By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) A day after reports emerged that Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic would be willing to waive his no-trade clause to leave Chicago following an ugly incident in which he suffered facial fractures upon being punched by teammate Bobby Portis, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made clear the team is sensitive to Mirotic’s plight and also must do what’s in the “best interest” of the organization.
“We’re really sensitive to this situation and what’s happened, what Niko is going through and how he’s feeling,” Paxson said Friday. “We’re trying to have communication and talk through everything with his representatives, come to some resolution, whatever that will be eventually. The thing that has to be understood is that we’re always going to do what’s in our best interest. That’s incumbent upon us to do. I think today we don’t have all the answers. I think we have to be patient with this process to see how it shapes up. From our standpoint, we’d love to get Niko back with the group, with the team. But if he’s not ready, we understand that. We’re going to be sensitive to that. This is a very unique situation and one that I think we have to be careful with. But the big point is we have to do what’s in our best interest.”
Mirotic remains sidelined with facial fractures and a concussion since the Oct. 17 incident in which Portis punched him in the face amid a confrontation in a scrimmage in which Mirotic also had an aggressor’s role. The team initially ruled Mirotic out four to six weeks, but given that he still hasn’t cleared the league’s concussion protocol, it could be longer than that, as surgery is still in play to address the facial fractures. Portis has served half of his eight-game suspension.
Paxson wouldn’t confirm whether Mirotic, 26, has requested a trade, though reports indicated the saga is trending toward an ultimatum of either Mirotic or Portis needing to be moved. Paxson did acknowledge the issue is a “distraction” that needs addressed. Because he signed a two-year contract in free agency in the offseason, Mirotic can’t be traded until Jan. 15. He also has the power to veto any trade in his first season.
Mirotic’s reported willingness to not veto a trade speaks to the fact that he remains emotionally hurt. He has had communication with only select teammates and didn’t respond to Portis’ attempt to contact him. Portis has publicly apologized.
Mirotic has been cleared for light work such as riding a bike, and he was expected to swing by the Advocate Center in the coming days, if not Friday. Whether Mirotic wanted to meet with teammates or just the coaching staff and management would be up to him, Paxson said.
“We’re supportive of Niko and what he’s going through,” Paxson said. “We support Bobby too. He’s a part of our team. You sit here in my position, Gar (Forman’s) position, ownership’s position and you see it’s a distraction. But we also have to keep these young guys focused on what they’re doing. And they’re playing games right now and trying to get better every day.”
Mirotic had beaten Portis out for the starting power forward spot before the incident. Amid that fallout, rookie Lauri Markkanen has started at power forward and may remain there for good after an impressive start in which he’s averaged 15.8 points and 10.0 rebounds in four games.
Asked if the Mirotic and Portis could ever co-exist again, Paxson responded, “Don’t know.”
“We don’t have all the answers right now,” Paxson said. “Again, Niko’s been through a lot. I’ve never had that happen to me, especially in a team dynamic. So we respect what he’s going through. That’s the big thing. We’re working through this every day. When it’s resolved, it will be resolved. But we have to think of ourselves and protect the organization as well.”
While the Bulls have admonished the 22-year-old Portis’ violent act, they’ve long respected his work ethic and wanted him to carve out a role on this rebuilding team. Viewed through one prism, Paxson’s comments of doing what’s in the “best interest” of the organization could be a signal that the Bulls want to keep Portis around despite knowing that he’s the one who crossed the line.
Portis has been allowed to practice with the Bulls during his suspension, which is unusual.
“He’s a young guy,” Paxson said. “I’m sure he’s dealing with things in his own way. I think it’s good he’s around his teammates right now. But an eight-game suspension is a long deal. I’m sure it’s hard for him to sit and watch just like it’s hard for Niko to sit and watch. This is a very difficult situation. That’s why I’m saying we don’t have all the answers today. But we’re working through them. We’re going to come to some resolution. When that will be, I don’t know.
“We need to keep moving in the right direction. But a part of that is finding a way to resolve this eventually. It’s not going to happen overnight. We still have a lot of unanswered questions, but we’re working toward a solution.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.