Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 12.20.2013
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In all my years of being an NBA fan I don't think I've ever seen a situation with a team that is as complicated as the Bulls have right now. With such little cap space, Derrick Rose injured and a team that is not playing well on the court the situation must be perplexing for the front office. With that in mind my first point is that I think all Bulls fans should be thankful for the team we have at the moment and also accept and get behind any decisions the Bulls staff make. Many people either seem to think we should completely blow the team up and tank or trade many of our best players; not many people seem happy with the organization including Derrick Rose. Am I the only person who thinks that Derrick is way out of line in essentially throwing a tantrum over any decisions the front office may make, he’s a player not a GM and although it isn't his fault, it’s because of him the franchise is in this difficult situation. With this said I really think the Bulls players and fans should be thankful what we have, a decant team that works had we at least 3-4 potential All-Stars. I also think the Bulls should sit on what they have for a least the rest of this season before making any drastic changes. Players like Noah, Deng and Butler are the heart of everything that has been good about the Bulls in recent years and if people are patient I'm sure this team can accomplish something great in years to come. Derrick Rose is only 25, Noah and Deng aren't even in their 30's. Butler and Snell are very young. So once again I stress that if people are patient and don't panic In an attempt to get instant success this team could be a force once again in the next few years.
Sam: It’s a reasonable thought with some perspective, but you must be on the defensive in the barber shop and bar discussions. Anyway, let me address the Rose part. That comes from a New York Daily News anonymous, of course, report last week that said their sources told them Rose is unhappy with the Bulls in potentially breaking up the team and doesn’t want to go through a rebuilding. I was reading the other day about this guy who has been forecasting the end of the world for some time. It turned out it was only the end of his world, as he died. But in doing these forecasts aimed at 2011, several people did commit suicide based on them not wanting to be there for the end. The point is some people will believe anything. I find it difficult to believe after watching and listening to Derrick Rose the last five years, not once growing angry or bitter about all the unwarranted criticism he received last year contending he didn’t want to play, that given his situation he’d be the one making demands on the Bulls. It’s absolutely ludicrous and I know this from Rose, who really only is talking about getting himself back to basketball. Rose never, ever concerns himself with this stuff. You hear Rose won’t recruit players. Not because he doesn’t want to help the team, but he’ll play with anyone. He’s always been that way. So, by the way, how would that square that Rose would be upset at a rebuilding and then not want to recruit players if he were? It doesn’t, right? But some people will believe anything. Unlike many of these reports from people who never have spoken with Rose, I have and know he is focused on playing again and sure he will be back at a high level and I believe that. But he also understands all this potential rebuilding if it comes to that is because of what happened to him and that he knows given the Bulls investment in him they are trying to keep putting together competitive teams around him because they cannot remain sure how long they’ll have him. Rose is confident it’s a long time and he intends to demonstrate that. Rose always has been the same: It’s his job to play and management’s job to do the rest. He’ll play and leave it up to them, which is why he never interferes or offers his suggestion. Or recruits. He’s a player and that’s all he wants to be. And given the player he is and as confident as he is he truly believes he can win with anyone. It’s how that MVP thing came up a few years ago. I never believed he could be an MVP. But he believes so highly in himself. So it makes no sense if you know anything about Rose that he’d ever make those sorts of demands as it suggests he doubts himself and needs more help. And Rose never for a day has looked at basketball that way. But some people will believe and write anything.
I do believed that we will improved by the season goes. The good thing about our loses is we lose by small margin. That shows that we are still fighting it just happened that we are missing important pieces. I see more character in this team, so I believed that the baby bulls team implosion under Skiles won’t happen again.
Sam: It does remain the story to watch, however. It is very difficult to hold a team together under the sort of uncertainty and countervailing forces buffeting the Bulls now: Potential trades, injuries, community outrage, redevelopment, snow, cold, traffic. Thibodeau may be the best coach around for something like this as his focus obviously is the game and he makes it a priority to maintain that. He gets his players to concentrate those two hours better than most. But it will be difficult the longer this season goes without positive reinforcement.
The year must be 1929, because the Bulls are dropping with no bottom in sight! Their loss at home against a hapless Magic team actually helped them improve in the virtual draft order from 15th to 9th. Yep, that's how bad the Eastern Conference is, that they just fell past five Western Conference teams in one shot. They're tied with Cleveland and only a game ahead of Brooklyn, meaning The Bulls can soon fall to 7th-worst in the league (and Orlando, the team that somehow beat them, is not far behind either), giving them a fairly decent shot at a Top-3 pick. The best part is, they haven't had to trade anyone away to be this bad (which I know you're against doing)! Here's to a (much) better 2014-15...
