Chicago Bulls discover harmony on court after tumultuous start to season

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

* Tonight on NBA League Pass: 76ers vs. Bulls (8 ET)

With the NBA going full metal retro as Kobe Bryant’s double-jersey-number retirement in Los Angeles approached, it was worth noting that Bryant’s notoriously prickly relationship with former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal looks downright warm and fuzzy these days.

Relative to the league’s reigning dyspeptic duo, anyway.

The 2017-18 season hardly could have begun worse for Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis of the Chicago Bulls. Vying for the starter’s role and minutes at power forward for a team intending to be bad, the competition on the practice floor led to irritation and instigation, which in turn led to confrontation and conflagration. Portis punched a reportedly salty Mirotic, breaking two bones in the man’s face and sending him to the hospital on Oct. 17.

The blow sidelined Mirotic for the season’s first seven weeks. It sent Portis into exile on an eight-game suspension. It opened a door of opportunity for rookie Lauri Markkanen, along with several cans of worms for coach Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls:

How serious were reports that Mirotic wanted either Portis or himself traded before he returned to NBA action? Would teammates choose sides? What did the little skirmish mean to either player’s trade value? And if the front office opted not to have its hand forced into an either/or situation, could the two co-exist peacefully – or at minimum, professionally enough to play productive basketball without distractions or further incidents?

The answer to that last one, at least through Mirotic’s season debut 10 days ago, has been negative. The two have not been merely productive – they’ve been remarkably so, by the Bulls’ standards anyway. Starting with Chicago’s game at Charlotte on Dec. 8, Mirotic’s return, the lottery-balls-or-bust Bulls have gone undefeated. Let’s repeat that – Chicago has a five-game winning streak, after going 3-20 through the schedule’s first seven weeks.

As they prepped to face Philadelphia Monday night at the United Center, the Bulls had topped 100 points in each of those five victories, after doing that only eight times in the first 23 games. Mirotic is averaging 20.0 points and 6.2 rebounds since he’s been back while shooting 53.8 percent, including 15-for-30 on 3-pointers. Portis is at 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, shooting 49 percent and 39 percent from the arc, with a career-best 27 points off the bench and 12 rebounds at Milwaukee Friday.

Other players have shined during the streak: guard Kris Dunn and Markkanen look like solid pieces that, when Zach LaVine returns from his ACL rehab, will soothe whatever sting remains from the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota last June. Center Robin Lopez continues to do a few things very well, boosting his trade value as the February deadline approaches. Undrafted waivers pickup David Nwaba, 24, has been surprisingly helpful on the wing since being salvaged off basketball’s scrap heap, even effectively guarding while giving up seven inches to the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But Mirotic and Portis, to blame for the dark headlines back in October, have been largely responsible for the happier ones lately. Through the weekend, having played together for 54 minutes, the two had a plus/minus in combination of plus-6.8 points, plus-5.0 in fourth quarters alone.

Per 100 possessions, using Mirotic and Portis together made the Bulls 30.8 points better, including a 59.5 net rating in the fourth quarter. This is a team, overall, with a 98.3 offensive rating and 107.1 defensive rating prior to facing Philadelphia.

For an organization where the reference point for 1 + 1 equaling 3 is Michael Jordan plus Scottie Pippen, Mirotic and Portis – more tantrum than tandem – have been special.

“I can’t say enough about how well those two have played with each other out there on the floor,” Hoiberg said after beating the Bucks Friday. “They’ve really shown great chemistry and obviously [we] hope to keep it up.”

Having two largely interchangeable bigs with 3-point range gives Hoiberg the opportunity to run some high-low stuff, while opening lanes for Dunn, Nwaba, Justin Holiday or other guards. They’re big enough to handle whatever size threats come their way in the 2017 NBA.

With Mirotic, Hoiberg talked about one of the fifth-year veteran’s experience. “He’s been in that situation before,” Hoiberg said. “He’s really one of the few guys on this roster who has played big crunch time minutes. … The five that we’ve won, four of them have been one- or two-possession games. Niko’s made big plays, really, in all of them.”

Hoiberg said he was proud that “three or four guys [had] blood on their uniforms” after Saturday’s victory at Milwaukee. Better still, none of it had been spilled by a teammate.

Speaking of Portis, the coach said: “The big thing is his aggressiveness. He hit a couple three’s early, which was big for his confidence. To come out, we were really sluggish and Bobby really kind of took the lid off the rim. And in the fourth quarter, Bobby’s a guy who plays with no fear.”

As the puncher rather than the punched, Portis shouldn’t have any fear. Mirotic, better still, isn’t flinching from contact or otherwise playing shy.

About the only thing the two have been shy about is mending their relationship off the court. They talk and communicate as required when they’re in the game, and there have been several situational fist bumps out of habit. Other than that, though, everything is up, over and through the transom of media, coaches or teammates. Specifically, Mirotic shook off the idea that they would celebrate beating the Bucks by popping open some beverages together on the bus back to Chicago.

“We don’t go that way,” the 26-year-old native of Montenegro said. “On the floor we spoke.”

Both do grasp the irony that their combined efforts are so effective of late for Chicago, considering they could hardly be further apart emotionally.

“Everything’s for the team,” said Portis, 22, as he dressed kitty-corner – as far away as possible – from Mirotic in the visitors’ locker room Saturday. “We’re professionals, we’re basketball players and this is our job. Plus we have to come in here every day and put our shoes on like everybody else puts their shoes on, and find a way to make it work. I feel like we’ve done that up to this point.

“It’s been fun playing with Niko. He’s a helluva player. He’s been playing out of his mind since he’s been back. I’m happy for him.”

Even if the differences between Mirotic and Portis are irreconcilable, the NBA has a long history of teammates who didn’t take long moonlight strolls together or even get along at all. Most workplaces have.

And if there are any specific downsides to these two not being pals – except upon tipoff – it’s that Markkanen’s recent back spasms opened up the starting job for Mirotic (which he had won in training camp pre-punch) and that some Bulls fans are worried that even 10 days of success might torpedo management’s tanking mission.

There are ways to address both issues, just as long as it’s done without anybody slugging anyone.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.