Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 2.06.2015
Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
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By Sam Smith | 2.6.2015 | 9:11 a.m. CT
Here are a few thoughts/ideas about the season thus far and where it’s going. First, and I’m a Thibs supporter, but this is by far his biggest challenge as a head coach. The pieces are there, it’s the most talent he’s ever had (despite a few injuries, but that’s gonna happen to any team), and it’s gonna be entertaining as heck watching him try to figure it out. Next, despite the recent losses, we’re seeing the return of near-MVP Derrick, who’s such a joy to watch. I think back to the past couple seasons, watching them play the Bucks or Nets or whoever on a Tuesday night, seeing Derrick in a suit on the bench, thinking, man, I can’t wait to see that guy out there again. And now he’s back, and fans should appreciate it. True, he still jacks up too many 3s and defense could be better, but we didn’t have this guy earlier in the season, and he’s gotten his arsenal of amazing moves back. Which leads to the next point, the emergence of Jimmy, Brooks and Niko and resurgence of Pau, all very pleasant surprises. Which leads to the final point: the defensive identity. Pau’s not part of that. That’s Noah, Taj and Jimmy, and to some extent Kirk and Dunleavy. If we’re gonna get stops, most of those guys need to be out there, and I wonder if we’ll see them closing games more often, at least in spot situations. That’s Thibs’ challenge, to make it all work and maximize the results with this talent, and let’s be honest, making adjustments on the fly hasn’t been his strong suit. The drama has been heightened because the stakes are higher than they’ve been in years, and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Sam: I tend to support your view more than the panic that’s going on in some places now regarding the Bulls. There’s no doubt they are not playing well and have not the last month or so. But they did play well for two months and have a 60 percent winning percentage. But this is Thibs’ first ever true crisis. This is the first time in five years he appears to have a team that is underachieving. Not fully because of the injuries to Dunleavy, the developing comebacks of Rose and Noah and trying to work in so many new players. But more had been expected of this Bulls team. The record isn’t horrible as they are barely behind the Cavs, but they are going through what the Cavs already have passed. So it looks worse. We’ve heard enough of lack of energy, not being ready to play, being stagnant and all that. And it’s there for all to see. It’s often been an unenthused basketball team. My sense with this team is they’ve pushed so hard for four years, at least the core guys, and it didn‘t get them far enough, though mostly due to Rose’s injuries. I’m not saying they are pacing themselves, but there’s a lack of the sort of frenzied effort we saw in previous years. Of course, that was unusual as basically no one played like that. My sense is these guys are looking to get to the All-Star break and then gear up for the home stretch. I’d like to see some changes in the lineup, some others playing, some different rotations and strategies. Maybe that’s some of the drama to watch with Thibs. His Bulls teams for four years have overachieved every season. This group is underachieving, at least in the way they play, if not completely in record, which isn’t that bad. The Bulls are making the playoffs no matter what happens; and they have enough talent as long as the health builds and improves, to make the sort of run we saw from them in December. Can Thibs get it out of them? Do they have it in them? How will it manifest itself? It should be an intriguing close to the season.
The Bulls have no chemistry. Not even Jimmy and Rose. It seemed like they were playing off a back to back. As if they didn't have four days to practice for this one game. It is really sad to see. No one is taking charge. No one is hungry. Pau Gasol and Noah do not work well together. They still don't know where they're supposed to be. I think Thibs has gone soft on them. What do you think could ignite this team? How come it didn't seem they had a game plan? Are they making plays? I don't see them. Time to panic yet?
Sam: If it stays like you suggest, but I’m not the panicky sort looking at the circumstances of this regular season. There’s certainly some joy and enthusiasm missing, and you hear the players address it occasionally. It’s felt with this team like there’s a weight resting on it. There’s negativity toward Rose that’s unbecoming when the guy is trying to recover from a career near death experience; there’s Noah trying so hard to get back the movement that made him the league’s best center while trying to adjust to new teammates. There’s Gibson doing his best with the disappointment of not starting. There’s Butler trying to adjust to suddenly being the go to guy and a new contract hanging over his head. There’s Gasol trying to fit in without disrupting what’s been a good thing. Gasol, by the way, to me was the right addition given Noah’s health concerns and that Carmelo Anthony needs knee surgery. Remember, adding Anthony would have cost at least Dunleavy, Mirotic and McDermott and required Noah to play 40 minutes at center. I’m not convinced this lethargy won’t continue into the All-Star break, after which should come the test. Can Thibs rally them when everyone sees the finish line, the weather starts to turn better and the health presumably improves? There are X and O things everyone has ideas about, pace of play, lineups and rotations. But with the offense they have they don’t have to defend like they did. Plus, it wore everyone down. The Cavs are looking terrific and are no defensive juggernaut. There’s plenty of time to make a run. At least before panic time.