Sam: Yes, for those rooting for the so called “tank,” or losing games on purpose for a high draft pick, it may not be necessary to trade anyone. Injuries and disillusionment may take care of that. The interesting part will come if the team continues to lose and gets 15 games or so below .500, from which even in the East there would seem no way to recover. As I’ve written before, it’s difficult given the Bulls circumstances—not taking back contracts and players with expiring contracts like Deng who can leave on a team—to make any major trade. Then will come the idea that’s been suggested at times the Bulls give up players for nothing. The thinking there, though I have not heard it from the Bulls, is then the team can get out of the luxury tax this year (it’s computed after the season). Then they would not have the pressure to avoid the tax next season because being in the tax two years in a row now they would face the more penal repeater tax. But you’d have to think long and hard before giving up high level players for nothing just to get them off your payroll during a season. Hardly sounds sporting.
For the last several years it's been apparent that the Miami Heat's main vulnerability is their frontline, that if you can score in the paint and out rebound them they can be beat. And yet anytime someone talks about what the Bulls need to beat the Heat is a star shooting guard. It just doesn't make sense to me. Why wouldn't you go after a PF or Center who could hit them where it hurts? Carlos Boozer was supposed to have been a post player but he's all perimeter, so why not (eventually) go after a LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Horford or Kevin Love? If you have to deal Noah I think it's worth it. And Mirotic might serve better as trade bait for one of these guys rather than as another perimeter scoring big man. Don't we have to architect a team that exploit the Heat's weaknesses?
Sam: Of course, everyone builds toward beating their rivals or the champion. The Bulls did so in the 1980’s, trying to put together pieces to offset the Pistons’ weaknesses and they did, speed and athleticism to counter power and strength. You have separate issues here. One is you are not getting any of those players as they are the best players on good teams. It would be the same when Rose was healthy to ask the Bulls to give up Rose. Not happening. But it’s also why the Bulls had confidence they could beat Miami with Rose. Also why they had success against them, and even though it’s much forgotten, why the Bulls felt they would have won in 2012 before Rose tore his ACL. With Omer Asik to go with Noah, Boozer and Gibson, Miami couldn’t play small against the Bulls, which they could do and succeed against everyone else. It’s why the Heat most fear the Pacers these days as they are built as the Bulls were and pretty much modeled after the Bulls with one star, size, defensive play and strength in the post. The second star, guard thing was always a fan fantasy and it would be nice. But there are few perfect teams. The Bulls did have enough, as Thibodeau said. They no longer do. Mirotic isn’t in any great demand at this time as he’s given no indication when and if he’ll come to the NBA.
If the Bulls are in the lottery this year, are the Bulls going to send Steve Schanwald again?
Sam: It was good luck with Rose. Can’t blame Steve for the injuries. He did his part.
General journalism question for you. Are you able to be a fan of the team you write for? Do you consider yourself to be a Bulls fan? Is it difficult to remain objective while rooting for the team (Bulls)?
