Can Bobby Portis Ever Play For the Bulls Again?

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Bulls may want to consider cutting ties

First, a disclaimer: I have no concept of what it would take to punch somebody hard enough to fracture their jaw. I may have been angry enough once or twice in my life, but, thanks to self-restraint and a right hook that elicits more laughter than fear, the jaws of America have been safe in my presence. There are people who can’t punch their way out of a paper bag, then there are people whom the paper bag laughs at derisively. I belong to the latter group.

Still, you have to wonder what got into Bobby Portis. More importantly, you have to wonder how the Bulls figure an eight-game suspension is going to put this matter to bed. At some point, Portis will return to practice and will even share a locker room with Nikola Mirotic, the guy he punched. How will that work out?

As I said, I have no frame of reference. Portis has nearly a hundred pounds on me, so maybe when a guy that size throws a punch full of playful exuberance it can break a jaw. But if that was the case, there would be broken jaws all over professional sports. There are angry punches, the types that happen in hockey games every five minutes. Then there are punches of rage, the kind where you don’t care what kind of damage you do, the kinds that end with people in jail when they happen in the street. Which kind do you think broke Mirotic’s jaw?

So something else needs to happen. You can’t just bring Portis back for the ninth game of the season and say everything’s cool. If for no other reason than simple deterrence, Portis needs to feel a consequence that will make this linger in his mind and that of anyone else who finds themselves near the point of losing their cool.

Why would a team even put up with this? Let’s look at the relevant facts. First, the Bulls are tanking, so the upcoming season is much more about establishing a culture than winning games. What could be worse for a team’s culture than having two guys share a locker room after one of them put the other in the hospital? Second, if and when the Bulls ever get back to where they have a shot at contending, neither Mirotic nor Portis is likely to be involved. Neither has much upside and that contention date is way in the future. Whatever happens to either of them this season is of little consequence. Having said that, the Bulls just made a somewhat substantial investment in Mirotic — a two-year contract for $25 million — while Portis was unable to earn more than 16 minutes per game last season on a team that was crying for contributors.

Maybe if this was the Warriors it would be different. It’s hard to picture this happening with, say Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Even if it did, the Warriors have a culture that can probably overcome such a thing, while the Bulls are struggling mightily in that regard. How they handle this will define that culture in the public eye for the foreseeable future.

You can say that Portis just made a mistake and deserves a chance to redeem himself. Maybe he’s just a peachy guy who got provoked. That doesn’t happen, however, unless you’ve got some crucible of rage bubbling inside of you waiting to be provoked. Maybe Mirotic is a jerk and had it coming. Everyone has played with or worked with “that guy,” and the vast majority of them don’t end up with broken jaws. You can also say, as some in the Chicago media have, that the entire environment around the Bulls is toxic and this is just another manifestation of that fact.

What all of this says about Fred Hoiberg is another story, but one of two things needs to happen for the Bulls to move on from this. One, the rage that allowed Portis to be provoked in this manner needs to be dealt with. Some public show of contrition beyond the canned apology. Then everyone involved needs to talk out whatever is going on in that locker room that makes people want to punch each other, probably with some professional counseling present. There’s no way the Bulls can begin the process of building a championship team until they fix that.

Or, they could just cut Portis. Send a message that this kind of stuff won’t happen on this team. That they are looking for players who are about the team and will put petty grievances aside for the greater good. Portis has some value as a player, but he’s basically a fungible asset. He’s the kind of player who will always be available in free agency for $5 million a year or last in the first round of the draft. There’s very little chance of the Bulls cutting Portis and watching him come back to haunt them as a core player on a contending team. Just as there’s very little chance of him sticking around long enough to be a core player on a contending team in Chicago or becoming valuable enough to be used in a trade for a core player.

When you compare the risk of what could be lost in cutting him to what keeping him around does to the culture of the team, it looks like addition by subtraction might be the best option.

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