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Nikola Mirotic trade to the Pelicans falls apart — for now

After Nikola Mirotic failed to evoke significant interest in restricted free agency last year, the Bulls and his representatives agreed on an intriguing proposal.

Rather than play this season on his $7.2 million qualifying offer, why not make a higher annual salary on a two-year, $25 million deal structured with a team option that could make Mirotic eminently tradable at some point in the deal?

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After all, if Lauri Markkanen emerged as a force, Mirotic, who will seek a big payday in 2019, wouldn’t fully match the timeline for the team’s rebuild, given it has to sign Zach LaVine to a big payday this summer. Markkanen and Kris Dunn also will be due extensions in the coming years as part of the core.

And if Mirotic played well, which he has, he might be able to net a first-round pick in return. Plus, the Bulls were — and still are — under the salary-cap floor.

The notion that it’s a matter of when, not if, Mirotic is dealt picked up steam Tuesday.

Sources confirmed the Bulls and Pelicans had pushed a Mirotic trade to the 1-yard line, only to have Mirotic's second-year option become a sticking point. The Bulls would receive Omer Asik, a first-round pick and another player as salary filler.

Indeed, the creative structure to Mirotic’s deal is both blessing and curse. The collective bargaining agreement allows Mirotic the right to reject a trade if the second-year team option isn’t exercised.

With the Pelicans eager to augment a roster that lost DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and make the playoffs, the teams negotiated aware that the option wouldn’t be exercised, sources said. If the Pelicans sign Cousins to a max deal this summer, they have luxury-tax concerns.

Mirotic has never backed off his claim to want to be elsewhere — and start — after Bobby Portis’ punch Oct. 17 broke two facial bones and cost Mirotic 23 games. The deal had attractiveness to it. Last season, Mirotic called Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, his favorite teammate along with Pau Gasol. And he’d start for a team challenging for the playoffs.

But sources said Mirotic, for now, ultimately soured on waiving his guaranteed $12.5 million next season, not to mention his Bird rights. Those allow a team to go over the salary cap to sign him to a deal with higher annual raises than signing via a salary-cap exception.

Whether Mirotic’s stance changes before the Feb. 8 trade deadline remains to be seen. The Bulls also could pick up his option — which negates Mirotic’s ability to reject a trade — and then find a trading partner.

The Bulls and Jazz also remain in talks, sources said, and Mirotic is intrigued by the idea of playing for coach Quin Snyder.

Mirotic experienced an emotional day. It began with him testing his strained left leg on the practice floor. Then he got pulled into an office by coach Fred Hoiberg and ultimately left the facility while a practice he wasn’t scheduled to participate in took place.

Sources said the decision weighed on Mirotic heavily. He ultimately boarded the Bulls charter flight to Portland, Ore., on Tuesday afternoon.

Before that, Hoiberg was purposely vague regarding Mirotic’s playing status. He answered “we’ll see” and later that he’d “anticipate that he would” when asked before practice if Mirotic would travel.

“He’s feeling better,” Hoiberg said before practice. “We’ll see how he progresses throughout the day. He’s got a little bit of an issue that’s going on with his lower leg. But nothing that’s going to be long term.”

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Hoiberg did address what he tells players at this time of the year.

“The No. 1 thing right now is continue to go out and worry about the things that you can control,” Hoiberg said. “That's playing hard and giving great effort and preparing yourself the right way.”

Asik, a former Bull, has a deal that is guaranteed for $11.2 million next season but carries only a $3 million guarantee for 2019-20.

Twitter @kcjhoop

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