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Overtime loss to Orlando Magic raises familiar ‘what if’ question

Games against the Orlando Magic will always trigger “what if” woes 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 they’re 0-3 against Orlando this season despite finishing every game by six points or less. Saturday’s loss left the Bulls in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, while the Magic moved into seventh, leaving them just half a game out of a playoff berth.

Three years after Vučević arrived in Chicago and two days after the Bulls They met their third consecutive deadlineSaturday’s loss raised a familiar question: How does this game-changing trade hold up today?

Artūras Karnišovas, executive vice president of basketball operations, announced on March 21, 2021 that Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and sending away a pair of first-round picks, ushering in one of the most aggressive stretches of his entire career as an NBA executive. He goes to Magic in exchange for Vučević and Al-Farouq Aminu.

The Bulls’ front office doesn’t put much value on the trade deadline in the grand scheme of trade opportunities. Karnišovas made it meticulously 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 at the trade deadline and that was one of the best records. So how do you get even better at the trade deadline? It’s very hard to do.”

But the trade at the 2021 deadline was the first step in a larger plan, and was followed by four trades in the following five months; which resulted in the arrival of Alex Caruso as well as DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.

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 look to find success with the core of an initially assembled roster. So it was perhaps fitting that two days after Karnišovas opted not to make any moves at the third consecutive trade deadline, the Bulls stopped in Orlando for a semiannual look at one of the most gripping alternate universe scenarios.

Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan passes as Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz and forward Franz Wagner block a path to the basket on Saturday, February 10, 2024 in Orlando, Florida.(John Raoux/Associated Press)

Some assets in 2021 trading were not effective. Porter was traded to the Utah Jazz this week after playing little minutes for two years with the Toronto Raptors. Aminu is no longer in the league. Anthony Black, whom the Magic drafted with the last pick from the Bulls last summer, can barely crack the rotation when the roster is fully healthy.

However, three players stand out: Vučević, Carter and Franz Wagner, whom Magic selected with the 8th overall pick in 2021 out of Chicago’s first round picks.

Carter averaged 15.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists in his first two seasons in Orlando. He suffered a slight setback this year due to a fracture in his left (non-shooting) hand, and averaged 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 27 games, approaching his Chicago numbers. He had a quiet night against the Bulls on Saturday, scoring six points and grabbing three rebounds and was benched in overtime.

While Carter’s development is notable, Wagner’s breakout success and potential ceiling promise is a more pressing question mark for the Bulls.

Wagner received Rookie of the Year votes after bursting onto the scene with the Magic and 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, scoring 21 points in the second half and making overtime on 4-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc.

Wagner’s promise and Carter’s development are undeniable. So the question for the Bulls is simple: Was it worth giving it up for Vučević?

The first 18 months in Chicago were difficult for Vučević. He struggled to adapt to his new role and became frustrated when the offense left him behind the three-point line. But over the past two seasons, the center has taken on a crucial role as a facilitator in the paint for the Bulls.

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