Bobby Portis threw the punch just before the season that knocked out teammate Nikola Mirotic for almost two months. But it was Portis’ career that probably was wobbling and most on the ropes. Kermit Washington never quite recovered from delivering his brutal blow to Rudy Tomjanovich just over 40 years ago, and with Mirotic hospitalized it was uncertain if Portis, his reputation and his game could recover as he began an eight-game suspension.
But almost five months later as the Bulls host the Boston Celtics Monday, Portis is in the starting lineup while having the best season of his career. He has been the team’s best player since the All-Star break, averaging off the bench a team best 19.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Mirotic is with the New Orleans Pelicans and has been a major part of their eight-game winning streak. He is averaging 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds in those games, and after a slow shooting start is eight of 16 on threes the last two games. But the altercation that overshadowed the Bulls and their reboot to start the season now seems a distant memory, more aberration than reputation for Portis.
Portis was vital in the fourth quarter Friday when the Bulls overcame an 11-point deficit, and his addition to the starting lineup, at least for now, in that closing group against Dallas with Lauri Markkanen, David Nwaba, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn appears to give the Bulls their most versatile and athletic group. It’s also something of a last round rally for the third year forward who easily could have been the victim of his own aggression.
But a steady work ethic and belief, contrition without capitulation and a long stashed well of good will has enabled Portis to not only remain, but become perhaps a vital piece of the dizzying puzzle the Bulls are trying to put together.
“I don't really worry about individual stats or anything like that,” said Portis. “I go out there and try to play hard every night."
“I worked extremely hard over the summer on my three-point ball,” added Portis, 50 percent on threes the last five games. “I started shooting pretty good last year after the All-Star break, taking more, making more; locked in this summer and it’s paying off this season. You can always continue to get better, but I still have a long ways to go. I just want to go out there (now starting) and be the same player I am, play consistent and play the game the right way, play for the Bulls, play for my teammates. It’s always tough with a new role, but other than that try to go out and get us some wins.”
This was a make-or-break season for the 6-11, third-year forward selected 22nd in the 2015 draft. He was a part time player his first two seasons, usually the fifth man in a four-man inside rotation, sometimes backup center, sometimes backup forward, mostly standing back up on the bench to greet teammates in a timeout. Now the team was starting again with the trade of Jimmy Butler for Dunn, Markkanen and LaVine. And as coach Fred Hoiberg announced in preseason, only the center position was taken with Robin Lopez.
But Portis knew he still was something of an outsider, and not every open competition is the same. Markkanen was taken seventh in the draft and obviously the power forward of the future. Plus, Mirotic still was with the team, though likely not for long after summer negotiations broke down and Mirotic signed for one year guaranteed. Portis once again had stayed in Chicago perhaps as long as any player to work with the team in the summer, which he believed might and should give him an edge. But politics and necessities often transcend equity. Life and basketball, as we know, are not always fair. The Bulls wanted to get Markkanen experience. They needed to play Mirotic to enhance his trade value.
It was becoming apparent who would be cheerleader again.
One of the most destructive elements to team chemistry often is overlooked by fans and media. It’s agents, primarily; sometimes it’s friends and family. Understandably, their interests are selfish, directed toward their friend, their client. In any case, it seemed apparent in this days leading up to the incident, Portis was becoming aware that he was losing the race no matter the results. But several factors, including the high quality people playing for the Bulls, Portis’ favored teammate status and the actions of the veteran Lopez played a big part in a potential disaster becoming a mere lesson learned.
Portis clearly was on edge that day in practice, seemingly anticipating the coming inequity of being notified he was getting the third string treatment. For some reason, Mirotic was acting out in an unusual way in the scrimmage with excessive, unnecessary physical play. It seemed a dual provocation, your imperfect basketball storm. And then came the thunder and a lightning quick punch.
These things happen in practices; rarely do they result in that kind of physical damage. Ah, the rub. Portis had to be punished, but how severely and what would be the ramifications? How would they ever begin to become a team? Especially since they hardly were one by starting again. It also became confusing for the players. Portis was more popular, though not because of race or ethnicity or marital and family status, Mirotic one of the few players on the team with a wife and child and thus not one to be out much with teammates. The public and media sympathy was for Mirotic, the victim. But Portis had endeared himself to teammates last season during the infamous I-am-Dwyane-Wade incident. It subsequently became mostly the Wade/Rajon Rondo drama with Wade’s outburst about the young players not caring enough and Rondo countering on social media how winning veterans he knew didn’t act that way.
