The Chicago Bulls have a problem 29 other NBA teams will take. They have a frontcourt that's the envy of the league, stocked with the ideal combination of low-post scoring, rebounding, unselfishness, athleticism, toughness and rim protection. Opposing coaches would cut their right arm off to have Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson on their teams, let alone all three.
Here's the issue: None of them are as good as Nikola Mirotic.
That may sound rash at first glance. Gasol was an All-Star starter, Noah finished in the top five in MVP voting last year and Gibson is better than half of the league's starting power forwards. Mirotic is just a rookie, albeit one that became the best player in Europe before coming over to the Bulls.
But the only time the Bulls have actually looked like title contenders is when Mirotic plays. When he's on the court, they're full of life. When he's not, they look weighted down by years of depressing injuries, constant in-fighting and Tom Thibodeau's raspy voice. Mirotic has become the weekend getaway that spices up a stale marriage. Without him, they're toast.
The numbers bear this out. When Mirotic is out of the game, the Bulls are outscoring teams by less than a point per 100 possessions, which corresponds closest to the 35-36 Milwaukee Bucks. When he's in, that point differential jumps to over six points better than their opponents, which is better than the East-leading Hawks. The Bulls' two best big man combinations among their four power players are Mirotic/Noah (+8.3) and Mirotic/Gibson (+7.3). No other duo comes close.
One only needs to watch Wednesday's 116-103 victory over the Toronto Raptors to understand how those numbers come to life. The Gasol/Noah duo spent the first quarter doing what they always do. They occasionally thrived individually, but never enough to help the team as a whole.
Toronto had a 10-point lead when Mirotic entered. He played the rest of the first half and helped cut the lead to four by halftime. He then sat for most of the third as Toronto built the lead to double-digits again, then stopped the bleeding as the small forward in a supersized lineup. With eight minutes left, Thibodeau took out Gibson for Aaron Brooks and put Mirotic back at power forward. The Bulls outscored Toronto by 18 points from that point.
Calling Mirotic a "power forward" is like saying a cheetah is a feline. It's technically accurate, but Mirotic has as much in common with players at his position as the world's fastest mammal has with a house cat. He freaks opponents out because they don't understand how to process the man in the grizzly beard taking them to school. What do you do about a player willing to take and make shots like these?
What do you do with a 6'10 big man who runs pick and roll and makes crosscourt passes that only the best playmakers will even attempt?
What do you do about someone who will pump fake and drive on any closeout, no matter the size of the player?
What do you do about a rookie who fools the referees this badly to get calls?
What do you do about someone whose arms call for the ball like they're mosquitoes locking onto someone's sweat?
All of this has an effect. A by-the-book coach might cringe at the shot selection or the turnovers, but a smart one understands that defenses hate chaos. You can't leave Mirotic at any time because you never know what he's willing to do, and that opens the floor for everyone else.
The Bulls don't really understand Mirotic either, but they're learning. His playing time is up since the All-Star Break and so is his production. They realize Mirotic is too good not to play.
But this is a problem because Gasol, Noah and Gibson are also way too good not to play. Gasol did not accept less money to play for the Bulls to sit for a rookie. Gibson hasn't sacrificed years of additional playing time and earning power to sit for a rookie. All the cliches about Noah being the heart and soul of the Bulls are moot if he's sitting for a rookie. And yet, all of the above evidence shows the Bulls will only thrive if they sit for a rookie.
That's an awkward situation for any coach and particularly for Thibodeau because he's fighting his own battles with his superiors. The answer has often been in the form of a truce; a lineup featuring Mirotic at small forward with two of the other three big men. Those lineups haven't failed, but they haven't exactly succeeded either. Three-big combinations have outscored opponents by a whopping five points in 237 minutes, or the equivalent of about a point per game.
An out-of-position Mirotic may be better than no Mirotic at all. He's trying his best and learning, even though Toronto's Terrence Ross roasted him in the first quarter on Wednesday. But he's not Mirotic unless he's playing power forward, where he can spread teams out, drive into gaps and enrage defenders with his special brand of chaos. Playing him at small forward will appease everyone ... until the Bulls lose in the playoffs.
There's a reason Winston Churchill once said, "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat them last." It'll be difficult for Gasol, Noah and Gibson to sacrifice minutes, but they'll all be thrilled if it leads the Bulls to more glory. The flip side is they get their minutes and the team falls short of expectations. That's when they'll all act like the crocodile and eat everyone responsible in sight.
Every coach would love to have a first-world problem like Nikola Mirotic, but it's still a dilemma that'll decide the Bulls' season. Fortunately for Bulls fans, the solution is becoming more obvious every day.
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