Nikola Mirotic was always going to be traded this season.
Signed to a short-term deal with a team option on the second season, Mirotic was never part of the Bulls’ long-term rebuilding plans. Drafting Lauri Markkanen, a younger and cost-controlled version of Mirotic, confirmed as much.
If they could, the Bulls would’ve traded Mirotic already. Free agency rules didn’t allow the team to move him before Jan. 15. That day is fast approaching. So too are the trade rumors.
Mirotic has expressed an interest in joining the Utah Jazz, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com. The Detroit Pistons have also emerged as potential trade destinations for Mirotic, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. At their heels are the Portland Trailblazers, who have also joined the list of suitors, according to K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune.
Whether a deal can be struck remains to be seen. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that these teams have interest in Mirotic (I suggested as much in a recent mailbag post).
Here’s why these teams trading for Mirotic makes sense.
Fringe Playoff Contenders
Chicago, a rebuilding team looking to strengthen their lottery odds, will be looking to sell any unnecessary player no longer part of the future before the Feb. 8 trade deadline is enforced.
Teams on the cusp of a playoff push are typically those who become buyers.
With Utah, Detroit and Portland all hovering around .500, a playoff berth isn’t guaranteed. A trade for Mirotic can help that cause.
Four 1/2 games back on the eighth placed New Orleans Pelicans, the Jazz are on the outside looking in. Owners of the tenth-best record in the Western Conference, if the Jazz are to make the playoffs, they need to make their push now, or risk being a team stuck between rebuilding and mediocrity.
Just ahead are the Trailblazers, who sit sixth out West at 21-18. Currently above .500 and a likely postseason participant, the Blazers don’t have to make a move. However, they’re a team locked into their current roster. They won’t have cap space to improve their team in free agency. Buying at the deadline is their best option at adding depth. It also helps mitigate against potential injuries to core players, which could impact playoff odds.
Similarly to Portland, the Pistons also own a 21-18 record, sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference. They too will have limited resources in free agency to improve their capped out roster. The primary objective for the Pistons this season was returning to the playoffs. After a disappointing 2016-17 season that saw them finish tenth in the East, adding Mirotic would be a competitive advantage against several other teams vying for the final two spots in the playoffs.
Fit Next To Franchise Centers
A commonality that these three teams share is the profile of their starting center. Rudy Gobert, Jusuf Nurkic, and Andre Drummond are all big, lumbering centers that operate best in the paint on both sides of the ball. Ideally, they should be paired with a legitimate shooting option at power forward that can also defend in space. Mirotic can do that, and is an obvious fit next to any of these big men.
Mirotic wanting a move to Utah is obvious: A terrific young coach, an established relationship with guard Ricky Rubio, and a perfect fit next to Gobert. The Jazz have pushed the Derrick Favors and Gobert combination as far as it can go. Both are centers in the modern NBA. Mirotic would offer the Jazz a scoring avenue they previously haven’t had, and would be the perfect foil to space the floor for Rubio and Gobert pick-and-rolls.
A similar logic fits in Detroit. Andre Drummond is a devastating force as a roll man. He does his best work at the rim. Playing Mirotic with him allows more territory in the paint for Drummond to catch lobs and dominate the offensive glass. It also gives perimeter players more room to penetrate. Coach Stan Van Gundy was also one of the earliest adopters of the stretch four. Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson were cast in this role, but for various reasons, neither has succeeded.
Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic does have more shooting range than Drummond and Gobert, but he’s more effective using his 280-pound frame deep in the post. A team built around two lead guards and a low post force, the Trailblazers desperately need shooting from the forward position to support their stars. Mo Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Faroq Aminu have yet to prove they can be consistent shooting options. In coach Terry Stotts’ offense, Mirotic can be.
The three teams interested in Mirotic are hovering around .500, in part, due to their underwhelming offensive performances in several key offensive metrics.
The Trailblazers have typically been one of the better offenses in the league during Stotts’ tenure. But after moving on from Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum two seasons ago and trading Allen Crabbe – a sniper from three – to the Brooklyn Nets in the offseason, the Blazers’ offense has regressed. Mirotic won’t solve all their problems, but could help restore past performance.
Fortunately for Portland, they do have an All-Star caliber backcourt with two effective individual scorers: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Detroit and Utah can’t make such a claim.
Relying on a rookie to lead a respectable offense is almost unheard of. The Jazz’s offense suggests as much. As noteworthy as Donovan Mitchell’s rise has been, he needs supports. As a high volume threat from deep, Mirotic fits nicely next to Mitchell’s dribble-drive game. He can also help reduce the load on the rookie in the second half of the season. More importantly, though, he can unlock a Jazz offense used to playing with two traditional bigs.
Even before point guard Reggie Jackson went down with an ankle injury, the Pistons were a team full of third options acting as lead offensive weapons. Such a model was never going to produce an efficient offense. Adding Mirotic won’t suddenly change this fact. But it can help alleviate some of the offensive burden that Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Andre Drummond currently own.
Reliance On The Three-Ball
Operating in the post, creating offense off the dribble and in the midrange area, Mirotic has shown his versatility as a scorer this season. An expanded role on offense has allowed the forward to showcase all his skills – and drive up his trade value – but his offensive significance will always be predicated on his ability to shoot from distance.
Since his return from injury, Mirotic has been a weapon from the 3-point line, making 46.5 percent of his attempts. Of frontcourt players with 400 or more minutes this season, only Davis Bertans is attempting more threes per 100 possessions. Combining his efficiency and volume, it’s easy to see why teams are interested in adding Mirotic.
Specifically for the three teams courting Mirotic, their respective coaches are proponents on building an offense that maximises attempts from the 3-point line. This season, though, only Utah has been effective in this approach.
Past iterations of Trailblazer teams have been among the top-10 in relevant 3-point measures. The same is true for Van Gundy led teams throughout his tenure in Orlando. Both coaches want to replicate Utah’s approach from distance, and can progress to that by adding one of the league’s most potent shooters.
A synergistic relationship exists between Mirotic’s shooting ability and the ideologies of those teams inquiring about his availability. This logic adds weight to the trade rumors, and it should be of no surprise if the mercurial forward is moved to one of Utah, Portland or Detroit.
Now it’s just a matter of price. Chicago will be hopeful of a bidding war to increase their leverage at the trade table. If all three teams continue to trend as a fringe playoff performer, there should be no reason for Bulls management to not extract a reasonable return for Mirotic.