Nikola Mirotic Sunday was back in the United Center for the first time since the February trade to the New Orleans Pelicans. Mirotic was easing into the season and didn’t play Sunday in the preseason opener for both teams, but he was working the corridors and hallways, greeting former teammates and employers, shorn but not shy.
“I am trying to get the Gillette deal again; we will see,” Mirotic joked about his beardless presence. “It’s been great (returning). So many familiar faces out there. I just met with John Paxson. Talked just about how is my family. He was asking me about New Orleans, if I am enjoying the city. I like John a lot. John is a great guy and was a great player, too, I have a lot of respect for him. Talked to my ex-teammates. I love Chicago; I had great memories. Just blessed I had a chance to be here, to grow up as a player, as a person my first three years and a half. So nothing than just respect for everybody here and looking forward to doing my thing and getting back here for the regular season.”
It was supposed to be as a career Bull for the 6-10 forward from Montenegro until an uneasy contract negotiation last summer that concluded with a one-year guaranteed contract. Then there was the preseason fight with Bobby Portis that resulted in the facial fracture for Mirotic and suspension for Portis. It contributed to the Bulls’ ugly 3-20 start. Then, stunningly, Mirotic returned to lead the Bulls to their best play of the season, seven straight wins and 10 of 12 before the Bulls eventually traded Mirotic to the Pelicans for a first round pick. The pick was used to select Chandler Hutchison.
The Pelicans were desperate for scoring with the injury to DeMarcus Cousins. Mirotic, 27, after an uncertain start in New Orleans shaved his beard and became a vital part of the Pelicans’ smooth upset run to the conference semifinals.
“I thought he was as efficient and significant for us as anyone from the standpoint of he had a stretch there where he was averaging about 25 points a game over an eight-game stretch,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “His spacing of the floor helped AD (Anthony Davis) to operate on the inside; he’s a lot better defender than people give him credit for, especially in the post. And he’s a guy our guys really like having on the team because he’s all about the team. I thought he was very significant in the run we made in the playoffs. I think he’s really better when he plays with better players. I don’t think he can be the go-to guy. I don’t think he expects to be that, but he’s a darn good Robin or Tonto or whatever you want to call that that is not politically incorrect. He’s that guy you can play in any circumstances and he can do a lot of stuff; he’s a good team basketball player.”
The Bulls had hoped Mirotic would be that player for them when he came out of Europe as the top young player. He averaged double figures in three full Bulls seasons, but was hindered by medical problems with an appendix operation, varied roles, growing competition at power forward and his own inconsistency. He was on the way to his best season in his return, averaging 16.8 points on 43 percent shooting on threes before the trade.
Could he have remained a Bull? Would he even have wanted to?
“Definitely, of course,” Mirotic said. “I remember those first (seven) that we won. ‘Niko's back,’ we won those first (seven). I felt amazing at that point. I felt very confident. I felt like I was actually finding my role. I was playing the way (I was) supposed to play. I think the team was going (in a) different direction. For me, it was also the best thing to move on. It was just something for both sides that was the best thing. At that moment, I was playing great, so there was no reason why I wouldn't play up ’til the end.”
But it was the end of the Bulls/Mirotic marriage.
Most figured it was inevitable following the fight with Portis, about which neither has ever explained in detail. Though Mirotic said he never did speak with Portis and doubts they will speak about the fight, Mirotic said he isn’t bitter or angry with Portis.
“Obviously what happened stays in the past,” said Mirotic. “There is nothing I am regretting right now. I saw that Bobby had a great end of the season. I was happy for him. The team was playing well. Even if they were losing they were playing well, developing the young guys. But it was a very challenging year for me. The relationship I had with Bobby was professional; we never talked. We did shake the hands (fist bumps). Sometimes that silence that we had between us was helping us to have a better relationship, to respect more each other and it is going to be that way for the future. There is nothing we need to talk (about). Just be professional. He’s playing for his team and I am playing for my team and everyone is trying to do his best.
“Obviously I didn’t play the best basketball that I was supposed to play (with the Bulls),” Mirotic acknowledged. “I had really good moments; some were not so good. Being consistent, it's something I've been working on a lot the last few years, something I've been missing when I was here. I think there were some things that happened in those three years that maybe did not allow me to do my best game, but you know that’s the life, that’s the experience I had the Bulls.
“But now is way different with New Orleans; the trust they have in me and the way we are playing I adapted so fast and I think it is a perfect place me to grow up and play my best basketball,” Mirotic said. “I think my game is coming. I think I proved defensively I'm very capable of playing in this league, especially in the playoffs. So one of the challenges is to be in the All-Star three-point contest, I have to be honest. Just be very solid on both sides. I'm not talking about All-Star or something, just be a solid guy on both sides of the court. Really great chemistry on the team and a simple life, that's what it's all about. I'm kind of really happy with New Orleans. My wife, she's pregnant and we're expecting another boy. That's the big news.”