Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 10.30.2015

Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers

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By Sam Smith | 10.30.2015 | 10:00 a.m.

Maybe you can help shed some light on the principles of the Hoiberg offense. As far as I can tell, it is the same offense the Bulls have been running but with more time on the shot clock. Thibs liked calling plays so it often seemed like the Bulls would walk the ball up court, run a few off ball screens, try and isolate a post man, and if that failed, spread the court and attack the rim in the last 5-10 seconds of the shot clock. The only difference appears to be they are committed to always having shooters spread the floor and the attack starts immediately off both made baskets and rebounds. So they are creating more possessions and opportunities, keeping shooters on the floor and going faster, but not really running sets.

--Ron Goldberg

Sam: Yes, you have a lot correct. The notion of a “system” that gets mentioned so much in the media is much overrated and misunderstood. It’s more a philosophy difference between people, which is the primary difference between the way the Bulls played under Thibodeau and the way they’ll play now. I much prefer this style, but you have to appreciate the Bulls under Thibodeau for their competitiveness and relentless play.

Teams pretty much mirror their coaches. So one of Hoiberg’s unspoken tasks is breaking the Bulls from thinking Thibodeau. Fred can’t say that in deference to Thibodeau. And he shouldn’t. But all habits are tough to break after five years. The core remains the same and they are accustomed to running to a spot and waiting for something to happen. This was a reflection of who Thibodeau is. He doesn’t like extemporaneous. His strength is preparation. He’s the kid in class who gets the highest grade every test because he has studied 12 hours more than the next kid. It’s often what’s lost on the coaches who didn’t play; they don’t instinctually react to situations because they didn’t as they weren’t participants. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Thibodeau’s coaching was the Bulls scrimmaged as little as any team in the league. Thibodeau’s practices were mostly constant and inexorable walk through of plays. It’s why the Bulls didn’t run the ball much.

Thibodeau was more prepared than any coach in the league and his plays were rehearsed the most. So they succeeded a lot. But come playoff time when everyone else had time to focus on just the opponent they weren’t as effective. Still good, though the margin decreased. The Bulls also always had good character people who would carry out these mandates. You can’t do that with your J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin types. So the Bulls stayed away from those guys. Management could be criticized for not taking chances with players, but too many guys like that could ruin the court makeup. I’ve hated that sports has become more Thibodeau’s way. Coaches in football call every play to the ludicrous point of receivers in helmets; baseball managers call every pitch. It’s ridiculous. The catcher and pitcher know better. I blame the overmanaging group, but it has caught on and in some respects become a justification for excessive coaching salaries.

Hoiberg is trying to go back to having players be more the decision makers, which I applaud. Really, that’s why the triangle is so good. Its negative is the media doesn’t understand it, so often condemn it. Hoiberg’s “system” is not complex. There’s a lot of simple dribble weave action like you might see in your basic beginning basketball workouts. Everyone plays off high pick and roll in the NBA these days. There are classic plays to start actions with perhaps a postup and then screens off the ball. The essential element is to find open space and keep moving, dribble drive and pass the ball. Though the Bulls started 2-0, the offense hasn’t been very good. Hoiberg wants pace and speed even after made baskets. But you can see a combination of them still accustomed to walking into a play and not really in shape to play that way. With basically all starters missing some preseason games and plenty of guys playing who no longer are, they aren’t in the best shape yet to push much. So they don’t. Well, not often enough. That will come as they get in shape playing the games.

Plus, they’ll scrimmage in practices. And, really, these guys like to play like all kids playing games. They’re good people, so they didn’t complain about all the walk-it-up stuff. And they were successful, after all. I’d ask players occasionally why they just don’t run through the play calls. It wasn’t like Thibodeau was playing someone else. But they’d all say, well, you don’t want to reject the coach. Good character guys. The players are now more asked to respond to what the defense does, meaning if they switch and it’s a smaller guy on the big guy get the ball in there and quickly. Before they’d stay with the play more. Also, even if you are not running the ball up as quickly, make quicker decisions in the half court so you are not stuck so often with those forced shots at the end of shot clock. And then have options to try more plays. It’s pretty basic basketball stuff and takes advantage of your talent being better. The Bulls talent is now. I don’t completely reject how Thibodeau handled it given so many players were hurt. Because that’s how you neutralize the talent differential when the other guy is healthier. You play more slowly to keep the game closer and keep their talent from overwhelming yours. With the spate of injuries, especially to Rose, the Bulls often had to do that. They don’t now and Hoiberg’s philosophy should serve them well.


