Aside from his unruly beard, what's not to like about Nikola Mirotic? He's become must-watch TV in the month of March, and that's not just relative to the product the banged-up Bulls are trotting out on a nightly basis. In fact, one could make the claim -- with careful consideration as pertaining to Rose's health, of course -- that Chicago's future will be driven by Mirotic, Butler and Rose. Prior to the season, I'm not sure even Mirotic's biggest supporters saw the 6-foot-10 Montenegrin becoming a franchise fixture this quickly. By and large, Mirotic's first season in Chicago has been a grand success.
Debating Mirotic's ceiling is a fun exercise -- A No. 2 option on a good team? A No. 3 option on a great team? Future All-Star? -- but this three-week stretch of basketball he's played in the month of March raises a much more pertinent matter: what happens to Mirotic this season once (read: if) the team is fully healthy? And moreover, what will become of Mirotic's role in the postseason?
The significance of these questions obviously stem from Mirotic's increase in production after being given ample playing time. Since Mar. 1, Mirotic is doubling his season average in points and is nearly doing the same in the rebounding department. His efficiency remains praiseworthy -- despite his seemingly pedestrian field goal and three-point shooting clips -- as evidenced by his 55.6 true shooting percentage in March, which incorporates added value of threes and free throws.
Mirotic frequently takes one of the more efficient shots in basketball, and there's arguably never been a rookie who plays with as much of an efficiency as Mirotic has this season. According to Basketball Reference, he's the only rookie ever to post a three-point rate and free-throw rate above .470.
Mirotic's growing confidence and ability is perhaps best showcased by his fourth quarter production. Since Mar. 1, Mirotic has scored an astonishing 90 fourth-quarter points, averaging nearly a point per minute while he's on the floor. He's also shooting 86.5 percent (32-37) from the free throw line in the fourth. Which, to quote Stacey King, is 'free cheese' to Niko. And on many an occasion, Mirotic has provided an offensively challenged team its only source of scoring in the final stretches of games.
Simply put: Mirotic should be on the floor as much as possible under these dire circumstances. Even his defense -- which I'll admit, often does not pass the eye test -- hasn't been a major determent to the team. In March, the Bulls are 4.7 points worse in defensive efficiency (per 100 possessions) when Mirotic sits. But given this information, I still wouldn't feel comfortable saying Mirotic makes the team better on defense, despite what the numbers may suggest. In fact, while he's absolutely made some convincing strides, I believe he's a liability on that end due to a lack of quickness and upper body strength.
But maybe what matters most here is not how much Mirotic is playing, but rather whom he is playing with. This can be illustrated using net rating for some player combinations, which simply is offensive efficiency subtracted from defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. On the year, the two-man lineup of Mirotic and Taj Gibson has produced a +6.7 net rating. The two-man combination of Mirotic and Joakim Noah has produced a +6.0 net rating. Meanwhile, the Mirotic and Pau Gasol tandem doesn't even possess a positive net rating.
This is where our open-ended questioning becomes legitimate postulation. The numbers speak for themselves and over the past few weeks it has become abundantly clear that Mirotic is currently the best offensive weapon the Bulls have. I'd even go as far as to say Mirotic is the best player the Bulls have right now, period. Mirotic has earned the right to major minutes, but as we know, those minutes dwindle -- he's averaging over 30 minutes per game in March but is averaging under 20 per game on the season -- once the roster is healthy and full. So, what happens to him come playoff time?
In my opinion -- even though I just got finished explaining how well he's played -- I still can't fully justify giving a rookie major minutes in the postseason when proven commodities like Noah, Gasol and Gibson haven't played poorly enough to warrant Mirotic superseding their spots in the rotation. As we all know, the playoffs are a different breed of basketball, including a level of intensity that I'm not sure Mirotic (though he's played in the Euroleague) has ever been exposed to. So, while I feel differently in my gut, I'd dispassionately understand that Tom Thibodeau would be right to ride Gasol and Noah, and placing Mirotic back down to fourth in the pecking order once the team is healthy and in the postseason.
Now, if this were a team in a developmental position to use a playoff series -- win or lose -- as a learning experience for a group of young players, then by all means a guy like Niko should be in a major role. However, that's not a reality for these Bulls.
The shame is that if it were not for Mirotic's tricky buyout situation (thanks, CBA) preventing him from becoming a Bull prior to this season, then I think this current predicament would be much easier to deal with. Maybe a year of NBA playoff experience means it'd be more reasonable to assume he'd be starting by now.
Instead, it's more a conversation we'll be having this summer. For now, patriarchy will rule the day and Chicago's playoff hopes are married to a couple 30-something big men (plus Rose's rehab recovery, and Butler maintaining top form). But Mirotic has been so good as a rookie that this offseason should make for some fun, yet tough, decisions.
*All stats are taken from NBA.com/stats unless noted otherwise