Rose reminds me of jordan when he came back as #45 - some flashes, but over all inconsistent. I don't think anyone can take 2 years off anything and still be great at it. By next season he will be back to form, but hopefully sooner, like this spring would be nice.
Sam: That’s a well reasoned view regarding Rose. So what are you doing in my email? I understand no one likes being patient. Like going to the doctor to demand those seven-day cold remedies. No way you’re waiting a week for it to go away. As I’ve mentioned many times, I feel Rose is having a great season because he is playing, he is healthy, and every time he falls it’s not a story anymore. That’s a main element of what this season was about for the Bulls, like it or not. I love the way Rose has handled this by taking the season in stages and trying to do more each 20 games once he’s assured of his physical status. And he’s still averaging close to 20 points. It doesn’t mean the Bulls cannot compete, but after missing basically two full years and having two major operations and not playing with the Bulls for about 30 months, it will take a season to get back to where he needs and wants to be. Jordan is a great example. Rose is no Jordan; let’s get that out of the way. Michael missed 18 months, but he never was hurt. Still, he came back with the worse looking shot. He was awful. He had by far his worst shooting season. Yes, he had that 21-37 game five games in for the 55 points in New York for the legend: Here’s his next six: 8-17; 5-19; 13-31; 9-27; 9-26; 8-27. Did anyone beg Jordan to stop shooting? No. He closed that regular season with an 11-29. He closed the first round series with an 8-21 and then started the Orlando series with an 8-22. And this was Michael Jordan. The greatest basketball player ever in the prime of his playing life. Look at Tiger Woods. You miss time with injuries and even the greatest ever by far in their sport take time to return to competitive form. And no MVP-level player ever has endured what Rose has with multiple major surgeries. Jordan was a career almost 50 percent shooter and came back to shoot 41.1 percent, even lower than his first Washington season when he finally did have knee surgery. Jordan’s shooting in his return from baseball—not major surgery—was basically 20 percent poorer than just about every season in his Bulls career. If Rose is healthy through this season, I look for much better things next season. But thus far given Rose has continued to play and improve each segment, I don’t see how this season for him has not been a success despite the outside whining about three-point shooting percentage and overall shooting.
I wanted to ask you about two plays from last night's Houston game. The first was when an unknown (to me) Houston big went between Jo and Pau for a put back on an offensive rebound. The two looked at each other in confusion. The very next defense play, the two both went after a rebound, fought each other and then lost it out of bounds. Noah looked extremely annoyed. Shouldn’t this be over by the time we are at the 50 game mark? Are Pau and Jo, both extreme talents, just not compatible? They keep talking about communication but they’re starting to sound like the boy who cried wolf. Dunleavy for MVP!
Sam: The more games Mike misses the better he becomes. Well, Jo did get 19 rebounds and they pounded the Rockets overall on the boards. But you should against Joey Dorsey and Montiejunas. The Bulls, as I wrote in my post game analysis, were outhustled often. But Josh Smith as much as we joke about him, if he’s not shooting but defending is a heck of an athletic talent tough for the Bulls to match. Without Dwight Howard, the Bulls had matchup issues as Pau is not about to be flying all over the court defending like Noah. But he can shoot. Very well, by the way. So you sacrifice in some areas to improve in others. We hear all about communication on the court issues, but not with Noah. He’s talking all the time. So far it’s a lot of the same issues with speed, spacing, isolations, bench play that’s been suspect at times. Issues that can be remedied. But every repair doesn’t always hold.
Is there any truth to the rumors the Bulls are looking for trades - most likely involving Taj? It seems a little bit of an overreaction at this point with the "starting 8" having played so few games together (and being 13-2 or something like that when the best 7 or 8 players are healthy). I do think the Bulls have to evolve a lot until the playoffs but I don't think more changes will help at all at this point, if anything the team needs continuity and stability at this point.
Sam: I don’t think there is anything at all to it. How exactly would it make sense, anyway? Noah isn’t fully healthy, so how do you give up your primary defensive backup big man? Yes, I’d trade Taj if you get maybe Harden or Curry. But who are you getting? Maybe someone like Afflalo or Wilson Chandler, guys who have mostly languished with losing teams. How exactly are players like that supposed to rally experienced playoff teams? I cannot see any significant trade that truly makes sense for the Bulls and don’t believe they are having any serious discussions regarding their rotation players. And you don’t cash in first round draft picks unless it’s for a player who can get you into the Finals. And then you have to match salaries and the better the player you would go after the larger the salary you have to yield. The Bulls hardly have big salaries they can move to match in a trade without taking a step backward.
