Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 10.26.2012
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Here are impressions as the preseason comes to a close: Hinrich is playing better than I expected. Belinelli has been horrible and seems to be the biggest disappointment. Nate Robinson seems to be muting his show-boat tendencies and is playing better team basketball than I expected. Is this wishful thinking or is Boozer playing better defense? He seems more active defensively and seems to be in better position having his arms raised. I am concerned that Thibodeau may not have learned anything from the Rose injury and will again overuse Deng and Hinrich. I am concerned about Hinrich playing in the last preseason game after he tweaked a muscle. What is your impression of the Bulls as preseason closes?
Sam: If you hate Belinelli and Rose is out and you want Hinrich to take it easy what other choice does Thibodeau have? He’s hired to win games and that’s how he is measured. I actually thought he did a good job last season giving guys a lot of days off with the short season. Plus, the Bulls rarely if ever scrimmage. So, in effect, most of their practices are not as taxing as with other teams. I don’t expect Hinrich to play Friday in the final preseason game against the Pacers. I’d be shocked if he did. I think Thibodeau knows enough abut him and that it doesn’t take long for Kirk to be ready or work with others. And, by the way, I think he’s really been good. I’m not down on Belinelli given he hasn’t had a lot of shots and hasn’t played as much with guys who get him shots. His career numbers are good and I think he’ll produce. The Bulls regulars have played more than most teams’, but that’s no surprise given Thibodeau and that there are so many new players. I assume Thibodeau has talked with Nate about some of his antics in probably more a 'tone it down' than cut it out. He’s been good and I agree Boozer has been more lively on defense as well. He’s not quite Kevin Garnett yet. But the improved quickness and aggression we’ve seen on offense has bled over into a bit more defensive finishing. Overall, the Bulls have had a good preseason as the starters have looked good. It would be nice if they all could make a few more shots. But I suspect we’ll be saying that this season.
I think that the Bulls should try to get James Harden from Oklahoma City. He is, in my eyes, a good fit for what the Bulls need when it comes to the SG/PG positions.
Sam: He’s a good fit for a lot of teams, though mostly teams like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando and Houston which have salary cap room after this season. My guess, as I wrote the other day, is the Thunder will ride out the season with Harden as they have a chance to win a championship and don’t need to do anything as they can match any offer. It would seem Harden will get a maximum deal at about $15 million annually. There have been indications the Thunder don’t want to pay that. So maybe they eventually make a deal. The Bulls have some valuable assets in the rights to Mirotic and a Charlotte potential lottery pick in 2016. They might be able to cash those in with an extra player for Harden as the Thunder wouldn’t take a big salary. But then the Bulls would have to pay Harden $15 million at a time when they have four players earning more than $10 million. No team has near that many eight figure salary players. To do that you’d have to blow up the bench again and take on nothing but minimum players and basically give up your top picks for the next five years. Is Harden good enough to be that elusive second star? He sure didn’t look it when he was needed in last year’s Finals. I’m not sure I make that sort of investment for him even if I doubt Oklahoma City would be interested, anyway.
I’ll be the realist here. Don't do the deal for Harden because we really don't know how good he is yet and we don't know how good Derrick will be post-injury. Too risky.
Sam: I think Gar and Pax agree.
Oftentimes, I'll see experienced journalists take creative license and construct their 'Ultimate Player', i.e. if they were to take only the best attributes of certain players that have played the game, who would they take? (e.g. Michael Jordan's athleticism/heart, Reggie Miller's catch-and-shoot, Hakeem's post moves, etc.). I have, however, never witnessed any journalist undertake the elusive task of constructing the 'Ultimate Coach.' From your experience covering the NBA, what attributes from each coach would you use to construct the ultimate coach? In other words: who's the best x's and o's guy, the best "player" coach, the best with the media, the best at getting the most out of their players, the best dressed, the best hairdo, the best at constructing offensive schemes or defensive schemes, the best scouter, the best at fostering a healthy team chemistry, etc. that you've witnessed in your tenure as an NBA journalist? From what we've witnessed of Thibs, do you think he should be on this list and/or do you think he'll ever make a case for himself? I'd think that he'd be up there for defense and knocking on the door for some other attributes.
