The Chicago Bulls' present didn't just change when Derrick Rose went down with his second consecutive season-ending knee injury in November, their future did, too. Since the 2010-2011 season, when Tom Thibodeau's arrival coincided with the departure of shooting guard Ben Gordon, the Bulls have been as reliant on Rose to create offense as any team has been on one player. Rose has been in the top five in usage rate every year he's been healthy under Thibodeau, and both the design of the roster and of the offense encouraged him to take and create as many opportunities as possible when he's on the floor.
The biggest question facing the future of the Bulls is whether Rose can still be the MVP-level performer he was during his peak. But even if Rose is able to work his way back into top physical form, is it really fair to expect a player with his injury history to shoulder such an immense offensive burden? That's the question John Paxson and Gar Forman must answer heading into a transformative offseason for the Bulls this upcoming summer.
With Luol Deng's hefty contract expiring and Carlos Boozer a likely amnesty candidate in his lame duck season, the Bulls should have money to work with. While the upcoming free agent crop looks tantalizing on paper, it's possible Deng is the top realistic free agent on the market. So how will the Bulls reshape their roster? While a major trade or free agent signing remains a possibility, the most likely option is by tabbing a player they drafted way back in 2011.
Nikola Mirotic is continuing his domination of international basketball in both Euroleague and LIGA ACB for Spain's Real Madrid. Starting this summer, he'll no longer be subject to the NBA rookie scale, opening up the possibility that the Bulls could bring him over.
Mirotic's body of work could make the case that he's the best basketball player alive not currently in the NBA. The ACB league is widely considered the second best in the world, and Mirotic has established himself as a superstar performer. He was named MVP as a 22-year-old last season and led Real Madrid to becoming league champions. He's only seemed to be even better this season in Euroleague play, where Mirotic is essentially lighting the competition on fire.
Real Madrid is undefeated through seven Euroleague games this season, and Mirotic is dominating. He's averaging 15 points per game in just 23 minutes on incredible efficiency. Mirotic is shooting 63.9 percent on two-pointers, 70 percent (14-of-20) on three-pointers and 89.5 percent on free throws. His 78.6 effective field goal percentage is more than 11 points higher than the qualified NBA leader, Portland's Wes Matthews.
His impact on Real Madrid has been dramatic. When Mirotic is on the court, Real Madrid is posting a 131.8 offensive rating and a 84.3 defensive rating, per In The Game. When he's on the bench, Real Madrid has an offensive rating of 115.1 and a defensive rating of 91.4.
Mirotic's game would seem to be a perfect fit for the modern era of the NBA. He profiles as a prolific stretch four in the mold of Rashard Lewis, Peja Stojakovic or Ryan Anderson. At 6'10, 230 lbs., Mirotic makes up for the lack of elite NBA-level athleticism with top-end size and skill. And it's evident watching cuts of Mirotic over the last two seasons that he's no stiff athletically, either. He's pulling down over five rebounds per game in Euroleague play, and has showcased both an understanding of whatever athletic limitations he has to go along with the savvy to know how to play to his strengths.
Mirotic projects as an efficient scorer from the moment he enters the NBA. He should be destructive with Rose both in the pick-and-pop and as a floor spacer, pulling bodies away from the paint and creating more room for drives.
The biggest question isn't how he'll translate to the NBA game, it's how the Bulls will get him over here. Just because this is the first year it makes sense for Mirotic to come over based on the disintegration of the rookie scale doesn't mean his arrival is guaranteed. A contentious negotiation isn't out of the question. Instead of being one part of the Bulls' offseason overhaul, it's likely that Mirotic is the Bulls only major addition this summer.
Mirotic is making roughly $4.4 million in Spain through 2016-17. If the Bulls were to bring him over before that, he'd also have a buyout of about $3.15 million. It's been widely assumed over the last year that the Bulls could get Mirotic with the non-tax payers midlevel exception, at about $15 million over three years. As Mirotic continues his stellar play, it's becoming evident that might not be enough.
By all accounts, Mirotic enjoys life in Spain. For the Bulls to sign him, they might actually have to be under the cap. Chicago has approximately $64.9 million committed in salary next season without Deng on the books, per Sham Sports. If Boozer is amnestied, that number drops to $48.1 million. The cap line is currently at $57.67 million and could go up slightly next season.
Still, if Mirotic wants more than the mid-level exception -- and why wouldn't he? -- it's looking like he would have to be the Bulls' lone major offseason addition.
There's nothing wrong with that. Mirotic has done everything possible to convince the Bulls he's going to be a very good player. No matter the rate he's signed at -- say $30 million over four years -- it's still possible if not likely he'll outperform his contract. But the fact is the Bulls won't have nearly has much roster flexibility as they've been touting for years next summer if Mirotic asks for anything more than the mid-level exception.
In a few different ways, the situation with Mirotic mirrors one the Bulls went through more than two decades ago with Toni Kukoc. Kukoc was drafted in 1990 and didn't come over until the 1993-94 season, but his shadow hung over the franchise even while he was playing in Europe. Sam Smith's 'The Jordan Rules' outlines the Kukoc effect even in the run-up to the Bulls' first title in 1990-91. While the Bulls had to wait a few years for him, Kukoc eventually turned into a fantastic player.
Mirotic's game doesn't appear as multifaceted as Kukoc's, but the modern era may make him even more effective. He's an excellent prospect and someone very much worth getting excited about. The only question is how to bring him to Chicago, and it's becoming more complicated with each passing performance in Europe.