Maddeningly inconsistent and longer on potential than production, Nikola Mirotic had been something of a poster boy for the Chicago Bulls this season.
That dubious status only deepened Wednesday when the second-year forward was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and underwent an appendectomy at Rush University Medical Center. Now one of just three Bulls players to have appeared in every game will be out at least through the All-Star break, by team estimate, missing three weeks and at least eight games.
Mirotic joins Joakim Noah as a big man sidelined from Chicago’s rotation. Noah had season-ending surgery Jan. 19 on his dislocated left shoulder and, as an unrestricted free agent this summer whose game didn’t mesh well with new coach Fred Hoiberg‘s system, might have played his final game in a Bulls uniform.
Mirotic’s layoff won’t be nearly that extended and, beyond his contract that runs through 2016-17, he is highly valued by Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson. As with Hoiberg himself, they remain convinced of the 6-foot-10 Mirotic’s value as a “stretch four” in the newly installed space-and-pace system.
Still, his absence up to or through the Feb. 18 league trading deadline takes the Bulls out of any market their once-crowded frontcourt might have provided. And it isn’t likely to serve as a positive for Mirotic in what had been a rocky season NBA season.
“I have to find a way that I can play maybe 10 games good [in a row],” Mirotic told NBA.com earlier this week. “I try to do something every day good.
“Sometimes I have really good feelings before the game. What I should do when I warm up. But after the game [starts], it’s different. I know the first minutes of the game are really important for me. But sometimes when I’m missing those shots, I’m changing my game.That can’t happen. I have to stay focused, you know.”
Mirotic, 24, performed well in his two most recent appearances. He scored 17 points Saturday in the Bulls’ victory at Cleveland, then followed up with 15 points and eight rebounds in the loss to Miami Monday at United Center.
It wasn’t quite the impact the native of Montenegro had last March, when he averaged 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.3 free throw attempts, serving as a go-to guy in the fourth quarter for then-coach Tom Thibodeau and basically earning his second-place finish in NBA Rookie of the Year balloting.
But being back on the bench after 31 starts, and being back at power forward after an unsatisfying-all-around run of 13 games at small forward, appeared to suit Mirotic. And give him something to build from, until his unexpected surgery Wednesday.
Now, while his teammates hit the road for a seven-game trip that runs through Feb. 8, Mirotic will be recuperating at home near Chicago’s lakefront with wife Nina and 7-month-old son Alexsej. His return date isn’t known yet, but the Bulls have 30 games after the break in which Mirotic will be trying to find and maintain success, stirring some March echoes.
“If I did this in my rookie season, of course I can do it again,” Mirotic told NBA.com. “But I don’t want to make any more pressure on my head. I need a little more to enjoy the game. Sometimes I’m a little hard on myself, but that’s just normal. You know you can do things better.”