Sam: It’s a little soon for Thibs with a two-year head coaching sample. He’s obviously very good and given his records already of fastest to 100 wins and coach of the year he has a chance to crack the list of great ones. But the guy whose records he broke was Avery Johnson, and I wouldn’t include Avery in that class. Generally sports greatness includes longevity. Thibs’ strength is one of those that can be among the great ones, a relentless preparation, being demanding and holding players accountable. I think one great trait Thibs has and doesn’t get enough credit for and which even was held against him in trying to get a coaching job was his ability to relate with players. I think it’s pretty good, and it’s one of the traits essential for success in pro sports. You can be a jerk in college, which many top coaches are, and get away with it by playing to the alumni and donors. You can’t in the NBA because the players are adults and have leverage in contracts and salaries. Phil Jackson was great at this and so is Gregg Popovich. Thibs is a sort of a Pat Riley lite in the model of greatness with preparation and practice and game demands. They’re able to pull it off with success and a better-than-imagined personal relationship ability. You also can’t be a great coach in the NBA unless you are smart and can make players better. All the coaches know X’s and O’s, the plays. I know them. The great coaches are teachers, like Larry Brown. They can spot flaws in your makeup, instruct you on how to be in better position to success. No matter what you may believe, NBA players want to get better. They’ll listen to you and pay attention if they believe you can help them do so. They may not read literary classics or know economic theory — like, based on my observation of this election, most of the voting public — but they know basketball. And they know right away if you know what you are talking about. If you don’t, they’ll tune you out quickly. You also need to be in charge and have that trait that people will follow you, especially the great ones. Phil Jackson was more of a yeller than anyone knew. But he also was able to persuade the best player to support him. You can’t succeed for a long term unless you get the best player on your side. The great ones do that without turning the team over to them. Doug Collins early in his career gave Michael Jordan everything because Collins was such a young coach. Jordan wanted to be coached more than that. Doug learned and has become a great coach as a result. I won’t build the perfect coach, but my top 10 includes Jackson, Riley, Popovich, Collins, Larry Brown, Hubie Brown, Chuck Daly, Alex Hannum, Red Auerbach and Jerry Sloan. Among the young ones I have Doc Rivers moving up on that group.
How can the trade exception the Bulls received in the Korver deal be used by the team this season? At what point can it be exercised? How do you see the Bulls using it? Does it have an expiration date? Also, I think this team will surprise and do well enough to compete for a top seed in the East this year without the outstanding Derrick Rose. The new bench will be a key to I think this team will surprise and do well enough to compete for a top seed in the East this year without Rose. The new bench will be a key to the teams success this season and the results from preseason have been encouraging to this point. I think Belinelli and Radmonovic may be the weak links.
Sam: The Bulls have a year to use the exception, which means they can put a player who makes $5 million into it. It cannot be combined with other exceptions or cap space. I don’t see the Bulls using it this season as there would seem little point with Rose out. They have it for a year into next July and it’s possible they’d use it next July given they’d be adding to the team then with the idea Rose would be returning for a full season. As for the season, I am not as optimistic as you are. But I don’t get them all right.
Did the Bulls consider Gilbert Arenas over the Summer? I know he ranks somewhere between totally delusional and legitimately crazy, he can be a huge distraction, and I think Thibs would have a heart attack trying to coach him, so I'm not saying that they really should have tried to sign him. But what happened to this guy? He used to be a top ten player. After the gun incident, it seems like he never got a chance to prove he could still play. Wasn't the word out of Memphis that he was being a reasonably good teammate on the Grizzlies? Has his game actually dropped off so much that he had to run to China or are teams looking the other way mostly due to his personality?
Sam: Well, you make a heck of a case for why teams don’t want him, though many believe there should be a place for more delusional people who are a distraction to teams in the interest of fairness. Gilbert has gotten a chance. There were questions about him coming out of college, which was how he fell to the second round. He was small for a shooting guard and hardly a pure point guard. But his athletic ability and quickness overcame that and enabled him to be a unique scorer. With his major injuries and knee problems he lost that. Leaving Gilbert saying goofy things, which isn’t in that much demand, as it turns out.
