Runnin’ With The Bulls: Niko May Be Utah-Bound, But Other Options Exist

WARR contributor Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA

In March of 2015, the Chicago Bulls were in trouble. Derrick Rose had sustained another injury and would miss time.

Adding to the list of the team’s faults at the time — Jimmy Butler’s thumb had finally put him on the shelf and the Bulls didn’t have many scoring options past Pau Gasol. Even with a 37-22 record, a bad month could drop them into the bottom half of the playoff bracket, or out of the postseason altogether. They needed someone to keep them afloat. Nikola Mirotic provided that ballast.

The Bulls’ record in March was only 8-7, but given Jimmy Butler’s WAR that year was 11.3, Mirotic’s play was the sole reason they had a winning record. Mirotic averaged 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in those 15 games, while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 84 percent from the foul line, he scored 20 or more in eight of those games and his plus-minus was plus-76. Moreover, Mirotic’s play was a validation of Bulls management amid the behind-the-scenes tumult between GarPax and Tom Thibodeau.

You know how the rest of the story went. The Bulls lost to Cleveland, Thibs left, Fred arrived, Pau left, Derrick left, Taj left, Jimmy left, Joakim left, the so-called Alphas came, they didn’t work, Bobby slept Niko with a right hook and here we are.

The Bulls aren’t exactly in full tank mode a la Philly (you never, NEVER, go full Philly tank), but they are looking toward the future. Given the exciting play of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen plus the deep talent projected for this year’s draft, the future could arrive much sooner than previously thought. Combine that with the exceptional play of Mirotic since returning from his “Def Jam: Fight for NY” injury and it’s the perfect storm for the Chicago Bulls: a potentially fruitful trade market for Niko! So what teams are most likely to pursue him and what can the Bulls get from those teams?

  1. Utah Jazz

As Adrian Wojnarowski reported this week, the Jazz are Niko’s preferred destination, and the real draw for Mirotic might not be the game plan. Pau Gasol helped ease Mirotic’s transition to the NBA, as Gasol was a Real Madrid alum, and Ricky Rubio could play a similar role for him if he’s traded to Utah.

Also, a Mirotic-for-Derrick Favors trade could give the Bulls a younger big man to run the floor, rebound and hit the midrange shot, which would allow them to trade Robin Lopez. The tricky thing here is that while the Jazz are 16-24 at the moment and a mish-mash of injuries, ill-fitting parts and Donovan Mitchell, they are only five games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

Are they looking for Mirotic to help them make a push, and how will he fit into Quin Snyder’s slower-paced system? Finally, if the Jazz do make the playoffs, they’re out of the lottery, and the Bulls are going to want as high of a draft pick as possible.

  1. Detroit Pistons

After starting the year 10-3, Detroit has gone 11-15, and it’s not clear if they can win in the playoffs with the personnel on hand. The Pistons run very thin after their starting five, and Reggie Bullock is starting for an injured Reggie Jackson, leaving the bulk of bench scoring to come from…wait for it — Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver!

Tolliver is on an expiring deal and Stanley Johnson has taken a step back in his development, so there’s a chance for the Bulls to really get a good deal. Mirotic would be a good fit for Stan Van, as his height could allow him to provide matchup problems at 3 and possibly play alongside Tobias Harris in an inside-outside scheme.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

This may seem weird, but hear me out: the Bucks are basically in the same position as the Pistons, but they have a greater need for an outside shooter and another scorer.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton put up nearly half of Milwaukee’s points per game, and they’re both averaging 37 minutes a night. Mirza Teletovic is sidelined indefinitely with a lung condition, and Tony Snell is shooting 46-40-75, but that stat line is contradicted by the fact that he’s Tony Snell. Mirotic’s 59.7 eFG% would put him second on the team behind John Henson, and his seven rebounds per game would be second behind Giannis.

The only problem? Milwaukee’s pick goes back to Phoenix if it drops to #16 or below, and it’s pretty much assured to be #18 or higher. Not a great draft position for a team on a rebuild. The Bulls would most likely have to take on either Matthew Dellavedova’s contract or Tony Snell’s (oh, what cruel coincidence), but Milwaukee would probably still ask for a draft pick in return. It’s doubtful you’ll see Niko head the 90 miles north before or after the trade deadline.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies

This is the jewel of the trade scenarios, and that’s exactly why I’m putting it last. The Grizzlies are currently projected to pick Marvin Bagley III according to Tankathon, and they also have a second-round pick available.

The Bulls would have to throw in a boatload to even swap firsts with Memphis, and it would like include a young player with potential that the Bulls aren’t willing to give up. Still, nobody thought Jimmy-to-Minnesota would happen until it happened, and Memphis has some expiring deals that are very tempting (Brandan Wright, Andrew Harrison). I wouldn’t hold out hope, especially because they would have to take on Niko’s contract, but wouldn’t it be nice?

Sacramento, Phoenix and the Clippers are other potential dance partners for the Bulls, but none of those teams would likely want Mirotic’s contract. The Bulls are trying to build their future, and they have a chance to only go through one or two seasons of wackness before becoming a challenger again.

A Nikola Mirotic trade is necessary for them to do so, but it will take some adroit maneuvering by John Paxson and Gar Forman to get it done. Fans will be watching over the next few weeks to see if they can.

Chris Pennant is a Chicago-based sports writer and freelance announcer. In his spare time, he coaches roller derby and searches for good sneakers and good music. Follow him on Twitter @kwandarykitten; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio

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