Bulls continue to wait for inconsistent Nikola Mirotic to get going

Needed for floor spacing, the Chicago forward has struggled with his shot this season

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO — As many NBA careers have fizzled from waiting as from failing.

Let’s face it, for any player to get to this level, he had to have been poked, prodded, scouted and scrutinized to the Nth degree. They all have talent, they all have the ability to succeed, given the right circumstances.

Consider what Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said recently about Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, whose inconsistency has become the most consistent thing about his NBA production in what now is his third season.

“[At] 6-10 [with] a skill set like that?” Hoiberg said. “I think he’s absolutely part of the future.”

The occasion of Hoiberg’s remark was Mirotic’s scoreless 0-for-4 performance at Dallas Saturday, in what should have been a terrific opportunity: Starting in Dwyane Wade’s absence against the lowly Mavs, 24 hours after shooting 1-for-9 but chipping in a key steal and block in the final minutes of Chicago’s victory over Cleveland.

Even then, Hoiberg found reason to praise the 6-foot-10 native of Montenegro, opting for the honey over vinegar approach.

“He’s continuing to shoot,” the coach said. “If he was passing up open shots, that’s when you really notice a guy has no confidence.”

Mirotic might still have confidence in himself, but that’s coming harder to folks in and around the Bulls. Three years in, the 25 year old (he’ll turn 26 in February) has not gotten noticeably better and, in fact, appears in some areas to have regressed. He’ll try again to prove otherwise when the Bulls face Detroit in Auburn Hills Tuesday (7:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS).

He scored a season-high 18 points in Chicago’s loss to Portland at the United Center Monday but it came at the end of an eight-game stretch in which Mirotic averaged 6.1 points while shooting 30.5 percent and made only six of 32 3-point attempts. He is supposed to be a Sixth Man quality sub in his current role, but he instead has epitomized the Bulls’ bench woes.

It’s been that way since Opening Night, when Mirotic had 15 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes of the Bulls’ victory over Boston. He has had eight games in which he has shot 37.5 percent or better from the arc, 12 in which he’s been at 33.3 percent or worse. Ditto for double figures: Mirotic has scored 10 points or more nine times, but held to single figures in 11 games, including five in which he shot 2-of-29.

This was not what fans, or even teammates and the front office, expected out of Mirotic this time around. Groomed to start up front with Robin Lopez and Jimmy Butler, Mirotic lost that shot when Taj Gibson so thoroughly outplayed him in the preseason that he made Hoiberg’s decision for him.

I know they need me to spread the floor and shoot those [3-pointers], and I feel bad because sometimes … they find me and I am not making those shots and I know I can do that.

— Nikola Mirotic

It has been one thing after another for Mirotic. Two years ago, he was an NBA newbie, adjusting to both the game here and life in the States, a 2011 first-round pick who spent another three seasons in Europe. Last season, Mirotic coped with the shift from Tom Thibodeau to Hoiberg and two surgeries stemming from an attack of appendicitis. This time around, it’s adapting to new ball-dominant teammates Wade and Rajon Rondo and flying solo without mentor Pau Gasol, who left the Bulls as a free agent.

Mirotic has admitted to being his own toughest critic — in spite of all the applicants for that role — and getting frustrated when his play in practice hasn’t transferred over to games. He’s in the final year of his contract, too, and hears the clock ticking.

“I need to be much more solid than before,” he said last month. “I know they need me to spread the floor and shoot those [3-pointers], and I feel bad because sometimes … they find me and I am not making those shots and I know I can do that.”

In Mirotic’s final 22 games last season, after sitting out more than a month, he averaged 14.1 points in 26.8 minutes and made 44.5 percent of his 3-pointers. That’s why his first 20 games this year stand in such stark contrast: 9.0 points in 22.6 minutes and 30.1 percent from the arc. It doesn’t help that Doug McDermott — another perimeter shooter counted on to spread defenses — has been out since Nov. 12 dealing with the league’s concussion protocol.

Hoiberg, whose 10-year NBA career was built almost entirely from his reliability as a shooter, sat down for an atta-boy talk with Mirotic about four weeks ago when the Bulls traveled to Miami. Chief among the advice he imparted: This too shall pass. And, uh, try to have fun.

“I said, ‘If anybody can relate to having struggles in the league, it’s me,’” Hoiberg said at the time. “You feel like you’re on island. You feel like the world is against you. But it’s never as bad as you think it is. I just told him to go out and try to have fun. The big thing for Niko you could see in his face the stress.”

Mirotic responded by draining eight of his 15 3-pointers over the next four games, all Bulls victories. But he has slipped back into unreliability, and his solid game Monday included an uncontested 21-footer with 45 seconds left that could have closed a 108-103 gap against Portland.

Instead, it was the signal to the United Center crowd to tug on their coats.

That gets back to the waiting, waiting for potential that never quite materializes. People in Chicago who pay attention to the Bulls got tired of waiting for Derrick Rose to come back, patience that never was fully rewarded with a payoff. Over time, that feeling seeped from the fan base to fellow players to the front office, and Rose is gone now.

“Mirotic” is a name that has been tantalizing, teasing Bulls fans since the summer of 2011. The waiting continues to be the hardest part.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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