I’ve thought about dozens of different ways to phrase this without seeming as if this is an unfortunate circumstance for the Chicago Bulls to be faced with, but simply can’t think of a better way to put it.
The Chicago Bulls have literally no other option for a power forward; they have to start Nikola Mirotic.
This isn’t because Taj Gibson isn’t a starting caliber player, because he certainly is. When Carlos Boozer was in his final season (2013-14! Wow, how time flies) with the team, I was one of the many people rallying for Taj Gibson to start. It became obvious he was a significantly better defender than Boozer and had honed his offensive game as well. In Boozer’s final season, Taj Gibson’s points-per-game stats nearly mirrored Boozer's, but Gibson was able to obtain these numbers while averaging less than four minutes played per game.
Adding a solid 13-foot baseline shot to his arsenal, it had become clear that the Bulls' future at power forward would be safe in the hands of Gibson. Then Pau Gasol came to Chicago, derailing the possibility of Gibson becoming a consistent starter for the Bulls. The rest is history.
So, now that leaves the Bulls in a curious position entering into this season. By all accounts, Gibson has proved to be the ideal starting player based on consistency alone. In the preseason, he looked outstanding so far as he’s averaged 13.7 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 19 minutes. Stacey King praised him in Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers for having outstanding awareness, shooting the ball well and crashing the glass hard. He should be the Bulls starter in theory, and had the Bulls not made the roster moves they did this season, he would be a lock for it in my opinion.
The main reason why Taj Gibson simply can’t be the starting four for the Bulls is that they simply don't have three-point shooting in their projected starting five of Rondo, Wade, Butler and Lopez. Dwyane Wade has been admittedly knocking down threes in the preseason, but it would be extremely late in his career for him to suddenly become a threat from deep. Rajon Rondo is already known as being a miserable three-point shooter, and Jimmy Butler simply wouldn’t be a consistent enough three-point shooter. In the previous season, Butler shot 31.2 percent from three-point range. With Bobby Portis not being a consistent enough three-point shooter, the Bulls' only option for a starting four is Nikola Mirotic. This isn’t to say that Portis was ever in a spot to take on a starting role; he’s simply better fit to be part of a bench unit and can be utilized in a small-ball lineup.
This conclusion brings both good and bad news.
The bad news is that Nikola Mirotic has looked horrible so far in the preseason. Admittedly, he looked to get things a bit more on track in the last game against the Indiana Pacers — with 18 points and 9 rebounds in 25 minutes. Prior to this performance, Mirotic attempted plenty of threes, but they simply weren’t falling and often times were a result of him shooting short of the basket. On defense, he remains to be a liability. The effort is always there, but Mirotic’s footwork isn’t quite right and he is easily lost on screens and will unnecessarily play help defense. This can prove to be devastating in situations with stretch fours and pick-and-pop plays. Since Mirotic came to Chicago, inconsistency has been his middle name. Any given night results in either Mirotic looking completely competent on the court, or him forcing up shots. He’s managed to cut down on his weird pump-faking habits, which is good.
What about the good news?
There is no way that starting Nikola Mirotic will end in disaster, right? One of the aspects that I like most about Mirotic’s game is that he isn’t only a stretch four. His interior game is underrated, as there have been plenty of examples of him starting outside the three-point arc, driving into the lane and either drawing a foul or dishing the ball to another teammate. He still managed to shoot 39 percent from the three-point range last year in a season that was cut short due to an injury.
While realistically I’d rather see the Bulls use Mirotic in a sixth man role, it simply isn’t possible given the current circumstance they’re faced with in their starting lineup. While the team seemed to make it clear that they intend to break away from the emphasis on spacing held by most NBA teams, not having a single solid three-point shooter on the floor to begin games would be utterly detrimental for the team’s season. Jimmy Butler, who truly began to flourish when playing the two for the Bulls, has been moved back to playing the three with the acquisition of Dwyane Wade. Previously, the Bulls small forwards (see: Mike Dunleavy) were where their three point shooting game from, but with Butler starting there, there’s no shot at Doug McDermott (42.5 percent from the three-point range) of being the Bulls' “high percentage from from deep” starter.
It’s known that Niko can be an outstanding player for the Bulls. Fans frequently wax poetic on the dominant March he had in his rookie year, as he managed to absolutely dominate opposing squads to the tune of averaging 20.8 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. While it’s hard to imagine that he’ll come close to emulating those stats, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him occasionally have a huge night. As long as he can gain some confidence on the defense end of the floor and not force his shots, starting Niko isn’t necessarily the worst thing on earth.