I remember October 6th like it was yesterday. On the NBA calendar, early October can only signify one thing: preseason. Why do I remember a preseason game so vividly? It was the first time I watched Nikola Mirotic in a Bulls uniform, and it only took me that one game to realize that Niko belonged.
Some rookies take time to develop (see: McDermott, Doug). Other rookies need proper grooming to -- hopefully, one day -- fully develop (see: Snell, Tony). But even upon first glance, it was obvious that Niko was a different breed of rookie. Niko needed playing time. From day one, it was a rather simple formula with Niko: put him on the floor and good things will happen.
Over the course of the regular season, our eyes verified this. Mirotic, especially at his height (6-foot-11) is skilled in ways that so many others aren't. He can shoot, pass, post-up, rebound and dribble. Basically, to steal a baseball analogy, Mirotic was a five-tool player who looked more polished than he did raw. The numbers held true as well, showing that Mirotic possessed the team's best individual on-court net rating at 6.1, according to NBA.com. Niko just made stuff happen.
You'll find no better example of 'making stuff happen' than in Chicago's 99-96 Game 3 victory over Cleveland in round two, a game which featured 19 lead changes and 17 ties, where Mirotic finished with an individual +/- of +19 in nearly 22 minutes. That doesn't just happen by random chance. That displays positive impact while he's on the floor.
However, in the playoffs, the rest of the NBA-watching world discovered Mirotic's (season-long) dirty little secret: for all the stuff he does, he doesn't really make shots. No, seriously, he shot 30.3 percent from the field -- which was ten percentage points lower than Joakim Noah's, someone who can't make layups anymore -- while making just 23.3 percent of this three-point attempts in 11 postseason games. No matter how you slice it, that's bad.
What happened, exactly? It's a combination of things. Offensively, Mirotic's bread-and-butter was getting to the free throw line. Mirotic's free throw rate (FTr) during the season sat at a remarkably healthy clip of .445. During the playoffs, however, Mirotic's FTr plummeted to .303 (according to Basketball Reference) as he only attempted 20 free-throws total. Smart observers had been saying a rookie won't get calls in the playoffs for quite some time. Maybe the rest of us should've taken notice because that's exactly what happened: Niko didn't get calls.
But beyond Mirotic's inability to get to the charity stripe, a chronic problem of his reared its ugly head throughout the playoffs: finding the right shot to settle for. Niko certainly isn't shy about shooting, and he definitely doesn't lack any confidence in his shot. The thing is, though, is that Mirotic's shot selection is just so damn erratic. Part of that is because, often times, Niko desperately seeks out the perfect play. He'll overpass. He'll pump fake his way out of a shot. Other times, he'll jack up a contested above-the-break three-pointer which leaves you shaking your head.
Is a systemic issue to blame for some of Mirotic's indecisiveness? Niko seems to be the type of player who best plays off the flow of the game, and when there's zero feel or flow to Tom Thibodeau's antiquated offensive system, I've gotta believe that's a big part of the problem.
Probably the best part of Mirotic's game is his knack for running the floor, which went completely unused in the playoffs. Niko's an absolute weapon in the open floor. He's always looking to push upon grabbing a rebound, demonstrating veteran-like knowledge of filling lanes, beating his man to spots. But when an offense is instructed to play slow, grind down its opponent -- you're going to miss the first good shot if you're too busy working for the last least bad one:
Take special note of the shot clock in both of those examples. I have a really hard time believing that a roster comprised of players built for up-tempo pace -- Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Mirotic -- are simply refusing to play fast. So maybe when they disappear on offense, instead of huffing and puffing and looking for every reason to attack the players, maybe look at how they're being misused?
The way I view Mirotic is that his skill-set lends itself to offensive creativity and freedom. Restrict those things and you're going to see a player fighting himself mentally, making the game more difficult than it needs to be. A player as unique as Mirotic should be worth a tremendous amount of value to an offense. Of course, he's going to have to shoot better, but that's the most appealing aspect of his potential: can you imagine how good this dude will be once he actually starts making shots?
Granted Niko's got some glaring flaws on the defensive end. This postseason -- in particular, Tristan Thompson dunking all over his soul time and time again -- really showcased his limitations. He doesn't understand how to take correct angles yet when defending pick-and-roll, he roams too aimlessly. At times it felt like he was trying to guard an area instead of the man or the play. I do think Mirotic's ball skills and anticipation are underrated, as is his rebounding. He's not unplayable, but he's a detriment unless Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson can clean up his mess.
So, yes, Mirotic did play poorly in the playoffs. And yes, both Milwaukee's and Cleveland's big men deserve praise for how well they guarded Mirotic. But from Game 1 to Game 12, teams treated Niko with the same respect for his shot despite his woes:
Defenses didn't figure out Niko, they figured out Thibs. New wrinkles to spring Niko open, say, using Butler and Mirotic pick-and-rolls? Nope. Maybe use him in the post? Forget it.
It should go without saying that a coach doesn't make a player shoot 30 percent, but it should also be understood that this coach never fully optimized Mirotic's offensive versatility, either. I watched the way Mirotic was underutilized all season long. In classic Thibodeau fashion, the opponents figured out that he was going to use Mirotic exactly the same way he used him in the regular season.
Look, Niko's gotta play better, without question. I'm not absolving him of his disappearing act completely. But, as always, it's much deeper than coming down to making or missing shots.