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SALT LAKE CITY — A new trade rumor, first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, has set Jazzland on fire.
According to Wojnarowski, "The Bulls are still planning to trade forward Nikola Mirotic... Mirotic has been intrigued with the Utah Jazz, whose coach, Quin Snyder, has a reputation for maximizing offensive talent."
That report set off a flurry of reporting and confirmation from reporters from both Utah and Chicago. "Mirotic to the Jazz is real. Not saying it's done, but it's a real possibility. They're talking," said 1280 AM's Spence Checketts.
The Chicago Tribune's KC Johnson says, "The Bulls have made clear to the multiple teams they have talked to regarding Mirotic that they’re seeking a first-round pick with no long-term contracts attached."
So for a trade rumor, we actually know a lot: We know that the teams are talking, so we know the Jazz are interested. We know that Mirotic would like to land in Utah, and we know what the Bulls want.
Breakdown of Mirotic's game
It's good timing for the Bulls to trade the 26-year-old Mirotic. After missing the first 23 games of the season after teammate Bobby Portis punched him in the face and broke his jaw, Mirotic has come out on fire in the 17 games he has played. He's averaging 17.4 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line. Obviously, those are some great scoring numbers, though the shooting is probably unsustainable: it's much more likely that Mirotic goes back to shooting 37 percent or so.
What's been a little bit of a revelation so far is Mirotic's shooting inside the arc. In his first three seasons, Mirotic took a majority of his shots from beyond the 3-point line, but Mirotic is going inside more frequently this year while still shooting six threes per game. That also means he's going to the free throw line more frequently.
In that sense, Mirotic's ability to be a threat outside and inside the arc is a nice fit next to Rudy Gobert. Mirotic can space the floor if needed, but can also attack those aggressive closeouts.
One question I always have about fits in Quin Snyder's offense is whether a player is a ball-stopper or a ball-mover. The Jazz's offense is designed around ball-movement. While a ball-stopper like Joe Johnson can work in the system, it's also best if the Jazz's power forward can keep things flowing.
Mirotic is up and down on this. It seemed when he first came back from an injury that he would never pass the ball, with zero assists in his first four games. But as he's gotten more comfortable, he's actually made some tremendous passes. The Jazz's big men aren't currently capable of doing this, for example:
One thing that surprised me while watching tape yesterday/today: Mirotic is capable of making some plays that current Jazz big men aren't. pic.twitter.com/CPBfrH3gsU — Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) January 10, 2018
Rebounding-wise, the counting stats aren't stellar, but it's basically because he never gets offensive rebounds. As a defensive rebounder though, he gets an above-average number of rebounds for his position, and his teams have typically been average when he's on the floor at gathering boards.
How good is his defense? I think it's been a little bit unfairly attacked in the past, but to me, Mirotic looks like an average defender. He's had a positive defensive real plus-minus in every year of his career, and the Bulls have been better defensively for three of the last four years when he's on the floor. His block and steal percentages are down significantly this season, though, something to watch.
Watching video of Mirotic, his lateral mobility surprises me. He's not a second rim protector, but he does a good job of staying in front of players without committing fouls. Bulls fans have given him plaudits for his improved strength this season, and he's not being bullied by big men when playing center.
One other weird quirk: Is Mirotic a good locker room fit? The word out of Chicago was that his teammates sided with Portis after Portis punched Mirotic in the face in a practice skirmish. On the other hand, maybe Utah's more European roster would be a better fit for Mirotic, who is from Montenegro, and might be part of the reason he wants to come here.
Mirotic's special trade situation
Before this year, Mirotic signed a contract in which he was being paid $12.5 million this season. He has a team option for 2018-19 for the same amount, which introduces a few complications into the deal.
Because Mirotic signed a deal that is basically a one-year deal with possible additions, under NBA rules, he has to approve any trade that he's in. Mirotic also can't be traded at all until Jan. 15.
Furthermore, if Mirotic were traded, the team that acquires him would not have full "Bird rights" to exceed the salary cap to retain him after the contract is up. Of course, a team that wanted to keep Mirotic only one more year would just pick up the team option. But after that, that team would only have "Early Bird rights" to keep Mirotic, which would allow them to pay up to $22 million to keep him. If he were worth more, they would have to use cap space.