The Bulls have used a very balanced attack in their first 2 games. Rose was a little more passive, yet still effective, in the Brooklyn game. Do you see Rose trying to become more of a dominant offensive player on a nightly basis this season, or is he likely to continue picking and choosing his spots? Do you think this team is good enough as a collective unit to potentially win a title with Rose playing in this somewhat reduced role, or do the Bulls need him to eventually assert himself as the team's alpha dog on the court?

--Dan Michler

Sam: For all the time people here have seen Rose it still surprises me that so many don’t see him for what he is, that being a team first guy. I understand the reluctance in some sense given he did score so much and that led to winning MVP and all the other honors. But if anyone has a history of unselfish play, it’s Rose.

It’s been many times noted his history in high school of deferring his scoring so teammates could get college scholarships or drafted higher when he played in college. The Bulls starting lineup his best season when they won 62 games and went to the conference finals was Rose, Keith Bogans, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson (Carlos Boozer later after missing a month) and Luol Deng. Who exactly was he throwing the ball to make so many plays? Or even a shot? So he took much more onto himself and even the next season when he started to get hurt and was starting with Richard Hamilton, Noah, Deng and Boozer. Not exactly your group to spread the court. Plus, Coach Thibodeau was basically running everything through Rose in the half court.

Rose’s assist numbers never have been big, which leads others also to suggest he doesn’t want to pass. He is a scoring point guard in the modern sense, so not the playmaker like Chris Paul. But Rose is a willing passer. Many of his passes get moved on and, as we noted, he’s played with a lot of bad shooters. I have never seen Rose upset after a poor personal game; I have seen him upset after losses.

I do think the Bulls need his scoring, though more his spurt scoring, being a guy who can create for himself when everyone goes cold. No one can do that like Rose can and the Bulls missed that more than anything when Rose was out. It’s not so much finishing the game but that five-minute stretch in the third quarter when no one can make a shot when he takes the ball, makes a layup or gets to the line, slows the game and the opposition’s run so you are not trying to come back from eight down in the fourth quarter.

I think this notion of someone “asserting” themselves as this my team go-to guy is a media myth. If you have Michael Jordan or LeBron James, OK. But there’s no one else in the league like that. Durant needs Westbrook and Ibaka. Paul needs Griffin and Jordan. Harden needs Howard plus. Kobe missed the playoffs without Shaq and until they got Pau. Duncan always needed Robinson, Parker and Ginobili and understood. And so did the fans there. The Bulls have a chance because they don’t have one guy who has to be the guy. Rose played like he did before because the Bulls weren’t good enough to win and he had to play that way to give them a chance.


Ok, its early, but those wr 2 entertaining games. I really like what i see so far. Snell is playing like he means it.

--John Leichenko

Sam: I have to be the voice of reason both ways. They could easily have lost Game 1 because if Noah wasn’t hurt he probably would have been in there at the end instead of Pau and then maybe no block on LeBron and he steals the game as the Bulls did collapse pretty badly at the end of that game. And the Nets aren’t close to being a playoff team. But it’s good they got off to a 2-0 start, especially for Hoiberg. Because you know if it went the other way my mail would have been filled with all the need-Thibodeau-back stuff, and not only from Tom. The best part about how they’ve been playing is that more of the talent is being given a chance and has produced. At least for now.

The notion is that pays off in the playoffs; so we won’t obsess one way or the other too much in the regular season. Right? But Tony’s play—even though we won’t mention it that much since Tony is a very tough interview because he’s so shy and soft spoken—may be as vital as anyone’s. It’s obvious Hoiberg likes the Pau/Mirotic starters. So then you need Snell to be good because you need a defensive element to go along with Butler since that’s not a strength of Gasol or Mirotic. Mirotic said he’ll improve and I have no doubt he’ll try, but it’s tough. It’s why I also think when Dunleavy returns he could come off the bench to keep two good defenders on the court most of the time. Tony still tries to underhand scoop that drive too much. He’s shown more overall aggression; he’s good most of the time defensively, though he seems to have those focus issues with the occasional odd foul. If he were to attack the basket more aggressively, even if unsuccessfully at times, he’d really be a boon to the lineup. He is making strides that way so far.


Awesome start so far! Another good problem to have: Will Mike start when he's healthy?Tony has been doing very well with that first squad, showing the aggressiveness we all wanted to see. If you slide him to backup 2 instead of starting 3 that messes with McD off the bench.Otherwise the lineup looks solid and we have a tremendous mix of offense and defense.I know we are only two games in but I'm very excited!

