Paxson speaks on Mirotic returning to practice

Have you ever had a job where you liked all your coworkers, socialized with them constantly, hoped he or she would succeed fabulously? Actually, have you ever had a job where you felt that way about more than two people? Yes, Niko, welcome to the real world.

The rest of the world is congested with folks trying to get ahead of the next guy or gal, annoyed by their peccadillos and habits, anxious for the end of the day. Just to get away from them! And, yes, so is the sports world.

Now, it’s not common for one of those coworkers to assault you, and it’s certainly understandable not to be in much of a forgiving mood. Perhaps forever. But at some point you have to come back to work.

Just like Bryce Harper did after he was choked by Jonathan Papelbon in the dugout, and O.J. Mayo after he was punched out by Tony Allen, and Ruben Patterson after he was beaten up by Zach Randolph, and basically everyone who ever played with Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriquez. Because, really, who could stand to be around those guys?

“I look at it this way,” Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson told reporters Monday. “We want him (Nikola Mirotic) to start coming around more. And it is on him to do that. He’s still under contract. They (along with Bobby Portis) are adults. This is our workplace. They’re both part of the team. I think it’s pretty simple.”

Obviously none of this is very simple since Portis’ punch in preseason broke bones in Mirotic’s face. Mirotic remains out and just began workouts at the team’s Advocate Center. But Mirotic and Portis have not spoken despite Portis’ entreaties. Mirotic also has not worked out with teammates, who have all said they welcome both back.

Portis has played three games since the conclusion of his eight-game suspension for the assault. Since then, all Bulls losses, Portis has been the best player on the team, averaging 19.3 points and 10 rebounds with 50 percent three-point shooting in just 26 minutes per game off the bench. He has been one of the few Bulls players demonstrating consistent energy and enthusiasm as the Bulls, 2-8, prepare to play in Oklahoma City Wednesday.

“I’m just here to play basketball…I’m trying to bring energy to practice to make us a better team.”

– Bobby Portis

There have been numerous anonymous media reports that Mirotic has given the Bulls a “him or me” ultimatum regarding Portis. No one has been quoted to that effect. Paxson has declined comment on private discussions. There have been reports Mirotic asked to be traded. But because of his late signing date, he cannot be traded at least until mid-January.

Bobby Portis drives to the hoop against Indiana Pacers

The Bulls suspended Portis eight games after the incident. NBA commissioner Adam Silver last week in Chicago for the All-Star announcement said he supported how the Bulls have handled the episode. Opened ended suspensions, like the length of Mirotic being out, are generally not permitted under NBA players’ association standards.

Mirotic seems a long way from returning. The fight was a month ago with an initial estimate of a four-to-six weeks period out. It apparently will be longer. Paxson has delivered regular updates to media, though it seems clear given the relatively unusual nature of the situation—though hardly rare—it has left the team in a sort of limbo.

“Niko is in the building and has started to come around a little more,” Paxson acknowledged. “We’re still in the process of trying to work through everything. We’re trying to find a way to integrate Niko back in. But that’s going to take some time. He’s not ready to do any basketball activities yet other than he’s done some light shooting and that type of thing. He’s working on his conditioning. So this is a process we’re still trying to work through. We’ve had discussions with him (Mirortic) and his representatives.

“The reality is that you just can’t move a guy for the sake of moving him,” said Paxson. “We’re going to have to do what’s in our best interests first and foremost. That’s how we’re going about it day-to-day. Both Niko and Bobby are on our roster right now. Niko’s getting cleared to do more and more. This obviously is coming to a position where it’s going to have to be resolved between the two.”

Mirotic’s apparent anger certainly is understandable. He suffered painful injuries from the punch, no matter the provocation. Portis was wrong. But Portis received one of the most severe team suspensions in NBA history.

Randolph got a two-game suspension when he punched out Patterson in Portland practice. Allen wasn’t suspended for beating up Mayo, but he was suspended one game for punching teammate Nick Calathes in practice. Washington Redskins player Michael Westbrook once was caught on TV repeatedly punching in the face prone teammate Steven Davis in practice. Westbrook was only fined.

Nikola Mirotic high fives his teammate Robin Lopez

Of course, Mirotic suffered serious injuries. The Bulls obviously are giving him as much time as he needs and at his own speed and desires about his return. Still, no one can expect the Bulls to trade a player just because another player doesn’t like him.

This isn’t quite as apparent in the workplace, but in the well publicized sports world this is more routine than fans understand. It’s sports and fun, but it’s also just their office. Jealousies, rivalries and resentments know no barriers.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, of course, rarely ever spoke, one season carping at one another only through personal reporters. They won three titles together. There was Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak, who never spoke and whom Garnett various times had to be restrained from attacking. There was Peyton Manning (he didn’t like everyone, as it turned out) and Mike Vanderjagt, whom Manning called his “idiot kicker” who was “liquored up.”  Peyton, say it ain’t so. Not you! They played four more years together. One of my favorites was Mavericks teammates Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson feuding over which one would date singer Toni Braxton and not speaking as backcourt mates. At least Mirotic and Portis playing the same position wouldn’t be in the same rotation.

My personal favorite remains the most famous Chicago Cubs teammate feud among many—Zambrano and Barrett, Montero and Arrieta, Zimmer and various head cases—Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers of the double play combination with first basemen Frank Chance. They got into a fight during a game that was so intense fans came out of the stands to help stop it. They would not speak to each other as teammates for the next eight years on the way to both being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

“I’m just here to play basketball,” Portis told reporters Monday when asked about Mirotic. “Push my teammates to get better each and every day. We’ve had some slippage with our energy. I’m trying to bring energy to practice to make us a better team.

“Always good to have him (Mirotic) in the same building,” said Portis. “Got to try to get things back to normal. I’m really not worried about the situation anymore. Just trying to have a good season for this basketball team. Trying to do everything I can for this basketball team. I’d react normal (if approached by Portis). I’m a normal guy. I’m a guy that’s a high character guy, low maintenance guy. I’d welcome him in with open arms. It’s not awkward for me. I’m just out here trying to play ball. I got my dream situation. I’m playing good ball. I want to continue doing that.”

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