“How did we get here?” is something I imagine Bulls front-office executives Gar Forman and John Paxson thought many times this week. One of their power forwards, Nikola Mirotic, won’t speak to or practice alongside one of their other power forwards, Bobby Portis. Trading one seems inevitable, but even that has complications. Couples-counseling Bobby “Crazy Eyes” Portis and Mirotic, who re-signed with Chicago this offseason, into being in the same room is the messiest story line of the 2017–18 Bulls — who, by the way, have lost five straight. Here’s a breakdown of where we are with one of the most bizarre sagas in the NBA.
What happened in the first place?
On the first day of the season, Portis landed a punch to Mirotic’s face after trash talk between the two in a scrimmage got out of hand. Mirotic was out for four weeks with a concussion and a broken jaw. Portis was later suspended by the team for the first eight games of the season.
Portis has averaged 15.8 points and 46.7 percent 3-point shooting over four games since his return. Mirotic rejoined the team Monday, but says he won’t share a locker room with his assailant.
What were they fighting about?
Apparently both were competing for the same starting position. In early October, Portis said, “I want to start. Let’s just say that first.” Then, days before the incident, Fred Hoiberg named Mirotic to the first team.
Last season, the 26-year-old Mirotic took the spot from Portis, who had started 12 straight games between February and March. When asked if the sudden switch was confusing, Portis said, “A lot. I didn’t understand why I had to go down.”
This doesn’t look great for Hoiberg’s communication skills, nor does it seem like the necessary reconciliation was tended to after budding tension bloomed into full-blown dislike over the summer. On NBC’s Bulls Talk podcast, host Mark Schanowski confirmed that “Players knew there was some bad blood between Niko and Portis. […] They were going hard at each other.”
(That starting spot they so desired? It now belongs to rookie Lauri Markkanen, who in the two forwards’ absence has averaged nearly 15 points and eight rebounds.)
Is there still bad blood?
Like it’s a Taylor Swift album. Portis tried to apologize, but both a text and phone call to Mirotic went unanswered. Not only is he ghosting, but Mirotic also reportedly requested that either he or Portis be traded when both returned to the court.
Was it awkward?
Was it! Team Dad Robin Lopez said that he “didn’t pick up on any awkwardness,” but Mirotic and Portis did not speak, and the former isn’t planning on changing that anytime soon. Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, says it’s necessary that the two be together — “it’s incumbent on [Mirotic] to be around when the team’s around” — at least until one can be traded.
… Why don’t they trade one of them?
The two-year, $25 million contract (with a team option in the second year) Mirotic signed with the Bulls in September has a no-trade clause for this season. Mirotic can’t be traded until January 15, which means, until then, the Bulls have to deal Portis or deal with this awkwardness until then.
The problem with dealing Portis is that Chicago seems to genuinely like him. The 22-year-old was allowed to practice with the team during his suspension, a rarity especially considering the gravity of his actions (i.e., literally knocking out one of the guys you, a franchise, are paying to be on the team).
The locker room, strangely enough, is behind Portis as well: According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Mirotic, once a key rotation player of the last good Bulls team in 2014–15, reportedly came into training camp with “a feeling of entitlement.” Now, after refusing to respond to Portis’s attempts at reconciliation, players say “it’s obvious” that Mirotic “has to go,” the Sun-Times reports.
Plus, Portis is cheaper, younger, and better fits the look that Chicago, which is very much in rebuilding mode, is going for. On October 27, after Mirotic laid down the “me or him” ultimatum, the Bulls picked up Portis’s fourth-year team option. That is the smart business move, as extending a cheap deal for any player with promise is, but makes Mirotic’s demands seem like a punch line.
An earlier version of this story misdescribed Portis’s interactions with Mirotic. He did not charge at Mirotic twice. It also misstated when Mirotic is able to be traded. He cannot be traded until January 15.