After Nikola Mirotic returned from a three-game benching with a 24-point performance at Charlotte on March 13, I wrote there's probably nothing Mirotic could do the rest of the season to save his Bulls career.
The third-year forward from Montenegro was too inconsistent for the Bulls, or any NBA team, to believe in his future.
The big teaseBulls forward Nikola Mirotic is at it again with a tantalizing glimpse of how good he could be. Here's a recap of his three seasons in Chicago:
2014-15: Averaged 20.8 points in March, 7.8 points in the other months.
2015-16: Shot 44.5 percent from 3-point range after all-star break; 35.4 percent before the break.
2016-17: In past nine games, averaged 18.3 points while shooting 52.7 percent overall and 45.8 from 3-point range.
Well, Mirotic may be doing the impossible. After back-to-back 28-point games and a four-game run of stellar 3-point shooting, the Bulls' quickest path to moving up in the standings is the one where Mirotic keeps playing like this.
"Every time I shoot the ball, I think it's good," Mirotic said after Thursday's victory over Cleveland. "I'm not making just 3s, I'm playing more off the dribble, I'm running the floor. Rajon (Rondo) is finding me every single time that I'm there. It's just been a good feeling to be a very important piece to the team."
Granted, we have seen this before. Mirotic averaged 20.8 points in March 2015, late in his rookie season. Last year, he shot 44.5 percent from 3-point range after the all-star break.
There was never a true breakthrough, though. Mirotic has been benched for multiple games three times this season. When he's at his best, though, the Bulls look like a good team. On Sunday, Mirotic led the Bulls past Milwaukee, which has a 13-4 record this month.
"I don't know. Some players, maybe they need a little more time to be consistent," Mirotic said. "But I feel that it's my time, it's my time to make things right. I just want to enjoy the basketball. Right now, I'm very happy to be here and I want to make an impact on the end of the season and make the playoffs."
So now what? In the span of a few weeks, Mirotic has gone from good-as-gone to maybe a two-year, partially guaranteed offer to anything can happen.
He'll be a restricted free agent, so the Bulls can match any offer sheet he gets from another team if they make a qualifying offer of $7.2 million. In theory, Mirotic could accept the one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2018.
He'll probably seek a longer deal and has made it clear his preference is to stay in Chicago. The NBA likely won't be quite as crazy this summer with big contracts as it was last year, but the salary cap is expected to make another big jump, so plenty of teams will have money to spend.
Would a team like Brooklyn, with a poor record and first-round pick that belongs to Boston, take a flyer on Mirotic having a brighter future? The Nets, after all, came up with a four-year, $75-million offer for Portland's Allen Crabbe -- which was matched -- and he's averaging 10.6 points this season, about the same as Mirotic.
Plenty of teams will have money to spend, including the Knicks, Kings, Lakers, 76ers, Suns and Timberwolves. The Bulls should have about $30 million in cap space, not including Mirotic or Rondo.
Speaking of Rondo, he's also an interesting case. The Bulls can pay him $13.4 million next season or buy him out for $3 million. Assuming they think Cameron Payne can be the point guard of the future, it would make sense to pair him with a veteran. Could they do any better than Rondo?
No one expected Mirotic to be Dirk Nowitzki, but he was a two-time winner of the EuroLeague's Rising Star Award with Real Madrid. So Mirotic had star potential when he was acquired by the Bulls on draft night 2011.
Should they pay big money for the chance to realize that potential? No one knows the odds of success, but the answer today appears to be yes.
"I think Niko should continue to play like that," Jimmy Butler said after Thursday's win. "Go out there, think you're the best shooter, best player, whatever you want to be. If it's in your head that you are that, can't nobody take that from you."
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