The Curious Case of Nikola Mirotic

Basketball is a game of high-flying athletes, electrifying threes, and more off-court drama.  In the case of the Chicago Bulls, it was Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic who stole the headlines during the preseason.  Niko had spent his summer bulking up in the Bulls practice facility, even though he wasn’t sure that he’d be back with the Bulls.  His fight with Portis literally broke his face, and concussed him.  Because of this altercation, Portis was also suspended, knocking out two key parts of the Bulls rotation during a rebuilding year.

Fast forward to today, December 30th, 2017, and Mirotic has been playing on another level.  Whether you prefer box score stats, advanced stats, or just the eye test, this is the best Mirotic the Bulls have ever seen.  He’s doing it all, off the bench or in the starting unit.  Ironically, both Mirotic and Portis have solidified the Bulls bench into a top ten scoring unit.

The conundrum the Bulls front office is facing now is whether to trade or keep Mirotic.  It may seem like a simple answer; the Bulls are rebuilding so you trade Mirotic to the highest bidder for future assets (preferably, a 1st rounder in this year’s deep draft).  That is a logical approach, but it’s not that simple.  I was listening to Woj Pod with Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, and Lawrence Frank repeatedly made one point clear.  You can’t afford to mess up with the people you have in your own building (HIGHLY recommend listening to the full pod).  You have to look at EVERYTHING.  So let’s take a quick look:

  • Mirotic comes to play in 2014-15 under Thibs.  Not only is Thibs famous for not playing rookies who don’t conform to his style of defense, but Mirotic was playing behind a lot of bigs.  Gasol, Gibson, and Noah were all in front of him.  Not to mention, this was the year when Jimmy Butler really took the reigns over the team from Derrick Rose, so Mirotic was firmly in the backseat.
  • 2015-16 rolls around.  Thibs is fired, and Hoiberg is the new head coach.  Gasol is no longer a member of the Bulls, and Noah only plays around 30 games due to injury.   What’s even better for Mirotic is that Hoiberg’s offense should fit Mirotic’s game very well, as Mirotic would provide the floor spacing in Hoiberg’s “pace and space” offense.  However, this wasn’t the case because Hoiberg and Butler never meshed with one another, and with how this league goes, the coach has to defer to the star player.  Butler is awesome in isolation and pick and rolls – where he needed a big guy to just set the screen and get out the way, and Niko just doesn’t check those boxes.  The Bulls played more “Butler” ball than “Hoiball”.
  • 2016-17 was the year of the Failed Big Three: Butler, Rondo, and Wade.  Much like 2014-15, this is another year where Mirotic played backseat to these alpha’s, and again, the offense was not suited towards Niko’s skills.  He had some good moments with Rondo running the second unit, where there was a bit more “Hoiball” implemented with Butler on the bench, but he never fully developed his confidence.
  • Now it’s 2017-18, the present year, and I’ve already discussed how Mirotic rededicated himself to the gym, but all that work seemed lost during his altercation with Portis.  But now, it’s officially Hoiberg’s team. Butler’s gone, Rondo’s gone, and Wade’s gone… there’s just no ego in sight with this rebuilding team.  Enter Mirotic who can finally be the “alpha” or at the very least, not take a back seat to other players.  The Bulls have won 10 out of their last 12 games with Mirotic back in the lineup.  In a lot of these games, Mirotic has looked like the BEST player on the floor (really!).

So it’s fair to ask, what’s the reason for that?  Is Mirotic motivated to play for his next big contract? Is Mirotic simply flourishing in Hoiberg’s system?  Or is it a 4th year player finally figuring out how to use his scoring prowess in the NBA?  These are questions I don’t know the answer to, but I’ll harp back to the in-house tidbit one last time.  Mirotic’s ability as a stretch big is what the NBA has been trending towards.  Just look to GSW’s death lineup of Kevin Durant at the 4, the Houston Rockets using PJ Tucker and Ryan Anderson at the 5 and 4 respectively, and the list of endless bigs who have added the three ball to their game – Horford, Ibaka, Gordon, etc.  Not to mention that Mirotic is about to turn 27 years old.  He’s young enough to fit the timeline of the rebuilding Bulls, and should be getting easier shots if Zach LaVine comes back to his pre-injury form.

To conclude, there are strong arguments to trade Mirotic away, especially if a team forks over a draft pick that GarPax are comfortable with.  But sometimes it takes 3-4 years for players to develop in the NBA.  In Mirotic’s case, he happened to take the next step in his 4th year.. or it was the Portis punch to help him find his stride.   I also understand that each Bulls win decreases the chances of landing a top player in this extremely talented draft class. However, it’s critical for the Bulls to make sure they’ve done their due diligence on trading away Mirotic.  He’s young controllable player (for at least another year), that has the skill set to flourish in the modern NBA, and even if trading Mirotic away results in a better draft pick, there is no guarantee how that draft pick will turn out.  We’ll have to wait until the NBA’s trade deadline on February 8th, 2018, to see if the case of Nikola Mirotic is closed with the Chicago Bulls.

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