I'll take back what I told you last week about Nate being a better playmaker. When he can't score, he reverts back to his old ways. Over dribbling like C.J. Watson and John Lucas III do. Marco Belinelli was the clear victim of Nate's over dribbling. Belinelli is not as sharp as KK was in shooting that ball. Belinelli is not a stand around guy who waits in the corner. He needs to have the ball in his hands in pick and roll situation to be effective. Unfortunately, he doesn't get the ball much with Nate monopolizing it. Can Thibs remedy this?
Sam: It won’t be an easy one and I have my doubts. I don’t blame Nate as that’s who he is. Nate’s made himself an amazing career given his size and skills. But he got here and stayed doing what he does. One of the great mistakes teams make is seeing a player for what they need rather than who he is. Nate’s not a point guard. He’s a competent enough backup and in my view better than John Lucas. But don’t ask him to see everyone at the right time when they need the ball and when it’s easiest for them to make a shot. That’s what natural point guards do. At media day I asked Nate about his game. He talked about energy and making shots and running and motivating the team and keeping things lively and doing what is asked. I don’t recall him saying much about point guard. It’s a position he played, but more like Stephon Marbury in getting his first. He’s a good addition, will have some big games and the fans love him already. I’m guessing Belinelli signed more with the hope of playing with Derrick rather than Nate. But I agree Belinelli can handle the ball and I can see some lineups without a so called point guard with guys like Deng, Belinelli and Hamilton making plays. And we have seen Noah take it full court.
I think the Bulls should look into the recently cut Terrence Williams and Johnny Flynn. While not great they do add athleticism, speed, and depth as both have starter experience. Flynn did play well for Portland down the stretch last year. I think it would be worth a flyer on these two.
Sam: Due to ramifications regarding the new collective bargaining agreement, the Bulls cannot add another player until about three weeks into the season, around Nov. 19. The Bulls have the minimum 13 players on the roster now and will probably add that 14th. I think it’s wide open. Marko Jaric probably still is in the mix and Kyrylo Fesenko if he doesn’t sign overseas. But there still are some well known players unsigned, like Mickeal Pietrus, Kenyon Martin, Greg Oden, Mehmet Okur, Josh Howard and Derek Fisher. Not that three weeks is enough of a sample. But figure the Bulls to get a sense of a need during the November road trip.
I like that the team has a better free throw percentage, but I worry about how bad it is in 3-point shots compared to the previous year. The strange thing is that this year we have 3-point shooters better than last year. How will it affect the gameplay? In the regular season each player will level with historical averages.
Sam: Yes, the three-point shooting hasn’t been good. Though Belinelli has just seven attempts the entire preseason, which is hardly a fair sample. Nate Robinson has by far attempted the most and is six of 26 for 23 percent. Though the free throw shooting is getting better because of Nate (no Asik helps as well), who is shooting 95 percent. Nate’s taken a third of the three pointers and basically double anyone else. Nate’s a streaky shooter and will make a bunch of threes to win a game. But he’s more a volume shooter, and you have to live with that. In theory, the Bulls three point shooting should be better with Belinelli, Radmanovic and Robinson. Last season, the Bulls were fourth in the league in threes and 37.5 percent. It obviously helps to have Kyle Korver, who is one of the league’s best three point shooters. But the biggest problem may be not having Rose. Rose draws all that defensive attention, double teams, the defense shading his way. And then come the cross court passes for open threes, or at least more open than the Bulls have seen this far. It’s why Thibodeau keeps emphasizing ball movement, player movement and why the rules prohibit playing Luol Deng 50 minutes in a 48-minute game.
So let's recap. Vladimir is out of shape and already in the dog house. Belinelli is shooting 25%. Jimmy Butler isn’t taking the leap. The rookie Teague has more turnovers than points and more fouls than assists. None of them have hit a 3 pointer yet. Is it time to start panicking about our bench?