Here goes. Carmelo to the Bulls for Pau, Gibson, and Dunleavy (or a pick). Phil gets three hard-working, high IQ players on reasonable contracts to start building a foundation. And the Bulls return Noah to his natural position, paired with a young stretch 4 to spread the floor. Needless to say, Carmelo would make up for the loss of Pau's offense.
Sam: So that’s where this stuff is coming from. Actually it makes a lot of sense since Carmelo is probably having knee surgery after the All-Star game and it would give the Bulls time to do some hospital visiting while saving Phil Jackson’s season as a thank you for all those titles.
What's happened to Mirotic? He looks like a wreck out there, so different than he did in the beginning of the year. I know a probable answer is "the league has caught up with him," but can you tell us what other teams are doing to throw him off so badly on both ends of the court?
Sam: Probably expected way too much too soon. Here’s the difference and why I promoted him for rookie of the year earlier. His games matter. I saw Wiggins had six points the other day, shot two for eight. Who cares? No one says a word. Because no one is watching and the results don’t matter. Mirotic never has been through anything like this before even with his European titles. So it’s a lot to expect, especially with him being relied upon so much and playing even a position he never prepared for in the offseason, small forward. Thibs has played him. So much for he won’t play rookies. Maybe not as much always, but Thibs is results oriented. Personally, I’d like to see Mirotic never dribble. Stand in the near corner and shoot threes. I think he’s trying to do too much because he really wants to please and loves the team. He’s going to be a terrific player; but he’s the only rookie in the league playing a major role for a contending team. No one else is. Shabazz Napier? The Bulls play the Rockets and their rookie, who does play occasionally, sits out. Mirotic doesn’t. Under the circumstances, he’s doing great.
Is Doug McDermott still hurt or is Tibs just not playing him because of all of the rookies? Do you think a little time in the D League would help him get his shot back?
Sam: You can’t use everyone, though I believe you can use this guy. Thibodeau, like many coaches, doesn’t employ a lot of rookies—as I wrote, check the rosters of the top teams—and once you‘ve missed all that practice timesand games as McDermott has it can be tough to get back in the rotation. I’m very much for giving McDermott a chance even if he just stands there and shoots. I watch him pregame shooting and he has one of the most perfect shots I’ve seen with consistent rotation. And, yes, this is a team that needs perimeter shooting. So we’ll see since McDermott has just come back from the knee surgery.
What I was wondering was what kind of scouting report do the players get before games? And just what kind of preparation do they make for each particular game? Like, do they go over which players have been hot or cold lately, do they look at video of offensive moves the opponents tend to make and how to defend them, talk about the other team's defensive schemes and what they will plan to do to break the defense down? Would Thibs tell Derrick to try to drive more against a guy like Tony Parker or would that be up to Derrick to figure that out? I'm just curious if you could provide some insight into the pregame preparations NBA teams are engaging in.
Sam: This is a strength of Thibodeau’s. He prides himself on preparation. He keeps his own statistics in addition to the many the league and services provide and even has invented some over the years. After all, he’s basically just doing basketball. Every team scouts the opponent and prepares a report for the players about the opponent tendencies and strengths and weaknesses. For each game, every Bulls player gets a 20-page report on the opposing team, the plays they run from every situation, what they are called so you can identify them when the opposing coach yells them or signals them (there are few secrets in the NBA, which would not make it good for the New England Patriots), what the opponent has done against your team and other teams. A mischaracterization about Thibs is the overworking of players. Yes, he plays them a lot in games, though not as much this season, but rarely, if ever, scrimmages in practice. He believes in resting that way. Actually, I prefer the scrimmaging as it’s the fun part of practices. So I think the Bulls practices, or at least from what I have heard as I don’t see them, is they sound mostly boring. There are drills like scrimmages, but a lot of walking through your plays and the opponent plays. There are regular film sessions in which the previous game is shown with suggestions about doing things differently or mistakes shown. My sense is Thibs has backed off this a bit this season as the “mistakes” have been more plentiful. It’s not fun to watch yourself being called out in front of your peers regularly, though it’s a staple with NBA teams. Phil Jackson did it well. Some players aren’t good seeing themselves being called out for mistakes. Jackson understood who, so he basically blamed Horace Grant and then Toni Kukoc for what others did wrong because they could take it the best. But there’s a disconnect between knowing what to do and always being physically able to do it.
I'm not sure if I'm right but by the looks of it, it looks like Rose's pick and roll defense is terrible. He goes over every screen and once the defender gets a step on Rose he hardly can recover. It looks even worse when its Gasol and Rose defending the pick and roll. Is this a weak spot in our defense or is the problem starting from something else?
