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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 2.12.2016

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By Sam Smith | 2.12.2016 | 9:35 a.m. CT

Did you see ESPN doesn't have Kobe in the top ten of all time. And Lebron is #3. What are they thinking?

Abe Rotbart

Sam: I’m going to try to discuss some more neutral NBA issues this week as many of my emailers have become absolutely hysterical about the Bulls’ last month of play. To summarize: The Republican primary debates and exchanges are much more civil. And generally at a greater intellectual plain, though I will address some. Yes, Donald Trump might uplift the quality of discussion among Bulls fans. Anyway, sad as I am to interrupt the deification of Kobe with the World Celebration in Toronto this weekend, I’d take LeBron between the two. I believe LeBron affected winning more. Not just because he’s dragged a pair of poor Cavs teams to the Finals. He’s an amazing force in the game who at his best—and we compare them at their bests—overwhelmed opponents only like the truly great ones like Jordan or Wilt or Shaq or Oscar. And Curry? That’s another side in an amazing question to answer soon. There are just a few players ever who are basically indefensible and LeBron has been one. Kobe was great, though I’ve often felt more from the strength of his will and determination to be successful than just an amazing physical, intimidating talent like LeBron. That all-time top 10 thing is tough as I’m not sure Kobe makes that. I see you reference an ESPN list, which I usually ignore since they never pay much attention to the origins of the game. They seem to count time as the zero year being 1979, their introduction. B-ESPN doesn’t get enough mention. I know we’ve come to consider titles the tie breaker, but in an era of Auerbach/Russell/and 7 Hall of Famers on one team, it’s tough to have many titles if you are West or Baylor or Robertson. But their impact in their era was every bit as great or greater than Kobe and LeBron have had in theirs. Plus, players like Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Oscar, Bird and Magic are naturals. I don’t have LeBron or Kobe ahead of any of them yet. Maybe LeBron some day. Probably not Kobe. And, after all, LeBron may be the face of the league the last few years; West as the NBA logo has been the face of it for 60 years.

With Jay Williams coming out with his book last week got me to thinking what could've been. Do you think he would've been as good as Derrick Rose or would the Bulls been any closer to a championship had he not made that terrible decision to get on that bike? Personally in the NBA I don't think he was as good as he thinks he was but to hear him tell it he was headed for a hall of fame type career. Just wanted to know your thoughts on him.

Carl Reynolds

Sam: It obviously was one of the great what ifs, though more for Jay’s career. You feel badly for him for the torment that losing his career has been for him. And as an aside—I’m big on them this week to put off my Bulls talk—I also think it’s why Derrick Rose has come back as he has in fits and starts. Though it doesn’t mean much to fans as they’ll want the next one, it does mean something to the people who lose their careers. Jay lost his and it’s obvious how much it has haunted him. Derrick wants to have a basketball life, so he’s going to monitor his health his way to have that. Who can blame him after what he’s gone through? It’s why all the hysteria and condemnation about Derrick supposedly eyeing free agency has been so misplaced and misunderstood in its personal hatred. I don’t believe he’s not aiming for the contract. He’s got plenty of that. He’s aiming to have a career that can carry him into his 30s so he can look back and not feel cheated and empty like Jay has. Are you ever wistful? Do you ever wish you had tried something else or done something different? Derrick doesn’t want to live like that and who can blame him? Anyway, I’m with you. I would have been intrigued to see Jay develop, but I don’t think he had All-Star in him. I thought so watching him in college and felt his pick after Yao Ming was just as good for the long term future. But Jay was a tough guy to understand. He alienated teammates in always telling them how much better he was because he went to Duke and the Duke way was always right. He was small and a poor defender. Jamal Crawford used to beat him up in practices. Jalen Rose used to mock his game failures after he’d proclaimed his Duke toughness. It would have been a tough transition to be a point guard leader, though that was such a dysfunctional team it’s tough to judge anyone. I think Jay would have been a solid pro with a 12-year career, short of being an All-Star, a Derek Harper without the toughness. He probably was more an undersized shooting guard the way he played and more a good sixth man for an offensive boost. But he would have had a good career, and that’s a shame for him.

So, Phil and Thibs. Do you see either one going for that?

