The saga is finally over and the Bulls can move on after trading Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, two days after Mirotic initially vetoed the deal with his no-trade clause.
The Bulls received a protected first-round pick, along with former Bulls center Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen. The Pelicans guaranteed Mirotic’s $12.5 million for next season and received a 2018 second-round pick from the Bulls.
The Bulls will waive Allen, a Chicago native, along with veteran Quincy Pondexter. They haven’t yet made a decision on Nelson, a veteran point guard. The fact the Bulls were able to get a first-round pick for Mirotic is a coup of sorts, all things considered and it opens the door to more conversations involving Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Bulls executive vice president John Paxson praised Mirotic for his stint in Chicago, which certainly had its share of ups and downs, culminating with a strong return after suffering facial injuries from a Bobby Portis punch before the season began.
“Want to thank Niko for the time he spent here,” Paxson said in a conference call. “We were pleased when we drafted him years ago and he gave us a lot of good basketball. We wish him well in New Orleans. I think it will be a good situation for him.”
Mirotic was consistent in wanting a trade after the incident with Portis, Paxson said. And Mirotic’s 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 25 games, helping turn around a Bulls team that was 3-20, aided his trade value.
For the Bulls, picking up a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft was the most attractive asset for them, so it wasn’t just a salary dump of a player who didn’t want to be in Chicago.
“It’s just consistent with the direction and plan that we talked about this summer on draft night when we made the trade,” Paxson said. “Acquiring a draft asset and having salary control over a young player in the position we’re in is important and valuable to us. This deal made sense.”
The situation with Mirotic and Portis was odd, to say the least. The two played well off each other on the floor and had virtually no communication off it.
“It was a very unfortunate thing that happened,” Paxson said. “I thought Niko handled it really, really well. He played terrific and with confidence. He never used that in any way, shape or form. He deserves a lot of credit for how he handled that.”
With Mirotic being on a short deal after his disappointing foray into restricted free agency last summer, it would’ve been tough to see a future with him and the Bulls even if the incident with Portis hadn’t happened.
The emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls’ financial objectives during the early stages of the rebuild put Mirotic’s objectives and the Bulls on separate planes.
They have cap space this summer, but will have to re-sign Zach LaVine and take another year of development before going full bore into a playoff hunt.
“We’ve got to look long term,” Paxson said. “As we mapped out what Niko would be looking for financially going out, that wasn’t a part of our timeline. We now have a situation where we’re invested in these young guys. Our focus remains on growth and development of them.”
Paxson said he hasn’t communicated with Mirotic directly, but one has to believe he’s ecstatic about the outcome considering the Pelicans weren’t ready to guarantee Mirotic’s $12.5 million for 2019-20 two days ago, worrying about commitments to the current roster.
For Mirotic, it gives him another year to prove himself to the NBA world at large before heading into free agency again—and retaining his Bird Rights in the process.
“They never backed off that stance one bit,” Paxson said. “I’m sure given everything we heard throughout this entire process is this satisfies what he wanted. More than that, it satisfies what we wanted to get out of it in moving him. It fits our timeline. It fits the direction we’re going.”
With the Bulls coming back to reality following a 14-7 stretch when Mirotic returned—settling near the basement of the Eastern Conference with an 18-33 record, they can focus on the development of their young players.
Paxson said the Bulls will play Cristiano Felicio and Paul Zipser more down the stretch, and even Cameron Payne will have an opportunity with 31 games remaining.
The message is unspoken but it’s clear: The Bulls are back in tank mode.
“When you look at where we’re at in the season, the record that we have, we have to continue to find out about our young players,” Paxson said. “This type of deal allows us to get Paul and Cris on the floor more than they have all season long. It’s our job to evaluate what they are and who fits into our future. The only way you do that is by seeing them out on the court.”