Sam: Defense is, as Thibodeau always says, a team job. Rose never has been a great defender, though he tries and is competent. Watch just him some games and you’ll see some weak defense and some great defense. But I see more breakdowns, especially up front where there’s not as much help or stunting or blitzing the pick and roll. The Bulls stay with what they call “icing,” which is pushing the pick and roll to the baseline, where there is supposed to be help. It hasn’t been there regularly. As I often note, this is not a roster built for defense the way previous ones have been. And it’s more difficult without a set rotation. Though you may not agree with all of Thibs’ moves, he has started Snell and even Bairstow. He’s tried stuff, which also makes it more difficult. In previous seasons, there was a short rotation and everyone knew their role and spot and there were more defensive players with Deng. Now there are not as many. I thought the Bulls were playing over their heads in December; they seem to be making up for that now.
If the Thunder don't make the playoffs do you think they would look for a new coach? Some fans and writers have complained for years now that Brooks isn't a great coach and only wins because of all the talent he's had. I'm not taking a side here, but I can see how it'd be hard to fire your coach when you're a top team in the West every year. Maybe this year gives them an opportunity in that regard?
Sam: It’s a results oriented business with the average coaching lifespan about two to three years. Scott’s done well with that team; I might differ on how they play and the use of so many isolations, but I don’t believe you can control Westbrook as the way he plays in that frenzy I’m convinced he’s unaware of where teammates are much of the time. I think Scott has done well to harness the talent since I believe he understood he just didn’t have a point guard like any other point guard. But remember, this is his first head coaching job as well. It wouldn’t be fair given injuries all season for basically the first time, but hired to be fired is more common with sports coaching/managing than anywhere in the work world.
Are we calling it Whitesanity? Pat (Riley) with a gem of a signing. Imagine, had the Kings had him playing like this when he was with them a few seasons ago.... wow. Cousins and Whiteside.
Sam: The Bulls might have had him, but they basically do underachieving guards.
Mark Cuban's advocating for the elimination of the fan vote is absurd. The ASG is first and foremost about the fans. He should be more worried about a backup center. The fans voted in Magic Johnson when he wasn't even playing and he came out and won ASG MVP in one of the classic performances of the event. This isn't an election, it's a popularity contest. Every single NBA fan pays their fair share to see these athletes play, either through tickets, or just paying their cable bill (neither of which are very cheap these days). We've all earned the right to choose our favorite players. He's way off base on this one, in my opinion.
Sam: Mark does like the sound of his voice. Though his model is having appeal among the new owners, many of who like being media stars, also. But Mark’s not dumb. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that everything Mark suggests is to benefit Mark, and the Mavs, of course. So when he moans about the All-Star voting it’s because he doesn’t have All-Stars from his team. When he moans about realignment it’s because he sees a better chance for the Mavs in the playoffs in the East. When he’s railing about officiating it’s to gain an edge for his team. I don’t see a thing wrong with the fan voting. I think they basically get it right every time, and you want to see Kobe Bryant in an All-Star game. Heck, the coaches did the same adding Dwyane Wade when he’s hardly having an All-Star year. They wanted to see him in the All-Star game. This game of the fans, by the fans, for the fans shall not perish from this sport.
My friend has been a Knicks’ season ticket holder for ten years. They didn't give season ticket holders any All-Star tickets. The option to be put into a lottery and if selected than you could buy them. Pretty messed up.
Sam: It’s probably the main reason the Bulls don’t have the All-Star game anymore. It’s become so big and is, in effect, sort of a league trade show. So the league basically takes just about all the tickets for sponsors and advertisers and special guests. So the home team is left with very few tickets, nowhere near enough for even their loyal and longtime season ticket holders. So you’ve bought season tickets for maybe 30 years and then the NBA brings its big event to your city and your arena and you can’t even get an upper deck seat. It’s not fair to the season ticket holders who support the team all year long and I don’t blame the Bulls for passing on the game, which last was in Chicago in 1988. Though next year it’s in Toronto and whose idea was that to put the big winter event in Canada?
I get excited about every Bulls season, and that has been building season to season with Rose finally back and the new additions. Since Thibodeau took over, there has never been a stretch where I turn off the game or don't even watch, not until this season. It's painful to watch what appears to be uninspired basketball. Defense is bad and offense is even harder to watch. Lack of reliable three point shooting stagnates the offense making the game not fun and could be the reason for the lethargic play. Energy? Three point shooting you ask? Last I read the energizer bunny may be available. Bring back our beloved Crazy Nate Robinson.
Sam: You, I will say, have officially panicked.