Sam: It’s a good question for me as some people wonder about given my work appears on the Bulls web site now. It’s a credit to the Bulls they’d do so and give me independence. But it also (in theory, anyway) helps their web site as readers know I will be honest given my history writing about basketball. I’m more a fan of the NBA than the Bulls. When you are around a team a long time, as most beat writers will tell you, you become a fan of the people given you spend so much time with them. You rarely see pointedly critical anti-team writing from any beat writers given they spend so much time with the players and it’s difficult not to wish them well. Most are basically decent people and as a writer you want to have good relations with the players and coach so you can deliver their stories to your readers. Your job is a conduit of information. So the better you get along as long as you are fair—-and that’s generally how players judge writers as NBA players are sophisticated—-the better information you will have to pass along to the fans. Most writers are not fans, per se, of the team, as I am not. I am a fan of the game and enjoy the games and seasons no matter the result because that’s the appeal of sports. And there will always be another season. So even if you are losing it’s entertaining to me given the questions of whether you can win and then what you will do about it. Most writers, though many will not admit it, prefer their teams to win. It’s for selfish reasons. If the team does well there’s more attention, which means more attention for them and more opportunity regarding things like free lance work and books. No one likes to read more on losing teams. Plus your employer tends to value you that much more when the team is good because that increases reader interest and thus profits. When your team is losing you tend to get asked to write less and have it displayed less prominently. Conversely, when the team is doing well you become something of a newsroom celebrity with editors stopping by to talk and get some inside information they can share at their clubs and golf games. The outright critics tend to be the journalistic cowards who never come around face to face to meet the people they are condemning. When you are around the players and coaches and management all the time you also find they are like you in trying to do a job. Not necessarily with all the answers. So there is a strain of sympathy as well. Not that any reporter would pass on a great scoop. But the good ones work it to make sure it’s accurate. And I’ve basically never heard of anyone being ostracized for reporting the truth. I always feel I can be objective as long as I’m fair and it’s about basketball. Players generally understand that. It’s why the criticism I received from The Jordan Rules book was primarily from media and fans and not the players. The players understood I was writing just about basketball—and they can deal with criticism about what they do—and was being fair and giving everyone a chance to talk and taking things in context. That’s basically all the participants ask. You are there for a reason: To be an eyes and ears for fans and not your own self aggrandizement. All writers root for the best story. Sometimes that’s not about a win; sometimes it is.
It seems like most fans are looking to trade Deng now with fear of losing him without compensation. My preference is to keep him, however, I am curious how each scenario (trade now, resign, letting him walk) potentially would play out.
Sam: There’s suddenly all this talk, obviously, given the Rose injury. But like with Houston trying to trade Asik once teams know you want to do something the offers disappear. Deng is an excellent player, but because he is a free agent and will test the open market and has had injuries already and missed games with an Achilles there is really no serious market given the Bulls will refuse to take back any player with a contract beyond this season. I wouldn’t give up Deng to get virtually nothing. I’ve made it clear for some time I’d keep Deng this season. There is a season to be played and you owe it to the game to play it. But it does not necessarily come down to losing Deng for nothing if you cannot resign him. If he and the Bulls cannot agree, the Bulls are in good position to fall below the salary cap to the point they can replace Deng with another player. I hope he returns—and the best chance of that is if you don’t give him away for some vague hope with a low draft pick—but the team and he have a lot of summer decisions to make.
On all these tanking thoughts and radio talk, I hear we need to get lottery picks, currently top 14. Well, how many do the Bulls have today? Rose, Deng, Noah, Hinrich, Augustine, Dunleavy(?), Boozer (?), Nazr (?). Bottom line, getting into the lottery means taking gigantic risks. How's that Cousins fella working out? Keep trying, win some, be professional, (never a worry), and see what happens. The tunnel is not forever.
Anyway, while this season is becoming a dark novel there is always next year. Yes, I'm a Cubs fan.
Sam: This remains one of the great strengths of Chicago that there are so many Cubs fans that we have so much experience with rebuilding and redevelopment and failure that we can have an intellectual conversation.
We don't seem to hear about the Charlotte pick in many credible rumors. Is it your suspicion that this just doesn't have that much value yet, even now?
Sam: It’s growing in value as it’s beginning to look like a lottery pick this draft. Still a long way to go, but obviously the Bobcats didn’t expect to be this good as they traded to get a 2016 No. 1, apparently figuring that’s when they’d lose it to the Bulls. The sense I get now is the untouchables are the Charlotte pick and Mirotic and the Bulls aren’t looking to do anything significant this season.
Why does the NBA have the matching salaries rule on trades? It seems to severely limit what a team can do, and I am unaware of a similar rule in other sports. So what's the reasoning behind it?
Sam: The NBA really doesn’t want many trades. Given the market disparities, the league philosophy is more to try to have players remain with their original teams. We know that won’t happen that much with the top players anymore, but the league doesn’t care to encourage movement. And being socially conscious, I also think they want to quietly support more internet jobs in fake trade scenarios.
A little while ago, I would have thought I was crazy asking this question but now… What do you think are the chances that the Bobcats will finish with a better record than the Bulls this season?
Sam: I guess we’re done making fun of Michael Jordan’s personnel moves. That one would have been a good preseason discussion. Not so much the records but given the way the teams have played, you’d have to say after a quarter of the season the Bobcats are at least as motivated and hungry a team. Fortunately, there was no swap of draft picks in that Tyrus deal, which would have looked good until this season.
