This was a disappointing year from Nikola Mirotic. This is his third year in the NBA and at some point, you would expect him to show some consistency or improvement, but he hasn’t. Look at his stats for his entire career per basketball-reference.com. There’s little to no variance from year to year and his improved 39% 3pt shooting dropped again to 34.2%. But Niko did give us some hope with a strong second half of the season after Taj Gibson was traded and he was thrown into the starting five with Butler and Rondo. He averaged 14.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and shot 46.6% from the field and an awesome 41.3% from three over a 22 game span. We all thought Niko had found himself and was going to be a consistent presence, but then the Playoffs came and he averaged 8.7 points on 34% shooting and 28.6% from three. Ugh. The optimist in me says we saw what he could do with Rondo, Butler, and himself on the court and we saw his production decline sharply when Wade was included. Maybe the book on Mirotic is he needs constant touches to stay engaged. Carlos Boozer was the same way. I’ve always said Mirotic hasn’t been used correctly – he showed a solid post game with Real Madrid that just hasn’t presented itself in Chicago, who have used him as a floor spacing presence only because of other personnel. But that can’t be an excuse at this point. When Gerald Green was guarding him in round 1, he had the opportunity to tell his teammates, “I’m taking him into the paint, I’m going to destroy him, and we’re going to see Stevens panic and throw Amir Johnson back out here.” He didn’t do it. At that point, it becomes a choice and that’s inexcusable.
Mirotic is a free agent this summer and I’ve been a huge Mirotic proponent. I think keeping him depends on if the three alphas return next year. I would keep Mirotic only if Bulls management decides to move on from Jimmy Butler and that causes Dwyane Wade to leave as well. If you’re going to be bad, you might as well keep a guy you’ve invested in and see if it really was just the situation he was put in and try to develop him. If we see the trio of Rondo/Butler/Mirotic without Wade again, I might be interested in keeping him as well. We saw some success with that lineup. The other question is, “How much will Niko demand on the open market?” Are the Bulls willing to match that? Are they willing to invest a lot in a guy who hasn’t shown he can be consistently good? I’m still a Niko believer, but unfortunately, I have to say can.
CAN or KEEP: Can
When the Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks, Bulls Twitter griped and complained about the return. Was Lopez, Jerian Grant, and Jose Calderon, whom they were certainly waiving, enough for a former MVP? Not even a draft pick? It became apparent soon that the Bulls won the Derrick Rose trade simply because of the stellar play of Robin Lopez. He’s been a steady presence and a consistent defensive presence this season. I expected some dip in defensive production and rim protection once Taj Gibson was traded, but there really wasn’t any. Per NBA.com/stats, the Bulls were 7th in the NBA before the All-Star break at defended field goal percentage at less than 6 feet and remained at 7th after the All-Star break when Taj was traded. Lopez was able to maintain that defensive presence and protect the rim alongside the likes of defensive abominations Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Lopez was also fantastic and even dominant at times in the Playoffs averaging 12.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and shooting a scorching 65.4% from the field. What remained unclear throughout the season is why Hoiberg would go entire fourth quarters without the valuable Lopez on the floor. It was unfathomable to most Bulls fans and media. Lopez is clearly the best center on the team and for some reason, was absent most fourth quarters or for long stretches in the fourth quarter including in the Playoffs.
The Bulls definitely should keep Robin Lopez. He’s under contract for two more years at $13 million and $14 million respectively. He’s a valuable rim protector, a tough presence on a team that needs it, and a selfless veteran at a great bargain. Definitely keep.
CAN or KEEP: Keep
Zipser’s stat line isn’t impressive: 5,5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 39.8% from the field, 33.3% from 3pt, but I felt like he was good relative to expectations. He provided energy to a team that had a tendency to come out lazy. He provided grit to a team that didn’t want to get down and dirty at times. He’s an energy guy and he provided some nice moments this season and was a stabilizing force. He’ll never be a 15-20 points per game guy, but he could be a guy that is defending the best player on the opposing team and hitting a clutch three that makes the other team call a timeout and gets the home crowd roaring. He was pretty good in the Playoffs too, averaging 7.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, shooting 45.5% from the field and 37.5% from 3pt. I’m not 100% sold on Zipser, but I can see the value he brings to this team. He’s under contract for two more seasons, with a team option for a third, and his salary maxes out at $1.6 million, which could be a steal if he develops into a solid rotation player. The Bulls should definitely keep Zipser and see what they have in him.
