I had high hopes for Nikola Mirotic last season after his impressive rookie campaign, but he was largely awful the first half of the year before he came on strong late after missing time due to an appendectomy.
So, even with the Bulls’ new additions this past offseason, I once again hopped on the Mirotic bandwagon hoping he could live up to the expectations many had for him when he finally came over from Europe. The Dirk comparisons were always dumb, but some modicum of consistency would be nice.
Well, that consistency is still lacking, and his crazy splits in win vs. losses show how important him playing well is to the Bulls’ success:
This is following a trend from the last two seasons, during which there was a sizable disparity in Mirotic’s performance in wins and losses:
While key players playing worse in losses obviously isn’t a surprise, the sheer size of the gap is notable in Niko’s case.
At this point, we mostly know what we’re going to get out of the Bulls’ starters. Jimmy Butler is bordering on superstar status. Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson are consistently providing solid defense and rebounding. Dwyane Wade has been mostly good outside of a few duds on the second night of back-to-backs. And as poor as I think Rajon Rondo is, you usually know what to expect from him.
Niko is more of a wild card. When he’s engaged and playing well, he adds another element to the Bulls’ offense with his ability to stretch the floor as a big man. And as noted in the above stats, he can be an effective rebounder and at least a passable defender.
Then there are the games where Mirotic is a complete liability, like he was against the Clippers over the weekend. These are the games where he can’t buy a three, gets bullied down low, gets lost on defense and makes at minimum two or three boneheaded decisions. If Niko would’ve even played semi-competently against the Clippers, Fred Hoiberg may have decided to go with him over Bobby Portis down the stretch, and perhaps the game goes differently.
In the Bulls’ last three losses, Mirotic shot 1-of-16 overall and 0-of-12 from long range. Those three games also featured just two rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal in 40 minutes of action. That’s abhorrent.
But as maddening as Mirotic can be, we have several years of data that tell us his presence helps the Bulls on the whole. He led the team in on-court net rating in 2014-15 and was one of the few in the positive last year. And this season, his +9.6 on-court net rating is second on the Bulls among players who’ve played at least 100 minutes, and his 111.5 offensive rating is the best. On/off data isn’t always the most reliable (Hi there, Tony Snell!), but this is an increasingly large sample size that we have to work with that says Niko generally makes a positive impact.
The key for Mirotic is finding a bit more consistency and avoiding those clunkers that tend to plague him. The aggravating pump fakes and boneheaded decisions will likely always be there to some degree, but I can live with a few of those if he’s playing well otherwise.