CHICAGO — From day one of the Chicago Bulls' rebuild, management has pushed a new and improved culture as a central selling point.
Really, it's all they can sell.
Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are out of the picture, and questions surround many of their young players. There isn't enough talent on the roster to expect anything more than 30 wins. Even hope isn't marketable yet.
So that leaves culture. Coaches, players and management have repeated the talking points ad nauseum since the start of training camp—they may not win a lot, but everyone plays hard and everyone is unselfish. Or so it goes.
But just two days before Chicago opens its season Thursday in Toronto, that new Bulls culture is being tested in a way that nobody wanted or anticipated. The first of potentially many rebuilding seasons was derailed Tuesday by an incident during practice between power forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic.
By all accounts, what started as a normal, high-intensity practice escalated into words and shoving between the two big men. Portis threw a punch at Mirotic, and it landed. Mirotic is in the hospital, out at least four to six weeks with a concussion and maxillary fractures, while Portis has been suspended for the Bulls' first eight games.
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In short, it isn't an ideal start to the new era of Bulls basketball, which the organization hoped would be different from previous years. That Rajon Rondo Instagram post from January, and everything else that came with the "Three Alphas," seems small by comparison.
Everything was setting up nicely for the Bulls to fly under the radar, out of the national spotlight, losing enough games to land Michael Porter or Luka Doncic in next year's draft lottery. In the preseason, free of ball-dominant stars like Butler and Wade, the new-look Bulls were finally able to run the free-flowing pace-and-space offense that was Fred Hoiberg's calling card at Iowa State. After a famously contentious relationship with Butler and a series of roster moves in his first two seasons that were ill-fitting for his offense, Hoiberg was getting the chance to put his stamp on the team that signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract in 2015.
Now, Hoiberg and the rest of the organization are facing questions as to whether this situation should have been diffused sooner. How does it get to the point where the Bulls would be without two of their three power forwards for the foreseeable future?
"Should we have stepped in and stopped practice?" Hoiberg said Wednesday. "Looking back on it, sure, hindsight's 20-20."
The blame for this week's incident is difficult to parse neatly. It wasn't the beginning of the Bulls' organizational problems, and it certainly won't be the end.
Portis has been frustrated for a long time by his inconsistent role in the rotation, and he's largely well-liked and respected by his teammates for his tireless work ethic. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson characterized Portis on Wednesday as a good kid who made a mistake and now faces the consequences. He deserves his eight-game suspension, and probably more—there's no excusing a punch.
Mirotic, too, has had an up-and-down three seasons in Chicago. He's been benched for lengthy periods, played inconsistently, battled confidence issues and endured a drawn-out contract negotiation this summer that wasn't resolved until the day before the start of training camp. Last week, Hoiberg named him the opening-night starter at power forward, and for the first time, that designation was based on merit. Players and coaches indicated Wednesday that he had a role in escalating the situation with Portis. Now, Mirotic will have to start from square one when he returns.
Past incidents like Butler's comments in 2015 that Hoiberg needed to coach the team harder and Rondo's Instagram post from last season have undermined Hoiberg's credibility, but it was supposed to be easier with this younger, unproven group. Practices get competitive and contentious all the time in the NBA, but those disputes typically don't put players in the hospital. Bulls center Robin Lopez said Wednesday that he had never before seen a player land a punch on a teammate in practice in his 10 seasons in the league. These situations usually get resolved before then.
Management isn't blameless here, either. The culture and continuity they constantly preach has been disrupted for as long as anyone can remember by questionable roster moves like bringing in Wade and Rondo last season; their ugly breakups in years past with Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau; and a conservative, risk-averse approach to team-building that's left them on the outside looking in at anything resembling relevance in the NBA, even in a market as big as Chicago.
"I think for us, it's obviously a lesson learned," Paxson said. "All of our players saw it, they were around it, and it's a lesson learned. It's really unfortunate that it happened, and honestly, we're disappointed. It hurts both players, but it hurts our team. And I think at the end of the day when both Bobby and Niko digest it and look at it, they'll both understand the position they put their teammates in."
In the short term, the Bulls will move past this incident, which won't dramatically impact the results of a season in which they were expected to finish at or near the bottom of the standings. But their hopes of moving past their organizational perception have taken a hit that could take time to rebound from.
Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for outlets including Bleacher Report, The Athletic, NBC Sports and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter: @highkin.