Remember the magical March of 2015, Bulls fans? Nikola Mirotic, the bearded rookie wonder, somehow started taking over games in the fourth quarter. He averaged 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds that month as the Bulls managed an 8-6 record despite missing Derrick Rose with his latest knee surgery. Mirotic even made a late-season push for Rookie of the Year honors. He came in second place, behind the #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Not too shabby, Niko.
That rookie season magic feels like a lifetime ago. Despite the high hopes that Chicago’s front office placed on Mirotic’s shoulders after trading for him in the 2011 draft, his second and third NBA seasons have been a big disappointment. Instead of a marked improvement, Niko’s game has stagnated if not regressed. The appendectomy and ensuing complications last year caused a big step back, and that’s not his fault. But Mirotic struggled to regain any kind of consistency this year after a strong finish to the 2015-16 season.
His shooting has been wildly inconsistent this season. The latest stretch of poor performances prompted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to hit the “sharpshooter” with a DNP-Coach’s Decision in their loss to Orlando on Wednesday. With Mirotic’s restricted free agency summer looming on the horizon, is the writing on the wall for yet another Bulls draft bust?
It’s no secret that Gar Forman and John Paxson were trying desperately to find a buyer for Mirotic before the trade deadline in February. The Bulls front office reportedly wanted a first round draft pick in return. Unfortunately, none of the other executives around the league ever got drunk enough to make that happen, and Niko stayed.
What GarPax did accomplish, however, was the trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne. Both Bulls executives explained that acquiring Payne, a young and promising point guard still on a rookie-scale contract, was the biggest reason for the move. Morrow, the 31 year old impeding free agent, is not likely in the Bulls’ “younger and more athletic” plans for the future. But Lauvergne, 25, is a restricted free agent whom the Bulls can keep around if they wish. Based on what Gar and Paxson both said following the trade with OKC, it sounds like they’re at least intrigued by the idea of re-signing Lauvergne.
It’s no coincidence that Mirotic, following an awful 4-game stretch, got replaced by Lauvergne in Hoiberg’s rotation on Wednesday night. If the Bulls are interested in keeping the versatile Frenchman, they need to get a better look at him. Can he be the floor-spacing big man that Niko was supposed to be? The Bulls need to find out. After playing just 6 total minutes in his first five games since arriving in Chicago, Hoiberg gave “King Joffrey” 29 minutes of action against Orlando. It’d be interesting to know if Fred took those instructions from his bosses or if he made that decision himself. Either way, the coach said after Thursday’s practice that he likes Lauvergne and anticipates him staying in the rotation. Niko is left as the odd man out in this situation.
Nobody wanted Mirotic badly enough for the Bulls to execute a trade midseason. Some teams will surely see potential in Niko as a shooter to bring off the bench, and he’ll get offers this summer. Given all of the evidence, it would be very surprising to see the Bulls match those offers.
Instead, Niko will likely join the list of other draft day busts for this current Bulls regime. Marquis Teague, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have already been ruled huge disappointments. Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine – now with increased roles – are fighting like hell to prove the doubters they won’t end up on that list too. But for Mirotic, it appears his time is running out. The writing is on the wall.