Free Agents Fits: Nikola Mirotic
This is the second part of a two-part series analyzing the Bulls’ free-agent signings this summer. The first installment on Pau Gasol can be read here.
The wait is over. Nikola Mirotic, who the Bulls selected with the 23rd pick in the 2011 draft, is finally coming over to the NBA.
Before delving into how the European star will fit into the Bulls rotation this season, we first have to look at his ridiculous numbers.
*Chart courtesy of DraftExpress
Mirotic has never had a player efficiency rating lower than 20 in either the ACB or the Euroleague since he started playing consistently in 2010-11. Considering he’s still only 23 years old and that those are the two best leagues outside the NBA, that’s an outstanding feat. Mirotic put up a career-best 24.3 PER in the Euroleague this season in 31 games, ranking third in the league among players who appeared in at least 15 games. His stat line in the Euroleague of 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game to go along with a 50.6 field-goal percentage and 46.1 3-point percentage is almost unheard of. To put those numbers in perspective, just one player in NBA history has averaged at least 12 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting at least 50 percent from the floor and 46 percent from behind the arc. That player was Detlef Schrempf in 1994-95, who actually happens to be a solid NBA comparison for Mirotic. Mirtoic brings a unique skill set to the Bulls this season, and at three years and $17 million, he isn’t coming at a traditional price for a first-year player. Here’s a look at how the Bulls can maximize their investment in the sweet-shooting Montenegrin.
The Bulls need to play Mirotic alongside fellow Spanish National Team member Pau Gasol (although they have never been teammates, since Serge Ibaka has effectively blocked Mirotic from making the senior team). Otherwise, Mirotic may be left out of the rotation completely.
If Gasol starts alongside Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson will be forced to come off the bench. That leaves a possible bench rotation of Kirk Hinrich (sorry Bulls fans), Tony Snell (once again, sorry Bulls fans), Doug McDermott, Mirotic, and Gibson. Gibson isn’t strong enough to play backup center on a consistent basis and Mirotic isn’t even ready to guard NBA power forwards yet. A Mirotic-Gibson frontcourt just isn’t ideal. This is where Gasol comes in.
With Gasol coming off the bench, a rotation of Hinrich, Snell, McDermott, Mirotic, and Gasol is much more formidable. Gasol is better at defending centers at this stage of his career, while Mirotic can play alongside someone who better fits his offensive skill set. Gasol would be the main offensive cog of the bench by playing in the post, where he could draw double teams and have a plethora of shooters to dish it to. This bench would be the deepest backup unit the Bulls have had since the Bench Mob in 2010-2011, which featured C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Gibson, and Omer Asik. This unit wouldn’t be quite at that level, but a Mirotic and Gasol frontcourt could be something special. Especially when considering the spacing it could create.
Space the floor
The Bulls need to use Mirotic as a floor spacer when he’s on the court. Real Madrid regularly placed Mirotic in the corner where he was deadly with his Dirk-esque release. The comparison as a player with Nowitzki is a lazy one, but the mechanics of Mirotic’s jump shot legitimately looks like the Mavericks great. Mirotic is also an outstanding pick-and-pop option with his 6-foot-10 build and deadly stroke. Mirotic’s 46.1 3-point percentage in the Euroleague wasn’t an aberration. He’s shot better than 38.6 percent from behind the arc in every season at the two levels he’s played in but two (32.5 3-PT% in the Euroleague in 2012-13, 35 3-PT% in the ACB this season). His high-release point makes his shot unblockable, especially when his feet are set. Credit should be given to Euroleague MVP Sergio Rodriguez, who is a sensational passer, as well as Rudy Fernandez, who took attention away from Mirotic offensively. All of Mirotic’s shooting skills are moot if head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t tweak the offense.
I never thought I’d type these words, but Thibs should take a page out of Erik Spoelstra’s playbook. Say what you want about Spoelstra, but he did an excellent job of mixing and matching different lineups. The lineup that is pictured above consists of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh. Everyone on the court is a threat to shoot, giving Spoelstra a multitude of options to play with offensively. In this situation, Spoelstra draws up a spread-out pick-and-roll. All five Heat players are positioned on the perimeter, which is very uncommon in the NBA. Wade is the ball handler of the pick-and-roll with Bosh setting the screen. Wade’s penetrating ability forces Roy Hibbert to rotate into the paint, which opens up Bosh for an open jumper. If Hibbert stays home, Wade has an easy lane to the basket. Wade also has the option of dishing it out to Chalmers, James, or Battier if the defense collapses, although Chalmers is essentially a decoy on this play.
The Bulls potential bench rotation is an ideal lineup for this play. Hinrich, Snell, McDermott, Gasol, and Mirotic are all threats from the outside. Hinrich can be the ball handler for this play, although he lacks the penetrating abilities of Wade. Gasol would ideally be the screen setter, while Mirotic, McBuckets, and Snell could spot up for extra floor spacing. Mirotic would also thrive as the roll man, but Gasol’s range doesn’t stretch to the 3-point line.
The Bulls don’t need to necessarily draw up fancy plays for Mirotic, but spacing the floor is a must. Although Mirotic is an underrated player around the basket, he’ll be more ready for the perimeter game as a first-year player.
Mirotic, like any player, has his flaws. His biggest weaknesses at this stage of his career are his lack of elite athleticism and his subpar defense.
Mirotic isn’t a horrible athlete, but he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to keep up with some of the quicker forwards in the league. He’s also a poor rebounder, averaging just 7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes pace-adjusted in the Euroleague this past season. Keep in mind that rebound percentages go up when transitioning to the NBA, but he’ll still never be an above-average rebounder. Mirotic also isn’t much of a rim protector, averaging under a block per game every season of his career. Mirotic would be best suited playing next to a plus defender and rebounder. Gibson fits that role, but a Mirotic-Gibson lineup would be on the smaller side. Gasol also isn’t an above-average defender anymore, but he’d be the type of rebounder that would make up for Mirotic’s subpar board work. Noah is the perfect compliment to Mirotic, but it’s difficult to imagine them playing together a lot this season. But injuries could change rotations quickly, so you never know.
Let the kid play
Thibs has a reputation for having a redshirt-type year for rookies, but this situation is different. Mirotic isn’t your typical NBA rookie. He played 74 games last season in the best competition outside the NBA and thrived. Mirotic has dominated at every level he’s played in, winning the prestigious Euroleague Rising Star award two times while being named the Spanish League MVP in 2013.
Every sign points to Mirotic being an above-average NBA player. It’s time for the Bulls to let him live up to the hype.