Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson: Who Should Be Chicago Bulls' Starting PF?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 29: Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls dunks against the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
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If the Chicago Bulls sign Nikola Mirotic this summer, who should be the starting power forward next year, Mirotic or Taj Gibson? That’s a question which can be answered either way.

First, though, let’s establish a few assumptions this article is predicated on.

First, assume that Kevin Love isn’t acquired. If he is, then he will be the starting power forward, and it’s highly unlikely that Mirotic and Gibson are both on the team anyway, as one would doubtless go in the trade.  

Second, if Anthony is acquired, assume he’s the small forward, not the power forward. While some would contend that he's more effective as a power forward, with Gibson or Mirotic there, he'd be a better fit as a small forward. 

Third, assume that either through trade or amnesty, Carlos Boozer is gone. (Stop crying tears of joy!)

Let’s also establish that getting Mirotic is far less difficult than some think.

Mirotic was drafted in 2011 as a "draft-and-stash" player, meaning the team has the rights, but he's "stashed" in another league. Because that was more than three years ago, while the Bulls have the rights to him, they are no longer bound by the mandated rookie contracts. 

As a result he will get more than he would have in 2011, and the subject of how much has been debated. Some have pushed the cost of obtaining him up to $10 million.

Nate Duncan (in an article I highly recommend) of Basketball Insiders has a more reasonable number:

How much would it take to get Mirotic at this point? Because Mirotic is limited to negotiating with the Bulls, they should be able to get him far more cheaply than on the open market. The best figures I have found on Mirotic’s current salary indicate he makes approximately $1.4 million per year, with a buyout of approximately $3.4 million.

So that’s the number they need to beat, not what someone else thinks Mirotic is worth. Duncan continues:

The Bulls can pay $600,000 of this buyout. It might then be realistic to sign Mirotic to a three-year contract starting at $3.5 million per year with the maximum allowable 4.5 percent annual raises.

For this contract, his maximum 15 percent signing bonus of approximately $1.6 million, the maximum allowable salary advance of 25 percent of his $2.9 million base salary at signing and then another 25 percent on the earliest allowable date of October 1 would enable him to pay his buyout with Real Madrid assuming some modicum of flexibility from the Spanish club on the payment date.

He would still keep about $1.5 million for 2014-15, followed by $3.1 million and $3.2 million the next two years. That would exceed his Real Madrid salary and allow him to move up the timeline on a second contract.

They don’t have to win his services in an open auction. They just have to give him more than he’s getting. And, as the AT&T girl tells us, “We want more! We want more! If we really like it, we want more!” You can’t deny that logic.

So that’s how we would get to the place of having to choose between the two power forwards. Here are the reasons why each would be the better choice.

Taj Gibson

There has been some confusion over whether Gibson has actually already been named the starter. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times reported:  

With about a week left of rehabbing his left ankle, which he injured in the Game 5 playoff loss to the Wizards last month, Gibson confirmed that he has been told “to get my body and mind right to be a starter.’’

“I mean, this will be exciting,’’ Gibson said in a phone interview. “This is what I’ve always thought about. When I started [six games] for Boozer when he was hurt during the season, I just know how excited I was, how good it felt to come to the arena.’’

Almost immediately Gibson tweeted:

About the only thing that is going to trump a second-hand Gibson quote is a firsthand Gibson quote. Cowley is a reliable reporter so I don’t know what happened there, and I’m not going to speculate. I’ll just say that Gibson denied the report.

It is certainly within the realm of reason, though, that Gibson has the inside track for the starting job.

Thibodeau is not known for his flexibility in rotations, even when they're not working. Keith Bogans won the starting job in his first (and only) year with the Bulls. He then became the the least effective Bull to ever start all 82 games, based on win shares.

The only real lineup change Thibodeau has made midseason, without an injury provoking it, is when he inserted Jimmy Butler as the starting shooting guard over Richard Hamilton for the last 10 games of the 2012-13 season.

In addition to that, Thibodeau is not known for playing rookies. All five Chicago novices who have suited up since he took the helm have played a combined 3,092 minutes.

If you want to put that in perspective, the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year winner, Damian Lillard, played 3,167 minutes.

When you put those two things together, it’s not hard to envision Gibson as the future starter, even if it weren’t perfectly reasonable. If Thibodeau has determined that Gibson is the starter, Gibson is going to be the starter.

Gibson has established that he’s starter material. Over the last two seasons, in 13 starts he’s averaged 18.0 points on .528 shooting, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. If the Bulls can get anything close to 18 points, 10 rebounds and the top-shelf defense Gibson consistently provides, they would have an All-Star.

