Despite an agonizingly long slump, Nikola Mirotic might be on track of winding up something akin to a savior for the New Orleans Pelicans.
With their backs to the wall in the Western Conference playoff race, the Pelicans have reeled off four straight crucial wins, and Mirotic has been as important to the playoff-clinching victory parade as any other player on the roster. Averages of 27.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.5 made threes during the latest winning streak have even rivaled the production of MVP-candidate Anthony Davis.
What a turn of events from two weeks ago where Mirotic had sat south of a 40% field goal percentage and a 30% three-point percentage. Worse, he had been trending further down the wrong way. A one-for-seven shooting display against the Lakers was followed by a DNP and a one-for-six performance versus the Trail Blazers. He was spiraling into the abyss for Head Coach Alvin Gentry and the player who was traded for a New Orleans future first round pick was on the verge of becoming unplayable.
It’s said the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Well, Mirotic hit his low point just before rocketing out of that slump and is currently putting on a show of perhaps the best basketball of his career. His 28-point, six-rebound, six-three, four-assist and three-steal line in a must-win game against the Golden State Warriors was sublime.
While many have become enamored with the idea that Niko found his way thanks to shaving off his trademark beard, there’s a much bigger story needing to be written: Mirotic and the Pelicans have fast become one of the most potent 5-man starting lineups in the league.
Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis have posted the eighth best Net Rating in the league among 5-man lineups who have appeared in 150 minutes or more. They’ve been more effective than the typical starting lineups for the Jazz, Nuggets, Raptors, Timberwolves and Warriors. Only the 76ers can say they reign supreme.
How has this New Orleans group enjoyed so much success, winning 19 out of a possible 29 games together, when Niko was normally not firing on all cylinders? One, his teammates are really, really good, but two, he brings a lot more to the table than just occasional scoring outbursts. Believe it or not, he possesses a fine two-way ability and it stems all the way back to his days in the Euroleague.
Mirotic brings a high level Euro-esque skill set of craftiness around the rim and dead-eye shooting ability from deep. But pump the breaks before you label Mirotic as just another European. He brings a weapon that most Euros don’t possess – versatility. Mirotic was the only player in the Euroleague to rank in the Top 15 in scoring, steals, blocks, and player efficiency rating. Steals and blocks? A Euro big man playing defense? I won’t go out on a limb here and say he’s Serge Ibaka in the paint, but he is definitely not a stiff (breathe a sigh of relief folks, he’s not Darko).
Although the worst moments of his prolonged slump masked his overall effectiveness, Mirotic is an incredibly versatile athlete. Care to venture a guess as to how many players have averaged 17+ points and 1+ threes/steals/blocks for their careers per 36 minutes since the turn of the millennium?
Per Basketball Reference, there’s been just a total of three players who have accumulated those stats with any real minutes: Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic and... Nikola Mirotic!
Mirotic is far from the fastest player, the highest leaper, so what this shows is he relies on other talents. For his size, he has good hands and mobility but what helps separate from the rest is a good motor, above average coordination and a high basketball IQ. Considering all of the holes on the Pelicans roster — even before DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season, the Montenegrin has more than adequately filled a lot of voids. And for the first time in his NBA career, he’s being given a chance to put it all on display as he’s averaging 28.9 minutes per game and 33.3 minutes as a starter in New Orleans.
From a bout with appendicitis in his second year in the league to struggling to find a comfort level next to Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler last season, Mirotic never permanently landed that elusive starter role with the Chicago Bulls. In three and a half seasons, he failed to average more than 25 minutes a game.
That seems utterly ludicrous given his rate of production!
Mirotic isn’t a superstar, nor is he likely to achieve that level, but as we’ve witnessed so far during his short stint in New Orleans, he possesses enough two-way ability — which is absolutely golden during this present era — to be deserving of starters minutes. This is especially true if wins mean anything.
As a member of the Pelicans, Mirotic has posted an 18-10 W/L record in a New Orleans uniform. Prior to his arrival, he guided the Bulls to a 14-11 record in his appearances. That’s ridiculously impressive considering Chicago is 27-54 overall. They’ve gone 13-43 without him! For his career, Mirotic is 156-115. That 57.6% winning percentage isn’t too shabby when realizing he’s only appeared on only one very good team, the 50-32 Bulls squad during his rookie season.
As Davis knows all too well, New Orleans isn’t accustomed to winning environments so even Mirotic’s limited success is bound to be helpful. But, as we’ve witnessed, it’s his fit that is worthy of accolade. Don’t look now but Davis and Holiday have that third scorer they’ve missed since Cousins went down. Suddenly, Moore is thriving again. (Could it be he prefers to have the freedom of being a fourth scorer?) And then, of course, there’s Rondo, who was at the center of a lot of lineup failures, yet now has been a noticeable net positive on the floor among the starters since Mirotic’s arrival in New Orleans.
Nikola Mirotic has been on some kind of roll of late, posting huge numbers that also include knocking down 22 of his last 48 three-point attempts, but its been his versatility on defense to guard assignments ranging from Durant to DeAndre Jordan, hustling for an offensive rebound, making a timely cut or fulfilling whatever role has been required — similar to the smorgasbord of good things we’re used to seeing out of Davis and Holiday on a nightly basis — that has me salivating.
The Pelicans are only days away from the start of the playoffs, and while it took nearly the entirety of the schedule to determine their eligibility, they’re going to enter the postseason with a dominant 5-man lineup, which seems to be peaking at just the right time. Spearheaded by a new Big Three of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans seems to possess the full complement of weapons to make some noise.
Beardless or not.