Just about every Bulls fan who’s seen highlights or Avi’s breakdowns of Nikola Mirotic’s game has to be excited about the prospect of Chicago bringing him over from Spain. He’s the prototypical stretch four, all the rage in the NBA these days. He’s young, having just turned 23, and should be reasonably priced for his first few years in the league. He can space the floor, something the Bulls have struggled to do over the years, and big enough that he shouldn’t be a glaring minus on the defensive end.
Even this series is based around the concept of what Chicago’s fallback options are if they can’t bring Mirotic over this summer. However, the more I think about what the Bulls need to do to get this group to the Finals, the more I become convinced that, while Mirotic can and should be an important player, he isn’t what will propel them past the likes of Miami and Indiana.
My reasoning? Let’s go back to the one real series of evidence we have to go on, the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against Miami. It’s the only time we’ve seen a good Bulls squad with a healthy Derrick Rose against a top flight opponent. As the narrative goes, Miami was able to shut down Rose at the end of games because a lack of explosive perimeter weapons allowed LeBron James to take the assignment of hounding Rose. Re-watching some critical possessions of that series left me with a couple impressions:
- There’s obviously some truth to the above notion about James bothering Rose, but a lot of Chicago’s problems were self-inflicted. I’ll delve into this more in a future post because it represented some encouraging signs for the Bulls.
- It backed up my belief that in a battle between two loaded contenders, a deep bench isn’t going to swing a series, especially for the Bulls who play their starters as much as anyone. It’s about the five guys on the floor who finish games.
Which brings us back to Mirotic. In the Thibodeau Era, the Bulls have typically closed games with Taj Gibson instead of Carlos Boozer. Gibson gives them a more physical rebounder, a better finisher at the rim and a vastly superior defender. He’s an overall better player than Boozer now, but even a couple years ago, Thibodeau simply felt more secure having a sound defender who could, as coaches love to say, do his job.
As seen with Jimmy Butler the previous two years and Tony Snell this year, if injuries didn’t force his hand, Thibs would leave young players stapled to the bench as long as possible. Great writers like Grantland’s Zach Lowe have detailed how young big men like Andre Drummond and Enes Kanter struggle to pick up the nuances of footwork, timing and communication needed to succeed at NBA defense. Add to that how long it has taken players in the past to pick up Thibodeau’s defense and it seems highly unlikely that Mirotic would be finishing important games over Gibson anytime soon.
In a typical playoff game, or frankly most regular season games since Thibs treats every game like it’s a playoff game, a full-strength Bulls team will undoubtedly finish with Rose, Butler, Gibson and Noah. That leaves one spot for a Mike Dunleavy, a Tony Snell, or a second point guard, whoever that may be in the future (pleasenotKirkHinrichpleasenotKirkHinrich). This is where a Mirotic supporter might say that he could be that fifth player, an elite shooter to stretch defenses.
However, among the many things Thibs has established over the years about his coaching style, he has shown that he believes in playing a traditional lineup. The Bulls have only gone small with Luol Deng or Butler at power forward or trotted out a Gibson/Boozer/Noah frontline as a last resort when injuries demanded it. So that’s out the window, and evidence from other teams suggests that’s probably for the best.
Much has been made of Detroit’s big lineups, as they’ve gotten their doors blown off when playing Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Drummond all at the same time. But the Pistons are a mess of an organization, so let’s look at a more successful team.
How about the heyday of the Kobe/Pau Lakers? They made three straight trips to the Finals, winning it all twice, but Andrew Bynum wasn’t a factor in 2008, so the focus here is the three years where Lamar Odom, Gasol and Bynum all played huge roles. Well, in the 2009 playoffs, that trio didn’t even take the floor together. In 2010? Phil Jackson dipped his toe in the water for all of three minutes. That’s eight playoff series where three really good players essentially never played all at once. Finally, in 2011, when they got swept by Dallas, the trio shared the floor for 27 minutes, and setting aside the obligatory small sample caveat, they got demolished. Odom was never a great shooter though, so let’s look at one more team.
Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams were ahead of their time. They played inside out with Dwight Howard and a bunch of three point gunners. One of those gunners was Ryan Anderson, who they acquired after losing in the Finals to the aforementioned 2009 Lakers. Before both moved elsewhere in 2012, Anderson and Howard played three seasons together. In those three seasons combined, regular season and playoffs, when both Anderson and Howard played, only once did a typical power forward, be it Brandon Bass, Earl Clark or Glen Davis, share the floor with them. It was Bass in the 2009-2010 season for all of 41 seconds in a March game against Denver.
So everything we have to go on tells us that Mirotic simply won’t see action alongside Gibson and Noah. Going back to those Lakers teams, Bill Simmons always used to bring up that those teams succeeded despite never being able to play their five best players at the same time. The catch with that team though was that they spent so much money that despite always having Odom or Bynum on the bench, Trevor Ariza, Metta World Peace or Derek Fisher weren’t exactly scrubs. Chicago has lot of picks in the coming years, so depth shouldn’t be an issue, but this CBA is far more restrictive than the last. Having a player who makes eight figures riding the pine is a luxury few teams will be able to afford these days.
Nikola Mirotic is a very good player, and will in all likelihood succeed in the NBA, but the Rose/Noah/Gibson trio makes over $40 million each of the next two years. Unless the Bulls open up time for Mirotic by trading Taj, I’m worried the opportunity cost of Mirotic is the chance to snag that long-awaited playmaker who can close games next to Derrick Rose.