This has almost been an under-scrutinized move because the rest of the team has gotten pummeled in their last 2.75 games, but Fred Hoiberg’s benching of Nikola Mirotic is extremely strange and bad.
After the collapse against Minnesota, the Bulls coach implied there’d be changes to the rotation. And a problem he’s had all season is that there simply aren’t enough capable players on the roster. So you’d figure changes would mean maybe getting Isaiah Canaan out of there for Denzel Valentine, or something similarly minor. Which he did, as well as continuing to keep Cristiano Felicio in as a backup center.
But why would a corresponding move be to totally DNP one of the few actual good players on the team? Nikola Mirotic, even with his struggles so far this season shooting the ball, is rotation-level. And he still has upside to be more than that. And it’s not like the person who replaced him, Bobby Portis, showed anything suggesting he was ready to overtake Niko for minutes.
And so the next two games Niko didn’t get off the bench and the Bulls got completely pounded. Though not totally causal, benching him didn’t help the team.
Again, Mirotic is not having a good season, at what is by-far a career lows in true shooting percentage. And his shot selection seems to have regressed to where he’s more frequently than ever pulling up 5 feet behind the three-point line.
But he can still help, and on this team that’s what they need more than anything: competence. He’s an underrated defender and rebounder, and likely do to that he’s one of the few Bulls within the top-40 in their positions on ESPN’s Real Plus-minus:
PG: Grant (37th)
SG: Wade (6th)
SF: Butler (1st)
PF: Gibson (26th) , Mirotic (31st)
This isn’t to use RPM as a catch-all statistic (Robin Lopez faring so poorly is a red flag, right?) but to point out that despite his shooting struggles, Mirotic can positively affect the game, something that this team has in short supply.
So for Hoiberg to totally bury one of the few good options he has...looks to be remarkably poor judgement.
And while it’s not going to help the Bulls, it’s not going to help Mirotic either. Will Gottlieb at the Athletic had a fine piece last week (coincidentally right before the benching) on Niko’s promising start to his career and how things have gone south since.
Massive hype surrounded the former Spanish League MVP after he went on a 15-game tear in March during his rookie season, where he averaged 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds, playing 30.8 minutes mostly off the bench. That small sample size raised already-high expectations for the 6-foot-10 shooter.
His usage was 30.5 percent during that stretch. Now it’s 18.5 percent. In March 2015, he averaged 4.1 drives per game. This year, he’s averaging just over one. As you might imagine, his 3-point attempt rate has gone up, as he stands on the perimeter waiting for kick-outs, and his free throw attempt rate has dropped down to 29.3, as he has less of an opportunity to attack the basket.
As Will points out, that small sample of greatness was when Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson were hurt. And it’s not fair to suggest that you have to make Niko a #1 option for him to thrive. But what can hurt him is if you marginalize his strengths like the Bulls have done in surrounding him with multiple players who need the ball in their hands. And, you know, not playing him any minutes makes it hard for him to be productive too.
I guess we’ll have to see if his return (he has to be off the bench after these 2 drubbings) proves that it was merely motivation that turns his season around. For what it’s worth, after the first night of benching Niko (in what he insisted was a coincidence) missed walkthrough and was fined.
The situation is even worse considering the long-term roster building. Both Mirotic and Gibson are free agents this offseason, and though Mirotic is restricted you can see a scenario where a team offers him huge money that the Bulls won’t have the confidence in their own evaluations to accept. Which makes things look a lot worse that the Bulls, through their offseason additions and their coaching, are getting less out of Niko than ever.