Nikola Vučević's impact on Bulls, Zach LaVine is already evident

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Rob Schaefer
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Early impressions of Vučević's impact on Bulls, LaVine originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Seven NBA players are currently averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Only two -- Elton Brand and Artis Gilmore -- have cleared those benchmarks in Bulls history.

In six games since the trade deadline, Nikola Vučević is averaging 22.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The team is 2-4 in that stretch, which, yes, is less than ideal. But it also means there’s room to grow, and the Bulls appear to be progressing in that process.

In advance of a road bout against the Toronto Raptors Thursday night, some early impressions of the Vučević era:

Seismic stylistic shift

Before March 25, the Bulls ranked eighth in the NBA in Pace, averaging 101.07 possessions per game, and 21st in post-ups per game, averaging 6.3. In six games since: 18th in Pace (98.5) and first in post-ups per game (a whopping 18.2).

Call it the “Vooch” effect.

Vučević is using 8.3 of those post-ups per night and shooting 15-for-21 (71.4 percent) out of them. Though he only has four assists from the post since joining the Bulls -- a statistic in which he currently leads the NBA for the full season -- it’s already evident how his presence can and will bend defenses and open cracks for his teammates to exploit, whether that be by drawing double-teams, misdirecting opponents with his eyes and ball-fakes (something Vučević is adept at), or subconsciously diverting off-ball defenders’ attention away from their man.

Vučević’s versatility to hub out of handoffs, the short-roll and post mean the more acclimated he gets, the more offense the Bulls will likely run through him. His 73.5 touches per game leads the team, and his 47 frontcourt touches ranks fifth in the NBA, since the trade deadline. It’s clear Donovan is once again living up to his reputation of being adaptable in his schemes based on his players’ comfort.

“We discussed that (post-ups) quite a bit,” Vučević said of his initial conversations with Donovan. “He asked me what kind of plays I like to run to get into the post. Once I catch in the post, what kind of movement I like, you know, (as) the passer what I like to do. To cut or stay. Whether to go set screens for other people. The weak side, what I like players to do. So it's something that we talked about and it's something that we do want to explore and I think it can be very efficient for us. When I catch it in the post with all the shooting we have out there it opens up a lot of space for me to go to work. And then if they come to dig or double-team I can kick it out and we have guys that can make plays.”

(Ancillary factor alert in the Pace conversation, specifically: Despite a 21-turnover night in Indiana on Tuesday, the Bulls’ turnovers have been down since the deadline. Less turnovers equals less possessions, and Vučević, for what it’s worth, has been a low-turnover player his entire career. That’s carried over in Chicago so far; he has just seven cough-ups since joining the Bulls, and four of those came against the Pacers.)

LaVine-Vučević two-man game

The potential potency of the two-man game between Zach LaVine and Vučević was perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Bulls’ active deadline day.

Even as LaVine has battled an ankle sprain -- missing one game, and admitting even after the Pacers win he’s still getting his timing back -- there have been flashes of what will ultimately make that action so difficult to guard.

On the dive, Vučević has inordinately soft hands -- "He can catch pretty much everything... It just seems like he has a mitt," LaVine said -- and is a sharp short-roll playmaker, making it more difficult than ever for opposing teams to double LaVine off of screens, especially with proper spacing and timely cutting around them:

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And, of course, the threat of the pop always looms. Vučević has buried 35.7 percent of his 3-point tries (all above the break) and 48.3 percent of his midrange attempts as a Bull, and clearly has a quick trigger. The scary part is that 3-point accuracy rate is still nearly five points below his season-long mark of 40.2 percent.

In the third quarter of that Pacers game especially, LaVine and Vučević’s two-man chemistry looked the closest it has to being fully realized since the deadline. There are so many ways to puncture a defense with that simple two-man set as a starting point given the gravity each attracts, and that’s begun playing out in practice more and more.

Lineup combinations

Vučević played 21 minutes alongside Markkanen in their first game together, a defensively disastrous loss to the Spurs which Markkanen started. In five games since, Vučević and Markkanen have shared the floor for 45 minutes total.

