There are still plenty of questions about the future of the Bulls’ power forward spot in the aftermath of the Oct. 17 altercation that sent Nikola Mirotic to the hospital.
For now, there’s only one answer. Bobby Portis will return to the court Tuesday at Toronto after serving an eight-game suspension imposed by the team.
Bulls game day
Bulls vs. Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Radio: WLS 890-AM
Outlook: The Bulls played in Toronto on opening night and lost 117-100 as Raptors C Jonas Valanciunas (23 points, 15 rebounds) had a big night. Since then, the Raptors (5-4) finished 3-3 on a long West Coast trip, then returned home Sunday and lost to Washington, which was playing without John Wall. Toronto PG Kyle Lowry was ejected early in the Wizards game for arguing a call. Lowry is off to a slow start, averaging 11.9 points while shooting 37.6 percent from the field. SG DeMar DeRozan leads the Raptors with 23.9 ppg, followed by PF Serge Ibaka at 12.9 ppg. Valanciunas is back in the lineup after missing four games with an ankle injury, but is averaging just 6.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in the last three. The Bulls have lost two in a row to Toronto after winning 11 straight.
Next: Indiana Pacers at the United Center, 7 p.m. Friday
— Mike McGraw
“We do plan on Bobby being the backup four,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Monday. “We’ll see how the flow of the game is going and see if we can slide him down to the five and allow he and Lauri (Markkanen) to play together for a stretch. A lot of that will be determined with what lineups they have on the floor.
“The guys, they love Bobby as a teammate. And again, I think everybody’s excited to have him back.”
Portis did not speak to reporters Monday, but could be seen warming up on the court before practice began. So it was up to center Robin Lopez to comment on the awkward situation the team faces, having Portis back while Mirotic recovers from facial fractures suffered in the altercation.
“Obviously that’s a difficult situation,” Lopez said. “We’ll roll with it, deal with it, try and welcome him back.”
There has not been any confirmed contact between Mirotic and Portis since the day of the punch and there are doubts about whether the two can coexist on the same team. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said the Bulls will work in the best interest of the team and that may obviously mean Portis will be moved before Mirotic is healthy enough to play again.
Many players have spoken to Mirotic since the altercation, and Lopez said he will reach out again.
“Our job as teammates is to make sure we try and mend that relationship as much as possible,” he said.
It’s not clear why the Bulls are hanging onto Portis. They already had a logjam at power forward with Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen. Mirotic and Portis battled for the starting job in training camp, which was surely a factor leading up to that fight in practice, but Markkanen is clearly the future at that position and already is the team’s top scorer.
Portis was the Bulls’ top draft pick in 2015, No. 22 overall, but hasn’t shown much in two seasons beyond the possibility of being a decent NBA role player. The Bulls chose to pick up Portis’ contract option for the 2018-19 season at $2.5 million. Mirotic signed a two-year $25-million deal this summer.
Portis would be the easier player to trade now since he has a much-lower salary, but the Bulls might consider keeping him around in case they move Mirotic. Since his second year is a team option, Mirotic’s contract could be desirable for a team looking to clear payroll at the trade deadline.
It’s not clear if the Bulls have offered Portis to Philadelphia for Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015 who has played in just one game this season. The Sixers declined to pick up Okafor’s option for 2018-19. Shooting guard Nik Stauskas is another former top-10 pick who barely plays for the 76ers.
Hoiberg said he hasn’t seen any difference in Portis’ playing style during the three weeks since the altercation. Portis has been practicing, but hasn’t attended any games.
“He’s been the same player as far his energy is concerned,” Hoiberg said. “Every time he steps on the floor and we need a jolt of energy, he can provide that for us. He needs to continue to do those little things that have made him successful. …
“And that’s to play with great energy, run the floor for us, rebound at a high level and follow the game plan defensively. I know his teammates are excited to have him back. I know the coaches are excited.”
Added Lopez, “He’s still been competitive (in practice), and that’s what you need to be as an NBA player.”
There are more awkward steps to come in this saga. Hoiberg acknowledged it’s a strange situation, but all he can do at the moment is play the athletes he has available. On Tuesday in Toronto, that will include Portis.
“Again, he served the punishment that everybody thought was fair,” Hoiberg said. “Now we go out there and focus on the task at hand, which is get our team ready.”
When Hoiberg said everybody thought the punishment was fair, he may have forgotten about Mirotic for a second.