As I write this, the Bulls are out of the playoffs even in the weak Eastern Conference. When teams play like the Bulls are playing now--lifeless, missing the little things, losing to non-playoff teams--that's usually when the coach gets let go. But I doubt the Bulls want to give up on Thibs, one of the best coaches in the league, regardless of whatever supposed "rift" exists with the front office, especially since he just signed a four-year extension. Yet the players don't seem to be responding to him as they have in the past. I don't think it's on Thibs, though--there's just too much uncertainty. This just feels like the 2008 season when the constant trade talk and uncertain contract situations for Gordon and Deng derailed what had been a consistent playoff team. Is there any precedence for an organization giving a coach a sabbatical? It might sound dumb, but I don't think firing Thibs is the answer. This way, it could give the players a different voice short term and allow everyone to recommit. Let Thibs take five months scouting, trying to find the players that will best fit his vision of the Bulls. A Thibs team won't tank, but they're trying and still losing. Something else is out of whack.
Sam: I’ll admit I never heard that one before. I don’t think it would be viewed as a vote of confidence. Obviously, it’s something that never would be considered, and certainly not by Thibs, whose idea of a sabbatical is to write up just 5 new plays a day and watch tape only 18 hours. You buy into Thibs you get the whole package, which is that there’s always a way to win a game and we’ll find it. He’s proven to be a top coach and I agree he’s not being fired. There are plenty of issues this season obviously beyond his control with injuries and uncertainty.
No stupid trade suggestions. But a question about Thibodeau. I think a lot of the Bulls problem now is psychological, not just injuries, and they are still getting past losing Derrick and all their dreams for this season. I do not think you can get past that by just saying "play harder, no one is going to feel sorry for us, etc etc." How has Thibs handled the team's mental game?
Sam: I believe there is something to that, but I have yet to see Thibs with any Native American amulets or lessons from the Sioux. Not that Phil Jackson would be able to work out of this, either. There’s only so much you can do with misfortune, that being physical as well as mental. Thibs is and makes no secret of being a work based manager. Those are the methods that have succeeded for him in the past and he’s not likely to invoke the metaphysical. He’ll stay with the physical.
Do you think, with the way that D.J. Augustin has been playing, that there is a chance we may have found a new backup point guard? Kirk isn't getting any younger, and is constantly banged up when playing big minutes. Do you think that, as much as it hurts to say, that we don't bring back Kirk and bring back D.J. to run the show when Derrick is on the bench/injured?
Sam: I do think part of the reason they opted for Augustin is training for a potentially future backup position given Hinrich is a free agent. It’s not a bad fallback option given the return of Rose and even if it’s someone to play third string who can play with Rose at shooting guard or even Hinrich.
I know Phoenix is scorching, but are they really trying to win? Is their success coming in spite of themselves? Do they have motivation to decelerate in their winning ways? I only ask at the availability of Goran Dragic. His skill set seems ideal for what ails the Bulls at the moment: abilities to draw defenses to the paint and hit a shot beyond the arc. The starting job is too much for Kirk to handle at this point in his career. Dragic at 7 mil a year is pricey, but this team as constructed is missing a creator.
Sam: There are oh so many reasons why that isn’t feasible. The Bulls have to count on Rose’s return, so the last thing they’ll be looking for is a point guard with a long term contract. That said, though fans don’t worry much about selling tickets and attendance, teams do. It’s nice to win and the draft is no guarantee. What the Suns are doing is without the benefit of recent draft picks. They have plenty of picks and have positioned themselves nicely. Also, building is not about losing 65 games. Ask the early 2000 Bulls. Winning and losing both become habits. The Suns are in a nice place now with some surprising early season success. Their fans like it, so it’s not likely they’ll be making any moves that won’t make them better from a personnel standpoint; just as their GM suggested last week to NBA.com. They will give up some picks for really good players. They don’t seem about to give up players, and that two point guard rotation is one of their strengths, especially in the Western Conference, where scoring and creating on the perimeter are vital.
With the most recent struggles to score the basketball, do you see the Bulls making any big moves or smaller moves like D.J. Augustin? Maybe Chris Kaman Perhaps as he seems to be on the outs in LA.
I hate to say this but we could kind of use Rip Hamilton right about now.
Sam: Maybe that was the secret plan all along to keep Rip in reserve. It’s fortunate the way the rest of the league has cooperated by leaving him alone to be available.