The Bobby Portis story has evolved from the preseason, where he put the punch in punchline following his incident with Nikola Mirotic and many felt he shouldn’t have played another game in a Bulls uniform.
It’s a distant memory as he prepares for his first stint as a starter Monday against the Boston Celtics, where his play has done the talking and he’s used his emotion to help the Bulls develop an identity of competitiveness.
Those good graces may have the Bulls truly evaluating where Portis fits long-term, and it could work to the benefit of both sides as they could engage in contract extension talks this summer before Portis is scheduled to hit restricted free agency, if the two sides don't reach a deal this October.
A front office source tells NBCSportsChicago.com a deal for Portis “will be discussed” this summer, as Portis has had a breakout third season, averaging 13.2 points and 6.5 rebounds. In the 11 games since the Bulls traded Mirotic to New Orleans, Portis’ tangible production has matched his efficiency, as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 47 percent and 39 percent from 3-point range.
While Zach LaVine’s restricted free agency is more immediate and David Nwaba is a priority the Bulls will still have salary cap space beyond next season when Robin Lopez’ contract comes off the books, along with Omer Asik’s $3 million buyout of his $11.9 million deal.
Portis will make $2.49 million next season, so any contract extension won’t take hold until the 2019-20 season when the salary cap is expected to take another jump from $101 million this coming summer to $109 million.
Recent history says the Bulls let their restricted free agents go into the marketplace before getting a deal done—not to the point of getting offer sheets which would be a tricky proposition—but establishing value.
If the Bulls lock him up to a deal this summer, it could prevent Portis from becoming more costly down the line if he makes another jump in year four—with Jimmy Butler being the example, turning himself from a solid starter to an All-Star and max player in 2014-15.
It would go against Bulls precedent, as only Derrick Rose received a contract extension before going into restricted free agency, but Portis will be open to contract talks this summer, according to sources.
Portis’ improvement from his second year to third year has been noticeable, and if the Bulls didn’t know his leaguewide value his eight-game suspension after the altercation with Mirotic had to be an eye-opener.
Over 20 teams reached out to the Bulls with the thought to acquire him, sources told NBCSportsChicago.com in October when Mirotic issued his “Portis or me” ultimatum during his recovery from a concussion and facial injuries.
Portis’ play this season has done nothing to quell that desire, as his 3-point shooting has improved and he’s become a much better finisher at the rim, due to the work on his body.
“We've all seen the improvements of Bobby on the floor. but I think as important as anything he's really committed himself to the weight room with our strength coaches this summer,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “And he's really been dedicated to working on his body to make himself quicker, more athletic and stronger.”
Portis stayed in Chicago last summer in anticipation of a real opportunity after playing behind Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Mirotic his first two years. Now he stands his ground more times than not in the post on defense and has become an excellent communicator on the back line.
“For sure. It's kind of funny,” Portis said. “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. It's always fun.”
He knows there’s more improvements to come with his body, as he just turned 23 last month and stands at 230 pounds.
“Try to be quicker on my feet, on the bounce, on offensive rebounds,” Portis said. “Going up stronger and quicker. Sometimes guys try to block my shot a little bit there. Try to stay consistent as I've done this year. Stay in the weight room, try to get bigger and stronger because you can always improve your body.”
His overall game and awareness has improved, hence his ability to play with Mirotic through their issues while also developing chemistry with rookie Lauri Markkanen. It’s no surprise the Bulls are looking to evaluate how he plays in large portions of time, because the two could see considerable time on the floor together next season, as a starter or reserve.
With the Bulls expected to entertain offers for Lopez around the draft, combined with Cristiano Felicio regressing in the first year of his contract, it wouldn’t be surprising to see two sides establish a true dialogue this summer—especially with the draft presenting myriad options for the Bulls, as they could look for a frontcourt player or swingman.
Even still, keeping a productive player who fits alongside Markkanen and has improved yearly seems to be prudent.
“He's able to back down on guys down in a league that's really gone to a lot of switching. He can punish the switch on the block,” Hoiberg said. “And the important thing is, with a big guy guarding him, he has the ability to stretch the floor where he's shown the improvement over his young course of his career to do that. So, we're really happy with Bobby, and I think he's really solidified himself as a big part of our future."