When the team convened a meeting the next day, Portis was sitting center front as Wade spoke first. Portis, with big eyes even when not intense, stared holes through Wade. Wade stopped and asked Portis if something was wrong. Portis lit into Wade, saying he and teammates may not have his skill, reputation and history, but to never question their work ethic and commitment, that they practice every day when Wade doesn’t, they never miss team trips and games when Wade slinks off to be with sponsors, they are there when he arrives and when he leaves. It was no coincidence the team went on a run to make the playoffs shortly after that with Wade hurt and the young players at their best.
Portis thus became something of an inspiration for the team’s kids. He was apologetic to excess when he returned in November while Mirotic seemed not to get over it, declining a reconciliation, at least off the court. They never would meet, though their play didn’t suffer. Impressively for both, they probably were the most effective playing together. If the Bulls don’t end up with a top five draft pick this season, it probably was due to that December stretch with Mirotic’s return and partnership with Portis for 10 wins in 12 games that separated the Bulls from the league’s poorest record. But it also produced credibility for the trade and the team’s future.
“There was the suspension early in the year and our thoughts were with Niko and getting better,” said Hoiberg. “It was good to see him progress daily with his recovery. At the same time meeting with Bobby every day, making sure he stayed on task with his work, which he did. He continued to practice with our team, and when he got the opportunity to get back out there right from the beginning he played very solid for this team. He’s continued to get better as the season has gone on. He’s taken advantage of everything that’s happened since that incident. The way he and Niko (were) able to put it behind them and not affect the team in a negative way is very admirable, their approach, a professionalism about things. Now having the opportunity to be in the starting lineup, we’re excited to see what we have with that group.”
Though perhaps the most crucial factor in enabling the team to go forward was Lopez, whose locker is next to Mirotic’s. It’s another reason Lopez even now out of the lineup to accommodate evaluations should have a future with the team. Neither Portis nor Mirotic would discuss specific details of the events. Teammates were questioned daily about the fight and Mirotic’s return. There seemed ambivalence given Portis’ popularity and Mirotic’s limited contact with teammates during his absence and then practicing alone. But Lopez quickly embraced Mirotic, breaking the potential tension, sending the signal of team unity and amity.
Mirotic was traded, and it’s become nothing but basketball for Portis. Now the questions are the fit on the basketball court rather than the fit in practice.
"The way the league is going and the way teams are playing smaller lineups, especially finishing, there’s so many teams finishing with those small, spread lineups on the floor,” Hoiberg noted. “We really want to see that dynamic with Bobby and Lauri out there together.’’
It hardly seemed even in the conversation last summer. Portis was averaging 6.9 points and five rebounds in his two seasons, shooting 32 percent on threes. He wasn’t particularly athletic and mostly hesitant, passing up shots, unsure even what his role should be. If Mirotic was known for his shot, Portis’s was known for being blocked. He averaged about 17 minutes per game and had more than a dozen inactive each season. He was being counted out, not counted on.
This season Portis is averaging 13.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, helping carry the team down the stretch of games. There was 22 points in the Dallas win and six straight to save the game midway through the quarter, 38 points against the 76ers last week. Since Mirotic was traded, Portis is averaging 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds playing off the bench in just 25 minutes per game. He doesn’t pass much, which is a departure since he rarely shot his first two seasons. He’s become the team’s passion, his on court flexing and forays into the stands to encourage and rouse fans one of the more buoyant elements for a normally staid group.
When Kris Dunn after the Dallas game was asked about the play of he, LaVine and Markkanen, he talked more about a big four talents with Portis. Is Bobby Portis, who is eligible for a contract extension this summer, now that big a part of the Bulls future? Almost down for the count perhaps he also can become a contender.
“Two guys who can space and shoot, it's great for teammates,” Portis said in anticipating his play with Markkanen. “The high/low game has been there for us. If he pops, I roll. If I pop, he rolls. Just trying to play off each other. Similar to what me and Niko did together. In training camp, it's always Taj who was stronger than me then and now playing against some other veterans around the league, bumping into them now, they be like, ‘Damn, strong ass dude.’ It's crazy to hear them say that. It's a blessing.
“I'm not thinking about next season,” said Portis. “I'm a guy that likes to go into the season and locks in. I'm locking in on these last games, continuing to be consistent for the Bulls and for my teammates. I'm not really worried about the offseason right now, future plans. I'm just worried about trying to finish the season off on the right note.”