Alejandro Yegros

Sam: I saw some bookie service (legal in Vegas) post odds as Thibodeau the favorite for the Knicks’ job. Take that bet. There’s no chance that happens. There are so many reasons too multiple to count. Phil said as much in his statements after firing Fisher: Good relationship, system of play, work with assistants closely. He didn’t say no friend of Van Gundy, but that’s accepted as Jeff and Tom have taken plenty of shots at Phil and the triangle over the years. And Phil still has a closer relationship with Bulls management. Which is hoping Thibodeau gets a job, actually, as they have to pay him for two years if he doesn’t. I have no inside information, but I can see Phil hiring Brian Shaw, whom he regards and is a good guy and tough former player who believes in his system. Plus, Phil is much misunderstood on the triple post (triangle). It’s hardly exclusive. He didn’t preach it when he came to the Bulls and coached in the CBA. Then he talked about Red Holzman’s motion game. Phil doesn’t demand the triangle. He just demands you have a system of play from which players can move the ball, move themselves and work for higher percentage shots. Just good basketball. It’s tough to make that point in New York, where the basketball intelligence tends to be low. I also see Luke Walton waiting to see if the Lakers’ job opens up as they are big in bringing in Lakers’ people. Tom should get a job with so many open or figuring to be, like Minnesota, Houston, Brooklyn for now and who knows how many more by the end of summer.

What a mess this season has become! The Bulls are now tied for the last playoff spot in the East. It's time to face reality and accept that even when healthy, they won't get past Cleveland (and possibly a few other teams) to win the East. That said, are they better off trading guys like Pau and Taj for future picks and cap relief at the trade deadline? Wouldn't they be better served missing this year's playoffs altogether and hope to get lucky in the draft lottery (ala 2007-08)? I say it's time to retool (notice I didn't say "rebuild") around Jimmy and Bobby.

Mike Burgher

Sam: Sigh. I know this is so much the sentiment with the current stretch of losing 13 of 18. Actually, they were almost a mirror image of last season’s team before then, leading the NBA in defense (No. 1 field goal defense against), beating good teams and losing to lesser ones, wildly inconsistent and losing late leads. Then Noah went out (they were about 10 games over .500 then, and then Mirotic and Butler and losing three road games in the last seconds or overtime that put them in seventh instead of third). Yes, that’s about four possessions from third or fourth place. So, of course, give up. I have counseled many times—to little or no avail—that this season always has been about giving this group a last shot to see if they can get healthy come playoff time and do something. Maybe they’ll miss the playoffs. Maybe they’ll be out in a round. But they deserve the chance to find out. It’s on them. There are no trades that would yield little more than future second round picks and expiring contracts, so what’s the point as the Bulls in the coming years can create plenty of salary cap room and will over the next two summers. I think what many are missing is this is a poor free agent crop coming up (I expect Durant to stay in Oklahoma City one more season), but with perhaps two thirds of the league with big cap room with the new TV deal, teams are going to be spending crazy money on lesser players. It’s not the last free agency. I’d hold my money until I could go for a pair of free agents and then add to what I have. Plus, these guys often like to go in pairs. Plus, the only success in the NBA is with stability. Look at the teams that regularly change coaches and management. They stay where they are for years, Sacramento, Minnesota, Brooklyn, and now the Lakers. Look at the teams that don’t often, like the Spurs, the Thunder. Patience is not a fan virtue. But that’s why as Bill Veeck used to say, if you listen to them pretty soon you end up sitting with them. It’s time to stay the course and run it out and see what happens. And then react to that.

The Bulls are definitely on a skid now, and the boo-birds even came out. The fourth quarter was played by a group that, besides Derrick and Doug, was basically the end of the Bulls bench at the beginning of the year-- Felicio, Bairstow, and Brooks. Everybody seems to be pretty much bummed out to be playing for the Bulls (bad body language), and as Neil and Stacey mentioned many times during the broadcast tonight, there is little to no movement in the offense and people are just taking turns going one on one. Hoiberg definitely needs to be given time to get this up and running. As I remember, in Budenholzer's first season in Atlanta, they did not have an outstanding record, but in year two they clicked and took the #1 seed in the East. Maybe it will just take time and a few roster tweaks in the off season to get the Hoiberg era going like we hoped. On the other hand, maybe we are looking at last year's Knicks team, which, despite being expected to make the playoffs, basically never played well together in large part because they were a team waiting to get broken up, and they never invested in making it work as a team. Everyone was looking at the future and where they would end up, with basically only Carmelo knowing he would stick around. If you could look into your crystal ball, do you see this season as an adjustment period like Atlanta in Budenholzer's first year, or do you see this season and team ultimately falling apart like last year's Knicks team?

