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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 6.3.2016
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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Another Finals loss for LeBron. What does this do to his legacy?
Sam: It ain’t over quite yet, but you better get the game when Curry and Thompson are bad. It was tough for me to see going in how the Cavs could win this series with their lack of defense from so many main players, like Love and Irving. The Cavs’ success in the East playoffs against lesser competition hid their still tendency to play isolation. Under pressure, Irving went back to that; Love, too. Bench scoring like in Game 1 is an aberration, though the Warriors did it in the conference finals as well.
To digress, that also showed not only the difference in the teams in that series but the flaws of the Oklahoma City players and coach. The way Billy Donovan feared using his bench after having a 3-1 lead showed his distrust of the team and, in essence, himself. The best coaches aren’t afraid to use their players, and the players know that. The Thunder took a 3-1 lead going slower and bigger, and then they went back smaller and faster. Huh? Same with Durant and Westbrook, who under any pressure at all forgot about their “supporting cast.” Anyway, back to LeBron. I’ve been noticing some things about him this season and not just from Game 1. He doesn’t finish with the explosiveness he used to. He obviously missed a lot of layups Thursday, but we saw that during the season as well. He still finishes with power, but doesn’t seem to have quite the same explosion.
It’s no surprise since he’s not immortal, as great as he is. He’s 32, has played 13 years (the entire career of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan’s entire Bulls career) and more than 200 playoff games. He probably can see the end, or at least a slowdown, and you could see in that Game 1 an urgency we’ve basically never seen before in a Game 1 from James. I think that’s why his teams have lost so many of those in the Finals. He tended to ease into Finals game ones believing his dominance. Not this time. What probably is clear to him is his top teammates aren’t good enough to enable him not to do everything, which he no longer can do regularly. As good as Love and Irving are, they aren’t good enough. After all, neither played in a playoff game without LeBron. Which makes for what figure to be some intriguing questions and issues if the Cavs lose this series.
Does LeBron try to recruit Durant, whom he has worked out with, try to lure him to Cleveland or go somewhere with him? One interesting element of the Durant free agency is whether he goes to Thunder management and says he’s leaving and get something, so trade me for Blake Griffin, for Kevin Love. After all, no one saw the Miami move for LeBron in 2010. Never say never in the NBA. Would LeBron seeing the window closing move on one more time to find better teammates? You can be sure Cavs management will be wheeling and dealing (and sweating) if the Cavs lose. The Cavs did take a third quarter lead in Game 1, so don’t eliminate them yet. The Bulls, after all, 25 years ago Thursday lost Game 1 of the Finals at home. Then they won four straight, though their Game 1 loss was a last second winner. Not garbage time for the reserves the last few minutes. LeBron’s legacy is assured; he’s a great one and probably top 10 all time. His immediate future is going to be a lot more interesting.
Curry & Klay started raining 3's on the Thunder. They'll beat the Cavs that way too. Soon they can scratch the playoffs and just have a big 3-point shoot-off for the title. That's why I think the Bulls should only sign players who can hit the 3. Athleticism & defense still count, but 3-point shooting is what you need to win these days.
Just for grins, I ran some stats on the Conference Finals. There was only 1 game in 13 where the poorer 3-pt. shooting team won (Game 5: OKC: 13-30 for 43% GS: 9-24 for 38%). Volume isn't as important as accuracy. Cleveland took 41 treys in each of their 2 losses, and averaged 23 in their 4 wins. But they made 44% in the W's and 33% in the L's.
Sam: It’s why, at least in the short term for this season, the Bulls have to fix the backcourt. Unless Butler comes back as a knock down three-point shooter—and he’s shown no tendency toward that—the Bulls have to break up that backcourt and move Jimmy to his more natural small forward position. Jimmy can even play some four like Draymond Green with his strength, though the Bulls are loaded at four as McDermott may fit there best as well. The Bulls have good three-point shooters in Mirotic and McDermott. I also believe Portis can shoot the three well enough as he matures. Also, Derrick Rose began to shoot the three better before being hurt. He’d worked himself up to 33 percent in 2010-11, attempting the most threes in his career. Without training camp and with numerous injuries in 2011-12, he never had the time to recover that rhythm and then has had to start again with the surgeries and last season the eye injury.