It’s not like he’s been awful coming off the bench either. His presence this year earned him a second-place finish in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

So why would the Bulls start Gibson? He’s a borderline All-Star who’s done his time on the bench and earned the chance to be the starter.

Nikola Mirotic

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

Mirotic still has an argument, even if he’s a rookie.  

First, as far as being a rookie goes, he’s not the same type of rookie the others have been. None of them have the kind of credentials the European superstar does.

First, he’s a four-year professional. And professional basketball in Europe is different than college ball in America for many of the same reasons the NBA is different.

Basketball is your job, meaning you get paid. You have to do it full time. You travel. You deal with more distractions because you have less of a protective shield around you. Many of the things which rookies out of college need to adjust to, rookies out of Europe have already grown accustomed to.

He didn’t have just four ordinary years, either. He had four impressive ones. He won the Euroleague Rising Star Award his first two seasons, awarded to the best player under 22 on July 1 the summer before it starts. He is the only two-time winner in the award’s history.

He won the ACB MVP awarded to the best professional player in Spain for 2013.  He won the Copa del Rey de Baloncesto MVP in 2014.

Essentially, that’s the equivalent of the Rookie of the Year, MVP and Finals MVP of the league he plays in. That league, Liga ACB, is considered to be the second-best professional league in the world behind only the NBA.

In 31 games this year, he averaged 12.4 points, on 53.7 percent shooting from two and 46.1 percent from three, to go with 4.6 rebounds. Those stats undersell his value too as he only played 24.0 minutes per game.

According to his profile page, during the regular season, he led the league in “index rating,” the Euroleague equivalent of player efficiency rating. He was sixth in blocks and seventh in points.

In the postseason he was sixth in index rating, second in defensive rebounds, second in steals and sixth in total rebounds.

Draft Express did this outstanding scouting report on him:

Will all that translate to the NBA? Scott Howard-Cooper of reported back in February:

The Bulls got his rights as an investment, knowing it would be years before he left Spain for the NBA, and have watched his stock dramatically rise.

One executive, after seeing Mirotic play, said the power forward originally from Montenegro would go “top two or three for sure” if he was in the 2014 draft and “maybe even one.” Mirotic could be in Chicago next season.

It sure sounds like NBA execs believe it will. He’s good enough that he would go “maybe even one” in this year’s draft. With all the fanfare of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid, the best rookie in 2014-15 might be Mirotic. That’s how well he projects.

So Mirotic will probably get more playing time because he’s just the best rookie Thibodeau has had.

It also helps that he would instantly be the best three-point shooter on the Bulls roster, and Derrick Rose works extremely well with three-point shooters.

When paired together they were the Bulls' best offensive tandem. In 2011-12, it was the same thing.

If they have a stretch 4 knocking the ball down from deep, that gets even better because a power forward is going to draw out a big man from the rim.

There’s a reason that it’s hard to get through an interview without Thibodeau talking about “stretching the court.”

When an effective three-point shooter is on the court, it forces someone to step out and defend him. That opens up lanes for Rose to drive the lane and get to the rim, which he does so effectively. If the defense collapses on him, he kicks the ball to the three-point shooter.

That combination of abilities is productive. As I wrote last year, during the 2010-11 season and 2011-12 season, The Bulls' three-point shooters were 2.7 percent better behind the arc while he was on the court. He also assisted on 39 percent of all of Chicago’s treys.

Over the Thibodeau era, the Bulls are 159-55 when they make five threes as a team. They are 46-52 when they fail to reach that number. That’s not even very many. They averaged only 6.0 over the last four years, which is 23rd in the league. The league average this year was 7.7.

They don’t need to be a great shooting team. If they can just work their way up to “below average,” as opposed to “way below average,” they would be an elite team, again.

Why should Mirotic start? He’s an incredible shooting talent who should be coming over next summer who would work better with Rose.


Gibson is the better player who has earned the right to start. Mirotic is the better shooter who fits in better with the offense. So who will be the starter?

My guess is that Gibson should be and will be, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rotation that has him coming out early in the first quarter to give Mirotic more playing time with Rose.  Also, as he established last year, Thibodeau isn’t averse to giving heavy minutes to a player off the bench.

Gibson might have been a reserve, but he played more than starter Carlos Boozer. While I don’t think Mirotic will play more minutes than Gibson, I think they’ll come close to the same number. Gibson should also continue to fill in minutes at center, while Joakim Noah sits, too.

Look for Gibson to start and finish but look for Mirotic to spend a lot of time with Rose, as well. As far as “problems” go, trying to figure out how to get both forwards sufficient playing time are the type you like having. Thibodeau might even giggle as he's trying to figure out how to solve that concern.

Stats are courtesy of, unless noted otherwise.


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