With Carmelo Anthony opting to re-sign with the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls narrowly missed out on their biggest target of the summer—a bona fide game-changer capable of injecting life into the team’s notoriously anemic offense.
Chicago might’ve swung for the fences and missed on Melo. But in nabbing perennial All-Star Pau Gasol and securing the contract rights to prized European prospect Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls—who will pay the 6’10” forward $17 million over three years—most definitely got safely on base.
We know about Gasol, the versatile, veteran big man who helped outfit rings four and five to Kobe Bryant’s fingers. His impact will be as instantaneous as it is productive.
Mirotic, on the other hand, remains something of a mystery, albeit an intriguing one—the kind of spread-the-floor frontcourt threat that’s become virtually indispensable in today’s NBA.
So how big of an impact should Bulls fans be expecting?
Coming to America
After being taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft, Mirotic, a 6’10” power forward, spent the subsequent three seasons with Liga ACB’s Real Madrid.
Since then, Mirotic has established himself as arguably the best and most NBA-ready player in Europe. Now, at 23 years old, the Montenegrin big is looking to give Chicago something it’s sorely lacked over the last few seasons: consistent secondary scoring.
But to reassert itself as a legitimate contender in a still-weak Eastern Conference, Chicago must be able to bank on a bit of ancillary firepower. Until Sunday, that role stood to fall exceedingly on the shoulders of Mike Dunleavy and rookie Doug McDermott.
The Bulls likely have a few more moves in them before the start of training camp, some of which are bound to involve rounding out what remains a roster in need of filling out.
Where, then, might Mirotic find his niche?
The Real Deal
According to HoopsStats.com, Chicago’s bench finished 27th in the NBA in scoring output (as well as 23rd in three-point shooting) for the 2013-14 season.
Mirotic’s raw season stats might not jump off the page (12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game, per DraftExpress.com), but this will: 50.6 percent shooting from the floor, including a whopping 46.1 percent from distance.
Paired with a capable second-unit floor general like Kirk Hinrich, whom the Bulls recently re-signed, Mirotic has the potential to create quite a bit of chaos for opposing defenses—especially if Hinrich somehow regains his outside touch.
Simply put, Mirotic is the quintessential pick-and-pop 4, as adept at flaring out for an open jumper as he is rolling and converting in traffic.
But as a casual glance at this stellar DraftExpress.com scouting video will show you, Mirotic’s repertoire doesn’t begin and end with his ability to stretch the floor:
Scintillating skill set though he boasts, Mirotic is in for quite the NBA learning curve. Which is what makes Gasol’s presence so important: Who better to consult on all things big man than one of the most multifaceted to ever play the game?
On Building Blocks
With Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Gasol already in the fold, Mirotic’s minutes are bound to be subject to flux during his first few seasons.
But make no mistake: The Bulls intend for both Mirotic and McDermott to be part of the long-term blueprint. Starting that process, as Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal underscored back in June, required Chicago part ways with an old standby:
Replacing Boozer isn't all that difficult; all you have to do is make positive contributions. Chicago fans don't typically like to acknowledge this, but the Bulls were actually worse on both ends of the court when Boozer played during the 2012-13 season.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases, Chicago scored 99.3 points per 100 possessions with the power forward on the court and 102.5 when he took a breather. On defense, the Bulls allowed 102 points per 100 possessions when Boozer played and only 97.4 when he sat.
Basically, Boozer is great at putting up empty stats that result from a lot of playing time. If you're going to try defending him after that, good luck.
That Mirotic and Boozer are two completely different players—one a stronger, 17-feet-and-in scoring threat, the other forged more in finesse—practically goes without saying.
Still, if Mirotic can turn himself into even an average defender, he stands to be a much better two-way fit than Boozer ever was.
Mirotic’s long-term potential couldn’t be brighter. But it’s what he can provide in the near term that remains the more pressing concern for Bulls fans.
Like many European prospects whose games remain a mystery to American fans, Mirotic has drawn his fair share of comparisons, from the New Orleans Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson to former stretch 4 extraordinaire Hedo Turkoglu.
Both are reasonable comps, to be sure. Bulls fans, however, might prefer a more familiar face: Toni Kukoc, the five-tool Croatian forward and third fiddle to the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen championship teams of 1996-98.
Kukoc might’ve been the more versatile of the two—his passing alone made him a European legend years before arriving stateside—but the circumstances are somewhat similar, right down to the uncertain status of the team’s superstar leader.
Here were Kukoc’s stats for the first two years prior to Jordan’s return:
|Kukoc: A comp closer to home|
If Mirotic can mirror that—save for an uptick in overall shooting efficiency and a downtick in assists, perhaps—Chicago might’ve found itself a legitimate future cornerstone.
Like Kukoc before him, Mirotic has blossomed into one of the most highly touted European prospects of his generation. Like Kukoc, Mirotic’s game boasts a polish and panache uncommon among his peers—position-wise and age-wise alike.
Unlike Kukoc, the 23-year-old star comes equipped with that, most sought-after of skills: a consistent three-point shot.
Assuming Rose can regain his lane-crashing form, both Mirotic and McDermott stand to author promising rookie seasons for a Bulls team doubtless determined to regain the status as title contenders.
McDermott might be the bigger household name right now. But if Mirotic’s development continues at anything resembling its current trajectory, Dougie McBuckets stands to have quite the competition on that front—not to mention a fantastic frontcourt mate for years to come.
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