CHICAGO -- Nikola Mirotic knew this day was coming.
The 26-year-old forward has known for several months that his days as a Bull were numbered. After an ugly preseason practice incident with Bobby Portis left him with a concussion and several facial fractures, Mirotic understood that his future would likely play out somewhere else. Even in recent days, Mirotic and his representatives repeatedly made it clear that he was ready to move on, according to a league source. He got his wish on Thursday when the Bulls finalized a deal that sent him to the New Orleans Pelicans.
"My name has been the last two years, a lot of people were talking about me getting traded," Mirotic recently told ESPN. "A lot of people want me to be traded, talking about not [having] consistency. Now finally I'm playing well and consistent, trying to find my way, but it's all good. I understand this is all kind of the business."
As much as Mirotic loved Chicago, and as comfortable as his family was in its new home over four years, the succession of events leading to his departure makes it easier to understand why the talented forward was ready to move on. While the altercation with Portis drew national headlines, Mirotic was frustrated with his role long before the fight that shook up his career. Over his first three years in the league, Mirotic showed glimpses of the talent that pushed the Bulls to deal for his draft rights in 2011, but he could never find the consistency that defines the better players in the NBA.
Mirotic spent this past summer working with personal trainers trying to get into the best shape of his career. After a prolonged negotiation with the Bulls, he signed right before training camp, as money for free agents started to dry up across the league. Mirotic was looking forward to being in the starting lineup on opening night and was confident he could finally find the consistency that eluded him. However, a couple of weeks later, Portis' punch sent the Bulls into turmoil and Mirotic's short-term prospects into question.
"It was hard. It was really hard for me," Mirotic said. "Especially because he was my teammate. Especially the timing, the timing was basically two days before opening night and everything. After I put all the work [in] during the summer. So for a moment I felt everything went down. But I had to be tough. I had the support of my family."
Mirotic concedes now that what was really upsetting at the time were reports that he wasn't considered a solid teammate. While Mirotic, according to sources, had rubbed some Bulls personnel the wrong way at times over the years because of a perceived selfish attitude, the young forward says he believed he had always handled himself professionally.
"I usually don't read [media stories], but I was home a lot of the time," he said. "And I saw something, people talking about teammates, that my teammates don't get my back. They're staying with Bobby. I don't know the reason because I was [supposedly] not here during the summer practicing, I was doing my job, my own job, with my personal coach and with my strength coach, so that kind of thing I felt like gave me some energy to show back, to show the people that nothing can [mess] with me and I'm a good professional."
As Mirotic started his rehab process, a cloud of uncertainty hovered around everything the Bulls did because Mirotic and Portis still weren't speaking. Portis said he called and texted Mirotic but that his teammate hadn't returned his messages. For several weeks, Bulls officials had to rearrange practice schedules to make sure Mirotic and Portis wouldn't cross paths at the facility. As Portis continued to practice with the Bulls, Mirotic would be riding an exercise bike a floor above in the Bulls' practice facility. It wasn't until Mirotic finally spoke to the media weeks later that he said he accepted Portis' apology, though it remains unclear whether the two ever cleared things up in person.
"It's normal now," Mirotic says now of the relationship. "The first day, a week, 10 days, it was kind of weird. It was not easy. [The organization] did a good job with us, especially putting us on the same team playing together. It was a smart thing, not guarding each other, just playing together. But now you get used to [it]."
To some former teammates who watched Mirotic and Portis battle in practice throughout the past few years, the fact that the animosity reached to such a high level wasn't a big surprise, but now the pair had to coexist on the floor despite not speaking much off of it.
As bad as Portis felt about the incident, he knew that he didn't want it to define him for the rest of his career. Mirotic felt the same way.
"I know it was not easy for him, too," Mirotic said. "It was different. I don't like to talk about it; it's all passed, but I'm just going to talk about myself. I had to, I had to be back. I just felt I had to be with my teammates. [Portis] was practicing with the team even when he was suspended so it was kind of good for him to be in good shape, try to refresh his mind and get ready. I was away a lot of time, a lot of weeks, but it's all good."
Mirotic and Portis clearing up their differences had a huge impact on the Bulls. They rattled off seven straight wins once Mirotic returned to the lineup in early December and were playing some of their best basketball of the season before an injury to point guard Kris Dunn recently derailed their momentum. Players and coaches were appreciative of both players' ability to put the incident behind them.
"I think the biggest thing is we had to give it time," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg told ESPN. "You had to give both [players], especially Niko, you had to give him time to get over everything that had happened and give him room to figure everything out on how he wanted everything handled. I give Niko a lot of credit for finding a way to get back and not let [the altercation] affect anything going on with the team. I give Bobby credit as well."
As Mirotic and Portis healed their issues, Mirotic still had to deal with some fans' reactions.
"I remember my first game there was a lot of people booing me," Mirotic said. "I was like, 'Seriously? After I got through [rehab]?' But after we won that game and once we started winning and how [are] the people? People change. After a couple games, after I was coming from the bench, everybody was applauding me. Everybody was excited, we had started winning so -- but all those critics just make me stronger."
Going through the ups and downs of the past few months, Mirotic relied heavily on the support of his family and those closest to him.
"My wife, my son, were [there] all [the] time with me," he said. "Talking to my parents, they were in Europe. And I had a lot of support from my friends here in Chicago. It was really fun my first game back my wife [gave] me a surprise, we had a lot of friends coming here spread around [the arena]. There were like 80 of them, something like that, but I had a lot of friends there is a huge Serbian community here in Chicago, a lot of people who support me every time I come in the games [on] their own and it was great for me and I really appreciated all the support."
With a new situation in New Orleans, Mirotic carries with him the confidence of knowing he is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging career highs in both points (16.8) and rebounds (6.4).
"It's amazing, trust me," Mirotic said. "Obviously, I wish I could get some time back and do some things differently, but some people need more time to find their way here in the NBA. Because some people need more time, some people less. But the most important [thing] is you find a way to be successful, find a way to be consistent ... I know for me it took some time but I'm sure I'm finding that way now. I'm really happy about it and I just want to keep enjoying this moment because this is the best moment I've felt in the NBA and it's kind of really fun for me."
Both Mirotic and Portis know that they will be forever linked in the annals of Bulls history, but as Mirotic makes his way out of town, don't expect the pair to catch up much down the road. When asked what it would be like if they saw each other 30 or 40 years from now, Mirotic, more confident than ever in his basketball surroundings, demurred.
"I'm not sure we're going to see each other after 30 years," he said.