Bobby Portis' emergence leaves Fred Hoiberg with tough choices

CHICAGO -- Fred Hoiberg wanted no part of the question before Friday's 108-81 victory over the New York Knicks began. He didn't want to think about reorganizing his rotation. He didn't want to think about what would happen once Joakim Noah recovered from a shoulder injury. He didn't want to think about the quagmire he was about to find himself in.

"I don't know," Hoiberg said with a chuckle. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

A few hours later, after the Bulls finished off their most impressive closing kick to a game all season -- a fourth-quarter onslaught in which they outscored the Knicks 31-8 -- Hoiberg still wasn't sure what the answer to the question was, but the first-year head coach did know one thing for certain: No matter what happens over the next few weeks, rookie Bobby Portis is staying in the rotation for the foreseeable future.

"Absolutely," Hoiberg said after watching Portis have another big game with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2 assists. "We're going to continue to find minutes for Bobby and there's no doubt about it. He's playing too well, he's playing with so much confidence. He rebounds the ball, he plays with a toughness and a swagger, and that's what you want. We've talked all along; Bobby's not going to back down from anybody and he continues to show that night after night."

Hoiberg and the Bulls front office always knew Portis could play, but they couldn't find a spot for him in the rotation over the first quarter of the season because of the other talented big men on the roster. What they've learned since inserting Portis into more games over the past two weeks: Portis isn't just one of the most talented big men on the roster, he's one of the most talented players. Portis has given the Bulls -- winners of four of their past five games -- the type of jolt they've been searching for. In the process, he has also provided energy for his teammates.

"He's talented, man," All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said. "And he's always working on his game. But when he's out there playing, his swag's really high. I think everybody likes that. That's what you expect from him. But he plays his game like a vet, he knows his role, he knows what he's supposed to do. And he's confident, man. Confidence is the key in this league."

It's rare that a 20-year-old rookie can be such a difference-making force for a veteran team, but that's exactly what Portis has done. He always believed in himself and his talents; now the rest of the league is taking notice.

"Huge injection of energy and competitiveness," Bulls big man Pau Gasol said of Portis. "Confidence. A guy that comes in, he's not scared of anything."

Portis' play has created an interesting set of circumstances for both Hoiberg and Bulls general manager Gar Forman. It's never a bad thing for an organization when a rookie forces his way into the rotation, especially when it makes Forman and the Bulls front office look even smarter for snagging Portis with the 22nd pick in last summer's draft, but it does make the possibilities tricky for the future.

With Portis entrenched in the rotation, where does that leave Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol? More importantly, does Portis' emergence make one of the veterans even more expendable in a deal? Those are questions the Bulls' brain trust will have to answer in the coming weeks. The answer last week would have been to bench Mirotic, who has struggled most of the year, and give Portis those minutes. But Mirotic has played two of his best games of the season in the past week, including putting up 17 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds against the Knicks.

Noah hasn't taken much contact since injuring his shoulder Dec. 21, but it appears as if he will return in the next week or two. No matter what Forman and executive VP John Paxson decide, they know two things coming out of Friday's performance: Portis is here to stay and is a building block for the future.

And he may be making somebody else expendable.

In the meantime, Portis' promotion isn't going to stop him from continuing to put in the work. He doesn't seem fazed by the platform he has been given, and he isn't going to start worrying about it now.

"It really means nothing," Portis said of Hoiberg's declaration regarding his playing time. "I still have to come to work every day and work as hard as I can to get better, and I have to come in and still earn my stripes.

"That's something about the Bulls that I like, that they just don't put rookies out there. They make you earn your keep. That's something I've always tried to do is work as hard as I can just to earn everything that's given to me."