--Matt Mikulice

Sam: Yes, a 2-0 start is more fun. Even as we know the 1990-91 title team started 0-3 and the 1991-92 team was 1-2. As I noted above, I think for defensive reasons and unit balance the Bulls are hoping Snell can earn his way into the starting lineup with consistent play. That’s far from certain yet.

Hoiberg has said he’ll try different groups, so it shouldn’t be a big deal and I believe he will. I think he goes with who’s playing well and how the group is operating. You can see in the first two games already Hoiberg making changes when the unit on the floor staggered. He didn’t keep to set rotations.

Plus, Mike is a classic team guy and came to the Bulls to play off the bench. He sacrificed—it turns out his body—starting and playing all those extra minutes with guys out. I’m sure he’d have no issue in whatever role they put him in and it should help McDermott if he played with him even if they have defensive shortcomings. While E’Twaun Moore has been very good and deserving of playing time, neither he nor Brooks see the court all that well and are scorers first. It’s left McDermott, playing with them often, a lot of open looks squandered for the best shooter on the team. But that’s going to be an ongoing issue with a team that thus far has a lot of specialty players—frankly, as most teams do—better on one side of the ball than the other.


Do you like Noah coming off the bench? Is he okay with it? Should he at least be closing games for defense? Given Portis' solid play in preseason, why hasn't Hoiberg tried to find minutes for him, at least when Bulls had 2 spurts of 16 pt. leads against lowly Nets? I actually think Bulls can win 59-62 games. Also, how come Hoiberg doesn’t wear a tie.

--Marcus Anderson

Sam: Noah is OK with it and actually went to Hoiberg before the opener and said he liked the pairing with Gibson and thought coming off the bench was best for the team. Jo’s career has been about not only being a team guy, but his success depends on team success since he’s not scorer. The closing thing also showed how much luck plays a part in these things as well with Pau closing Game 1 perforce. Then Pau made the play of the game blocking what seemed like a sure LeBron score. Hoiberg has been honest when he said he’ll go with the circumstance and who is playing best and he’s stuck with that, which is good for the team and should be a motivator.

After all, if you know you are always finishing will you try as hard as if you have to work into that spot? It’s not a science with a coach as much as an educated hunch as Game 1 showed. I’m fine with the way Hoiberg has dealt with Portis. Yes, it was exciting to see his ability in preseason. I agreed opening night against Cleveland wasn’t a great time for him to play with the intensity and demands. Better to debut with the president and LeBron not watching. He could have played in Brooklyn, but Hoiberg has to get his big men time. After Pau had a poor opener, he had to work him in. And it was obvious Noah wanted to play to get going, which he hasn’t yet.

Same with Taj, who as we saw wasn’t as sprightly in the second of a back to back. Hoiberg has to get his veterans in better shape and accustomed to the style of play. There’ll be time for Portis. He’s 20 and we know guys get hurt. No hurry. Bairstow is being patient as well. As for the tie, it’s not absolutely mandatory. But more, Fred has a doctor’s note. He’s had heart surgery, which ended his playing career. He has a pacemaker and wearing a tie was uncomfortable and potentially a health issue, or has been before his most recent surgery earlier this year to replace an aortic valve. He seems to be doing fine and not getting hysterical during games also seems good for his health.


Saw them shoot several times with 18s on shot clock and they were clean
shots, too. That's real different.

A right-sized game for this group is going to be 85 shots or more. A good model for them would be '84-or-so Lakers with McAdoo, Byron Scott, Worthy, and Wilkes. Downside: lots of turnovers. Want to go for that tough-to-achieve 2:1 ast/TO. @ >85 shot/g. That's about the right clip. Should see a few games >90 s/g and may see a 95 shot game. This team scores in bunches. Tough part for players as they run this offense: discipline and efficiency. Focus real important; easy to look like a dork at film time.

Pete Zievers

Sam: Just need Magic, Worthy and Kareem. But I do get the point. Getting those shots up more quickly and not forced will increase the number of shots like the Suns a few years back. Turnovers are a part you have to put up with and Magic, after all, often led the league. It’s part of enabling players, which I prefer. It’s an aware group. You have problems when you trust, say, DeMarcus Cousins. If you just read box scores, as an aside, you don’t get Cousins. He puts up amazing numbers, but has no basketball IQ. He’ll come down the stretch making mistake after mistake in holding the ball, forcing shots, committing bad fouls.