Sam: Your point? Yes, it’s way too early. The myth of the previous bench has reached such proportions that I am now getting questions about which is the best team of all time, the '96 Bulls, the '86 Celtics, the '67 76ers or the '12 Bulls bench? Two years ago the majority of my questions were whether someone could teach C.J. Watson to pass, did we need a microscope to see John Lucas and you mean Keith Bogans is better than Ronnie Brewer the big free agent shooting guard? And, yes, they did become very good and I felt a major reason why the Bulls could/would beat the Heat last season. Never mind. Look, Kirk is slated to be a backup. Mohammed’s been a surprise and good. Nate has been fine. Belinelli hasn’t been, but as I said maybe he’ll get some shots. I actually think Jimmy has been good, working hard. I think he’s aiming a bit with his shot as he wants so much to improve. I think the bench will be good, or at least a reasonable facsimile. I’m feeling perhaps we should reevaluate after they’ve played for more than two weeks.
It appears the Bulls need Hinrich on the court at all times to succeed. I don't think they need to get rid of Robinson as I believe he can contribute as a scorer, but should they look to sign another point guard? Teague isn't ready and I don't see Jaric making it either, should they try to get Derek Fisher? I think they could use another guy who can actually run the offense.
Sam: There really aren’t many guys around who can do that. Most of the point guards with no jobs are shooting points, like Fisher, lately Jonny Flynn and guys like Mike Bibby, assuming he hasn’t taken his Medicare yet. Despite my occasional concerns about Nate at point, I actually think he’ll be OK considering. Considering the alternatives, actually. The fear is Kirk and that he has been injured at various times in his career. He has that groin tweak now, which isn’t considered serious. Of course, it’s his groin tweak and not mine. I don’t think Kirk is as much injury prone as that he plays so hard he puts himself at risk at times. So he’ll miss games from time to time. Hopefully, that’s all. I think they’ll go along and try to fill that last spot if someone is injured and misses substantial time or if they can pick up a bigger name. Maybe they bring back Jaric, who has played some point in his career and can defend, in theory, multiple positions.
Of the new players brought in (Radmanovic, Belinelli, Robinson, Teague, Mohammed, Hinrich), it's easy to see their offensive stats, but are any of the new guys, other than Hinrich, considered better than average defensive players?
Sam: What do you consider better than average? Ok, I’ll get more to the point: No.
Regarding your concerns in your last two Monday columns about Austin Rivers and your high regard at draft time, are you doing a 360 like Costanza?
Sam: Yes, I’m right back where I started. I had him between five and 10 in a five-player draft, as I recall. I think he’ll be good because he’s got a scorers’ attitude and a bit of arrogance, the good kind that won’t allow him to sulk when he’s bad. Yes, now that I’ve seen his body — and I view this on only an academic level — it’s clear he should have stayed in school and is going to get hurt in the NBA. Ooops, he is already. But I still think in a few years he’ll be worth it, and the Hornets aren’t going anywhere fast.
Is Rose going to the games? I have looked but I don't see him on the bench.
Sam: He is everywhere and he is nowhere. The Bulls really don’t want to talk about him much since, really, what else can he say. He’s ahead of schedule except when he’s behind schedule other than when he’s on schedule? He’s not playing. They don’t feel it’s great for the other players to have to answer this question every day since they truly don’t know. Really. Derrick generally is at the games. I usually see him shooting before the fans are let in and then he’ll get in some rehab. And then he plays pickup games... kidding. There’s no point having him sit on the bench. You know all the fake diving after lose balls that goes on. And who knows who Nate Robinson is going to jump on if someone dunks. I think he sat in the stands in the first row near the bench one preseason game. But he’s usually off somewhere during the games rehabbing. I suspect when it gets closer to playing he’ll travel with the team, though I don’t see much point in that for now. Of course, the team does go to L.A. in November and he spends a lot of time there. I think they may need his support then.
I'm getting excited about this Bulls team. I like what the brass has done this past summer. I know it was hard breaking up the "Bench Mob" but I do think the bench was upgraded. I've got a new name for the Bulls bench players... "The Bench Brigade." Nate Robinson was a great pick up... Here's my christmas list: David West/Kevin Martin/Metta World Peace (Yes I said it).
Sam: Can’t imagine what you have in mind for Hanukkah and Kwanza. I’m fairly sure the Bulls could get World, though. I’ve never been a big one for those bench names, and not only because I never share in the tee shirt sales. I’m not big on the military imagery, though how about Belinelli’s Bombers? Nazr’s Nasties? Jimmy’s Butlers? Vladimir’s... vichyssoise? We’ll come up with something if they make a few shots.