Nikola Mirotic didn’t exactly lumber over to the media after the Bulls’ first practice, as a new man armed with a two-year, $27 million deal and 22 pounds worth of additional weight from the summer, the first time in which he didn’t play overseas.
He claimed there were no hard feelings from the summerlong impasse with the Bulls, where his restricted free-agent status prevented him from truly getting to the market, and his career inconsistencies also made it tough for the Bulls to give him an extended contract.
“I knew it was going to happen because with me it’s like every time is the last second. I don’t know why,” Mirotic said. “They made me an offer at the beginning of free agency, so I didn’t take that deal.”
So while his saga dragged along after he couldn’t find suitors, he stayed in Chicago for the most part, adding the bulk—although some would say it was stress weight considering it’s believed Mirotic wanted a deal in the $16-17 million range annually.
“Some people thought I was worried with my contract. No, I was very calm, working here until the middle of August,” Mirotic said. “My weight is feeling great and I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to this season, you know.”
“I’m feeling good. I’ve never felt that strong in my legs, feeling better with the rebounding, and I worked all summer in the low post, especially when I play that pick-and-roll and they switch me, so I need to be available to play in the low post against small guys. I was really working on getting stronger down there so I can finish.”
Coming to Chicago with plenty of fanfare, Mirotic has shown flashes but never the consistency many expected. Slow starts were accompanied by strong finishes after the All-Star break and the cycle of “if Niko can get it right” started all over again—only leading to more frustration when expectations weren’t met.
“I know that you guys (media) are very disappointed. I saw that the last two, three years, those reactions to that,” Mirotic said. “It is what it is. I came back just thinking about what happened. I knew what happened. I worked on all my weaknesses this summer. It’s time to change some things. I’m in a place where I can improve and get better.”
This time last year, the Bulls did everything they could to make Mirotic seize the power forward spot in training camp. Too bad Taj Gibson wasn’t notified and outworked everybody to join the first five.
But Gibson was traded in midseason, Jimmy Butler was traded and Dwyane Wade was bought out Sunday night, leaving Mirotic as somewhat an elder statesman on a team that doesn’t carry any playoff expectations for the season.
Now he’ll have to battle rookie Lauri Markkanen and third-year forward Bobby Portis for minutes at power forward, since it doesn’t appear he’ll play any small forward after playing there sparingly his first two seasons.
One can see Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg playing Mirotic and Markkanen together at center and power forward to have two floor-stretchers—although defense and rebounding will be a concern in the pairing.
“Everything's open right now. Lauri obviously had a great summer,” Hoiberg said. “He's got to work himself back into great shape right now. Basically since the European championships have been over, he's taken time off to recover and regroup and recharge his batteries.
“Bobby Portis has had a great summer. He's been around pretty much every day since the summer league.”
Mirotic said he was notified by management in the exit meetings the team would look different, but didn’t foresee Butler being traded on draft night. Now as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be a primary option on offense and until Zach LaVine makes his Chicago debut—which likely won’t take place until mid-December—he’ll have plenty of time to display his versatility in Hoiberg’s free-flowing system.
“It’s great, especially knowing how Fred wants to play this year,” Mirotic said. “They’re going to play fast, there’s no more like holding the ball, playing isolation. Now it’s more free, like when we used to play with Rajon (Rondo) on that second unit. Just play free and share the basketball. This is how it’s going to look.”
Clearly one who’s aware of the prognosticators who’ve said the Bulls will finish at the bottom of the standings, Mirotic added a bit of a bold statement, although it should be taken with a grain of preseason salt.
“I don’t think we’re going to be that bad like people are thinking.’’