Bulls disappointed but look to unite as a team following practice altercation

How’s that go: Sometimes good people do bad things?

That might summarize the “Oh No!” start to the Bulls 2017-18 season Tuesday when Bobby Portis during practice punched teammate and fellow power forward Nikola Mirotic during a particularly contentious scrimmage. The result other than the team-imposed eight-game suspension for Portis was a concussion and facial fractures that will keep Mirotic out at least four to six weeks, said Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself, but only one player threw a punch,” a somber Paxson emphasized meeting with media Wednesday afternoon in the Advocate Center. “And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable. It’s not who we are. It disappoints us. And because of that, we’ve determined that we’re going to suspend Bobby. Bobby Portis is not a bad person. He’s a good kid. He’s a competitive kid. But in this instance, he made a mistake. And as we all know when you make mistakes, you have to suffer the consequences. There are altercations a lot of times. But the result of Niko’s injuries are why we have taken the position we have.”

It’s a very tough start to what was supposed to be a hopeful beginning of a new era for the Bulls. It still can be as the Bulls open the season Thursday in Toronto. As a result of the altercation, rookie Lauri Markkanen will start at power forward with Robin Lopez at center, Paul Zipser at small forward and Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant in the backcourt. Veteran Quincy Pondexter, who didn’t play in the preseason, now will move up in the rotation with the two big men out. Kris Dunn could return from injury next week. Zach LaVine remains out after February ACL surgery.

Yes, so what the heck happened?

“There was a little bit of pushing going on,” said coach Fred Hoiberg, who visited Mirotic in the hospital (he was soon released) after the incident. “But we thought everything would be fine. We never thought it would escalate to the level of what happened. I was shocked with the result, absolutely. Now my job is to not let this moment derail us, to get these guys prepared to go out and fight (metaphorically) and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. We’re going to (be) short handed for the first part of this season. I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

The surprise, in some sense, was that it was a punch from Portis, not exactly a gentle soul, but popular among teammates, likeable and outgoing. I’ve often seen him in the team hotel with groups of six and seven teammates, not the sort of gatherings you’ve seen with the Bulls the past four or five years. Portis seemed to be among the leaders, at least socially, if not in the playing rotation. Which perhaps may explain some of it.

Portis probably was the hardest and most committed worker among all the young players this summer, relentlessly at the team’s practice facility and taking all the extra workouts. But in preseason he struggled defensively and led the team in turnovers despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. Plus, he didn’t shoot well and seemed to be falling out of the playing rotation with the emergence of rookie Markkanen at the same position.

And there was the natural nature of competition, which Paxson said he experienced in his playing career.

“These types of things do happen,” Paxson acknowledged. “I’ve been a part of them. It can happen (because of position). I used to get in these little scuffles with B.J. (Armstrong) when I played. But you can’t cross the line. And Bobby crossed the line. The result of the contact and what it’s done to Niko is really the thing that has a lot of us sitting here feeling really disappointed in this today.”

Portis and Mirotic never have been close, which is hardly unusual between players who have been rivals for the same position. They’re obviously from different worlds culturally, Bobby from the deep American south and Mirotic from Eastern Europe and professional ball in Spain. Mirotic is a family man with a child and Bobby remains single.
Both were more ornamental the last two seasons with the roster roulette of veterans, though both accessible to media. Niko tends to be a bit more acerbic, but often contradictory the way he can go from defensive and needy to demanding. Bobby tends to be more welcoming. He’s one of the few players who seems to know all the names of the regular media members and offers a named hello when you pass him, which is somewhat unusual, though more so because players always are being greeted and have to keep their head down to be on time.

It’s been no secret around the Bulls that Mirotic and Portis were aggressive toward one another in practices and scrimmages, though hardly to this level. Still, they are supposed to be, and coach Fred Hoiberg emphasized coming into training camp he was seeking battles and competition to start at every position but center. Practices with such a young group and so many opportunities have been intense. Which is rare as the Bulls veterans haven’t practiced like this in almost a decade.

“It’s gonna be not only on those two players to mend that confidence, to mend that trust between the two of them, but on the teammates, upon us. Part of that good mojo we have right now is gonna be huge in unifying the two.”

Robin Lopez

Apparently, in this instance, the two were pushing and bumping frequently going back and forth in the scrimmage. So forceful at times, Paxson said, that assistant Randy Brown stepped in one time and things cooled.

“They settled down,” Paxson said. “Both players were aggressive leading up to the incident.”

But to suggest that this was avoidable is like second guessing every tragedy and saying you should have known that gunman would do that or that driver would do this or that piece of window would come flying down when.