Still, Rose isn’t likely to ever be a great three-point shooter. So you need a great one at shooting guard. Jimmy will work hard, so he’ll get better. With Mirotic and McDermott, either coming off the bench or Mirotic starting, the Bulls will make threes. But they have to spread the court with outlet passing and movement, so if they go back to that ball holding, which was a problem with Butler and Noah, then it doesn’t matter if you have the three-point shooting. Despite the state of despair toward the team in the community—though more in the media—I see them able to get back into contention with this group and with just a few changes. But you are correct. You’ve got to shoot and make the three these days, and you have to move the ball and yourself. Golden State demonstrates it. You won’t be as good as them. But you can be a lot better than you have been.
If only Snell had more confidence in himself. He has a great shooting form not to want to shoot more. Do you think he will ever come around or should go ahead and attach the (Bust) label on him now?
Sam: Let’s examine the concept of the bust first. If Tony Snell fails, he’s not a draft bust. Because he wasn’t supposed to be a star or close. Fans and media generally have this wrong. Players like Snell, drafted No. 20, are fortunate to become NBA regulars, let alone All Stars. You generally build your team with top five to 10 draft picks. Perhaps to the bottom of the lottery, but you can’t count on even a certain rotation player out of the lottery. Sure, there are exceptions, like Jimmy Butler, a great pick at 30. But that’s cherry picking to point to the players at the bottom of the first round or into the second, like Draymond Green, who became All-Stars. It’s much easier to pick the winner when you know the score. The Bulls’ biggest issue is they have been going for it. I like that. Since the free agency of 2010, the Bulls have been, even with the injuries, trying to win. When you do that and your goal is the playoffs and perhaps an upset or going as far as you can go, after awhile you have to start again, or retool through a combination of the draft and free agency to keep going. Ho many draft choices do you remember with the 90s Bulls? You can try the 76ers/Bulls ’01 route, but that is a long, painful and usually fruitless attempt to return to competitiveness. Especially with the way the draft is now with so many young players who generally are a few years away from contributing to a playoff team. Even Kobe wasn’t ready, and he’s one of the all-time greats. Garnett, neither.
The Bulls have done remarkably well in the draft overall—when compared with other teams drafting similarly out of the lottery—with an All-Star in Butler and potential starter in Nikola Mirotic after the top 20. Perhaps Bobby Portis some day. But, similarly, if players picked in the 20s wash out, it’s no surprise. That’s more typical. Check the last few drafts. Check the 2012 draft when the Bulls selected Marquis Teague at No. 29. He didn’t make it, but he wasn’t a bad pick. It made sense. The Bulls needed a point guard and he won a championship. Here’s the eight players selected ahead of him in the 20s: Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo, John Jenkins, Jared Cunningham, Tony Wroten, Miles, Plumlee, Arnett Moultrie, Perry Jones. How about the guys in the 20s in 2013: Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee, Solomon Hill, Tim Hardaway, Reggie Bullock, Andre Roberson, Rudy Gobert, Livio Jean-Charles, Archie Goodwin. Sure, some reasonable selections, but hardly a starter and just role players. Or 2014: Bruno Cabocio, Mitch McGary, Jordan Adams, Rodney Hood, Shabazz Napier, Clint Capella, P.J. Hairston, Bogdan Bogdanovic, C.J. Wilcox, Josh Huestis, Kyle Anderson. That’s almost 30 players picked in the 20s over three years and it’s difficult to make a case that you could build one team from that group that could win 20 games.
They’re not busts. They’re not supposed to be great outside the lottery. You hope you can get a few players to help. As for Snell, I’m not optimistic unless he undergoes some kind of personality transformation this summer. He’s got enough skill; but you never know about a person until you live with them. Snell moved in and the Bulls discovered he’s just nice. Not competitive enough. And proving it takes more than work. He is in the gym more than anyone, and more that the guys who always are talking about how hard they work. They’re just better. But there’s always a chance he can show something more. It’s up to him.
Is Kevin Durant ever going to claim the mantle of a great player – and win a truly big game for his team in the playoffs? Or is he destined to be just a great regular-season player and a nice playoff option?
