic, DeRozan, LaVine, Ball forming Bulls’ “Big 4”
Make no mistake about it: The Chicago Bulls are all-in on trying to become championship contenders again. And, quite frankly, it’s about time for a once-proud franchise that hasn’t been in the playoffs since the 2016-17 season and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2014-15.
Chicago has backed up its desire to win by aggressively adding weapons. After hiring head coach Billy Donovan last season, the Bulls surrendered two first-round draft picks to acquire Vucevic in a deal with the Magic. And this past summer, they opened their checkbook to ink DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso to free-agent deals.
The result has been a Bulls team that sits at 21-10 and second in the Eastern Conference. Chicago started 4-0 and 6-1 before ultimately winning 12 of its first 17 games despite enduring a team-wide bout with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lately, the Bulls followed up a two-game skid with a four-game winning spree capped by Monday’s mastery of Atlanta.
DeRozan (27 PPG and 4.4 APG) has paired nicely with LaVine (26.4 PPG and 4.4 APG) as Chicago’s go-to scorers, while Ball (13.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 5.0 APG) and Caruso (8.0 PPG, 4.0 APG, and 2.0 SPG) have given the Bulls some heady point guard play.
But it’s Vucevic (15.8 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, and 1.2 BPG) who might be the most important piece in helping Chicago contend again. This season, he has 14 double-doubles, five 20-point nights, and 10 games with multiple made 3s. As he proved again on Monday in Atlanta, Vucevic can fill up a box score by making winning plays that the Bulls will need to go deep in the playoffs come spring.
“I think Vooch has found a way to fit with those other two guys, and it’s been nice to watch,” acting Bulls head coach Chris Fleming said to The Associated Press, referring to LaVine and DeRozan. “It’s been a big part of our success.”
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference