Sunday 25 February 2018 / 03:07 AM


Portis vs Mirotic heats up and the Bulls have to confront a tough question: What to do when two rotation-level players start beefing?

While the rest of the NBA worries about who LeBron is sub-tweeting, the situation in Chicago is coming to an apex. The preseason scuffle that resulted in Nikola Mirotic missing time with a broken jaw — by way of punch from teammate Bobby Portis — has again come to the forefront as the Spaniard eyes a return to the court. After tiptoeing around the situation and attempting to put out the fire, Bulls management now has to make a difficult decision.

Chicago have allowed Mirotic’s request to keep to himself during his rehab period, but have reportedly grown tired of his requests to be isolated and away from Portis. It’s tough to judge: on one hand, hard feelings are completely understandable, but this was a scuffle not a king-hit and there were two people involved; the consequence of their actions needs to be met with remorse, not resentment. It’s worth reminding that these guys are professionals and placing demands based on your own wrongdoing is a gross misunderstanding of the situation.

Assigning blame is easier when one guy walks away with a serious injury, but don’t let that convolute your idea of how it unfolded. This was a two-way feud that boiled over; Portis’ actions are inexcusable, but both men share the blame.

Not helping his case, Portis’ recent comments totally missed the mark. Labelling yourself a “high-character guy” in response to a situation that left your teammate hospitalised is disingenuous to say the least. That follows his last public interview in which he apologised and threw shade at Mirtoic within two sentences, pivoting from how “deeply sorry” he was to detailing how he’s reached out and is yet to receive a response. The only statement for Mirotic or his camp has been the demand that one of the two be traded, and he doesn’t mind if it’s him.

Punching in practice isn’t new: Michael Jordan once punched Steve Kerr — current Warriors head coach and all round great guy — and remained teammates on a successful team. There does seem to be some harder feelings involved here. As an isolated incident maybe it’s reconcilable, but it’s becoming more apparent that these was the materialisation of a genuine dislike. It’s clear one of them has to go, and to be completely frank, it might only be partly due to the tension between them.

So, what should the Bulls do?

Most importantly, all analysis comes through the lens of Mirotic’s contract. Due to signing this off-season, he can’t be traded until mid-January, which makes this decision far more complicated. Evaluating a player’s value is tough from a position of weakness, and watching this saga play out in public will have significantly weakened the Bulls’ leverage. Even then, without that context neither guy is going to fetch a big return.

Portis has yet to convert energy and intensity into production. He has tools, but the final product being an elite player is almost out of the question. His potential, and value, has decreased the more we’ve seen of him, and he’s quickly approaching the age where results are to be expected and upside stops being an excuse. Once viewed as a possible defensive stopper, Portis has plateaued on that end, and trending towards an offensively inclined player.

Mirotic is even more offensively inclined, but his value as a stretch four has reduced with his three-point accuracy, and his impatience as a spot-up shooter often finds him carelessly jacking shots rather than making the right play. He has better court-awareness than Portis (who plays with blinders on), but is a complete minus on defence.

Suffice to say, neither are going to be foundational pieces for the Bulls to move forward with. For a rebuilding team potential is worth banking on, but we have enough data to carve out a pretty close idea as to what both guys are going to end up as. Their value steadily decreases further when considering the moves Chicago has made in the early stages of the rebuild. It also declines the longer they sit on the Bulls bench, and if the Suns-Bledsoe situation taught us anything, it’s to get ahead of the situation before it costs you. Lauri Markkanen is the Bulls’ most prized asset right now, and the early stages of their roster reconstruction should attempt to surround him with the right pieces and maximise his development whilst results aren’t a concern. Any move should fill this criteria first.

Also power forwards, Portis and Mirotic serve only to steal minutes from Markkanen, both in the immediate future and long-term. Lauri operates in the same space as Mirotic (and already does it better) and Portis doesn’t fill the needs of the ideal sidekick. As a stretch power forward Markkanen needs a defensive presence to provide security for him: Mirotic isn’t a defensive guy and Portis, whilst the better option, doesn’t have the skillset to protect the rim. They can’t play with him, or each other on a second unit.

Then there are the cultural worries. The ideal environment for growing players is one where they are learning from their more experienced teammates — watching two existing teammates punch on before the season has tipped off is about the worst-case scenario. An interesting and highly-relevant recent report from a Bulls beat writer suggests two players have come forward and made it clear the playing group “prefers Portis over Niko”. That further confirms both the notion the Mirotic dragging his feet has upset the organisation, and that there’s more to this story than what meets the eye.

One suggestion was to simply waive them both. Whist it would be a throwaway of two rotation players, the message it would send about the culture of the team and the lack of tolerance for this kind of absurd behaviour is arguably more value than either are going to add over the season. An immediate reaction of cutting ties with both men could be considered an overreaction, but better safe than sorry when setting examples for impressionable young guys. A take-no-bullshit, team-first approach would be an assertive move, and the trade-off isn’t a huge loss of talent. Unfortunately, the Chicago front office won’t be considering that option.

Unsurprisingly, the notoriously cheap Bulls management are going to try force a reconciliation. This has nothing to do with the players themselves, but the management of assets. The hope is that they can rehabilitate the value of one of them and flip him for like-parts, as to not lose out from this circumstance. Garpax have been slammed for their lack of foresight in the past few seasons, and this is another example of their business-first approach that puts everyone off-side. The disappointing element is how out of touch their front-office is with the group, and that they’ve allowed it to get to this stage. Inaction would be another misguided choice.

The Bulls have a tough decision to make: Mirotic is the better player now; Portis is a better fit with higher upside. Mirotic is happy to be moved but can’t be traded until January, Portis might fetch a higher return – but the playing group wants him to stay. Neither make for an ideal fit for their future core, and management refuses to part ways with assets no matter how it affects the team.

If last off-season’s teardown was supposed to revitalise the franchise, this feels like an awfully familiar situation.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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