Michael Gates

Sam: I don’t see the Knicks falling apart as theirs is more a limited progression and a successful season despite the coach firing coming off 17 wins and having a young player to build with. Though as you see they need way more than him. Overreaction is balm that soothes. The Atlanta comparison is interesting as they did have the patience to support the coach through a losing season and put together role player pieces that ended up winning 60 games. The rumors have been they want to make major changes because they cannot win, but I’m not convinced of that. Sometimes, yes, you run across a Jordan or Magic/Kareem/Worthy and you can’t get through. Maybe it is that way with LeBron, and you have to ride it out until he loses something. But with the Bulls this is the start for Hoiberg as it was for Budenholzer, and if you overreact as soon as things go awry you then mostly qualify to host talk radio. Can’t say it’s not entertaining. Probably pays pretty good to be the sporting Glenn Beck.

Bulls fans, myself included, are pretty upset these days and we're looking for someone to blame! It's not been much fun tuning into the games these last few weeks. But one of the narratives I've been reading is that Gar Foreman has killed this team by drafting poorly the last few years. I was looking back at the draft choices the Bulls have made since he became GM. I don't think anybody is arguing that 2009 and 2011 weren't very successful. The 4 drafts since have not produced any players that are jumping off the page yet. But only one of those picks came inside the Top 20. Is it fair to condemn the front office for a lack of success in the draft?

2009 - James Johnson (16) Taj Gibson (26)

2010 - Kevin Seraphin (17)

2011 - Nikola Mirotic (23) Jimmy Butler (30)

2012 - Marquis Teague (29)

2013 - Tony Snell (20)

2014 - Doug McDermott (11)

2015 - Bobby Portis (22)

Stephen Fulton

Sam: On balance, which public debate considers little, the Bulls really have been excellent in the draft. Take a look back at the champion Bulls and their draft picks from the 90s. Or even the Spurs in recent years. That they got a star at 30 is a major coup, a regular for years at 26 and there are possibilities obviously for Mirotic, McDermott and Portis. It’s actually one of their strengths. The only way to measure it is examine the other teams who have drafted basically out of the top 20 for seven years and count how many rotation players they have on a team that even if you are disappointed,still remains above .500 with all the injuries. Without examining it, I’d guess those drafts are top five in the NBA and Seraphin was the Wizards’ pick from clearing cap space for LeBron/Wade. The Warriors are the latest model, and they basically missed the playoffs for 20 years and finally with a dozen top 10 picks hit on one or two that worked. Draymond Green was their steal, but they essentially spent two decades getting there. And it shocked them as well when they did.

With the Bulls being in obvious need of a shakeup, and with Fisher out and Phil's comments about NY seeking a big trade, any chance the Bulls go after Melo? I've been against the idea most of the season, but with the Bulls losing their way so badly I feel like it might be the right time to pull the trigger on something big. Quite a risk, but potential reward...

Geoff Robson

Sam: Yes, that should turn things around, acquiring a 31-year-old with bad knees and one of the biggest and longest contracts in the NBA who is a renowned ball stopper with his isolation play. In any case, from what I’ve heard Anthony likes living and working in New York, likes their new roster and wants to play where they’ll eventually retire his jersey. Plus, he has a no trade clause. You see where this hysteria gets you.

Why would anyone think our bottom 7 guys (and two banged up starters in Pau and Derrick) could beat the top 7 guys from any other NBA team?

Chris Granner

Sam: Why, indeed?

Rose for Joe Johnson who says no? Gives Bulls more cap space this summer. Helps the Nets win more games now and Rose does have a better upside than Johnson - albeit a huge injury risk. If not this trade, do u have any potential Rose trades? His contract is awful but only lasts 1 more year after this one, surely someone looking to win now would take a flyer on him, no?