CAN or KEEP: Keep
It wasn’t a super rookie campaign for Denzel Valentine, but I think we saw flashes of what he could be. He really seemed to find his groove after the All-Star break averaging 7.3 points and 38.4% from three. If you’re worried about his 37% field goal percentage, look at his attempts: 6.8 FGA per game, 5 of those were threes. Valentine never really got to show off his ball handling ability with a team loaded with ball handlers, but maybe he will be able to moving forward. He also had trouble with consistency and after a shooting slump late in the season, Hoiberg thrust him to the end of the bench and he didn’t see regular minutes again and just saw a glimpse of the Playoffs. I found it…curious?…that Isaiah Canaan and Anthony Morrow got the call over Valentine, who had played a valuable role post Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott trade, but that’s the Hoiberg era. Hopefully, Valentine plays Summer League again and develops more consistency in year two. I still think he’s that Danny Green type of shooter that could be in Game 7 of the Finals and drill a three with Mike Breen screaming, “PUTS IT IN” as the other team calls timeout. We’ll see if he can be anything more than that, but I’m still sold on Valentine and he’s under contract for two more years with a 2-year team option that maxes out at $3.3 million or so. Definitely keep him. He could be a still, much like Zipser.
CAN or KEEP: Keep
It’s hard to believe that Hoiberg chose to bench Rajon Rondo after seeing the team struggle so badly without him in the Playoffs. Rondo had a nice year: 7.8 points, 6.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and kept up his improved three-point shooting at 37.6%. He was even better in the Playoffs averaging 11.5 points, 10 assists, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.5 steals in only two games. Rondo has a partially guaranteed contract for next year at only $13.4 million. None of the other point guards on this team are ready to take on a starting role. Rondo also received praise for his leadership with the young talent on this team. I think regardless of which direction the Bulls go, they should keep Rajon Rondo as a mentor and a veteran voice for a young, developing team or as a critical piece of a potential playoff team. As I said earlier, we saw flashes of “Hoiball” with just Rondo and Butler surrounded by shooters. Rondo is the perfect point guard for Hoiberg’s style of play: A smart point guard who doesn’t need to be micromanaged and can the read the game as it’s happening. Rondo should stay. Definitely keep.
CAN or KEEP: Keep
It was absolutely surreal seeing Dwyane Wade in a Chicago Bulls jersey. I never really got used to it as the season progressed. Wade had a solid enough campaign for a 35 year-old averaging 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The problem with Wade in Chicago was so much redundancy between he and Butler and the need for Rondo/Wade/Butler to all have the ball in their hands. I don’t think they ever totally figured it out even if they did steal the first two games in Boston with a healthy Rondo. The other problem was how the team seemed to gel a little bit after Wade’s elbow injury. They weren’t spectacular, but they were showing signs of “Hoiball” that we envisioned when Fred Hoiberg was hired. There was a smart point guard and superstar driving and dishing to shooters around the perimeter, they were playing with pace, and taking and making lots of threes. The Bulls shot 38.2% after the All-Star break from three (6th), compared to 31.2% before the break (30th). Does that all rest on Dwyane Wade? No, they also moved Taj Gibson and replaced him with Mirotic and Portis, who are better three-point shooters.
Not surprising, but Wade just didn’t have it defensively this year. If you’ve watched his career in Miami unfold, it’s been a constant struggle for him. He just doesn’t bring the energy or the effort on that end of the court anymore and I think that hurt his effectiveness leading the second unit. It always seemed like the Bulls were getting destroyed when their bench came in. My solution would’ve been to play him and the bench with Lopez at the start of the second, but who knows if that would’ve worked?
Should the Bulls keep Dwyane Wade? It’s really not up to them as he has a player option for next year. It’s worth $23.8 million and frankly, I don’t see another team offering him anywhere near that. He’d have to leave a lot on the table to leave the Bulls, but does he want to win or stay in the middle of the pack? The Bulls may be better off without him. They could realistically put out a more logical team with less redundancies if Wade were to leave. If the Bulls actually had a choice, I’d say to can him and try to put something around Rondo/Butler or simply begin the rebuilding process. Either way, I don’t think they’re going to be better with Dwyane Wade on the roster next year, but it’s not going to hurt my feelings if he opts in. It is fun watching him play for the Bulls.
CAN or KEEP: Can
*All player headshots courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.