To the surprise of precious few, Young has been Vučević’s best frontcourt partner. Over a smallish, six-game sample size (113 minutes), the Bulls own a plus-2.4 net rating -- 114.6 offensive, 112.2 defensive -- with Young and Vučević on the floor together, compared to the team’s minus-3.0 net rating, overall. Young’s defensive malleability, post play and ability to facilitate from all over the floor makes him a fit in almost any configuration, and Vučević’s long-range marksmanship covers for his lack of floor-spacing (Young is 6-for-25 from deep on the season).

The defense will be something to continue monitoring, because the Bulls are allowing 114 points per 100 possessions since the deadline, good for 23rd in the NBA. They’ve looked better on that end since the second half of their loss to the Phoenix Suns, and have at least been dominant on the glass, ranking first in defensive rebound rate (pulling down 80.9 percent of available boards on that end) since March 25. 

Vučević’s impact there cannot be overstated. With him on the floor, the Bulls are collecting 80.4 percent of available defensive rebounds; when he sits, that percentage dips to 71.1 percent -- roughly the difference between ranking first in the NBA in defensive rebound rate (by a chasm) and 28th. The Bulls are limiting opponents to just 8.5 second-chance points per game since the trade, also first in the league.

Who’s being affected on the margins?

Thad Young

Young’s brilliance has been parroted far and wide all season, and he’s only gotten better since Vučević’s arrival, scoring in double-figures in each of the Bulls’ last six games and averaging 15 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists -- all better than his already-stellar pre-deadline averages.

Before the deadline, Young was playing the highest share of his minutes at center of his career -- by a lot -- but more time at power forward has afforded him increased opportunities to bruise mismatches, a favorite pastime of the 14-year vet. In 32 fewer minutes, Young has just one fewer post-up than Vučević since the trade -- averaging 8.2 in just 26.1 minutes per game -- and has slung more than twice as many assists out of the post (10).

“I was attacking 5s (centers) as opposed to attacking 4s (power forwards),” Young, who averaged 3.3 post-ups per game before March 25, said. “Now, 1 through 4 teams are switching. They don’t really switch too much 1 through 5. So I’m kind of attacking smaller guys now, taking advantage of mismatches.

“We know if I start posting smaller guys and -- as Coach (Donovan) would call it, ‘housing’ guys down there -- if I start doing that then they come with doubles. And I’m able to pass out of doubles and make the reads necessary for us to win basketball games.”

Patrick Williams

The rookie has scored in double-figures in four of the six Vučević-era games and is shooting 56.9 percent since the deadline -- 75 percent in the restricted area, where 20 of his 51 attempts (a tremendous 39.2 percent rate) have come.

With the built-in advantage playing off of two gravitational offensive players in Vučević and LaVine, Williams’ burst cutting and attacking closeouts will have every opportunity to shine moving forward. He’s shooting 6-for-8 on 2-point shots generated by passes from Vučević, according to tracking data.

Lauri Markkanen

Markkanen, conversely, has gotten a bit squeezed. He’s averaging just 24.7 minutes since the Spurs game, and that includes a 34-minute outing against the Suns, a contest he spot-started with LaVine out.

Donovan has run Markkanen at backup small forward a bit with frontcourt minutes at a premium, but that’s a non-ideal position for him. Markkanen’s best game -- a 15-point, three 3-pointer outing on Tuesday -- came with Daniel Theis out and against a shrunken, shorthanded Pacers frontcourt. His continued acclimation to a reserve role will bear watching.

RELATED: Donovan defines new roles for Markkanen, White with Bulls

Zach LaVine

LaVine looks to be on his way back to 100 percent after being hampered by that sprained ankle for a number of games. But with Vučević in tow, he hasn’t needed to be his typical, uber-efficient self as he re-finds his rhythm. 

LaVine is averaging 22 points on cumulative 14-for-35 shooting in the Bulls’ last two game, both wins. Vučević, meanwhile, is averaging 27 points, 14.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in that span, shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from 3-point range. Since joining the team, Vučević is averaging 17.8 shot attempts per game to LaVine’s 17.6… Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

“Even a game like this where my shot wasn't going as much, you're not as pressed to have all the pressure on you to go out there and go try to save the game,” LaVine said after the Pacers win, in which he shot 6-for-18. “We can run a play, just dump it down to him (Vučević) and I know that we're gone be OK. It's a relief.”

LaVine’s turnovers -- 2.6 per game -- are also down since the trade, the benefit of having an All-Star release valve to lean on (albeit over a small sample size). He finally has his running-mate.

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