Nikola Mirotic calls starting or coming off bench ‘not a big deal’ to him

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Partly due to a pair of minor injuries, along with the need to rest players, New Orleans never got to see the much-discussed all-bigs lineup of Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle together in preseason. As a result, it’s a lock that the Pelicans will open the regular season Wednesday in Houston with either Mirotic or Randle in the starting lineup – but not both. Furthermore, it appears that instead of relying on the same first unit each night in 2018-19, New Orleans will alter its opening five depending on the opponent and matchups. After Saturday’s practice, Mirotic – who split his 39 total Pelicans games last season between starting (20 times) and coming off the bench (19) – reiterated that he’s fine with the arrangement.

“We are all here to do what’s best for the team,” the smooth-shooting forward/center said. “If I start one day, good. If Julius starts, great also. We just need to do what is best for the team. Each night is going to be a different matchup.”
Randle started in each of his first three preseason appearances, but came off the bench Thursday vs. Toronto. Meanwhile, Mirotic started in each of his three games, but in one instance (Wednesday at Miami), Davis did not play, which meant Randle and Mirotic started together at power forward and center. When healthy and available to play in preseason, the other four Pelicans starters were Davis, Jrue Holiday, Elfrid Payton and E’Twaun Moore. Essentially, New Orleans will enter the 82-game schedule with six “starters,” having the option of going with Randle or Mirotic to fill the fifth spot.

“I remember last season when I first got here, some of the games I would start, some of the games not,” Mirotic said. “It’s not a big deal. Most important is the minutes, and the quality of the minutes I’m going to play.

“When I’m on the court, I have to bring the energy and play smart. We can accomplish a lot with each other, Julius, AD and me. We can play together at the 4 or 5. I think we’re going to be a big problem for the rest of the teams. I’m not worried about our roles.”

Mirotic already had formed excellent on-court chemistry with Davis during the stretch run of last season, one major factor behind New Orleans’ 24-8 stretch, capped by a first-round playoff sweep of Portland. In relatively brief stints with Randle this month, Mirotic has also begun to gel with the 6-foot-9, 250-pound free-agent pickup.

“First of all, he’s a great guy,” Mirotic said Saturday, when asked what stands out most about Randle early in his Pelicans tenure. “I didn’t know him very well. He’s a big competitor, a very unselfish player. He really can pass the ball. He’s very smart, can play 4 or 5. I think he’s going to be huge for us. I’m looking forward to continuing practicing with him and understanding how to play with each other and be successful.”

Although the Pelicans haven’t trotted out a Davis/Mirotic/Randle alignment yet, Davis noted after Saturday’s practice that he’s looking forward to trying it at some point.

“I definitely want to see it,” the five-time All-Star said, smiling. “I think it will be an interesting lineup.”