Nikola Mirotic has long been viewed as a special talent. Formerly a Euroleague MVP, Mirotic joined the Bulls last season with frighteningly high expectations. Impressively, he never blinked. Watch Mirotic play even one time and you'll soon realize that there's nothing shy about the Montenegrin's playing style. He's as brash as they come, no matter where they do, in fact, come from.
Maybe that -- Mirotic's unbridled confidence -- is what made his rookie season such a resounding success. In a sense, there's never been another player like him. The NBA has never seen a player of Mirotic's height shoot as many 3s and attempt free throws at a higher rate than Mirotic did last season. That's not just unique, it's downright unprecedented. His game by it's very nature it's aggressively efficient. Which is why, until now, there's been little unrest towards the fact Mirotic is a career 32 percent 3-point shooter through 103 NBA games.
But now, with a quarter of the Bulls' season in the books, Mirotic has gone from playing a pivotal starting role to seeing just 14 minutes off-the-bench in a nationally televised game against the Clippers last Thursday night. Incidentally, the best game of Mirotic's career -- and perhaps the first time a national audience bought into the Mirotic hype -- came against the Clippers during an ugly afternoon game on ABC last season. It was the quintessential Mirotic game as he finished 11-23 from the field (2-7 from 3) and 5-8 from the line to wind up with 29 points. But in that game, something more important materialized: it was the first time the Bulls leaned exclusively on Mirotic for offense as a throw-him-the-ball guy. It was a glimpse of what Mirotic could provide a perpetually underwhelming offense for years to come.
When a player's feeling it, he's feeling it. And few players are able to channel that stop-me-if-you-can feeling more effectively than Mirotic. But the secret to Mirotic's gunner mentality is that it's all predicated off his ability to get to the free throw line. It's easier to swallow all the misses if he's frequently retrieving the free points. This season, though, Mirotic is not getting to the line nearly as often. His free throw rate (FTr) has gone from a remarkable .445 to a pedestrian .282. Which, not for nothing, has seemingly become a team-wide trend under Fred Hoiberg.
That Fred Hoiberg -- a coach widely applauded for his modern approach to offense -- hasn't figured out how to best use a guy who specializes in free throws and 3s has been utterly perplexing. As clichéd as it may sound, no player better personifies space-and-pace than Mirotic. Theoretically, the Hoiberg-Mirotic pairing should be a basketball match made in heaven. So what gives?
Since day one, easily the most maddening aspect of Mirotic's game has been his indecisiveness. Although that may sound like a contradiction when factoring in Mirotic's passion for shooting, it's really not when considering that gunners -- which is what Mirotic is -- simply do not know the difference between a good shot and a great one. Every shot looks good to Mirotic. On way too many instances to list, Mirotic has pump faked his way out of a good shot and downgraded it to a difficult or terrible one.
Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin already examined this phenomenon in finer detail a few weeks back:
"Opposing defenses are starting to catch up. The pump fakes that he frequently throws into possessions aren’t fooling defenders the way they did when he came into the league. He’s pump-faked on 23 of his 129 shot attempts this season and made just three of those attempts (13 percent), while shots where he didn’t employ a fake saw him shooting 41.9 percent—not great by any means, but at least passable."
The pump fake is not only contributing to Mirotic's haphazard shot selection, but it's also partly responsible for his aforementioned dip in free throws. At this point, it's more a detriment unto himself that it is a foul-baiting tactic. Refs aren't falling for it anymore, and neither are defenders. And furthermore, according to NBA.com's player tracking data, that's trickling into Mirotic's ability to drive the basketball as evidenced by the fact he's only averaging 1.1 drives to the hoop per game as opposed to last season's 1.7. He's at his most terrifying when he's able to drive and make plays off the bounce, but defenders are showing discipline on the shot fake and are daring him to shoot. And frankly, that's the appropriate way to defend Mirotic these days.
I do think there's some credence to the notion that Mirotic is a good shooter who has been shooting the ball poorly. However, my main concern with Mirotic is that through 100-plus career NBA games he still does not have a feel or awareness for the NBA 3-point line.
Pick a game, any game. This occurs on a nightly basis and is more a bad habit than it is innocuous mistake. I mean, in all of the above screen shots, Mirotic has plenty of space and plenty of time on the shot clock. There's no good reason for him to be regularly positioning himself that far out and proceed to bomb away from 27-feet. There's but one player in the entire league who can strike fear in a defense from 30-feet away from the basket, and Nikola Mirotic, obviously, is not that player.
Additionally, I do think there's some merit to Mirotic's mechanics being a tad troublesome in the NBA game. Mirotic doesn't really hop or sway into his shot, it's relatively grounded and straight-up. For example:
See what I mean? Too flat-footed. Not enough bend. Zero bounce. Not ready to shoot upon catching the ball. I understand that the shooting mechanics of a 6-foot-10 human being are much different than that of a guard, but Mirotic is just too stiff sometimes. He claims he's working on his shot, and one can only hope this is what he's attempting to correct.
But at the risk of sounding overly obvious, Mirotic just playing at a lower level this year. Even advanced metrics like RPM and DRE (shout out Kevin Ferrigan, we miss you at BaB) which have done a good job at capturing Mirotic's seen and unseen contributions aren't loving him as much this season. Of course, it's a make or miss league, and Mirotic is missing quite often. He could go 6-6 tonight and would all of a sudden be shooting at a league average clip. The question is whether or not Mirotic will ever find consistency as an NBA shooter.
And to that end, teams are starting to treat Mirotic with less respect. Well, the good teams anyway (this shot was a forced, tough layup by Jimmy Butler):
The bad ones, meanwhile, are still learning to catch on (here's an uncontested layup for Jimmy Butler on essentially the same play design as above. Butler spun off his man on the wing towards the rim, but the help didn't arrive in time):
A long point of contention among many Bulls fans (myself included) is that having Mirotic on the floor provides the team the best spacing they can possibly manufacture by virtue of his gravity. The Bulls are at their best when lanes are open to slash. But we're starting to see teams feel more and more content leaving Mirotic, especially if he's above the break. The more that teams are willing to sink their defense and commit help to the ball, the harder it's going to be for the Bulls to get points. As if it wasn't hard enough already, right?
I will say that I've been pleasantly surprised by Mirotic's defense this season. He isn't caught out of place very often and he attacks bodies and angles as opposed to relying on his height for rebounds. So it hasn't been all bad. And technically, Mirotic's numbers this season have actually improved in many departments. But it'd be hard to argue that he hasn't regressed at least somewhat. A lot of which, again, comes back to not generating trips to the foul line.
Maybe Hoiberg should try getting Mirotic closer looks to the basket by going to him in the post more? That'd be one surefire way to at least put Mirotic in a position to draw contact. But truthfully, I don't know that there are any clear-cut answers other than for him to simply shoot better. A sophomore slump 20 games in is nothing to be up in arms over, but it is something worth noting. Really, it's that the league has adjusted to him and it's a matter of Niko adjusting back.
Mirotic has always represented the Bulls best chance at improving internally, and a lot rides on his play. A good starting place for him would be to start figuring out which shots are the right shots to take. That way, ideally, he'll start making more of them, too.