As the Chicago Bulls continue to search for an offensive identity in another injury-marred season, one thing has become clear – Nikola Mirotic will be a significant piece of the future.
One notable fact has been frequently referenced in discussions about Mirotic – the coup that the Bulls pulled off in order to acquire him and Jimmy Butler in the same draft. Ironically enough, the player he was traded for in a package that sent Goran Dragic to Houston in 2011 – Aaron Brooks – is now his teammate, having enrolled in Tom Thibodeau’s school of point guard career resurrection.
Of course, Mirotic was a piece of three separate deals on a wild draft day before his rights ultimately were in the hands of John Paxson, Gar Forman, and Co.
This backstory is intriguing, but it wouldn’t be nearly as significant had Mirotic not caught fire in the month of March, vaulting the 24-year-old into the lead of the Rookie of the Year race. His playing time also jumped to 30.8 minutes per game, up from 14.3 in February.
Averaging 20.8 points per game this month (failing to reach double figures just once, an eight-point effort in a 107-91 loss at Detroit) including two stretches where he scored at least 23 points in three consecutive games, he’s emerged as a legitimate versatile scoring threat, creating his own identity as a sneaky-good finisher in the paint when his three-point shooting cooled off.
That was impressive, but something most teams that had personnel scouting him overseas had seen before.
ESPN’s John Hollinger lists Mirotic at the top of the list of “qualified rookies,” in terms of Player Efficiency Rating (18.09) but to average just under 20 minutes per game as one of two rookies to play in all 74 games this season is a feat much more difficult to achieve, especially amongst an injury-riddled 2014 draft class. (Only five other rookies have played in at least 70 games to this point).
A usage rate of 21 percent is a product of Chicago’s dependence on Mirotic to score without Derrick Rose, and even without Butler for about three weeks prior to his return against Charlotte.
It’s how well Mirotic’s teammates have fared with him on the floor that demonstrates his true value.
When Mirotic set a career-high 29 points in a 108-92 win over Toronto, Brooks totaled 11 points, five assists and a season-high six rebounds. It’s no coincidence: 38 percent of Mirotic’s passes were to Brooks. No other player received a pass from Mirotic more than 16 percent of the time. Conversely, when the ball is passed to Mirotic, 27 percent of the time it’s coming from Brooks.
Brooks spreads the ball to Gasol, Mirotic, and Joakim Noah at nearly identical rates, but Mirotic’s 51.2 field goal percentage is the highest among those who receive passes from Brooks.
To be fair, Mirotic’s mentor and close friend Gasol has also been playing out of his mind, racking up 48 double-doubles on the season to date, 10 of them in March.
For all of the earlier talk about Mirotic’s ability to play at the 3 or 4, he possesses above-average ball-handling skills and is a crafty passer in the paint.
The big-to-big passing when the offense runs through Noah as a “point-center” is an additional dimension that other playoff teams will have to account for.
Despite their offensive innovation, the Bulls haven’t been the defensive powerhouse that made opposing teams fear a first-round visit to the United Center as in years past.
But in a blowout of the New York Knicks, Thibodeau experimented with a “jumbo package” lineup with Mirotic, Gasol, Taj Gibson, and Mike Dunleavy all on the floor. This additional length plus Mirotic’s increased confidence gives Chicago a defensively stout group without having to sacrifice scoring, an issue that has plagued them in Rose-less lineups in years past.
Without Rose playing at an elite level, the Bulls have been experimenting to find rotations that work, and they may just find that Mirotic’s adaptability more than compensates for what’s been lost in Rose’s extended absence.