After being punched in the face by his teammate Bobby Portis prior to the beginning of the season, Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic needed space. He needed to heal physically after having suffering broken facial bones and mentally after several teammates reportedly took Portis’ side. When Mirotic returned to the court in early December, space proved important once again. This time, though, spacing was the story on the court.
Prior to the Montenegro native’s December debut, the Bulls looked like one of the worst teams in the league. Chicago won just three of their first 23 games, the worst mark in the Association. They fielded the worst net rating and offense in either conference, and their defense was barely better, ranking 28th.
During Mirotic’s absence, The Bulls produced a league-low 47.7 effective field goal percentage, a mark 1.3 points worse than the 29th-ranked Charlotte Hornets. Without a major shooting threat, opposing defenses packed the paint, giving less room for the Bulls’ offense than there was love between Chicago’s two power forwards.
A revamped Bulls team
His return energized the Chicago offense. Even when he wasn’t all that open, he shot his shot:
Mirotic’s ability to make three-pointers with a defender draped over him was invaluable to Chicago. In his 25 games with the Bulls, their offense was decisively at its best whenever he was on the floor. Chicago scored 110.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, nearly three points better than the next-best regular rotation member.
For an offense struggling to score, an elite spacer can have a profound effect on the rest of the team. Passing and driving lanes open. Suddenly, every facet of offense becomes easier.
No one benefited from Mirotic’s presence more than the guy who socked him prior to the regular season. The combination of Portis and Mirotic produced a +14.9 rating, the best mark for any two-man Bulls lineup with over 100 minutes. The second best also included Mirotic, who was +11.1 when he shared the floor with combo guard Denzel Valentine.
The Bulls outscored opponents significantly with Mirotic on the floor: his +4.3 net rating was almost five full points better than any other player that has played 200 minutes. Without him, the Bulls had a putrid -9.6 net rating.
The impact of the improved offense was immense. Suddenly, Chicago was better than they wanted to be. The Bulls racked up a 14-11 record when Mirotic played in the midst of a tanking effort. So they looked for a trade partner.
They eventually found one.
Replacing DeMarcus Cousins
The New Orleans Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins during Chicago’s surge and desperately needed a frontcourt ally to pair with superstar Anthony Davis.
Nikola Mirotic fit the bill.
Since his arrival in New Orleans, the Pelicans have gone on a tear. They lost their first three games with Mirotic but afterward ripped off 10 straight wins. The effect of the sharp-shooting power forward seemed to have traveled with him.
In reality, the Pelicans have been two points better per 100 possessions when Mirotic sits on the bench. With gifted shooters like Darius Miller, E’Twaun Moore, and Jrue Holiday, the need for Mirotic’s spacing isn’t so dire in New Orleans. That’s not to say he hasn’t had an impact, though.
The largest reason for the Pelicans 10-game win streak has been the torrid pace maintained by Anthony Davis. And Mirotic has certainly contributed to Davis’ success.
Watch how, against the Pistons, Blake Griffin stays close to Mirotic rather than contesting Davis in the pick-and-pop:
In a win against the Lakers, a Los Angeles defender chooses to leave Davis and mark Mirotic in transition to prevent him from getting an open look. Instead, Davis nails a wide-open shot:
In the same game, you can see how the spacing benefits extend to the post. Kyle Kuzma declines to double Davis in the post because he’s afraid of leaving Mirotic open behind the long line:
In the same game, Brandon Ingram is late to contest Davis in the paint because he’s keeping an eye on Mirotic in the corner:
Mirotic has not seen the same great on/off splits in New Orleans that he did in Chicago. A big reason for that is his relative struggles from behind the arc: he’s shooting only 33.7 percent for the Pelicans compared to 42.9 percent with the Bulls.
But he’s still having a positive impact.
And when the shots inevitably fall, Mirotic is sure to be a critical piece in the Pelicans’ quest for a playoff berth.