Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 01.24.2014
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In your opinion, what do you think Taj Gibson needs to do in order to legitimately be in the conversation for Sixth Man of the year?
Sam: Starting. But then he wouldn’t be a sixth man. Taj is averaging almost 20 and 10 in his four starts. Off the bench, he’s averaging about 11 and 6. He talked about it after the Cavs game when he tied a career high. He reiterated without any bitterness as he’s the ultimate team guy that starting lends itself to scoring more, though he never said he should start. He said he could be in the sixth man debate because it should be about players who help their team win, and not only in scoring but rebounding and defense. He’s right. Taj does that, but the award traditionally has gone to the high scoring sixth man players. It’s generally gone to players who give the team an offensive spark off the bench and you can see in the recent winners of J.R. Smith, James Harden, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry. But I’m leaning stronger toward Taj this season because of the historical precedent. The first winner was the 76ers’ Bobby Jones, a role playing power forward like Taj who didn’t have double figures the season he won. Of course, the 76ers won the championship that season. But the way Gibson’s shot has improved along with his post game, he has to be considered a top contender this season in the Bobby Jones tradition.
D.J. Augustine has obviously exceeded expectations on his arrival to Chicago. I have noticed a remarkable similarity in the pace with which he runs the offense to our very own D. Rose! Minus the obvious ability to finish at the rim, DJ possesses Rose's tremendously quick first step, pushes the ball in transition at near identical speeds & penetrates off screens with remarkable similarity. As a pass first point-man, he may be a more dependable distributer than Rose. He is also proving to be a legitimate 3-point threat & a dependable free-throw shooter. I am a big Rose believer, as much for his attitude as his on court abilities. I feel like he will need all the assistance possible to make his transition back to the Bulls as risk free as possible. How better than alongside a guy who has helped fill his void with echoes of the man himself. Even when integrated, would it not be a huge benefit to both 1st & 2nd units, to have a guy who runs the team at such a similar tempo?
Sam: Yes, Augustin has been a revelation. And while many have questioned management over the trade of Luol Deng, the acquisition of Augustin was a terrific move as he could have gone anywhere. Plus, I believe the Bulls went back into the luxury tax to add him. Though I don’t believe anyone realized how valuable he could and would be with his scoring and playmaking, a Hall of Fame type four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio even. The surprise is how invisible he became after leaving Charlotte, where he was a viewed a little like Deng: No matter how well he did it didn’t seem good enough. I liked what Thibodeau said about him in Cleveland of how he refused to get down on himself after being so low to be released and keeping his game up and when getting the opportunity being ready. He’s proven to be closer to Rose offensively than anyone on the team. But here’s the problem when you scout too well, like with Omer Asik: You can’t keep and pay everyone. Rose can be very comfortable playing with another point guard, which is a new fad in the NBA. The Bulls were doing so with he and Hinrich before Rose was injured. Though Augustin could play so well that someone wants him to start for them. I believe he enjoys the Bulls and Thibodeau, which could be attractive. I think the Bulls’ hope in signing him was also looking toward next season. But when a player is a free agent anything can happen. By the way, and I see it around the league on stat sheets, it’s Augustin with no “e.” Just pronounced with the e. Mostly I think because it gives him an easier way to get kosher corned beef.
Rose has not ruled out a playoff return, and we just surpassed the .500 mark. Do you think that we could win a championship if Rose came back completely healthy a series before we face the heat or pacers in the playoffs? I know we haven't faced a good team since the Deng trade and we have a good test with the Clippers coming up. It is exciting to watch the guys right now, especially the Lakers and Magic games.
Sam: It has been a good run and impressive the way the team not only has competed, as it always does, but made big plays and shots down the stretch. The competition isn’t that bad. It’s actually representative of the Eastern Conference. I’m fairly sure Rose is not going to play this season. The timetable for the surgery he had is six to seven months, which is exactly what it took for Russell Westbrook, who had the same surgery. That’s late May to late June. You saw how slowly Rose returned this season even with so much time off after the ACL surgery. Even if he could play by May, you wouldn’t put him into a playoff series after having missing basically two years. You see guys coming back from knee surgeries now like Rondo and then the team calling it like preseason for them and playing limited minutes and maybe once or twice a week. But I will say if the Bulls are playing in mid-June I’d lobby for Rose to play. This obviously is a contentious and controversial issue in Chicago. I’m convinced Rose was not healthy enough to play last season. I believe he would have if he could move and cut like he needed to. Once he can he should play and I believe he will. He was added Thursday to try out for the USA team. If he can play this summer I see no problem as the more he plays the better he’ll be assuming he is perfectly fit to play and not hesitant like he was last season. You’ll also notice everyone with the ACL is taking at least a year or more to come back, so all those reports last season of Rose returning in nine to 11 months were erroneous.
