On the road; in a foreign country. Well, technically. With a 2-6 team on a gloomy Tuesday. What other sort of Tuesday do they have in Toronto?
Bobby Portis makes his return from his eight-game suspension for punching teammate Nikola Mirotic Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors. Which is probably as inconspicuous as it can be for a player who has to be anxious facing one of the most unprecedented season opening games.
"I haven't sensed any nervousness (in Portis)," said Bulls veteran center and captain Robin Lopez. "He hasn't told me about any nervousness. I'm sure there's a little bit of nerves, a little bit of jitters. It is a bit of an interesting situation. But I don't think he's really letting that bother him. Obviously the consequences aren't what you want to happen. I think guys understand that there are scuffles. Sometimes these things happen. But we know the punch shouldn't have been thrown. We saw the result from that. But I think we're kind of past that at this point."
The Bulls players appear to have moved on as much as they can. After all, and especially with this Bulls team and season, they have their own jobs to either protect or acquire in a rebuilding season for the franchise. Lopez acknowledged as much.
"I'm definitely anxious to see what (Portis) has to bring," Lopez said Monday. "I know he's been putting in a lot of work; he put in a lot of work this offseason. I know there's been some interesting situations going on, but I think we're all excited to have him back on the court. I don't really think we've been answering any questions with that situation except for this particular one right here, and this is something we deal with once before or at practice every day. So I don't think people are perturbed by it. We'll roll with it, deal with it, try and welcome him back to the team."
Lopez added the same holds true for Mirotic.
"Our job as teammates is to make sure we try and mend that relationship as much as possible," Lopez added.
Then he left, presumably to paint some more sneaker designs and see if any more pictures of pop icons have been discarded.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg Monday before Bulls practice said Portis will be employed as the backup power forward to rookie Lauri Markkanen. Hoiberg also revealed David Nwaba, who had just won the starting small forward spot, will be out two to four weeks with a severely sprained ankle sustained Saturday in the loss to New Orleans. Paul Zipser will return to small forward with the other starters the same and Jerian Grant again at point guard.
Markkanen fell into the starting power forward spot as a result of the clash. Mirotic apparently was scheduled to start. Markkanen has impressed with his play since, and Hoiberg has said Markkanen will retain the starting position.
"We do plan on Bobby being the backup four," said Hoiberg. "We'll see how the flow of the game is going and see if we can slide him down to the five and allow he and Lauri to play together for a stretch. A lot of that will be determined with what lineups they have on the floor. They are playing big with (Jonas) Valanciunas and other true (centers). Bobby has been practicing with us for the last couple of weeks. He's been the same player as far his energy is concerned. Every time he steps on the floor and we need a jolt of energy, he can provide that for us. He needs to continue to do those little things that have made him successful when he's been on the floor his first couple years in the league. And that's to play with great energy, run the floor for us, rebound at a high level and follow the game plan defensively. I know his teammates are excited to have him back. I know the coaches are excited to have him back."
Portis, the 6-10, 250-pound forward, has been practicing with the team even as the eight-game suspension was in place since the start of the regular season. The suspension was decided upon by the Bulls in consultation with the NBA. It is not uncommon for players on suspension, whether team or league, to practice with their team.
The altercation occurred in practice two days before the start of the Bulls regular season opener, ironically also in Toronto. Portis and Mirotic had been in competition for the starting power forward spot and had been competing aggressively throughout training camp. Markkanen was expected to play perhaps 18-20 minutes off the bench to get a feel for the NBA since he is just 20 with one year of college.
There have been various versions of events reported. Mirotic was apparently playing aggressively and Portis apparently interpreted it as a threat. He punched Mirotic, who suffered a concussion and broken bones in his face. Mirotic has returned to work out at the practice Advocate Center, but apparently more on his own and apparently has not communicated with Portis.
"I'm not sure on that," Hoiberg said when asked if the two had met or spoken.
There have been media reports Mirotic prefers something of a "him or me" resolution. But no one representing Mirotic, Portis or the Bulls publicly has confirmed or acknowledged that. Mirotic apparently is not close to practicing with the team and figures to be out at least another month. Portis spoke briefly with reporters last month. He apologized for his behavior, said it was uncharacteristic, said he attempted to contact Mirotic without success and attributed his overreaction to the elements of competition. Portis is expected to address reporters again Tuesday before the game with the Raptors.
Still hovering over the nascent season in almost a spectral way is the perceived inequity that Portis, who caused Mirotic's injuries, is not only able to play, but now is taking Mirotic's playing time.
Because Portis' suspension was specific for eight games, the team is not allowed to arbitrarily add on games if it wanted to keep Portis out indefinitely until Mirotic returned. It would be a form of double jeopardy since Portis' suspension for that act was agreed upon with the league. It would be improperly suspending him again without a new occurrence and for the same event. Plus, legal observers say the players union would easily overturn such an action—which the Bulls or the league are not considering—in an appeal or arbitration based on the collective bargaining agreement.
"This is something that, unfortunately, it happened," said Hoiberg, who has had to navigate these uncharted media shoals, unusual basketball terrain without a map or obvious direction. "There was an altercation, and Bobby served the eight-game suspension. It was something that was thought a lot about as far as what the punishment would be in collaboration with the league. They felt that this was the right punishment. He sat out his games and he was able to stay active and practice with us. Now we'll put him back on the floor. And again, we welcome him back. He served the punishment that everybody thought was fair. Now we go out there and focus on the task at hand, which is get our team ready to play."