CHICAGO – The NBA, fortunately, is not yet the National Bromance Association.
Granted, there’s ample evidence to the contrary, what with players signing contracts to team up with buddies or logging onto social media to volunteer opinions on how their pals employed elsewhere are coached or managed. What has been a long tradition of professional respect for rivals has morphed into fraternal bonding and beyond. Almost any night, at every final horn or buzzer, it’s man-hugs and chitchat all around.
Still, it is permitted to dislike an opponent. It’s even OK not to hang out, break bread or Facebook-friend with the occasional teammate.
So, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis should get to work, defuse further drama, avoid at all costs any more confrontations and help the Chicago Bulls achieve ... whatever it is the Bulls are trying to achieve this season.
Mirotic, Chicago’s fourth-year stretch big, spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since being punched by teammate Bobby Portis Oct. 17 and sent to the hospital and into rehab with to facial fractures and a concussion.
While it seemed clear that Mirotic was eager to put the incident behind them, he stopped short several times of declaring or indicating a full-blown, unconditional, “Kumbaya” resolution.
“I’ve been playing this game nine years professionally. I was always a good teammate, always professional to everybody, and I’m going to continue to do that,” Mirotic said, deflecting one question about their relationship going forward. “If I’m here, it’s because I want to support the team. He’s a part of the team. I’m going to support him too. Obviously, I’m going to give him hands like he’s going to give me hands too.”
He meant fist-bumps, not bare knuckles.
Portis apologized publicly one week after the skirmish on the practice floor mere days before the Bulls’ season opener. Then he sat out an eight-game suspension that even NBA commissioner Adam Silver got asked about – Silver deemed the penalty appropriate and allowed the Bulls to handle the matter internally.
After telling reporters Wednesday that he accepted Portis’ up-and-over-the-transom apology, Mirotic was asked if Portis knew that. It led to more up-and-over communication.
“I guess he will know now,” the 6-foot-10 native of Montenegro said.
The continuing need for media middlemen quickly got this Mirotic-Portis detente portrayed as tenuous or, as one outlet termed it, “precarious.” Which, while true, shouldn’t matter. No one’s asking these two Bulls bigs to be Butch & Sundance, just so long as they’re not Mayweather-McGregor.
Until the two had tangled – with Portis delivering the headline-maker but Mirotic reportedly instigating the altercation with verbiage and body language – Chicago had hoped to operate a nice, unobtrusive, below-the-radar tank job as the cornerstone of their avowed rebuilding plan. The skirmish and the severity of Mirotic’s injuries flushed the Bulls and their intentionally uncompetitive intentions into the bright lights.
Reporters had to monitor each increment of his recovery, physically but more so emotionally, and count the games until Portis’ return. Now it’s all about a team’s ability to harbor players who don’t get along.
“That’s something a lot of people have encountered in the league,” Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez told reporters Monday as Mirotic prepped for his first full practice since the smackdown.
Asked for a personal example of teammate dislike, the Bulls’ big man was ready.
“Brook Lopez,” he said, mentioning his twin brother, currently in the employ of the Los Angeles Lakers.
A little sibling-like rivalry might do the 3-16 Bulls some good as Mirotic’s return to game action next week or soon thereafter approaches. He averaged 10.8 points and made 35 percent of his 3-point shots in his first three seasons in Chicago.
Coach Fred Hoiberg talked Wednesday of Mirotic’s value in spacing the floor and, contrary to his reputation primarily as an offensive player, said he ranked second on the squad last season to Jimmy Butler in defensive efficiency.
“Niko is a guy who has a lot of experience,” Hoiberg said, “not only in this league but he’s been playing professional going back all the way to when he was 16 years old, when he started playing in the Spanish league.
“He’s been in really good spirits. He’s been good with the guys. Then it’s about getting in the best shape possible, getting ready to play.”
Said Mirotic: “I just know that right now the only goal — Bulls’ goal and my goal — is to make me get back with the team and practice together and get my strength back and as soon as I can, play with the team.”
There is a question of minutes. Mirotic’s layoff and Portis’ suspension cleared the way for rookie Lauri Markkanen to start at power forward. Markkanen, averaging 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 34.3 percent from the arc, will continue in that role.
Mirotic set a ground rule before taking any questions, saying he would not talk about the incident itself. He shrugged off the report soon after in one Chicago newspaper that claimed he and his representatives gave the Bulls management an ultimatum that he or Portis be traded.
By league rules, in the wake of his summer re-upping with the Bulls as a restricted free agent, Mirotic cannot be traded until Jan. 15. So, either the team trades Portis or the onus is on Hoiberg and the coaches to make this work.
Finding playing time for five big men – Mirotic, Portis, Markkanen, Lopez and reserve center Cristiano Felicio – won’t be easy. But it will go more smoothly if Mirotic and Portis manage to peacefully co-exist.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.