The Bobby Portis punch was a result of more dysfunction in leadership
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Bobby Portis’ punishment was swift, and it was severe.
Less than 24 hours after punching teammate Nikola Mirotic, who was hospitalized and suffered two broken bones in his face and a concussion, the Bulls suspended Portis for eight games.
“One player threw a punch, and that punch connected,’’ vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said Wednesday. “For us, that is inexcusable. It’s not who we are.’’
Strong words. Some Bulls, however, considered them hollow.
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Several players — and even Paxson himself — acknowledged that the Portis-Mirotic conflict had been brewing for a few seasons. The forwards had a handful of shouting and shoving matches in practice going back to the 2015-16 season.
Those flames were stoked during the summer and training camp.
One player told the Sun-Times that Portis’ actions were viewed as unacceptable but understandable throughout the locker room, especially with the mixed messages coming from coaches and general manager Gar Forman.
Portis and young players such as Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio were told by Forman in their May exit meetings that the organization expected them to be working at the Advocate Center throughout the summer.
The message was hard work would be noticed and rewarded in this new culture.
Mirotic, however, was absent from those workouts in the offseason. He was lifting in the weight room but was basically a no-show when it came to playing basketball with teammates. Mirotic did have his reasons. He was a restricted free agent awaiting a contract from the Bulls or another organization.
But his distance rubbed teammates the wrong way, and one player said he came across as entitled.
Mirotic signed a two-year deal with the Bulls on media day, and within two weeks, he was all but named a starter over Portis.
Portis was upset that all the work he put in during the summer was apparently being overlooked, and he didn’t feel like there was proper communication in the decision to make him a bench player. It’s not the first time this lack of communication has been alleged under coach Fred Hoiberg.
Joakim Noah and Rajon Rondo also had issues with the way Hoiberg relays messages.
That problem, however, lifts the curtain on a bigger issue.
Hoiberg — right or wrong — is from the coaching school of delegation. Assistant head coach Jim Boylen handles a lot of the “bad cop’’ duties, and that’s why Rondo threw a towel in Boylen’s face last season and was suspended a game.
The problem is many players believe Boylen is simply an extension of Forman and played the role of “fake tough guy’’ — as one player deemed it — to impress Forman in case the Bulls make a coaching change.
A source said Boylen charged Portis on Tuesday after he punched Mirotic, and there were immediate concerns that Portis might throw a second punch, this time at Boylen.
All of this mistrust and lack of communication falls on Forman’s lap. This is the culture he has spread throughout the organization, using threats and spies to cloud the chain of command.
But a source said Forman’s web is starting to unravel. Doug Collins, who was hired this offseason as a special adviser, was visibly upset that the Portis-Mirotic situation had been allowed to fester as long as it has, and he’s starting to question the entire chain of leadership — starting with Forman.
Portis apologized to his teammates for his actions.
But as one teammate put it, the apology wasn’t even necessary.
Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.