Bobby Portis returned this week from an eight-game suspension for concussing and breaking two bones in Nikola Mirotic’s face with a punch in a practice fight, and Portis was unexpectedly great: 21 points and 13 rebounds in 24 minutes coming off the bench. But it doesn’t take a very close between-the-lines reading to see that the reason Bulls players seem to want Portis on the team and not the still-recovering Mirotic doesn’t have a ton to do with basketball.
“His teammates were happy to have him back,” coach Fred Hoiberg said of Portis, who the Bulls allowed to practice during his suspension (while Mirotic is still not cleared to do much beyond lift weights). That seems assured by a pair of reports following Mirotic’s declaration that he and Portis can’t co-exist on this team.
According to several players, the ultimatum issued by Nikola Mirotic — either Bobby Portis goes or he goes — carries no weight. If anything, it has solidified Portis’ standing with his teammates. One Bull even said, “This is Niko’s problem now.”
Portis tried to reach out to Mirotic via text and in a message but received no response. That’s why players say it’s obvious that Mirotic, 26, has to go.
The feeling is Portis has done his part to repair things, and he’s seen as someone who has put in all the work this summer and is a better teammate. Plus, he’s just more liked by his teammates. Choosing Mirotic over Portis would disrupt a chemistry that has been building since the front office made the decision to rebuild by trading Jimmy Butler in June.
Mirotic was on pace to beat out Portis for the power forward spot (which was claimed, firmly, in their absence by talented rookie Lauri Markkanen) before the punch-out, but the Bulls don’t really seem to care about that.
“There’s a lingering sense that Mirotic came into training camp with a feeling of entitlement,” the Sun-Times report claims, “which did not sit well with many of his younger teammates.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune says “it’s obvious how the organization viewed the [fight],” noting that they portrayed Mirotic as the aggressor, leaking to reporters that he charged Portis before getting punched.
There are some truisms in basketball. One is that you shouldn’t punch your teammate and break his jaw. Another is that if you do punch your teammate and break his jaw, that won’t matter for your future prospects as long as the team and organization like you better than they like him. The Bulls like Portis more than Mirotic, so Mirotic’s going to be traded when he’s healthy, and Portis—who, I’m sure isn’t hurt by being on a team-friendly rookie contract—gets to stay. (Given how bad the Bulls are, “gets” is maybe not the precise word, but you understand.)
“We know what goes on in this locker room,” Justin Holiday said last week about welcoming Portis back. Now we all know a little bit more about what goes on in there.