PORTLAND, Ore. — There he was, Nikola Mirotic going through morning shootaround with his teammates at Portland’s Moda Center as if there wasn’t a storm of confusion swirling around.
Mirotic planned to play against the Trail Blazers unless something more develops, but from the Bulls’ standpoint, they’ve done their part in accommodating Mirotic. Which is why it wasn't a surprise when the Bulls and Mirotic decided to make Mirotic inactive until they can find a trade partner — with the Feb. 8 deadline fast approaching.
There’s no point in risking an injury or anything catastrophic happening, so at least that seems to be one thing the Bulls and Mirotic agreed upon, before getting to the complicated part of this situation. He didn't attend the game, staying back at the team hotel.
After admitting he got pulled off the floor before Tuesday’s practice in anticipation of a trade, he wouldn’t admit what made him hit the pause button on a move that could send him to New Orleans and end this weird saga of a season.
“It was an option with New Orleans,” Mirotic said. “That’s all I heard. I said, ‘OK, you guys can think and see what’s the best for me.’ We’re going to make a decision, but we don’t have to rush to make a decision. This happened yesterday. It’s not even 24 hours. It’s nothing to do that fast.”
But when he stepped off the floor, his first thought was: “‘It’s happening. It’s happening. It could happen.’”
A year that started with getting punched by Bobby Portis two days before the season opener, followed by a trade demand and unexpected resurgence had finally reached the one-yard line. But getting it into the end zone has proved to be a difficult proposition.
“That’s the only thing that popped into my head. I said, ‘OK, be calm. Wait. Do what they told you to do. Step off the court.’ I was doing some calls to my agent and my family. That’s all. The thing I want is the best for me and my future in the NBA. And I’m sure the Bulls are doing what’s the best for them too.”
It didn’t because he’s not ready — yet. It doesn’t sound like he’s said "no," but more weighing his options. He doesn’t want to forfeit the $12.5 million he’s due to make next season on a team option, as the Pelicans have a king’s ransom tied up in Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and want to keep DeMarcus Cousins this offseason — which could require a $200 million long-term commitment.
There’s no guarantee the Bulls will pick up his option if he stays with the team through the year, either.
Whether it’s believing his agents and the Bulls can find another team that can check all the criteria for all parties or merely himself, he’s not sure — which is why he was drenched in sweat before the team came in for morning shootaround as he got an early workout in with teammates Quincy Pondexter and G-League callup Antonio Blakeney.
“Yeah, we had a conversation,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “After talking to John (Paxson) and Gar (Forman), we determined that the best thing to do was for Niko to not practice and to talk to his representation and go from there. Obviously, Niko's on this trip, and it's my job to try to put our team in a position to compete, in a position to win, and we'll continue to do that. Niko will play tonight, he'll be in the same role coming off the bench.”
Clearly that changed later when Hoiberg talked to the Bulls’ front office, and wouldn’t elaborate too much before the Bulls’ 124-108 loss to the Blazers. There wasn’t much he could say; the parameters are clear.
Mirotic wouldn’t reveal what went through his mind during the time he left the practice facility and when he met the team at the plane before going to Portland.
“Obviously without Cousins, it’s not a good situation for them. I don’t know. I don’t need to think about New Orleans now,” Mirotic said. “Until the last day or minute I’m wearing the Bulls jersey, I’m thinking about the Bulls. It’s something I can not control.”
But he knows his no-trade clause by virtue of his restricted free agency status from last summer means he holds some cards, and maybe even the trump card.
He wants a team to pick up his option for next season and according to sources there’s only one team he doesn’t want to play for. The Pelicans were not that team.
The Bulls would love to get a first-round pick from the Pelicans and will take on the contract of former Bull Omer Asik to do it. Asik has one full year left for $11 million in 2018-19 and has a $3 million buyout for 2019-20.
It seemed to check all the boxes except for on Mirotic’s end — but he wanted to deflect the decision to his agent. He wouldn’t say there was some miscommunication between his wishes and the Bulls considering a deal was reached but not consummated.
“I don't know. I really don't know that,” Mirotic said. “Once again, my representation, you need to talk to them. I don't know what's going on so far. I told them, if there's some news, talk to me, and nobody talked to me this morning. There's nothing there.”
So in the meantime, as he’s done all year, he’ll play and everyone else will sit around and wonder what the next move will be.
“The good thing, I have the option but I'm making it together with my team,” Mirotic said. “They've been fighting for me all this year. We're gonna do what's best for the team, for me. We're not sure yet, what we're gonna do.
“Until then, let's play basketball.”
Except, he won’t.