When the Chicago Bulls selected Derrick Rose with the No.1 overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, there were high hopes that the burgeoning point guard would return the Bulls to the Finals. But Rose has struggled to stay healthy, and the Bulls have not come close to winning their first NBA title since Michael Jordan's departure in 1998.
Six weeks after successful knee surgery, Rose made his return in Wednesday night’s 105-103 loss to the Orlando Magic. The onus is once again on the 26-year-old to shake off any physical and mental rust, and lead a deep postseason run, with an early test on Thursday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There’s no question a healthy and confident Rose allows Chicago to counter the rest of the East’s top point guards in Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Washington’s John Wall, Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, and Brooklyn’s Deron Williams. Rose is an exceptional talent, and after so many months of being sidelined by injuries, has become a great student of the game.
While head coach Tom Thibodeau will appreciate having the ball in the hands of a top floor general, this year's Bulls squad is different from previous years. A major reason for Chicago's optimism ahead of the playoffs has been the emergence of Nikola Mirotic. After Rose went down, Mirotic saw a sharp uptick in minutes, and the first-year forward responded with some quality performances.
A 2011 first-round pick back who finally made it across the Atlantic in 2014, Mirotic exploded last month for 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 44.1 percent from the field over 30.8 minutes. With his polished moves and confidence driving to the hoop, Mirotic is not a typical rookie. The 24-year-old has multiple offensive weapons -- spot-up shooting from distance, slashing to the hoop, and posting up in the both the high and low post -- to provide Rose with more options to create. Mirotic's presence on the court should also force defenses to be wary of double-teaming Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler.
"I think [Mirotic] would have been the guy like we said with Jabari Parker -- he's the most ready to play in an NBA game right now," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tool ESPN 1000's "Waddle and Silvy Show" prior to the start of preseason. "And we might have even made the statement Andrew Wiggins may have the most upside, but I honestly think he would have been in the top [few picks]. Let's assume a healthy [Joel] Embiid, you're definitely talking about [Mirotic being] a top-four pick."
Mirotic put up big numbers last month against some of the NBA’s best, suggesting more could be on the way in the postseason. Mirotic began March with a 29-point outburst against the L.A. Clippers, 23 more points versus Washington, and another 26-point effort over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Less than a week, later Mirotic torched the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the best defensive clubs in the league, for 18 points and 12 rebounds. Against the Toronto Raptors, another solid defensive unit, Mirotic racked up 29 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
‘‘A little bit tired because I never played like this before,’’ Mirotic said to the Chicago Sun-Times during his explosion. “This is the adjustment for me, too. I’m working hard to stay out there, especially mentally. I know if I’m mentally good, then I can push myself and play good basketball.’’
For a roster so decimated by injuries, Chicago went a respectable 8-7 to remain in the top half of the East standings in March. The Bulls are currently the No. 4 seed at 46-32 despite seven key rotation players missing a combined 117 games. At one point, the Bulls needed overtime to defeat the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, with Tony Snell playing 45 minutes. Chicago is getting healthy at the right time, with some players gaining valuable experience in case they need to play a larger role in key games. Mirotic has arguably been the most valuable player to step in due to the Bulls' injuries, but it hasn't been a completely smooth transition.
If there’s been a draw back to Mirotic’s season its his defense. Thibodeau’s success in Chicago has long been tied to neutralizing opponents on the defensive end, and around March is when things started to click for Mirotic, as noted in his uptick in blocks.
‘‘[I’m] understanding more of Thibodeau’s system, what they ask from me,’’ Mirotic told The Sun-Times. ‘‘I think being here six months, I understand a little bit more of how they’re playing.
‘‘I need to communicate better on defense, I need to trust in my teammates and I’m working hard to especially improve on defense because I know the offense is no problem. . . . I’m working on that, trying to help my teammates, and I think I took a step, but it’s not enough. I need to work more.’’
Offense is also crucial, and when the playoffs roll around the Bulls may have problems with teams like the Cavs and Hawks if they only have three players who can consistently score. At 6-foot-10, Mirotic not only surprises opponents with the touch on his jumper, but also provides significant depth behind the starting frontline of Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Mike Dunleavy. Coming off the bench with forward Taj Gibson, Mirotic allows Thibodeau to keep a bigger lineup without sacrificing any offensive output.
It’s that kind of depth that should play a major role in Chicago’s success later this month when the first round of the postseason begins. Depending on how the final four games of the regular season plays out, the Bulls will face either the No. 5 Washington Wizards or No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks. The Bulls could overtake Toronto for the No. 3 spot, or could slide and lose home court advantage in an opening round series against the Wizards.
Either way, Mirotic gives the Bulls a helpful edge. In terms of matchups, Mirotic could come off the bench and draw Washington’s starting power forward Nene Hilario away from the basket or even get him in foul trouble -- immediately taking away one of the Wizards top scorers and rebounders. Mirotic can also attack Washington center Marcin Gortat, or force him to slide away from Gasol, Gibson or Noah for easy buckets down low.
The Bucks, one of the bigger surprises in the league, have two foreign forwards of their own in Ersan Ilyasova and Giannis Antetokounmpo to throw at Mirotic. The long and hyper-athletic Antetokounmpo is one of only a handful of players who get in Mirotic’s face on defense, while Ilyasova can match his offensive skill, but that’s where Gibson and Noah can help out.
Whichever team they meet in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls can feel confident that they have a dynamic bench and an X-factor scorer in Mirotic. The Bulls' postseason success may still come down to how well Rose plays, but at least there is some new life on the roster to help pick up the slack.