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Chicago Bulls’ OT loss to the Orlando Magic following a quiet trade deadline prompts the familiar ‘what if’

Matchups against the Orlando Magic will always prompt the “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 they acquired Nikola Vučević — and they’ve gone 0-3 against Orlando this season despite finishing every game with a margin of six or fewer points. Saturday’s loss kept the Bulls mired at ninth in the Eastern Conference while the Magic leaped to seventh with only a half-game separating them from a playoff position.

Three years after Vučević arrived in Chicago and two days after the Bulls stood pat at their third consecutive deadline, Saturday’s loss dredged a familiar question — how does that game-changing trade hold up today?

Executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas kicked off one of the most aggressive spans of his entire career as an NBA executive on March 21, 2021, when he sent Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and a pair of first-round draft picks to the Magic in exchange for Vučević and Al-Farouq Aminu.

The Bulls front office does not highly value the trade deadline in the overall scheme of trade-making opportunities. Karnišovas made that painstakingly 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 do you improve even better at (the) trade deadline? It’s very hard to do.”

But the 2021 deadline trade was the first step in a larger plan, followed by a flurry of four trades in the ensuing five months, which resulted in the arrival of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in addition to Alex Caruso’s signing.

Since then, the Bulls have made only one trade — moving into the second round of last year’s draft to select Julian Phillips — as they attempt to find success with the core of that roster as originally assembled. So it was fitting, perhaps, that two days after Karnišovas elected not to make any moves at his third consecutive trade deadline, the Bulls stopped in Orlando for the semi-annual glimpse at one of their most gripping alternate universe scenarios.

Some assets in the 2021 trade weren’t impactful. Porter was traded to the Utah Jazz this week after two years of getting sparse minutes with the Toronto Raptors. Aminu is no longer in the league. Anthony Black — who the Magic drafted last summer with the last pick from the Bulls — hardly cracks the rotation when the roster is fully healthy.

But three players command attention: Vučević, Carter and Franz Wagner, who the Magic selected at No. 8 in 2021 with the first of Chicago’s first-round picks.

Carter took a step up in his first two seasons in Orlando, averaging 15.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists. This year has been a light regression as he dealt with a fracture in his left (non-shooting) hand, dipping closer to his Chicago numbers with an average of 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds across 27 games. He had a quiet night against the Bulls on Saturday, tallying six points and three rebounds and riding the bench in overtime.

While Carter’s improvement drew attention, Wagner’s breakout success — and the promise of his potential ceiling — is the more 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 showcased his explosive scoring on Saturday, dropping 21 points in the second half and overtime on 4-for-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 it to give that up for Vučević?

The first 18 months in Chicago were hard for Vučević. He struggled to fit into his new role and felt frustrated when the offense left him stranded behind the 3-point arc. But over the last two seasons, the center has clicked into a crucial role for the Bulls as a facilitator through the paint.

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Vučević has been adaptable throughout his time in Chicago, accepting a lower volume of shots and embracing a recent shift to a two-big lineup alongside Andre Drummond. And although he’s no longer the offensive centerpiece, Vučević is a key contributor to the Bulls’ offense, notching 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 sting of the trade. Vučević established a relationship with Carter following the trade and the pair now work out during the summer with the same trainer in Orlando. Despite early growing pains, Vučević feels the trade was ultimately a positive for both sides.

“I think it worked out pretty well for both of us,” Vučević said. “He’s been playing really well for them and I think he fits really well for the team they have. And for me, it’s been a good fit in Chicago. He was in a situation to find a new place to kind of reset and for me, I was just trying to go to a team that was trying to win now. So it worked out well for both of us.”

Analyzing a trade’s success means working in the hypothetical. There’s no guarantee, for instance, that the Bulls would have selected Wagner had they retained that pick. Or that Carter would have made his recent leap if he had stayed with Chicago.

But three years later, the Bulls and the Magic are still locked together on a conflicting path — stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference as they battle for play-in standing.