Vincent Goodwill

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.

Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.

Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”

But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.

Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.

Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.

All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.

Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.

Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.

“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.

And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.

“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”

Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.

Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.

His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.

Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.

But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.

They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.

Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.

Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.

He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.

“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.

“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.

Bobby Portis punches Nikola Mirotic, breaking bones in Mirotic's face

Bobby Portis punches Nikola Mirotic, breaking bones in Mirotic's face

Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic were involved in an altercation that resulted in Mirotic suffering two broken bones in his face after Portis punched him, according to sources.

Mirotic, who’s out indefinitely, was evaluated for a concussion and taken to a hospital, where he was released but was apparently a bit out of it, according to a source. The altercation began with pushing and shoving between the two before Mirotic lunged forward at Portis and Portis hit Mirotic, sending him to the floor.

“I’ve seen worse,” a witness said.

Mirotic was taken to the training room and Portis went to the other side of the floor.

Apparently the two have had testy moments since Portis entered the league in 2015. The two play the same position and have battled for minutes, with Portis often getting the short end in the rotation.

Where this leaves Portis with the Bulls for the immediate future as far as a suspension is unknown.

But what was supposed to be a so-called nondescript season has suddenly put the spotlight on the players and the coaching staff, who’ll have to navigate the relationship between the two teammates.

20 crazy (or are they...?) predictions for the NBA season

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USA TODAY

20 crazy (or are they...?) predictions for the NBA season

1. The Golden State Warriors will be better than ever this season and will repeat as NBA champions...but will have big time bumps on the road in the Western Conference.

2. Kevin Durant will be better and win his second Most Valuable Player award, even though Steph Curry is still the arbiter for Golden State’s culture.

3. LeBron James will add to his resume as being one of the top five players ever, if not higher, but won’t catch Michael Jordan for total MVPs (five)...

4. ...and Cleveland had better enjoy him this year, because come July, he’s headed out of Ohio.

5. Speaking of headed out of town, a coach will be fired after a year of leaguewide stability, for an underachieving team in the underachieving Eastern Conference...

6. ...In other words, Fred Hoiberg is safe!

7. The Eastern Conference tank-a-thon will be both ugly and necessary for a couple teams in desperate need of lottery luck, including the Bulls.

8. One of the tank-a-thon teams won’t have the stomach for the losing and will make a panic move, especially when incoming college stars Michael Porter Jr or Marvin Bagley show the slightest signs of struggling.

9. Lonzo Ball will look like a point guard in the mold of Jason Kidd, a guy everyone will flock to play with...and not even LaVar Ball can screw that up.

10. But he’ll try because he won’t shut up...and we’ll never stop listening.

10. Dennis Smith Jr. will be the best incoming rookie, but Ben Simmons will win Rookie of the Year in Philadelphia.

11. Kyrie Irving will formally enter the conversation as one of the league’s best point guards, in part because Brad Stevens will help him become a better facilitator...

12. Irving is (bear with me Chicago’s own Isiah Thomas) the greatest scorer in terms of skill set from the point guard spot in the history of the league

13. For different reasons, Russell Westbrook and James Harden will struggle with their new “helpful” teammates…But will be hell on earth in a seven-game series.

14. Remember this name: Caris Levert from the Brooklyn Nets.

15. Giannis Antetokounmpo was on my top-five MVP ballot last season…he’ll be higher this time around.

16. Jabari Parker will be traded from the Bucks this year, perhaps before he returns from injury…

17. Big names will be on the trading block from the center spot: DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond.

18. Drummond, though, will have a bounceback year in Detroit and improve from the free-throw line.

19. This year will prove the Bulls didn’t get enough in trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves (or TimberBulls/TimberTibs)...

20. But Zach LaVine will show he’s more than deserving of a max contract when he returns from injury.