Where do you think Luol Deng will end up next year? I know he wants to sign with a top team, but looking at the top teams, it seems that the only possible landing spots would be the Bulls/Rockets/Clippers assuming guys like Melo and LeBron stay where they are. The other top teams already have good small forwards. I don't see him fitting in Houston or LA.
Sam: It’s a good question for Lu as well. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the Cavs will offer him by far the most money to justify the trade and to have a veteran after not luring back LeBron James. Though the talk in Cleveland is the team believes it has a chance to recruit James this summer, it’s hard for me to see how it’s possible. The Cavs fired Mike Brown, now the coach, in an attempt to retain James in 2010. And then the current owner blasted James as badly as anyone and certainly contributed mightily to the ill feelings toward James in his home town. It’s difficult to see James returning to that environment now with a team struggling as it is with seeming internal issues and no certainty they can resign Kyrie Irving. A lot of the speculation you hear involves the Lakers since Kobe Bryant long has been a big fan of Deng’s, the Lakers have a championship atmosphere and history that is generally appealing to all players and have the salary cap space to make an offer. Plus, they’ll have more in the future to add players again. It would be an appealing place for any top free agent, though Carmelo Anthony also will be in the mix. Though I still don’t discount a return to the Bulls the more I’ve considered it. There is a chance to get $10 million or more under the salary cap for the Bulls. Yes, we know Deng rejected that reported $10 million offer before being traded. But you never say never in the NBA. Phil Jackson returned to the Lakers and Kobe not only after being fired but then writing a book critical of Bryant. And then they won two titles. Deng shot a few barbs toward the Bulls, but nothing serious or damaging, more in fun. Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf always has been a Deng champion within the organization and had a good closing conversation with Deng. They apparently parted on good terms. It’s a business. All teams make financial decisions that hurt. All businesses do as well. Those of us formerly in the newspaper business understand. But we still read newspapers. Life goes on. The Bulls with Rose’s injury had to begin repositioning themselves with financial flexibility and draft picks for a future of a more conservative financial NBA. Deng as a free agent had to position himself for his best look at the market. They both did what made sense to them. Maybe come this summer the market doesn’t look like Deng imagined. Or maybe the options the Bulls looked at aren’t so available or appealing to the team. Deng is just 28 and has several good playing years left. He certainly knows the system, and the coach seems to like him. It’s not what you’d expect, but hardly inconceivable.
Where would you put Allen Iverson on the list of the most talented players to ever play the game?
Sam: Iverson’s a tough one to place given his unique game. He’s certainly a Hall of Famer without question. Though I’m not sure I could place him in the top 50 all-time with so many additions from that list made in 1997 like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan and many to come like Kevin Durant. Iverson was one of the unique talents in the history of the game, one of the all-time greats in the so call small man category. Though his game was so difficult to quantify because it was so individual. He may have been the toughest guy ever under six feet, which I think he was, and he was a culture changer with his look and attitude. That sort of groundbreaker stuff makes you a candidate for the top 50. But it was so difficult to play with him the way he monopolized the ball that you’d pick so many others ahead of him. He’s maybe in the top 50 among NBA pivotal figures, if not the players you’d want on your team.
I was reading multiple articles about how the Warriors and the Bulls are in talks right now about possibly swapping Hinrich for Harrison Barnes. Is there any truth to these rumors? Because I think that Barnes would be a great piece for the Bulls moving forward.
Sam: I got a number of these emails this week and can’t figure where they came from. I know when someone reports of supposed talks and interest or some player pouting I get trade suggestions. Though I know a lot of this stuff also comes from conversations on fan sites that someone interprets as news. This obviously makes no sense as the Warriors just last week traded for two reserve guards in Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks behind their two All-Star level starting guards. And then they are going to give up their best young prospect for a veteran unrestricted free agent they’d have just for a few months and is out with an injury? I wouldn’t generally answer one so far-fetched. But I did get a dozen of these. Though as I always say if you are going to come up with one that doesn’t make sense make it a much better player, at least an All-Star. This lousy winter is keeping way too many people inside and apparently suffering mild hallucinations.