The Bulls can simplify all of this by picking up Mirotic's team option now. That would mean that Mirotic would no longer have trade refusal rights and whatever team that acquired Mirotic would have full "Bird rights."
So while Mirotic reportedly wants to be a Jazzman, he has next-to-zero actual leverage in making that happen. In order to acquire Mirotic, the Jazz would have to have the best offer for the Bulls. The Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers are also allegedly interested in Mirotic.
Some trade ideas
Here's the problem with a simple Bulls-Jazz trade: The Jazz aren't willing to trade what the Bulls want. Remember, KC Johnson reported that the Bulls want a first-round pick and no long-term contracts.
Given that the Jazz are currently slated to draft 10th, the 2018 Jazz pick is just too good of a pick to trade for Mirotic, even if the Jazz were to improve somewhat after acquiring him. I'm told the Jazz front office agrees.
The Jazz do have many short deals, but nearly all of them are veteran types that offer no value to the long-term oriented Bulls. Players like Derrick Favors, Thabo Sefolosha, Joe Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh and even Rodney Hood all have expiring deals, but all of them have positive value on the court for a Bulls team that really would prefer to start losing games, not winning them.
This screams for a three-team deal, in which the Jazz get Mirotic, the Bulls get a later first round pick, and a third team gets one of the Jazz's talented players. Some trade ideas:
Derrick Favors is definitely on the trade market, as a player who is highly unlikely to return in 2018-19, the Jazz would like to get some value out of him before the deadline. What teams need a player like Favors? Boston, Cleveland, and Milwaukee all have varying big-man needs.
The problem with Boston is that they don't have any salaries large enough to trade out while acquiring Favors. There is a way they can make it work, though: trading one of their smaller salaries for a bigger salary as an intermediary step.
To Denver: Aron Baynes
To Boston: Darrell Arthur, 2nd-round pick
To Chicago: Darrell Arthur, 2nd-round pick, Boston 1st-round pick
To Boston: Derrick Favors
To Utah: Nikola Mirotic
So, for example, they could trade Aron Baynes to Denver for Darrell Arthur, then trade Arthur to Chicago and their own first-round pick to Chicago, while the Jazz receive Mirotic and trade away Favors. Boston would have to receive assurances from Favors that he'd re-sign with them in the offseason for a reasonable amount, though, or the Celtics could end up deep in the luxury tax. And Arthur's $7 million contract for next year might be enough to make the Bulls uninterested. And Chicago might get a better first-round pick than Boston's.
Cleveland is a simpler option. They can just include the rarely-played Channing Frye.
To Cleveland: Derrick Favors
To Chicago: CLE first-round pick, Channing Frye
To Utah: Nikola Mirotic
For them, it's just a matter of whether or not they'd be willing to trade their first-round pick in this year's draft (not Brooklyn's) for Favors. Favors fills a need for the Cavs, though they might want to keep their pick in case LeBron James leaves in free agency. Likewise, the Bulls might be able to receive a better first-round pick than Cleveland's.
Milwaukee has two problems: They've already traded away their pick this year. Because of the Stepien rule, they can't trade away their 2019 pick, either. So it would have to be a 2020 pick from Milwaukee that the Bucks trade and even that would have to be dependent on protections. Maybe that's not soon enough for Chicago.
They also don't have any expiring salaries to trade out. Mirza Teletovic is closest, but he has a $10 million contract for next year too. While they're motivated to acquire a big man, it's hard to see them sending something that Chicago would be interested in.
The Jazz do have other players that might entice a team to give up something that fits the Bulls timeline. For example, Oklahoma City and Minnesota both want wing talent, and Thabo Sefolosha, Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood and maybe even Alec Burks fit the bill.
But Oklahoma City has traded both its 2018 and 2020 first-round pick, so they couldn't trade another one away until 2022. Minnesota traded their 2018 pick away for Adreian Payne of all people, so they couldn't send one out until 2020.
In other words: This is difficult! While the Jazz are perhaps the team that could use Mirotic most — and he wants to end up in Utah — it's difficult for the Jazz to send value in the form Chicago wants it. One side will have to budge on their trade demands, or a creative solution will have to be found if Mirotic is to find his way to Utah.