It was a sight for sore eyes at the Advocate Center Monday, watching Nikola Mirotic participate in an actual practice with his teammates going through five-on-zero drills, running through the offense.
It’s the first time Mirotic has been on the floor with his teammates since his incident with Bobby Portis last month, where Mirotic suffered a concussion and facial injuries after a punch from Portis.
It appears to be a step toward Mirotic getting back on the floor in an actual game, although he won’t play on Tuesday against Phoenix. He will travel to Denver later in the week.
Mirotic didn’t speak to media during availability before practice but his locker mate Robin Lopez was happy Mirotic took another step toward the fold.
“This is great. I think we’re a step closer to being at full strength,” Lopez said. “I’ve had a locker next to Niko. I love being next to the guy. I love having him with us right now.”
Whether Mirotic and Portis get in a room anytime soon, though, is still to be determined. But if they only go as far as communicating on the floor because they’re on the second unit together, it doesn’t sound like it’ll be a problem.
“There will have to be some interaction at some point obviously now that they’re out there playing together,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They’ll be on the same team and playing against each other. So it is important to get those guys communicating, which I think we’re all confident will happen. The important thing is getting Niko back on the floor and with the team.”
It isn’t known if Mirotic made this decision on his own, but Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson made it known the team would only go so far toward acquiescing Mirotic’s needs two weeks ago—when Mirotic made his first step toward being in the Advocate Center again while the team was practicing.
Despite everything that’s associated with being an NBA player and being on a team, guys are more co-workers than teammates.
“If everything is going well on the basketball court, they’re doing their jobs, performing their duties, I don’t see why not,” Lopez said. “I would hope that it would go beyond that, but if it comes to that I think it’s good, it’s typical.”
Lopez said it would have to happen naturally, and he’s had teammates he didn’t like through the years but was able to work with them. Most times, the disliked teammate wasn’t aware.
“I mean sometimes they don't know,” Lopez said. “But I think as long as you come together on the court, come to work and do what's best for the greater good, I think that's what you really want.”
Even on the floor, he still has hurdles to clear before being cleared. He’s been making strides while the team was away on the west coast last week.
“The big thing is how he feels. I just talked to him about the practice schedule,” Hoiberg said. “I told him just to have communication. If he has pain, take a little bit of a break. We’ll get through all the non-contact portion of practice with him. The plan is for him to do some contact today and see how he responds and then put a plan together from there.”
The plan, Hoiberg said, doesn’t include inserting Mirotic in as a starter as he was projected to be before the incident with Portis. Rookie Lauri Markkanen will be the starting power forward if and when Mirotic returns, and even if it won’t help the Bulls win more games on a significant level they can look more competitive.
The Bulls’ point differential of -12.6 points per game is last in the league, second in the decade to only the Charlotte Bobcats’ mark of minus-13.9 points per game in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Zach LaVine is practicing and David Nwaba is getting closer to a return from an ankle injury he suffered over three weeks ago against New Orleans.
“As far as what (Mirotic) can provide on the floor, he’s obviously a guy who has a lot of experience playing at the professional level, a lot of years overseas,” Hoiberg said. “He has had some really good moments in this league and given us some great production. Getting him back out here is certainly a step in the right direction. And we’re all excited to have him back.”
Mirotic was a restricted free agent over the summer and will make $12.5 million this season. He averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds last season, his third in the league since being drafted in 2011 and coming to Chicago before the 2014-15 season.
“Niko's a great shooter, I think he's a good scorer from anywhere on the floor,” Lopez said. “He has good basketball instincts. I know he gets a little flak for not being a good defender but there were games last year where we had him on the court down the stretch and he made huge defensive plays for us. He's gives us a big boon on both ends of the floor as a basketball player.”