The Chicago Bulls are in for an interesting 2016-17 campaign. The team’s roster looks considerably different than in past years with the departures of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Pau Gasol as well as the additions of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
The Bulls sure have a lot of significant names on their roster, but as has been discussed extensively already, there will likely be issues integrating the incoming talent. Specifically, Wade (7-of-44), Rondo (62-of-170) and Jimmy Butler (64-of-205) made 133 of their collective 419 three-point attempts last season. A 31.5 percentage from deep is pretty poor for three guards who are expected to play heavy minutes together, especially in today’s preferred pace-and-space style of play.
Considering the shooting issues and the fact that each of these three players are used to having the ball in their hands frequently, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg will need to find creative ways to offset these offensive issues. While there will be several players who will play a role in this dynamic, no one arguably has a bigger role to play than Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic, 25, is entering his third NBA season and has a strong shot at starting at power forward for the Bulls this year. Rather than trying to figure out how to form a competent defensive duo with Gasol, Mirotic will benefit from playing alongside Robin Lopez, who is an underrated rim protector and intelligent team defender. This is significant considering how much the Bulls struggled with their big man rotations last season and how ineffective Mirotic, Noah and Taj Gibson were collectively. Lopez may not be the passer that Noah is, but at this point he’s arguably a superior all-around defensive player. Assuming the frontcourt defense improves, Hoiberg should be able to keep Mirotic on the court more often, which should, in theory, significantly help the Bulls’ offense.
While Rondo, Wade and Butler have collectively struggled from the three-point line, the Bulls could use Mirotic as a floor-spacing power forward to spread out defenses a bit. Mirotic isn’t exactly Dirk Nowitzki when it comes to shooting, but he’s better than you may think. Mirotic struggled with his shot throughout long stretches of last season, as opponents learned to stay down on his pump fakes and stay close to him. Taking away that little bit of space forced Mirotic to shoot more often off the dribble, which led to plenty of off nights from the field.
But now that Mirotic will be playing with Wade, Rondo and Butler, he’ll have two top-level playmakers to work off of, along with Butler, who assisted Mirotic more than anyone last season. Whereas Rose used to duck his head and try to power through his opponents, these three should have a better sense of where Mirotic is on the court and how to get him open looks. Assuming that happens, it will be on Mirotic to knock down the open looks from the perimeter. Fortunately, Mirotic had a 60.7 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot field goals last season, while also shooting 43.3 percent from distance. If Mirotic can duplicate those numbers – or even improve on them – he will keep defenses honest and open up some space for Wade, Rondo and Butler to operate.
Additionally, Rondo is particularly good at working with spot-up shooters in the pick-and-roll, so Hoiberg should look to pair Mirotic with him often. The more the Bulls can get the ball into Mirotic’s hands for set shots, the better. Mirotic runs into trouble when he tries to attack the basket off the dribble, and the Bulls already have too many players who will be looking to probe the opposing defense. If Hoiberg and his staff can find consistent and creative ways to feature Mirotic in these specific situations, he should put together a very efficient season while providing the additional spacing the Bulls will so desperately need.
If Mirotic isn’t able to handle this role, Doug McDermott will likely have to do his best to play as a stretch-four for the Bulls. McDermott shot 42.5 percent from three-point range last season, but he continues to be a defensive liability and will get picked on in certain match-ups. While Mirotic isn’t a lockdown defender at power forward either, he is surprisingly effective – often making crisp rotations and funneling his opponents into weak side defenders. Maybe McDermott will make a dramatic leap forward this upcoming season as a defender, but that’s not something the Bulls can rely on.
Gibson certainly deserves significant playing time at power forward as well, but he’s made just one three-point basket in his entire career. The Bulls cannot afford to have Gibson playing heavy minutes alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler considering he can’t spread the court and neither can Lopez. Three-point shooting isn’t a gimmick, it’s a necessity in today’s NBA. This is why Mirotic is so important to the Bulls this upcoming campaign.
Mirotic has plenty of motivation to put together his best season yet, considering he will be a restricted free agent next summer once Chicago extends his qualifying offer. With the cap expected to be over $100 million, Mirotic could land himself a massive new deal if he proves emerges as an essential piece for the Bulls and contributes to their success.
The Bulls are an imperfect team, but there is a lot of collective talent. Coach Hoiberg will have one of the toughest jobs in the NBA this season – managing a locker room with a lot of big names, strong personalities and overlapping talent. He will need to maximize the talent of his supporting cast in order to balance out a team that has plenty of ball handlers, but few well-rounded two-way players and knockdown shooters. While Mirotic isn’t the answer to all the issues that the Bulls may face, he’s a pretty solid option when it comes to spacing the court from the power forward position. If he does so successfully, he may help the Bulls exceed expectations and earn a huge contract after the season.
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