I believe he is well meaning and really wants to win. But he never can until he has a coach who isn’t afraid of him. You can tell everyone in that organization is afraid to say anything to him for fear of what he might do. The only time I ever saw him play intelligently--which shows he can—was under Mike Krzyzewski with USA Basketball. Karl could have been that guy, but his job is so tenuous now he cannot afford another incident with Cousins. I picked them to make the playoffs because they do have talent. But Cousins will constantly frustrate them. It’s funny to listen to their TV announcers ignore all his wacky moves. I assume his family watches the games. OK, back to the Bulls. I’m looking forward to when they get in shape and break their habits and whether they can play a faster game with two full units and multiple substitutions. There’s still a long way to go.


Some thoughts from the first few days: Right off the bat D’Angelo Russell is one of the worst defensive PGs in the league; Knicks fans beat a team with no Giannis and no Mayo but to them they are going to compete with LBJ for EC; Gentry must be thinking to himself I could be coaching the champs right now but no i had to take this job; Davis will waste his prime yrs battling for an 8th spot out in the west: How long does Lionel last? Mario Hezonja Impressive. Speaking of guards Nate was waived by the Pels after 2 games.

--Mike Sutera

Sam: I don’t make much of the first day or week or month, though the signs of concern are the early blowouts. It will be much harder to win MVP for Davis if he doesn’t make the playoffs. I initially blame their problems on Asik being out and playing Kendrick Perkins, whose sloth offense can bring a whole team down. Give them a few days. What was bad about the Grizzlies in the opener was they didn’t defend. I watched a bit of the highlights and they contested nothing. It was surprising.

But a blowout here and there occurs. I remember the Bulls in 1993-94 with Jordan looking on in the opener at home after “retiring” and losing to a pretty bad Miami team by 24. And closing late to get to that. And that turned out to be an excellent season after a 4-7 start with three of the seven losses by more than 20. Basically everyone has dismissed Memphis from the top four in the West. Has the window closed? Will they overreact? Will it motivate them? They won scoring 112 in the second game. So lots of interesting storylines to watch. That’s what you watch for early in the season. The Nets don’t have playoff talent, but management doesn’t always like to admit that. I’m not sure I agree with Barkley about the Knicks in the playoffs, but I’ve felt they would make a step to being competitive and at least with a shot in the last month.

The Magic will be here Sunday and I have them as my surprise East team and making the playoffs. Their backcourt is talented and watch out for Payton, who is going to be a triple double threat many games. I think Skiles will want to start Hezonja as he’s a Skiles type guy, tough and cocky. Skiles has veterans to deal with, but he’s our favorite no nonsense guy. The Magic look like they got a bad goal tending call in a one-point loss in their opener. They’ll be tough on anyone as Skiles’ team are. And I’m so proud of my readers with not one email demanding Nate’s return.


I just read your feature from a couple of weeks ago about the Bulls' first season. I wrote you once before about the Will Ferrell basketball movie Semi-Pro. You said you've never seen it and I don't blame you. It's not great. However, I write you now because of two notable inclusions in your feature.

There were promotions and entertainment, like when Bentley had to wrestle a live bear at halftime and Kojis, who generally is credited with the Bulls for inventing the NBA alley-oop dunk, called the kangaroo kram back then as supposedly the first lob dunk to be in a game plan.

In the movie, Ferrell's character is the owner and player/coach of a bad ABA team. He's a terrible player but supposed to be a genius promoter. At one point in the movie he does wrestle a bear in a cage on the court as a promotion.

During the movie's climax, Ferrell is briefly knocked unconscious before the last play of the game. While unconscious he has a dream in which his dead mother inspires him to to use a new kind of play, an alley-oop, to score the winning basket. He wakes up and coaches his teammates on how to execute the play. They do so successfully and win the game. So not only does the movie depict the imaginary first alley-oop, it's a planned play.

Just seemed like two crazy coincidences to me.

--Cameron Watkins

Sam: And since we know there are no coincidences in art, it sounds like the Bulls and I have a law suit there. Though I’m not sure we would want to punish a Will Ferrell movie since watching one would seem punishment enough. I actually thought that guy’s movies were dramas. He’s actually trying to be funny? Now that is funny.


Does Jerry have next June at Grant Park booked yet?

--Gorav Raheja

Sam: Yes. I heard Krause is running a softball league.

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