It’s difficult to find a silver lining on a Chicago Bulls team that has somehow found a way to fail at being one of the worst teams in the NBA this season. Nonetheless, over at The Ringer, a [probably] not emotionally-invested-in-the-Bulls-tank Kevin O’Connor attempts to do just that.
And he didn’t take any of the cop out answers when he revealed his silver lining. No, he didn’t pick rookie Lauri Markkanen like most rational observers would if they were the ones doing this exercise. He also didn’t get philosophical and talk about how big of a deal it is that the Bulls picked a path and removed themselves from the basketball purgatory of average.
Nope, O’Connor chose Bobby Portis as the Bulls silver lining, a dude who has quietly sewn together numbers worthy of NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award consideration.
Third-year big man Bobby Portis. Portis—yes, the guy who punched Nikola Mirotic—is quietly averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds over the entire season, and has surged since the All-Star break, with 16.2 points, eight rebounds, and 2.2 assists (on 41.5 percent from 3) in 27.1 minutes per game. Projecting based on per-100-possession numbers can be risky business, but for every Michael Beasley, there’s a Paul Millsap. Portis may be more of the latter. The 23-year-old is averaging 28.2 points and 14.3 rebounds per 100 possessions, which puts him alongside the likes of Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Boban Marjanovic, and Julius Randle.
At just 23 years old, Portis has shown marked improvement as he has transitioned from his second to his third year in the league, expanding his offensive repertoire into a multi-dimensional toolset. However, his defense hasn’t paralleled his improvement offensively.
The flashes alone are intriguing. He is a knockdown shooter from the deep midrange, and it’s translating to past the 3-point arc. He’s also coordinated enough to attack closeouts and beat mismatches in the post. Portis’s defense must improve astronomically to ever enter Taj Gibson’s class, but it’s hard not to be reminded of Gibson’s motor and intensity with Portis.
To be fair, opponents’ offensive ratings are slightly worse (111.2 to 111.5) when Portis plays than when he sits. Of course, defensive metrics can be incredibly unreliable and deceiving, and Portis has serious issues with weak side help defense and isn’t much of a rim protector (1 percent block rate) even at 6-foot-11-inches tall.
However, as O’Connor noted, Portis plays exceedingly hard and there’s a track record of motor and intensity getting a player far in this league. The fuel powering the Thibodeau-era Bulls juggernaut was motor and intensity. Joakim Noah made a career out of motor and intensity. Jimmy Butler started with baseline skills of motor and intensity that manifested in him becoming a great defender early in his career, then he practiced real hard and eventually developed into a perennial All-Star caliber player.
Portis is using these same skills as a spring for his own success, as his game has blossomed in his third year in the NBA.
The Bulls may consider their future core to be Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn. But if Portis continues to play this well, it won’t be long until he is included in that group.