Sam: Despite my aforementioned speculation, I do believe Durant stays in Oklahoma City, at least one more season. There’s a huge economic reason to sign a two-year with a one-year out with the salary cap taking another big bump up next season and Durant being able to sign for maybe $60 million more. Plus, they did get awfully close with a rookie coach. Donovan was OK, though no different, really, from Scott Brooks. Not that they had to keep Brooks as it becomes time for a coach to leave. Seven years for Brooks was a long run. But Donovan wasn’t able to impose a discipline on Durant and Westbrook to give up their my turn/your turn isolation play, especially in pressure situations.
Not to make the comparison with Dwight Howard, but Durant hasn’t done enough with his game, either. He’s probably so good he doesn’t feel he needs to. But he’s never really developed a post game and other options. So he takes shots farther out. I’ve been getting the feeling he needs an Allen Iverson type team where everyone rebounds and gets the ball back to him and plays defense and he does the scoring. As close as they got, I’m not sure the pairing with Westbrook ever will work because Westbrook even when he does get a lot of assists it’s usually because he’s passing to Durant and then standing there. Rose does the same thing, but no one makes shots. Given the Thunder had a 3-1 lead, it’s probably worth another shot for Durant and then a chance to assess when the money is so much more after the 2016-17 season ends. He will be 28 before this season starts and he has played nine seasons. He’s still closer to being Dwight Howard than LeBron with post season success. It figures to be a factor in his future plans regarding teams and teammates.
I knew the year would be tough, a team without any changes with a new coach and style is going to be a transition since Hoiberg likes his Hoiball. This lineup the Bulls have is actually going to be pretty decent for years to come. There are good young players on this team that I believe can develop good games. Mirotic, McDermott, Felicio, Portis, and I would like to say Moore would be a great veteran player to keep around. Youth is uncertain but I would like to think that eventually we will still have a team to build off of. I am actually not against trading Butler. A lot of people are kind of talking ridiculous on the trades, though if they can get a good trade for a high draft pick. Mr. Butler is valuable and unless you get a good offer you keep him. What I am trying to say is that instead of waiting to get talent around the good players they need to have all their talent develop at the same time. We get good players but they are not performing at the same time. If we can strike gold and have Portis, McDermott, Felicio, Simmons, and Mirotic hitting their stride at the same time could be a mix and match nightmare. I would like the Bulls try and get talent for their guys instead of watching them leave 1 by 1.
Sam: I understand the concept, but you really cannot have success trying to bring a half dozen or more young players along at the same time. There’s the obvious lack of veterans, and you didn’t see many young players in the conference finals. One issue with trying to bring along a team like that is when players all are playing for their first big contract after their rookie deals—even if they are unselfish people—it’s almost impossible to sacrifice so someone else can put up the big numbers. That’s one major reason why teams with a half dozen or more high lottery picks routinely fail. You need a good blend with veterans, and especially in this era with young players so bereft in fundamentals it becomes a mess trying to coach a team loaded with players on their rookie contracts. Which is another big reason not to do anything with Jimmy and Derrick Rose, at least at this time.
Since it seems like the Bulls are going to not make a major overhaul this off season it seems, I suggest they make a run at signing Dwight Howard since I don't see Houston wanting him back with D'Antoni there now. Even though he's not what he was, he can still provide some rim protection that the Bulls sorely lacked this past season with Gasol at center. I'd rather blow up this team and start over, but if the front office insists on keeping Rose and Butler together, then I think it's worth a shot if they can get Howard for around $20-22 mil a year.
Sam: Let me see if I have this right: You want a center in his 30s who’s had back surgery and best days are past and after 12 years still can’t make a shot or has a post game to sign to a long term contract as the team’s pivotal figure going forward? I know, someone will give Howard a huge long term deal. And I agree with D’Antoni in Houston—who I believe will do wonders with a player like James Harden and make that team lost better—Howard has no place. But given Howard’s flaws and the way the game has progressed with shooting and as many areas the Bulls need to fill, I think the least amount of spending should go to the center position. I agree Howard can help a team and isn’t done, but you’ve also seen his clowning around act for a decade. Can you trust him to now get serious? I’m thinking the Bulls have a better plan than that.