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Bulls Offseason Series: Nikola Mirotic needs to step up in 2016-17

Image Credit: Daniel Rowell (@danieljrowell)

This is the first part in a series of articles focusing on important storylines heading into the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls. Today’s piece focuses on Nikola Mirotic and the importance of his contract year next season.

The Chicago Bulls’ offseason was viewed as a disappointment by many for a wide range of reasons. The Bulls were supposed to get younger. Instead, they signed 30-year-old Rajon Rondo and 34-year-old Dwyane Wade. The Bulls were supposed to bring in more shooting. Instead, they dumped Mike Dunleavy and Jose Calderon…to free up money for non-shooters in Rondo and Wade. Altogether, the Bulls came away with a roster that has talent, but mostly in the wrong places. That’s why other than Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic is Chicago’s most important player next season.

Mirotic is the type of player the Bulls should’ve targeted this summer. He’s only 25 years old, possesses a knockdown jumper and has room to grow as a player. Considering he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer, this season is as important to Mirotic as it is to the Bulls. That type of financial incentive is always valuable, especially to a player as frustratingly inconsistent as the third-year forward.

Mirotic’s dreadful start to the 2015-16 season quickly made his second-place Rookie of the Year campaign a distant memory. He shot just 38.6 percent from the floor in his first 44 games of the season as his free throw rate plummeted. Players read the scouting report on Niko and rarely fell for his pump-faking antics. This led to Mirotic pump-faking before almost every shot he took like his shot stick was broken in NBA 2K:

mirotic-pump

Mirotic struggling to shoot after pump fakes isn’t rocket science: Most NBA players, unless you’re Stephen Curry, shoot dramatically worse off the dribble compared to catch and shoot:

mirotic-chart

Mirotic effectively shot 58.8 percent from the floor last season after zero dribbles. That number dropped dramatically after each dribble he took. Even after one dribble his effective field goal percentage fell to 33.9. Keeping him in spot-up situations in efficient areas on the floor should be a focus of Fred Hoiberg’s next season. The forward displayed how effective he can be in that role after returning from an appendectomy during the second half of last season when he suddenly turned into a Splash Bro:

Shotchart_1461865024027

Mirotic made 2.8 three-pointers per game at a 44.5 percent clip in 22 post-All-Star break games. Notably, he upped his rate and efficiency from the corners dramatically, converting on a ridiculous 61.5 percent of his corner three-point attempts. The en fuego stretch put him in elite company at season’s end.

As Today’s Fastbreak’s Kelly Scaletta recently noted, Mirotic’s marks of 6.2 points per game average on catch-and-shoots and an effective field goal percentage of 60.7 percent was only surpassed by Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, Stephen Curry and J.R. Smith, per SportVU. Those are literally the best shooters in the league, a reputation few people would bestow on Mirotic. Here’s even more proof for the doubters:

Mirotic

The same list as the one above, with the inclusion of Mirza Teletovic, were the only players in the league to make at least three three-pointers per 36 minutes at a 39 percent clip. Mirotic can be one of the best shooters in the league on a consistent basis if he’s put in the right situations at the right time. He proved that even further as a role player on the Spanish national team at the Summer Olympics.

Mirotic averaged 12.9 points and 5.6 rebounds while nailing 2.1 three-pointers per contest at a sizzling 44.7 percent clip during Spain’s bronze-medal run. The Montenegrin-born forward rarely dribbled and made his mark by spotting up and raining in jumpers. Spain’s most successful lineup featured Ricky Rubio at the point instead of his superior shooting teammates in Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull and Jose Calderon. That sounds awfully similar to the situation Mirotic will play in next season.

Rondo, like Rubio, provides little to nothing in the shooting department, but they’re both world-class set-up men. Rondo in particular has shown a knack for excelling in the pick-and-pop game. Of Rondo’s 237 assists to DeMarcus Cousins last season, 37.5 percent of them came outside the paint, per NBA.com. 44 of those buckets were from behind the arc, which is impressive considering Cousins made 11 three-pointers in his entire career before last season. Mirotic is no Cousins, but Cousins also isn’t near the caliber of shooter Niko is.

Mirotic figures to be a shoe-in as a starter because of his shooting prowess. He’s a much better fit for this starting lineup than he was a season ago. No longer will Derrick Rose pound the ball and miss Mirotic wide open on the perimeter. Pau Gasol won’t be making Mirotic look even worse on defense and on the boards because of his sub-par help efforts.

Instead, Mirotic will have the chance to play with a pass-first point guard and a big man in Robin Lopez who protects the rim and keeps opposing players off the glass as well as any player in the league. He’ll also have the chance to build on his rapport with Butler. Jimmy assisted Mirotic a team-high 53 times last season due to plays like this:

mirotic

Wade’s fit in the starting lineup is yet to be determined, but Rondo, Butler and Lopez already figure to help Mirotic become more consistent. If he does, will the Bulls be able to pay him come the summer of 2017?

Teletovic, whose game is quite similar to Mirotic, signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Bucks this summer. Consider Mirotic is five years younger and a more well-rounded player. The Bulls might have to give up on their max player hopes in 2017 if he has the type of season he’s capable of.

Something in the range of $12-15 million annually, if not more, seems possible in a league where Miles Plumlee just inked a four-year, $52 million deal after starting 14 games. The Bulls could make the qualifying offer of $7.2 million, but other teams will almost certainly surpass that offer. Even if Mirotic falls back to his inconsistent tendencies, an $8-10 million annual contract is still probably his floor.

Mirotic and the Bulls need each other badly next season. The Bulls, with four of their projected starters combining for 133 three-pointers last season, need Mirotic, who made 135 three-pointers himself last season, to provide a shooting spark to the starting lineup. In a contract year with a booming cap, he needs to show he can be more than a player who occasionally heats up but stinks otherwise.

There’s no reason why the Bulls and Mirotic can’t enter next summer with both parties leaving happy.

Bulls Offseason Series: Nikola Mirotic needs to step up in 2016-17

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