Before the season began Bobby Portis made headlines for all the wrong reasons. His seven-game suspension for punching Nikola Mirotic in the face during a preseason practice stuck with him well into the regular season. Lauri Markkanen's emergence then captured headlines, and Mirotic's return in December coincided with a seven-game winning streak. Portis became somewhat of the forgotten man as far as the crowded power forward position was concerned.
Mirotic continued his hot shooting and eventually improved his stock enough for the Bulls to deal him to the Boogie-less Pelicans for a first-round pick. Markkanen struggled in November and December, turned in a red-hot January (.478/.432/.906 shooting splits) before turning in an ugly February that coincided with the birth of his first child. The Bulls made a minor move at the trade deadline, taking on impending free agent Noah Vonleh to add to the power forward mix.
Through the merry-go-round there's been one constant, and that's Portis. He's missed just one game since returning from that suspension, he leads the team in net rating and is doing all this in a limited role behind Markkanen. That role has expanded some since Mirotic was dealt on Feb. 1, and his numbers are improving right along with it. And he just might be giving the Bulls something to consider as they determine which role players will be part of the team's rebuilding future.
Portis is averaging 13.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.0 3-pointers per game this year, one of 20 players to reach those thresholds. But consider that Portis has reached those per-game averages in just 21.3 minutes per game; that's by far the fewest minutes of any player on that list by nearly six minutes (Nikola Mirotic's 27.1 minutes).
So it isn't surprising that Portis' per-36 minutes numbers are gaudy. His averages of 22.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.7 3-pointers per 36 minutes put him in a category with three others: Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love. That's not to say Portis is on the level of those All-Stars, or that a player like Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns isn't more valuable. Portis' per-36 numbers naturally would decrease with extended playing time, and there's a reason he isn't logging 30+ minutes per night. But he's a busy man when he's on the floor.
And while the Bulls made the sensible play in dealing Nikola Mirotic to obtain an additional first-round pick, the opportunity to get an extended look at Portis had to have played a role. And Portis has flourished in that extended role: In 10 games since Mirotic left, Portis is averaging 16.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 3-pointers in 24.8 minutes. In per-36 numbers, that's 24.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.3 3-pointers. No one in the league has done that this season, with Kevin Durant (27.1 points per 36, 2.7 3-pointers per 36) coming closest. Small sample size on Portis to be sure, but impressive nonetheless.
But standalone numbers won't justify his worth (looking at you, Pau Gasol on the Bulls). The bigger question, as always, is how he fits in with the future core. More specifically, the Bulls want to know if Portis can pair with Markkanen like he did with Mirotic, when that two-man lineup had a +14.9 net rating, the best on the team. Well, since Mirotic was traded the Portis/Markkanen lineup has a net rating of +2.6 in 72 minutes. It's a small sample size, but consider that before the Mirotic trade the Portis/Markkanen lineup was -10.9 in 129 minutes. It's clear the two are learning to play off each other, most recently with Markkanen in the post and Portis at the top of the key.
So then the (multi-)million dollar question becomes: What to do with Portis? He's still just 23 years old, younger than Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser and David Nwaba. He's a stretch forward who has improved his 3-point shooting each year, a stout defender and, cliches aside, the heart and soul of a Bulls team lacking a lot of fire. Portis' fifth-year option was picked up days after the Mirotic practice incident, so he'll play next season at $3.6 million before hitting restricted free agency.
Last offseason Mirotic received a two-year, $27 million deal, while 27-year-old Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green received two years and $17 million in restricted free agency. While it all depends on what Portis does the next 1.25 years, he could command significantly more than that from the Bulls in the summer of 2019 (there are far too many factors to consider what he might command in 16 months).
The Bulls have three first-round picks the next two years, and stretch forwards like Portis are entering the league at a high rate. Portis is a steady player, as the numbers above show, but the Bulls won't pass on a potential superstar (Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson) because of him. But at the very least Portis is giving the Bulls something to think about as they go through this evaluation process over the course of the last 20 games. He's been the most consistent player on a team lacking that in the worst way, and he's becoming a perfect fit for a Bulls team wanting to push pace, shoot 3s and play with an edge. So while Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen make headlines, don't forget about those Crazy Eyes.