What Nikola Mirotic Means to the Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose hasn't been very good this year, and that's not good for the Chicago Bulls.
Our math, in terms of nERD, pegs him as the 121st-best player in the NBA so far this year. nERD indicates how many games above or below .500 a team would be expected to finish with a particular player as a starter. Rose's nERD is -4.6, so he's playing significantly below replacement-level.
If you knew that, as of early January, Rose wouldn't be Rose, you'd might think that the Bulls would be struggling to get to that elusive next level. Maybe not. Maybe you were higher on the supporting cast surrounding Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler, and Joakim Noah than others.
But the fact of the matter is that Rose hasn't been himself, and the Bulls are playing at a high level regardless, sitting at 25-10. Their team nERD is 64.2, which indicates their ultimate winning percentage -- 50.0 being the league average. So, the Bulls rank sixth in our power rankings despite Rose. So what's going on?
Well, of course, Butler is playing out of this world. His nERD is 17.3, fourth-best among all players. A starting five of Butlers would go 17.3 games over .500.
The second-best player on the Bulls has been Gasol, whose nERD is 7.8, but the third-best player on the roster isn't Noah. It's not Taj Gibson. It's certainly not Rose.
It's Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic's nERD is 6.9 and ranks 23rd in the NBA.
How has the first-year player from Spain been so helpful to the Bulls? Let's dig into the numbers.
Little Minutes, Big Production
Mirotic is averaging 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, which doesn't sound like a lot. And really, it's not. But he's not playing starter's minutes. Mirotic is averaging just 18.6 minutes per game.
In his last two games, though, Mirotic played at least 27 minutes -- averaging 32.4 minutes -- and chipped in 13.5 points, 8.0 boards, 2.5 assists, 1.0 blocks, and 1.0 steals. That's an active statline. The seven games prior, though, Mirotic didn't reach 19 minutes, averaging just 14.6 per game. His per-game numbers were just 7.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.3 blocks, and 0.4 steals.
With Mirotic's role in flux, it's unfair to look only at his per-game numbers.
Per-36 stats are (essentially) necessary to measure Mirotic's overall impact. I mean, don't forget that his nERD is already top-25 despite playing 18.6 minutes per game. He is very useful in his small role.
But checking out his numbers per 36 minutes puts him in some pretty good company. Mirotic is producing 16.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 0.9 steals per 36 minutes.
In the 3-point era (since 1979-80), only 9 rookies have maintained per-36 numbers of at least 16.0 points, 10.0 boards, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 blocks. Among them, Mirotic's .200 win shares per 48 minutes ranks second, behind only Hall-of-Famer Arvydas Sabonis -- and Sabonis was 31 when he did it.
Who else is on that short list? Guys you probably know.
Mirotic is playing at a significant level for the Bulls, and they're surely benefiting from his presence -- as part of a remade roster.
This year, the Bulls are scoring 103.1 points per game, seventh in the NBA. Last year, the Bulls ranked 30th in points per game at just 93.7. Their offensive rating, this year -- 108.8 -- is also seventh. Last year? It was 102.5, 28th in the NBA. Mirotic's personal offensive rating is 120, second on the team only to Butler (126).
Mirotic, of the 20 rookies who qualify for the minutes per game leaderboard, ranks first in win shares at 2.7, doubling up Jabari Parker's 1.3. His per-36 numbers 16.0 points and 8.8 defensive rebounds also lead rookies.
Mirotic's offensive rating (120) is also tops among those rookies, and his defensive rating (100) is best, too.
That's why his nERD (6.9) is best among those 20 rookies. Who's in second? Tarik Black (1.0). Aside from James Ennis (0.3), the other 17 rookies have a nERD less than zero, meaning they would cost teams wins if they were starters. Those three also have, unsurprisingly, the only three nF Efficiency marks greater than zero, which indicate point differential if the player was a starter. Black is at 0.9, and Ennis is at 0.3. Mirotic? 3.7. That's nearly nine full points better than Zach LaVine (-5.2).
Mirotic is only fifth in points per game out of the 20 and third in rebounds, but it's evident that he's by far and away the best rookie playing basketball right now, and his presence, on the level of Hall-of-Fame talent, has been key in the Bulls' reversal of mindset to play more offensive-minded basketball.