As quite a few commentators have said since last season came to a close, Nikola Mirotic proved to be a savior of sorts for the New Orleans Pelicans.
With a record of 27-23 and fresh off consecutive losses to the Clippers and Kings, the Pelicans were in a tailspin and legitimately facing more disappointment. Following the disastrous injury to All-Star big man, DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans seemed to have lost all remaining hope of making any playoff noise. And with General Manager Dell Demps and Head Coach Alvin Gentry’s positions becoming hotter by the second, the front office chose to forego yet another future first round draft pick to acquire Mirotic.
It was a definitive gamble, but the Pelicans organization had little choice. Moreover, it was an opportunity to grab a game-changer at a good price. The Chicago Bulls needed to move Mirotic because he wasn’t in their long-term plans and the team were posting too many victories with him in the lineup. In addition, Mirotic was but six months removed from the shocking preseason fist fight that had fans shaking their heads in disgust.
Bulls says surgery likely required for Mirotic after altercation with Portis. Mirotic sustained suffered a concussion & maxillary fractures.— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) October 17, 2017
But the gamble paid off, and it paid off big time.
“And that’s obviously where he went out and got a Nico (Nikola Mirotić) and I’m not sure. I don’t want to call him a savior, but I mean, I don’t know if we could have been where we are if Dell hadn’t made that trade to go out and get a Nico at the time.” – Head Coach Alvin Gentry
Known for his size and his three-point shot, the man from Montenegro was often mistakenly compared to Ryan Anderson. Once Mirotic got hot, his range was nearly limitless on the floor:
But Mirotic is not limited to one skill offensively. For instance, he can put the ball on the floor:
And move away from the ball:
However, Mirotic initially experienced growing pains with the Pelicans during his first few months in uniform, shooting under 40% from the field and 31% from the three-point line. Then came the infamous shave which led to a 53% FG% and 41.7% 3PT% in April and a 48% FG% and 43% 3PT% in the playoffs.
Despite Niko’s early offensive deficiencies, he still found ways to produce on both ends of the floor, and that’s why his comparison to Ryan Anderson truly never made much logical sense in the first place.
“But some of the defensive plays he’s made for us this year has really helped our team. And even in that Nets game I talked about, for some reason I think he just ended up in pick-and-rolls so many times and he was getting stop after stop after stop to help us win that game. Even in the Milwaukee game at Milwaukee, I think he got a block late in the game to help us win. Sometimes he gets these tough rebounds…He’s a complete basketball player and a competitor and we’re thrilled to have him.” – General Manager Dell Demps
Nikola Mirotic’s offensive game is what earned him a place in the NBA, but his defense and rebounding ability is what makes him a winner.
Nikola Mirotic steals a pass and went coast to coast for a three. pic.twitter.com/CNZ08hRiRI— Daniel Greenberg (@ChiSportUpdates) December 14, 2017
Following Chicago’s 3-20 start to the season, Nikola Mirotic rejoined his Bulls teammates. With Bobby Portis at his side, the team would go on to win their next seven consecutive games, ten of their next 12, and 15 of their next 22 — not great when the organization is looking to finish as high as possible in the next draft lottery.
Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic all good now?— NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) December 27, 2017
Once he arrived in New Orleans, Mirotic joined the Pelicans at their lowest point, and although the squad would go on to lose his first three games in uniform, they turned their fortunes around after that. A double-OT victory against the Nets marked the start of a 20-7 regular season finish for the Pelicans. New Orleans posted winning streaks of ten games and then nine games — which included a sweep of Portland in the First Round.
In the playoffs against the third-seeded Trail Blazers and second-seeded Warriors, Mirotic averaged an impressive line of 15.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals. Only two other players posted similar numbers or better in the 2018 postseason: Anthony Davis and LeBron James. And Niko chipped in an average 2.4 threes per game to boot!
For all of the attention Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday collected in that first round series against Portland, Mirotic was also an unstoppable force:
Mirotic with the post defense and blocked shot that leads to a Holiday 3. Better get those brooms out... pic.twitter.com/dve2zgV2FU— Mark (@mkhoops) April 21, 2018
Nikola Mirotic will be entering a contract year, fresh off playing some great basketball in the most important stretch of his career, and with Davis, Jrue and Julius Randle now alongside, he will undoubtedly play with the best combination of teammates he has ever had.
Nikola Mirotic:— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) July 25, 2018
Slashing & BH: A
Perimeter Shooting: A-
Interior Defense: B+
Perimeter Defense: B
Offensive Rebounding: B+
Perfect compliment to Anthony Davis, spaces the floor and is an underrated defender.#Pelicans #NBAPlayerGrades
It doesn’t matter if Mirotic plays at the three or four in the starting lineup, or comes in at the first substitution buzzer during games. He will be out on the floor a ton to close out close contests. Also, his workload and numbers should increase this upcoming season because he has never averaged 30 minutes per game in his short career. That will expand dramatically this season, in likely any role. At a +4 lifetime plus/minus, the Pelicans would do well to keep him on the court more often than not.
Honestly, I think Nikola Mirotic is poised to be one of the favorites for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. What do you think? Are your expectations as high as mine? And, for kicks, how much salary do you think he will command in a loaded free agent market next offseason? Comment your thoughts below!