The Chicago Bulls didn’t land Carmelo Anthony, their top free agent target last summer, but their Plan B has worked out as well as they could have hoped.
In addition to signing Pau Gasol, the Bulls paid big money to bring 23-year-old Montenegrin forward Nikola Mirotic over from Europe.
Mirotic played several years professionally in Spain before being drafted 23rd overall in 2011. The Houston Rockets traded his draft rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night, and then the Wolves traded his rights to the Bulls.
The Bulls left him in Europe for a few years to refine his game. This offseason, Chicago orchestrated a $US3-million buyout with Real Madrid for Mirotic, and then signed him to a three-year, $US17 million contract.
Mirotic was a highly praised international player, but it was a risk for the Bulls to tie up over $US5 million per season in an essential unknown. Not only is Mirotic’s starting salary higher than all rookies except No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, he was expected to give the Bulls valuable minutes as they hoped to get back to championship contention.
The move has paid off so far. Mirotic’s stats aren’t mind-blowing — 8.3 points, 38% three-point shooting, and 5.7 rebounds per game — but he’s given the Bulls good minutes off the bench, and his versatility is part of the reason this is the best Bulls offence in years.
Mirotic was recently named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December, rewarding several big performances, like a career-high 27 points on 6-6 shooting from three-point range in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who’s notoriously prickly, raved about how he’s playing recently:
He’s doing a lot of great things. He’s playing more than one position. At times he’s a big, at times he’s a small, and he’s showing that he can handle all that which is very very impressive in itself because of the differences in the two positions.”
In December, Thibodeau also praised Mirotic by saying, “I went into the season knowing from the time that I was around him that I liked him… Everything that he has done, whether it’s short or long minutes, he’s done well.”
Mirotic is valuable for the Bulls because his skill set is considerably different than their other big men. At 6’10”, Mirotic can stretch the floor and excels on catch-and-shoot jumpers, making 44% of his opportunities. Compared to more post-oriented big men like Joakim Noah, Gasol, and Taj Gibson, Mirotic offers a new look for the Bulls.
His minutes have steadily increased over the season, and now he’s even playing in crunch time.
The Bulls went a different direction after missing on Carmelo. Instead of chasing another star on the trade market, they used the money to build a deep, versatile team with guys like Mirotic. They’re now two games back of the No. 1 seed and the consensus favourite to win the East.
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