Can you briefly explain the thinking behind trading Teague? They traded a non-rotational player for a non-rotational player and you need 3 point guards obviously because now with Kirk out, they've resigned Mike James. Why not just keep Teague who may still develop?
Sam: It wasn’t unreasonable, though not great timing as Hinrich got hurt. Teague was guaranteed for next season at more than $1 million. In free agency that could be the difference in signing a major player. Yes, in hindsight, could you have used Teague as a third guard? Though the coach was barely using him, anyway, and obviously had lost confidence in him. Was that worth potentially being the difference in costing you a top player next summer? You don’t know what it would. But is it worth the risk for so little gain?
Watching how Noah, Butler and the rest of the Bulls have responded to losing Rose and Deng it is clear Carmel Anthony would never work on this team. I know they have no chance of getting him but if you look at the history of Carmelo and the history of the Bulls there is no chance. Carmelo bails as soon as it gets hard, his effort is determined by how well the team is doing. Why don’t media types think about these things before mentioning any trade scenarios?
Sam: I don’t believe the Bulls have any chance to get Anthony. But I’m not as down on him as you are and some others. I’d love to have him on a team. I think he’s a guy you can work with and not a team cancer. The problem for him has been from Day 1 he got caught up in believing he had to be Bizarro LeBron in some sort of latter day Bird/Magic rivalry. He’s nowhere near the same player and never was. Not that the Pistons did the right thing, but they wouldn’t have passed on LeBron. Some guys are sold as stars and then assume they have to be the all doing one. Anthony is not that. He’s as good a pure scorer as there is in the game, though he’s wasted in New York because he has to create everything for himself. He’s been best when he played on the Olympic team and could play off LeBron and Kobe and not worry about being the star. In many respects, he was the best player on those teams as a result. He needs to be your second best player, though the media and public and perhaps his ego won’t allow that. He needs to be in a Pippen type subsidiary starring role. Not as a setup man but not running the show he’d be a great addition. I’d love to see him with Rose and Noah. The problem is you’d have to give up Noah at least to get him. Then you are back to the same problem. Maybe he goes with Kobe, though this Kobe won’t solve his problem. He needs to be Wade. He’s never been where he could be.
I watched all six title runs growing up and the 93 run was one of my favorites. I remember New York signing Charles Smith in the offseason and hearing repeatedly that it was "their time." (Of course, the Suns over in the western conference were saying the same thing.) But the Knicks did come out of the regular season with the best record in the east and were ready to take down the Bulls whom I remember wondering whether or not would survive the season. It led to my favorite series of all six runs, with the Knicks going up 2-0 and then losing the next 4 games. Do you see any similarities between that and the current Indiana/Miami story in the east?
Sam: Well, then Miami would win. It’s no surprise what’s going on with the Heat, which is why I picked in the regular season both the Bulls and Pacers to finish ahead of Miami. That third straight try is brutal, and it is similar to what LeBron is going through now the way he’s had to carry the team. It’s perhaps more acute for LeBron as Wade isn’t anywhere near the player now that Pippen was in 1992-93. And still Jordan was exhausted from the effort and the Bulls didn’t get home court ahead of the Knicks. Miami looks particularly vulnerable now, obviously, with their poor stretch. Though compounding it is the aging of their already aged veterans. Going another four rounds without the hunger the other teams have will be difficult. I find it hard to see Miami winning again. It would require a spectacular effort from James. As it did from Jordan, who had a lot of help and some timely last shots from others.
It seems clear Noah and Thibs will likely lead us to a playoff berth. While it makes sense to trade assets that may not play into the team's long term plans (Deng, Teague, maybe Hinrich/Dunleavy), is there a chance they make trades now for future assets? Arron Afflalo has long been seen as an ideal role player for the Bulls system, he's a long 2 guard who can hit the three and play defense. Orlando's going nowhere soon, why not package some assets and make a trade?
Sam: Afflalo has long been a favorite of Bulls fandom, though, again, I hardly see anything with the Bulls limited roster that makes sense for the Magic given Afflalo is their prime potential trade piece now moving forward. They’ve got way too many young guys already, so they’d hardly want any more draft picks or international prospects. I think the Bulls are done making any moves unless they get a chance to add a good young player who would be ready to play and you can move forward with. It’s hard to come by those.
