On March 13th, Nikola Mirotic told ESPN that he was out of the Chicago Bulls’ rotation. His difficult season appeared to have hit rock bottom; the shooting specialist had shot just 38.8 percent from the field and a disappointing 30.2 percent from three-point range. But last night, he scored 28 points in a crucial win against the Milwaukee Bucks, to extend an impressive run of games for the Serbian.
The Resurgence Of Nikola Mirotic
The Bulls have had plenty of problems this season. There have been claims of ‘spying’ in the locker room. Coach Fred Hoiberg has been under fire. Dwyane Wade‘s season ended with an elbow injury, but their ‘three alphas’ – Wade, Rajon Rondo, and Jimmy Butler – had struggled to play together up to that point. Yet, the main issue is Chicago’s three-point shooting.
Bringing together Wade, Rondo, and Butler meant that the Bulls were sacrificing shooting for ball handlers with star quality. Consequently, the pressure to knock down threes was bestowed upon Mirotic. In a team so bereft of three-point pedigree, he was expected – along with the now-traded Doug McDermott – to take all the responsibility. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Mirotic failed for much of the season. Take the Houston Rockets, a team loaded with shooters. Each one has relatively little pressure to make threes because of the depth of their shooting. As a result, they have flourished – the Rockets have four players shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc. The Bulls have none. What’s more, Chicago as a team ranks 30th in three-point makes, 29th in attempts, and 27th in percentage. In short, this is not a place where shooters have thrived this season.
All of this makes Mirotic’s revival all the more surprising. In the eight games since he was ‘out of the rotation,’ he has averaged 17.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and he’s hit a crucial 44.3 percent of his three-pointers on 7.6 attempts per game. The Bulls have been 4-4 in that stretch, after losing the five games before. Somehow, they are only half a game out of a playoff spot.
Chasing the eighth seed is a worthy cause in the Eastern Conference. In the West, gaining that final spot is almost like being condemned to being swept by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, but the East may be different. The Cleveland Cavaliers are faltering, thanks to their shaky defense. Other potential top seeds – the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards – still look weaker than the elite teams in the West. If the Bulls can grab a spot in the postseason, their first round series will be far from a foregone conclusion.
All of a sudden, Mirotic is central to Chicago’s late-season push. Butler is still the star, but his production has waned slightly since a heel injury at the start of February. If Mirotic can maintain his hot streak, the Bulls may find the consistency they so desperately need. They will never be an elite shooting team with this roster, but having one reliable sniper will provide exponential benefits to the rest of the team. There will be more floor spacing, driving lanes will open for Rondo and Butler, and Robin Lopez will have more room to post-up. As Wade said, the Bulls “won’t make the playoffs” without Mirotic playing well.
As for Mirotic himself, this run has shown a glimpse of the player he has threatened to become. In three years in the NBA, he hasn’t yet found the consistency required to realize his potential. If this streak continues, he will be an attractive (albeit restricted) free agent for teams to chase. The modern NBA treats shooting power forwards like messiahs, so it’s perfect timing for a stretch four to find his rhythm ahead of free agency. For now, though, Mirotic is crucial to guiding Chicago’s playoff push.