Nikola Mirotic is Chicago’s X-Factor

Coach Fred Hoiberg has his hands full and sophomore Bobby Portis is oozing potential, but Nikola Mirotic is the X-Factor in the Windy City. 

Mirotic, who turns 26 in February, is set to make $5.8 million this year before becoming a restricted free agent next summer. Now entering his third season, Nikola nominally increased his per game averages in points, rebounds, assists, and steals during an inconsistent sophomore season. Mirotic’s only significant improvement came from beyond the arc, where he made the jump from 31.6 to 39 percent. Fortunately, that is what he’ll be relied on most heavily for in 2016-17.

Here’s the thing, though. That beard needs to bring better box outs, effort, and enthusiasm. A man with such a full face of hair needs to be a little bit crazier than the average bear, and certainly more active than Mirotic is defensively.

The projected starting lineup of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Robin Lopez offers Mirotic insurance on defense (Wade, Butler, Lopez are all seasoned stoppers), but very little help in terms of shooting. All five (with Lopez contributing zero) combine to hit 358 threes if you add up their best individual three-point shooting campaigns. That’s still 44 less than Steph Curry hit last season and only 82 more than Klay Thompson did, so defenders will be bothering the Bulls like gnats at a barbecue.

Besides Mirotic, only Doug McDermott and Isaiah Canaan have surpassed 100 made threes in a single season, and neither is guaranteed much of anything in terms of minutes or looks per game for the Bulls. Wade is coming off one of his worst seasons shooting the ball from the perimeter, making five more threes in the postseason (12) than the regular season. Meanwhile, Rondo is actually coming off his best three-point shooting campaign in Sacramento, but those two offer negative spacing. Butler is a legitimate scoring force, but like Wade, threes have never been his forte. This puts all the pressure in the world on the shoulders of the Montenegrin. Mirotic will be harassed on the perimeter, rarely left alone for a millisecond. However, he’ll have to make the most of precious few openings to give Wade, Butler, Rondo, Lopez, and others the room to operate inside the arc.

Bobby Portis could very well steal Mirotic’s X-Factor status, but given Mirotic’s experience and proven perimeter jumper, he’s still the favorite to earn the nod as the starting 4 on a squad severely lacking any semblance of three-point shooting. Portis’ ability to slide his feet and sink shots from the outside will earn him minutes at the 4 too. However, there’s also a good chance Portis beats Cristiano Felicio out for backup center minutes behind Robin Lopez. Both Mirotic and Portis are set to see serious spikes in playing time due to their offensive range even with Taj Gibson on the roster. The 31-year-old big man could be available on the trade market, but Gibson could serve as a small-ball backup center if Felicio struggles to remain relevant in the rotation and the front office feels there are enough minutes to go around at the 4 and 5. Based on Felicio’s performance in the Olympics, I’d be surprised if he’s able to earn regular playing time. No matter how things turn out though, the frontcourt certainly isn’t lacking in terms of depth even minus Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. If there’s anything Chicago can feel good about entering the season, it’s a projected backup big man rotation of Portis and Gibson. Yes, please, and thank you very much.

Still, one of the biggest keys to Chicago’s campaign is figuring out what Mirotic is at the NBA level. Mirotic, Felicio, and Tony Snell will all be restricted free agents next summer, and the Bulls must involve them enough to determine their respective ceilings. Snell could be an interesting option to try alongside Rondo, Wade, Butler, and Portis in an uptempo small-ball lineup. We’ll probably see that lineup about as often as opponents leave Mirotic open from beyond the arc, but the good news is that Mirotic is comfortable letting shots fly from 30+ feet.

Forget making the playoffs for a second, Mirotic is the key to the Bulls being watchable and developing as a team in 2016-17. When he gets hot, the guy can melt the ice underneath the hardwood while showing no conscience. Here’s to hoping he remains reckless and over-the-top with his pump fakes, but that his shot can lure at least one defender from merely packing the paint against these space-deprived Bulls.

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