20.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.6 free throw attempts, a TS% of .564 and a workload of 31.4 minutes. That's March for Nikola Mirotic so far, and while 12 games is a somewhat limited sample size, it remains an extraordinary line that inspires a lot of confidence in Mirotic moving forward. What makes his contribution even more legit is through the fact that his long-ball wasn't falling. He was taking 6.5 a game at a horrid 25.6% and still posted a TS% above league average by compensating for his struggles to the tune of attacking the rim off the dribble, and this part of his game is what's most encouraging.
At 6'10, Mirotic is surprisingly agile and quick, something not seen to the same extent during his years with Real Madrid. While in Spain, Mirotic was often camped out in the corner, or setting picks. He was not given the ball and asked to create, so his skills in that area were not expected coming over to the Bulls. It's caught notice around the league, in part due to Mirotic's ability to close out games. He's currently averaging 9.1 points a game in the fourth quarter during March, second in the league behind Boston's Isaiah Thomas (who has played in seven less fourth quarters than Mirotic), making the 24-year old rookie one of the primary go-to guys for Tom Thibodeau.
Those numbers, admittedly, are skewed by the lack of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. But while this trend may not continue, a question has risen in the meantime; Can you even remove Mirotic from playing late in games? Pau Gasol is very vocal about finishing games, as is Joakim Noah. Taj Gibson has closed games for years, which in part has helped him stay positive despite seeing player after player start over him. Now you're looking at four big men who wish to finish games, and deservedly so. You can get away with playing Mirotic at the small forward position here and there, although it's not a position that plays to his strengths. His quickness and mobility allows him to move past slower power forwards and take advantage of their lack of speed. Against smaller players, Mirotic has to rely on his length a lot more, as players are able to keep up with him and challenge his shots.
Conclusion: Unless the Bulls get some of these guys to sign off on the idea that they won't always be playing important minutes, a trade will have to happen during the summer.
It's a tricky situation in which four players, sharing two spots, all deserve to start and play big minutes. Gibson is turning 30 this year and should have been a full-time starter earning 32 minutes a night over the past three years, so he'd be the guy most deserving of being traded to a place in which he could get those minutes. His trade value is still pretty high, ironically in part due to his lack of total minutes where he's sitting at 10,446 for his career, and while losing Gibson would do the defense no favor, it may be a way to locate that small forward who's been missing since trading away Luol Deng last January.
Moving Gasol would be near impossible from a PR-perspective. How do you justify trading an All-Star starter on a great deal? You can't use the age argument, seeing as you went out and signed him just a year prior. So you knew what you'd be getting yourself into. For the Bulls to trade Gasol, the return would have to be unrealistically good, and since the other 29 GM's around the league are fully aware that Gasol's about to turn 35, the likelihood of such a deal is near nil.
That leaves us with Joakim Noah who is weaved into the Bulls culture to such an extent, it wouldn't make sense to move him to anyone but San Antonio, Memphis, Golden State or Atlanta. No other team would fully be able to utilize his passing skills, and given his knee troubles, none of those teams would be willing to give up anything of substance. You could obviously shop Noah to whomever, but teams would know in advance if they could install Noah or not, seeing as it takes a special approach to the game to properly use him. The Charlotte Hornets for example would know right off the bat that Noah's game would have to re-define the way they play offensively, likely minimizing Al Jefferson's touches. As with them, any other team would understand what acquiring Noah would entail, and very few could accommodate that.
(Obviously, if New York offer their 2015 first-rounder for Noah, you take it and run. But that's not happening. Or. Well. It IS the Knicks, after all. Fine, it's unlikely to happen. Better?)
Back to Mirotic - Whoever is moved, or whoever is willing to accept that they won't always close games, the point here is to open up minutes. Mirotic will turn 25 in the middle of next season, meaning his prime years are a lot closer than one would think. If the Bulls can put him in a situation where they get a lot of bang for their buck (Mirotic is signed through the 2016/2017 season, earning a total of $16.6 million over that time), making Mirotic their star forward would further open up financial flexibility to make some additional moves.
Derrick Rose won't demand another max contract, Jimmy Butler's upcoming deal will look nice under the increased salary cap even if he signs a max deal, Noah's knee could hurt his future income, Gasol could opt out of his $7.7 million if he has another strong year, and would Gibson really consider re-signing with the Bulls by 2017 if he remains a bench player? Could he possibly even request a trade during this summer?
All in all, as things look now, Chicago's future boils down to Mirotic and Butler. If you coordinate their salaries and make the most of Mirotic's cheap deal, there might be a way to make a splash in free agency.