“When you’re in a practice situation and you’re competitive and going up against a guy every day, there are times you get into things,” said Paxson. “But it never reached a level that even came close to this. Michael Jordan was the biggest talker in practice of all and chirping at guys and playing that role. There has been a lot of that over the years, but nothing remotely close to this.”

Mention of Jordan suggests precedence. Jordan punching teammates Will Perdue and Steve Kerr (not the same time) are famous. Of course, given it was Jordan both players were blamed for getting Jordan that mad. It always brings to mind infamous teammate brawls. There seemed to be one every week with the 90s Portland Trailblazers, once with teammates fighting in the pregame layup line. Rod Strickland once had a hotel room doozy with teammate Tracy Murray. Big men Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas went at it in Washington. There was Kevin Garnett going after Wally Szczerbiak, Jerry Stackhouse taking out Christian Laettner on the team plane, Isiah Thomas assaulting Bill Laimbeer, a target of many opponents as well, and Charles Oakley with any number of teammates and opponents. Of course, back in the 1960s and 1970s, fighting was routine in the NBA to the point there wasn’t even suspension when Red Auerbach beat up a team owner and Willis Reed once punched out an entire Lakers’ lineup.

The shock of this incident was the serious injuries Mirotic suffered, bringing to mind the heinous Kermit Washington punch against Rudy Tomjanovich. But that was an opponent running full speed into a punch.

Lopez, himself, was involved in the only so called fight in the NBA last season, suspended a game for his engagement with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka. Lopez was typically understated about seeing the punch.

“Land a punch, yeah,” he said about not often seeing that.

This was no so called sucker punch, and though certainly improper, somewhat provoked, according to teammates given the way Mirotic was being relentlessly physical with Portis up and down the floor.

“There was a point a couple of plays prior where Niko and Bobby got in each other’s face and coach Brown did step in at that point,” Lopez confirmed. “But it wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before, so I don’t think we could’ve seen that outcome happening. We (teammates) talked with Bobby. Obviously, he’s regretful about what he did (he’ll rejoin the team Friday and can practice but not play until Nov. 7). We talked about it as a team afterwards. Everything was still so fresh. We as a team feel there’s blame on both sides. When it comes down to it the punch was inexcusable. With the outcome it’s a little different. It can’t happen between teammates. Two big guys (he and Cristiano Felicio), we’ve lowered our shoulders at times. But you can’t cross that line.”

Which is what everyone kept coming back to, the punch, but also the accompanying damage. It was just one punch, quick and powerful, obviously, from a man almost seven feet tall and a rock solid 250 pounds. So quick if you turned your head to answer someone you missed it. Mirotic, obviously surprised despite his own engagement, was down immediately and players swarming to the site.

But these guys have been at it for two years with nothing similar, and no one would confuse Mirotic with being an overtly physical player. He’s too often been criticized for being too passive and finesse oriented in games and lacking the physical force on defense.

How do you measure provocation and response? How do you divide understandable reaction with natural competition?

Now here is a player in Mirotic on a one-year guarantee out a month or more and then having to wear a mask upon his return. Plus, the team loses its starting power forward for that stretch. Of course, some may say the Bulls season is only about trying for a high draft pick. Thus having a poor record. So what’s the problem?

But it’s also, especially for Hoiberg, about trying to build a winning mentality and for the organization about trying to create a positive environment, the “culture” where successful basketball can flourish.

“It’s certainly a little deflating, but everything you guys have heard, people expressing how great this culture has been so far, this summer and into the fall, the majority of that is legitimately true,” insisted Lopez, who with Holiday and Pondexter is taking the leadership role to unite the team. “It’s gonna be not only on those two players to mend that confidence, to mend that trust between the two of them, but on the teammates, upon us. Part of that good mojo we have right now is gonna be huge in unifying the two.”

Which is the ancillary question, about what this will do to team chemistry, whether Portis and Mirotic can coexist, whether players will take sides and divide what has been a united group thus far.

“That’s our job now,” said Hoiberg. “We need to come out and find a way to regroup and get together. And again, I’m confident in our guys in the locker room, that they will do a great job. Starting with Robin Lopez, a guy that has been unbelievable for us, Justin Holiday, Quincy Pondexter, guys that have been around the league and probably been a part of different situations. Maybe not to the severity of what happened, but we’ve all seen it, we’ve all been a part of it. Now the important thing is growing, learning, coming out of it together. I’m confident our guys in the locker room will make that happen. Bobby’s a passionate kid. It’s one of the reasons he’s an excellent player and competitor. Starting on Friday when he’s back in here, it’s important to have your group support not only Niko, but Bobby as well throughout this process. He’ll be back in the building Friday, and we’ll start the process of healing.”

After which there will be just 81 more games.

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