Do you think management regrets letting James Johnson go? I know hindsight is 20/20 but I was always against letting him go because of his potential. He’s turned out to be a pretty player if you ask me. Thibs is a great coach but he needs to learn to be more forgiving with young players and let them grow.
Sam: I’d hardly fault Thibs since Johnson was with two other teams and in the D-League before coming to the Grizzlies and doing reasonably well, though he still can’t shoot. The Bulls took a reasonable chance on a high ceiling athlete. It didn’t work out. It happens to everyone. The only mistake you make is holding onto guys too long. You have to move forward. Johnson never would have played with those Bulls teams that started under Thibs. The problem when you are a relatively high first round pick is you don’t want to be a role player. It takes being released and going to the D-League, as Johnson did. He accepts and embraces the role he plays now. He didn’t much care to with the Bulls.
I've been debating with several fans as to who was the better team, the early 90s Suns (with Charles, Thunder Dan, KJ, etc.) or the 90s Magic (with Shaq, Penny and Horace, etc.). Two fantastic teams who gave the Bulls a run for their money. I personally prefer the Magic and am still stunned that they never won a championship. The Magic eliminated the Bulls in 95, but the argument I hear is that MJ just returned and wasn't quite ready, did they overachieve as a full strength Bulls team made them look very ordinary the following season. Also no disrespect to the Rockets who ended up sweeping them in the finals. Then the Suns in 93, with Charles as MVP, pushed the Bulls to the brink in the NBA Finals, but didn't really do much after that.
Sam: One of the great failed dynasties, and there have been many, was that Magic team. With Shaq and Penny they had the perfect complement of the most powerful player in the game and the athletic talent, though Penny did eventually get hurt. It was a wonderfully built team with perimeter shooting, but too immature and weak minded. It’s the issue when you put too many young players together. It was similar with the Lakers when Shaq went there with a young Kobe and Nick Van Exel. When things go badly they don’t have the staying power to get through them. It’s why you see so few young players in the conference finals and why teams like the Spurs ride so long with players everyone says are too old or done. That Magic team could have had a long run and should have been a Finals contender for at least five years. Shaq wanted to stay, but the Florida political atmosphere and culture wasn’t that conducive to his personality. Shaq also needed to be pushed because he rarely was serious about the game. That was the reason for his split with Kobe because Kobe was. And Penny wasn’t tough enough like Kobe and a bit too much into his own brand, as the saying goes, at the time. I remember in 1996 when things were going against the Magic in the conference finals Shaq didn’t even want to come to the game and his mother apparently made him feel guilty and attend. The 1995 meltdown against a weak Rockets team was awful. They were way more talented than those Suns. The late 1980’s Cavs also were a potential dynasty that didn’t make it, though more for health reasons and an amazing Jordan shot in 1989. Some of the greatest collections of talent are forgotten because of circumstances. That’s why titles are so rare and so difficult to come by.
For this summer's free agency how about if the Bulls go after Lance Stephenson? Besides his wild personality do you think he can be a good fit for the Bulls?
Sam: There are way too many decisions to come to know how much money, if any, the Bulls have in free agency with amnesty, draft picks, overseas players and so on. Stephenson is a hot name after basically being a red flag every day of his career. He’s had a great few months. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but the last flash across the basketball sky like that I recall the Bulls going for with one good season was Eddie Robinson.
What is with your All-Star selections my man!? I'm shocked by your omission of Deng. He is having a career year and again looks to be a great leader for that ordinary Cavs team and if anything will score that little bit more.
I think he'll get in, West won't and DeRozen is questionable also.
Sam: In that All-Star column I wrote I was trying to include the fan voting, which includes Kobe, because those guys likely make the team. Though I see Kobe says he’ll ask out given he’s played so little. I understand, but I’d also be fine if he played. I’d rather see him instead of maybe a more deserving Mike Conley. I like the fan voting because it’s an exhibition for fans. I’m OK with seeing a great player rather than someone having a better season that year. I’d rather have seen Michael Jordan in his last season in Washington as an All Star if there were a question, say, instead of Ben Wallace. I tried to both combine who I believed would make it with whom I believe the coaches would choose as they tend to give extra weight to players from winning teams. West’s statistics aren’t great, but coaches know his worth to that team better than anyone. Yes, maybe Tony Parker as well, who I left out. But there will be players from the West who deserve to go but won’t.
