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Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic will be sidelined through the All-Star break after being "diagnosed with acute appendicitis" and undergoing an emergency appendectomy, the Bulls announced Wednesday.
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The injury represents another setback in what has thus far been a disappointing second NBA season for the 24-year-old from Montenegro, who earned All-Rookie First Team honors last season after averaging 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 20.2 minutes per game off the bench for a Bulls team that won 50 games and made the second round of the playoffs.
After the Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau this offseason, new head coach Fred Hoiberg elevated Mirotic into the starting lineup, hoping that the 6-foot-10 forward could provide a range-shooting, floor-spacing complement to Spanish national teammate Pau Gasol that would unlock the Chicago's long-moribund offense. A strong opening week of the season soon gave way to inconsistency, though, as Mirotic has struggled with his shot and his defensive work.
The Bulls have been about two points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and his 3-point percentage has risen from 31.6 percent as a rookie to a roughly league-average 35.4 percent in Year 2, but his per-minute scoring and free-throw generation have both dipped, he's dishing assists less frequently while turning the ball over more often, and he's shooting a grim 42.2 percent on shots inside the arc.
“I have to find a way that I can play maybe 10 games good [in a row],” Mirotic told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. “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.”
In the short term, Mirotic's unexpected exit from the lineup — which comes just a week and a half after longtime Bulls linchpin Joakim Noah underwent what's expected to season-ending (and perhaps Chicago-career-ending) surgery on his left shoulder — turns what had previously looked like an overcrowded Bulls frontcourt into a comparatively thinner group, which could change the roster-management decision-making process of vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman ahead of the Feb. 18 trade deadline, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
While the injuries might ease Chicago's roster crunch, they also figure to make it a bit more difficult for Hoiberg to field potent and effective two-way frontcourts.
Gasol's a known quantity, capable of dominating inside, splashing jumpers in the pick-and-pop and even stretching the floor out to the short corners, but his limitations as a defender in space are well known. Taj Gibson's a rock, but one who also operates from the elbows in, which could cramp post-up opportunities for Gasol and driving lanes for chicago's ball-handlers.
Bobby Portis has shown an exciting combination of athleticism, rebounding acumen, tenacity and skill while also making nearly one-third of his 3-point tries in limited minutes, but it very much remains to be seen whether the rookie from Arkansas can maintain or improve upon his production given increased minutes. And if foul trouble, ineffectiveness or additional injury leads Hoiberg to look down the bench to sparingly used sophomore Cameron Bairstow or rookie Cristiano Felicio, well, your guess of what they'll provide is as good as mine.
Given the continuing uncertainty surrounding the health and effectiveness of point guard Derrick Rose and the overwhelming burden being undertaken on both ends of the floor by ascendant shooting guard Jimmy Butler, adding even more question marks up front seems like it could be a recipe for disaster for a Bulls team that entered Wednesday having lost seven of its last 10 to fall to 25-19, fourth place in the Eastern Conference. This also seems like a pretty bad time for the Bulls to be setting out on a seven-game road trip, beginning Thursday at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers. If Butler, Gasol and the rest of the healthy Bulls can hold down the fort until the All-Star break, the returns of Mirotic and, at long last, Mike Dunleavy could help stabilize the rotation and set the stage for a second-half push. Just staying afloat for the next few weeks, though, could be a pretty tough task.
News of Mirotic's appendectomy also came just hours after he was named to the roster of the World team for the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. (As was the case last year, the former rookie/sophomore game will now pit teams of U.S.-born first- and second-year players against those hailing from outside the states.) Mirotic's shelving means the NBA will have to name a replacement for the World roster. While the league could elect to shift No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns over from the U.S. squad (he competes for the Dominican Republic in international competition, after all) and elevating a passed-over American player (Justise Winslow, perhaps, or Devin Booker) to the U.S. team, I know I'm not alone in suggesting that the NBA give the people what they want — a man who can palm a gallon of iced tea like it's a tennis ball.
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