Born just four months before the first Chicago Bulls title in 1991, Nikola Mirotić has gone from a draft-day deal gamble to a hopeful rotation piece for the team with his continued strong Euroleague play. But how soon can the Bulls expect the stretch power forward to arrive in Chicago?
It’s not as simple as we NBA-centric basketball fans think. Mirotić has little incentive to join the Bulls any time soon, if at all.
Let’s first review the player himself, to see why he was a first-round pick right despite him signing a five-year extension with Real Madrid right before the 2011 draft.
Mirotić’s growth in the Euroleague from 2010-11 to 2011-12 was impressive. In his first full season, 2010-11, he was an energy scorer off of the bench. In Year 2, he shouldered greater responsibility for Real Madrid and blossomed into one of the best PFs in Europe.
Commensurate with that growth, the 21-year-old has already filled his trophy case. He was the Euroleague’s Rising Star in 2010-11 and followed that up with the MVP for Spain’s U20 European champs prior to the 2011-12 season. In the U20s, Mirotić led all players with 27 points per game and finished second on the boards with 10 per game.
Mirotić is a native of Montenegro who has become a citizen of Spain, having dreamed of playing for Real Madrid his entire life. So he’s not just marking time until it makes sense for him to jump to the NBA. In fact, no one with any interest in coming over to the league quickly would sign a five-year deal two months before he was to be drafted by the NBA.
What complicates the situation for the Bulls is more than mere sentimentality and emotion on the part of Mirotić. It simply makes no financial sense for him to become a Bull given his rookie contract. Remember, because Mirotić signed his five-year extension with Real Madrid before the 2011 draft, he fell from a prospective top-10 selection to No. 23. That means he’s restricted to a rookie slot of $4.8 million over his first four NBA seasons (the entire amount will go up slightly each year he delays coming to the NBA, until 2018, when he would be eligible to be drafted all over again).
Mirotić is not coming to the NBA to make essentially the same amount over four years he’ll make in one season for Real Madrid. Oh, and that’s not counting the $3.1 million buyout Real Madrid would receive (coming out of the player’s pocket, essentially) for losing Mirotić mid-deal.
Beginning in 2014-15, however, things start to change. In pay terms, the Bulls can eschew treating Mirotić as a rookie and can instead offer the power forward a mid-level exception to induce him to jump to the NBA. All in all, the full MLE would actually pay out more over the course of four years than Mirotić would make with Real Madrid, assuming he would otherwise have signed a realistic extension in Europe after his current deal expires in 2016-17.
That’s not entirely a good thing, however. Using the full MLE on Mirotić in 2014 would prevent the Bulls from making any other major free-agent additions that summer, at least given the current Bulls roster (Luol Deng comes off of the books after 2013-14, Carlos Boozer after 2014-15).
So it might be even more realistic—depending on what sorts of shuffling the Bulls do with their roster in anticipation of the 2013 and/or 2014 free agent classes—to think of the Bulls enticing Mirotić over for the 2015-16 season. At that point, with just two years left on his deal, the Bulls might even be able to negotiate that $3.1 buyout down a bit, putting more money directly into the power forward’s pocket.
Boozer does enter the equation because so much depends on whether the Bulls are willing to make him an amnesty case by cutting the power forward loose with a heavy bag of cash under his arm. The more I think about it, Boozer isn’t exactly an Eddie Robinson, in the team detriment sense. Thus I don’t believe that Jerry Reinsdorf is going to allow Boozer to be amnestied any earlier than the summer of 2014, if at all.
The chances of the Bulls making some sort of play for a 2013 or 2014 free agent, or at least some sort of roster-shifting trade of major consequence, is pretty high. So a splash with Mirotić is unlikely to happen until 2015-16, when the whole situation converges to make the most sense for all parties involved: Mirotić, Chicago, and Real Madrid.
The good news is that even by 2015, Mirotić will be just 24 years old with five solid years of Euroleague under his belt. From Chicago's standpoint, he will be just entering his prime. Imagine comps in the neighborhood of Andrea Bargnani as a realistic expectation. From Mirotić’s standpoint, he’ll enter a “second” free agency after his Bulls contract expires at age 28 and if he is an All-Star or still seeing his game grow at that point, he’ll be eligible to break the bank with a long-term contract of $50 million plus.
A lot can happen over the next few seasons, but the chances of any action on with Chicago’s prize power forward prospect is close to zero until 2014 at the earliest. If the Bulls want to play in the free agent sandbox over the next couple of summers, push Mirotić’s arrival back another season or two.
Mirotić is unlikely to be a savior in any season he arrives in Chicago. But however heralded he'll be upon arrival, Mirotić is not going to be a Bull anytime soon.