Ironically wearing my Joakim Noah homeboy shirt; a friend forwarded an article about possibly trading Jo, please tell me there is no truth to this.
Sam: There is no truth. Keep your shirt on.
It just dawned on me what the Bulls plan is: we're looking at it. Allow me to elaborate. In thinking about the punitive luxury tax, it seems Chicago is doing what most teams will be doing in the near future to avoid the luxury tax. You touched on this in a previous article with OKC trading away Harden. It seems the Heat will have to do the same with probably Bosh to avoid paying luxury tax. It seems the formula to win in 2014-2015 and beyond is shaping up to be 2 max players and good draft picks. I was not a fan of the Deng trade, but after realizing this, I think the Bulls have a bright future and we have an amazing coach. It makes me feel Chicago is ahead of the curve and placed itself in a position to succeed in the near future.
Sam: Viola! That’s it. At least the Bulls hope so. But changes are coming around the NBA.
I've never really understood the whole idea of tanking. But my outlook has changed after the game against the Cavs. Obviously, the Cavs are the envy of every team in the league. I mean, just look at that roster!
#1 pick in 2011 draft (Kyrie Irving)
#4 pick in 2011 draft (Tristan Thompson)
#4 pick in 2012 draft (Dion Waiters)
#1 pick in 2013 draft (Anthony Bennett)
That, sir, is a dream team. And we've watched that collection of lottery talent just pile up win after win. 21 wins in 2011-2012, 24 wins in 2012-2013, and obviously they're roaring again with an impressive 15 wins in just 42 games this season! So sign me up as a supporter of tanking! I hope and dream that someday the Bulls can become the Cavs. Dare to dream big and aspire to achieve the greatness that is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sam: Hey, I do the sarcasm around here.
I wonder if you have a favorite Bulls team from your many years of covering the team. I have to say this current team is my favorite since the Jordan years. I don't think any other team in the NBA plays with the spirit, heart, and drive of this team.
Sam: It is pretty amazing year after year this far. My favorite remains that first title team in 1990-91. Not only because they won, but how much they went through to get there and how close they were to being broken up earlier that season as few realize. Plus that they took down their rivals the way they did and defied every odds and that despite having Jordan they were hardly picked by anyone to win. Plus, Jordan, Pippen and Grant probably were at their athletic best, which made it an amazing show to watch almost nightly. I also loved to watch the early 70’s team. I didn’t see them much as I didn’t live in Chicago then and TV barely was invented. But I always went to Madison Square Garden when the Bulls were in to watch the great contrast of the finesse and skilled Knicks and the brutal and relentless Bulls. They were great games. As ESPN has no tape on them they have now asked the NBA to rule them all exhibitions.
Is the Bulls offensive system setup to "showcase" PG's? As we've seen Robinson, Augustin, and Rose flourish under it.
Sam: I don’t know, but Thibs gave me his business card Wednesday night, and it read, “Point Guard Whisperer.”
Do you honestly think the Bulls will amnesty Boozer? I think they keep him and Dunleavy next year and shoot for the 2015 free agent class. I don't see why they'd trade one of their best offensive players especially since he's stayed healthy. He also seems to have been a positive influence on Taj offensively, and I could see them drafting another big if they end up with 2 first rounders.
Sam: I honestly believe there have been no decisions made. Boozer is eligible for amnesty one more time only, which is why this comes up. I certainly can see him being back with the Bulls next season. As you suggest, it’s not a strong free agent class. And if you lose him you at least have to have another power forward. And we’ve seen the top power forwards from even the top five picks in the draft generally aren’t ready to contribute to an NBA team, yet an NBA playoff team. Again, it will make for a very intriguing summer for the Bulls.
The Bulls could always trade Thibs to the Kings to make sure they get that first round pick before 2017.
Sam: And for the entertainment as well of watching him yell at DeMarcus Cousins.
Are the Bulls the only NBA team to have had an A.J. (Guyton), B.J. (Armstrong), C.J. (Watson) and now a D.J. (Augustin)?
Sam: The interesting part is Dennis Rodman used to tell me his favorite author was E.J. Doctorow.