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Nikola Mirotic: The Forgotten Alpha

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As it turns out, Chicago’s favorite beard just needed a bigger role to become the best version of himself.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

(Disclaimer: I wrote this prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Knicks)

Nikola Mirotic’s brand of basketball has captivated me from the very moment I started watching his Real Madrid game tape after the Chicago Bulls selected him in the 2011 NBA Draft. Back then, the idea of a young four eventually taking over for Carlos Boozer in an offense to be led by the reigning MVP for years to come sounded like a wet dream for Bulls fans. Sadly, we’ll never know what might have been had Mirotic gotten a chance to blossom alongside a healthy Derrick Rose. However, over the last ten games of the 2017-18 regular season, Threekola has treated the Chicago faithful to a solid glimpse into how good he can be when given a consistent premier role on the team.

Before the start of last season, I wrote an article for detailing why Nikola Mirotic needed to have prominent duties in the forthcoming Fred Hoiberg offense if the Bulls were going to have any realistic chance of competing in the Eastern Conference. I rooted my reasoning in the fact that the three most ball-dominant players on the team—Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo—were not great 3-PT shooters, did not pose much of an offensive threat without the ball in their hands, and lacked substantial athleticism outside of Butler. In what became a hilarious turn of events from my perspective, that group would go on to be known as the infamous “Three Alphas” among Bulls fans over the course of the offseason, and the Alphas ultimately landed Chicago in the bottom third of the NBA in offensive efficiency.

However, my argument for Mirotic getting a larger role in the offense didn’t just revolve around the widely shared hypothesis that the Bulls’ three best players were ill-fitted for the Hoiberg scheme. During the previous season, after once again struggling to carve out a consistent role for himself on top of dealing with an appendectomy and hematoma removal, Mirotic went off late in the year when a greater offensive opportunity presented itself:

When Mirotic returned from his February health problems, he found himself in a greater role due to Noah’s season-ending shoulder injury. Finally well and in a consistent role for the last 22 games of the season, Mirotic became the stretch four of Fred Hoiberg’s dreams. He averaged 14.1 points in less than 27 minutes per game while shooting a blistering 44.5 percent from long range on over six attempts per game. He hit at least three three-point field goals in eight of those final 22 contests, including five games in which he hit five or more. —George Eisner (is it poor writer’s etiquette to quote yourself?)

This ended up being a mere scratching of the surface when it comes to analyzing Mirotic’s trend of capitalizing on teammates getting injured. As beloved BlogaBull regular Kris Amundsen so perfectly pointed out both over the summer and in a recap from earlier in December, Niko’s “March Mirotic” persona is more a product of him getting extended minutes and more shot opportunities in the wake of team injuries than anything else. Subsequently, Mirotic’s confidence gets going knowing he’s getting a chance to play as more than a spot-up shooter, and the results manifest themselves almost immediately.

Mirotic failed to eclipse 300 minutes in any month of his rookie season before the All-Star break, but then Rose’s late-February meniscus injury and an elbow injury to Butler in March left the Bulls scrambling to find consistent offensive contributors. Niko then proceeded to play 462 minutes in 15 games, took 222 shots and 109 freethrow attempts after previously not getting more than 98 and 53 respectively in any other month of the season, and led the entire NBA in 4th quarter scoring. His usage rating of 30.5% for March was almost a full nine percentage points higher than any of his previous months during his rookie season, and he played so well that he almost vaulted himself in front of Andrew Wiggins for NBA Rookie of the Year. When Rose and Butler came back for the playoffs, Mirotic found himself relegated back to spot-up shooter, and his performances left something to be desired.

Last season, after the Bulls pronounced Wade out for the season and the front office shipped Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City, Mirotic was once again poised for another big March. Predictably, he delivered. Starting in six games for the month after previously getting only two the whole season, Niko proceeded to pour in 41.2% of his 85 attempts from deep, posted a true shooting percentage of 64%, and scored 184 points—45 more than he had in any other month for the entire year. Unfortunately, Wade surprised everyone by returning for the Playoffs, and although Rondo himself eventually got hurt, the scoring role in the offense simply wasn’t there for Mirotic anymore and he once again put up a disasterous postseason performance.

But getting back to the present, Mirotic has been nothing short of brilliant since returning to a Bulls team that desperately craved a confident offensive player. Through his first ten games of the season, Mirotic posted a line of 18.5 points per game on a 63.1% true shooting, a scalding 48.3% mark from distance on a whopping 5.8 attempts per game, and 7.6 rebounds per game on an insane-for-a-PF 29% defensive rebounding percentage. His freethrow shooting and assist numbers are a bit down, but history speaks to how prolific of a contributor Mirotic can be from the charity stripe, and anybody that watches him regularly knows how gifted of a playmaker he is:

Part of what has fueled Mirotic’s stellar start has been his ability to exploit teams that attempt to roll out small ball lineups against the Bulls. He has finally gotten to the point physically where he can overpower mismatches (or just shoot over them) and finish through contact on the block or in the lane. This has been heavily on display recently when the Bulls have played the Milwaukee Bucks, given the latter’s lack of stout frontcourt players:

And of course, Mirotic’s confidence is as high as it has ever been right now shooting-wise. On Tuesday night, he hit three threes over the outstretched arms of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second half; the most notable of which was this extremely misguided yet exceptionally cold-blooded pull-up right after crossing mid-court:

Mirotic’s defense has also quietly been very good out of the gate. Due to a recent nutmeg from Ben Simmons, a disgusting crossover from Kemba Walker a few years ago, and a stereotype that Europeans can’t handle NBA athletes; Niko’s been unfairly cast by many as a bad defender. Though I certainly would not feel comfortable with him defending guards given his less-than-ideal lateral quickness, Mirotic is a much better defender than most people give him credit for. That’s not to say that he’s a world beater on that end, but Mirotic has concluded every year of his NBA career with a positive defensive real +/- rating and finished in the top 25 for his position in two of those three seasons.

A big part of Mirotic’s defensive contribution is simply having active hands. In each of his previous three seasons, Niko has posted no less than a combined 2.3 blocks/steals per 36 minutes. As he showed in his clutch closing stretch of the Bulls’ win over the 76ers, Mirotic’s pesky palms have helped him get better at recovering from getting beat off the dribble, and also come in handy when closing out shooters:

Alas, Mirotic will be turning 27 in February, and his contract with the Bulls is only good through June 2019. He’s only getting paid roughly $13 million over each of the next two years and would currently rank as a top 15 player in PER if eligible. Given all of this and the fact that Lauri Markkanen appears to be firmly entrenched in Chicago’s future, I think it would at least be in the very best interests of the Bulls to look for a trade partner in an effort to start stockpiling picks for the upcoming draft. Then again, finding a team with a reasonably valuable first round pick that wants to compete now is no easy day at work for a GM, so perhaps the Bulls’ front office will just opt to sit on what suddenly looks like an extremely advantageous contract from a fiscal standpoint.

In any event, get March Mirotic out of your memories and preconceptions for the future. As history and the current stretch of play has clearly demonstrated, Alpha Nikola is a well-rounded stud and a very real threat to opposing NBA teams. As long as he can stay healthy and the notorious Fred Hoiberg Random Minutes Generator™ stays unplugged, there’s little reason to believe Nikola Mirotic’s current sky-high abilities and confidence will nosedive any time soon.