Nikola Mirotic’s return to the Bulls rotation is imminent, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
His debut likely won’t come later today against the Indiana Pacers. But with two games in as many days against the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks ahead, it’s probable Mirotic will be back during one of these games.
Mirotic’s inevitable return will force he and teammate Bobby Portis to communicate. The result may just be awkward body language and finger pointing on missed defensive rotations, but hey, it’s a start.
How Hoiberg chooses to manage this dynamic, as well as Mirotic’s role in the established rotation will be fascinating. Here are some of his options.
Three power forwards, not enough minutes
Lauri Markkanen wasn’t supposed to be the starting power forward on opening night. He may not have even been a back up.
Though the rookie has proven ready to start at the four, both Mirotic and Portis were odds-on favourites to be ahead of him in the rotation.
All that changed after Portis inexplicably punched Mirotic in the face.
Though the altercation was the last thing a rebuilding team needed filtering through the locker room, it did temporarily relieve the log jam in the front court, something the Bulls have consistently battled with for multiple seasons.
A staple of the Gar Forman era has been a collective of at least four capable big men worthy of regular minutes. It was the case in 2010, after acquiring Carlos Boozer and Omer Asik to pair with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. It occurred again when they surrounded the latter pair with Pau Gasol and Mirotic in 2014.
True to form, the same problem exists today.
Markkanen, Mirotic and Portis all are capable of playing extensive minutes, and in their own way, deserve to do so. Clogging the front court was always going to be an issue, one which has now been exacerbated after the infamous altercation.
There’s almost no way Hoiberg can manage to split the available 48 minutes at power forward amongst three players. And frankly, Markkanen should never see anything less than 28 minutes per outing.
So what does the coach do with the remaining 20 minutes? He certainly can’t split those minutes evenly across both Portis and Mirotic. Will he sit one and not play the other? If so, who plays and who sits?
Both will play. Locker room politics will demand as much. The risk of heightening tension between the two if he chooses to sit one whilst playing the other is too great.
The likely scenario here is Hoiberg bends his rotation, trying one or both in different positions to simplify their existence.
Reigniting the idea of Mirotic at small forward
Let me start off by saying I hate this idea entirely and always have.
Using Mirotic at small forward never made sense during his rookie year. It certainly doesn’t make sense now, after watching Mirotic for three seasons and knowing his most effective position is at the four. The only reason it ever occurred, though, was the aforementioned log jam over the years up front.
We’ve seen this option play out before, and it will rear its head again. Hoiberg will likely experiment with it at some point, as he did briefly in 2015 when Portis and Felicio first emerged onto the roster.
To facilitate such a move — and to effectively keep Portis and Felicio as the back up bigs — one of Denzel Valentine, Justin Holiday, David Nwaba or Paul Zipser will have their minutes reduced.
The obvious candidate of this group is Zipser. A large negative all season, the sophomore forward has found himself in and out of the rotation on multiple occasions already.
Despite starting seven games this season, Zipser is only averaging 16.6 minutes per game. That isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to hand to Mirotic almost immediately as he assimilates his way back into the rotation. Zipser has already received three DNP-CDs this season, so a fourth wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. He’s also likely not to complain about a reduced role, nor has his play justified any argument against being benched.
By cutting Zipser out of the fold and pasting in Mirotic at small forward, it allows for minimal rotational shakeups elsewhere on the court. It’s the easy option.
Again, I don’t want to see this happen, but it will.
Mirotic, the stretch five?
Unlike the jumbo lineup experiment with Mirotic playing some three, downsizing the rotation is a worthy idea. In general, it’s far more favourable to shift players up a position than down.
Mirotic at center isn’t a foreign concept. Though done sparingly, Hoiberg tinkered with this idea last season. It’s something that should be tested again.
This is my preferred alternative if Mirotic is to move away from power forward. The notion makes even more sense when paired with Markkanen. Their shooting combination would provide a true five-out unit that enables optimal spacing for the likes of Kris Dunn to enter the paint and attack the rim.
In order for this to happen, Hoiberg will need to replicate the Zipser scenario with Cristiano Felicio, reducing his role significantly, if not entirely.
The problem with this solution is Mirotic shouldn’t be playing all his minutes at center. His most effective position is still power forward. There will be matchups that will prove difficult for Mirotic against hulking centers. Adjustments may also force him to guard starting bigs, who are generally much bigger than their reserves.
Perhaps instead of shifting Mirotic to the five, Portis could slot in at center, effectively supplanting Felicio as the team’s back up. We’ve seen such a move play out before, and it was an utter disaster. Portis is incapable of defending the rim or moving his feet to help on dribble penetration, so this idea is likely to fail. Unfortunately, Hoiberg may have no other choice.
What will actually happen?
Put simply: All of the above.
Mirotic is a power forward. He needs to see minutes in his natural position, if for no other reason other than to recoup any lost trade value.
Of course, the problem is there isn’t enough minutes at power forward, so he will play minutes at center.
The Bulls also have an glaring hole at small forward. This will naturally push Mirotic away from the crowded four spot to the wing. He shouldn’t see many minutes in this role, but he may have to.
Expect Mirotic to be thrown around in different positions, at least until he (or Portis) is traded.