Two days before their season opener, the Chicago Bulls are even more of a disaster than we thought.
As The Vertical's Shams Charania first reported, power forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic engaged in an altercation during Tuesday's practice that led to Portis punching Mirotic. The team later announced Mirotic "suffered a concussion and maxillary fractures," which will sideline him indefinitely.
By all accounts, Portis is a good-natured, hard-working young player. But he and Mirotic have been battling for minutes at power forward for the past few seasons, as Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago noted, and the brewing tension erupted in an ugly fashion Tuesday.
On the surface, the two bigs are fairly comparable. But when looking at all-in-one advanced stats such as ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO rating and Basketball-Reference's Box Plus-Minus, the clear edge belongs to Mirotic. The 26-year-old is also a better defender than his sharpshooting reputation indicates, whereas the 22-year-old Portis remains a work in progress on that end and has a tendency to hijack the offense with errant jump shots from low-efficiency spots on the floor.
For as long as Mirotic is sidelined, the Bulls will sorely miss his presence. ESPN's Nick Friedell suggested the "common estimate is at least 4-6 weeks" for Mirotic's timetable to return, while Portis will likely be suspended or perhaps cut. As ESPN.com's Bobby Marks noted, a team can terminate a player's contract if a "physical attack is committed to any official or employee of the team."
But this is about more than potentially losing two players for the beginning of the season. It's emblematic of the problems this Bulls team has entering what was already expected to be a disastrous year.
The Bulls have embraced open competition this offseason, but that seems to have backfired. Portis and Mirotic were battling for the starting power forward job, but now that they're both presumably out of consideration for opening night, rookie Lauri Markkanen likely will be thrust into the role.
There is an optimist's view to this. Markkanen projects to be the long-term option at power forward, so this could jump-start the process. He was fabulous with the Finnish team at Eurobasket, but he missed the majority of the preseason with back spasms. By his second preseason game, he had regained his rhythm, scoring 15 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and showing off his offensive versatility, stretching the floor with pick-and-pops and rolling to the rim for alley-oop dunks.
Additionally, Markkanen is the only frontcourt player on the roster with real upside. With Zach LaVine still recovering from his ACL injury, the rookie could prove to be a featured option for the first part of the season. This will allow him to show off the tools that make him the best fit for head coach Fred Hoiberg's offensive system.
The catch is that the Bulls—an already kiddie-pool-shallow team—will have even more depth issues.
Wing Paul Zipser will have to fill in as backup power forward, and the Bulls will need to dig deeper into their stash of mediocre-to-bad players to fill that wing void. Chicago projected to be one of the worst teams in the league even before losing perhaps two players openly competing for a starting gig.
Along with depth issues, there's a clear lack of leadership on the court. Dwyane Wade is gone. The draft-night trade for Markkanen finally shipped Jimmy Butler out of town. The Bulls famously "set a direction," but it also left them with a gaping hole in the intangible department of player-led guidance.
The Bulls are going to be horrendous this year, but the issues of culture are going to make them even harder to follow. Hoiberg has some young pieces who fit his style of play, but the lack of overall talent will result in a bottom-of-the-league record.
Just look at the start of their season. Their first five games include matchups with the Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. They also have a contest with the Atlanta Hawks in that stretch, but who's to say they'll be favored against anybody at this point?
Nobody expected the Bulls to compete for anything meaningful this season, but not competing at all will make a rebuilding year far worse. With one of their best players in Mirotic missing time, things could continue to spiral out of control in Chicago.