Billy Habibi

Sam: More Rose trades? It’s basically not possible because of his injury history, contract amount and whether he could even be insured given his preexisting condition. But say you get the cap room. Though after being burned taking other team’s veterans there’s little chance the Nets are doing that again. As I said, I doubt Durant leaves this summer. Chicago, as you may recall, doesn’t have a glorious record attracting free agents and many of the top ones already have almost recommitted, like DeMar DeRozan. Nicholas Batum? Yes, I like him a lot. But you’d then also need a point guard and my personal opinion is given the trajectory Rose is on and on pace to play about 70 games, which looks like it will be more than Butler, Rose could come close or be at All-Star level next season. With just one year left on his deal and no player on the market who can make a major difference for your team—and you having to overspend given you’d have put yourself in a desperate situation giving away one of your top players---wouldn’t you even be curious to take a look with one more season on his contract? And if you believe as many do Rose is aiming toward a new deal, then wouldn’t you want that last best season? Both say no deal.

The Bulls are 50- ish win team right now when healthy. The current thought among many fans seems to be that the Bulls are good enough to compete in the playoffs but not good enough to truly contend unless they get some lucky breaks like an injury or something. Therefore, they're worthless and the team ought to be blown up. But my question is, blown up for what? What good would that do? If the Bulls are a 50 win team that means they are basically one star away from potentially being a true contender. I could understand if the Bulls were in the "dreaded middle" but they're not. The way I see it, if they blow it up they will have Butler and some role players which means they will be too good to get a low pick but not good enough to attract a quality free agent. At least where things are now, they could be in a position to acquire some quality talent to push them to the top.

I don't know about you but I don't want to watch 3 seasons of 20-30 wins during Butler's prime when we could be competing every year.

Joe Tanner

Sam: That actually makes sense. Who is this, really? That’s been my point as well. I’m not for quitting, which this doomsday scenario generally is, but the larger point which so many overlook is unless you sit Jimmy down for a season you’re not going to be bad enough. I truly believe those last minute losses on the trip took a lot out of them. It’s not supposed to happen, but they are not computers. They worked so hard and they were right there and nothing to show for it. Forget all the give up 100 points stuff; they were playing higher tempo Western Conference teams and staying right with them, teams that have come East lately and won. The idea is to take what you have—after all, everyone spent last season yelling they had to see McDermott and Mirotic and now half a season later you’re done with them forever?—and build on it. Plus, there’s the Rose wildcard as he’s shown in flashes brilliance and the question of Noah and Gasol. I assume they bring back one. After all, without them your front like is Mirotic, Gibson and Portis. C’mon, seriously? So there’s really not going to be cap room this summer unless you strip down the team, and then do you think Jimmy’s going to do a lot of recruiting for you when you left him with a 25-win team? He’s got an opt out somewhere there and you might worry first when you decide to be uncompetitive for the future whether you can hold what you have. After all, players have to live it for six months and I don’t see Jimmy passing to a lot of future draft picks. Heck, he yells at Portis enough already.

What Golden State is doing this year is pretty amazing but the team that I'm really impressed with is the Spurs. They have been overshadowed by GS's great season and aren't talked about much but they are right there with GS in standings with an unbeaten home record of 28-0. What's more impressive is that Greg Popovich strategically rests his star players regularly. Pops makes coaching look easy, is always having fun and everyone seems to love him. He's got to be one of the greatest coaches ever if not the best.

Jay Choi

Sam: You’ll get no arguments anywhere and he’s going to make that next Olympic team fun as well. Because he understands coaching is not so much the strategy and time outs and foul or let them shoot a three stuff that everyone second guesses, but the building of relationships, having a balance in your life and caring about people, being willing to hold them accountable like you would with your kids but teach and help them all the same. It’s why there aren’t many good coaches. And corporate managers. And my experience newspaper executives. It’s why Red Auerbach was so good, and Phil Jackson hid it, but you ask Steve Kerr and he will tell you Phil and Popovich have much in common. Though the Golden State job was too good to pass up because his family was not leaving California, Kerr really was close to going to New York because he wanted to work with Phil. Though the Warriors pummeled the Spurs recently, that’s setting up as an amazing conference finals. Except the Spurs do have problems with the Thunder. Could be an amazing Western Conference second and third round. Can’t wait.

I used to be a Kobe hater, still am most days.But lately I'm rooting for him a bit. They are 14 games out of 8th place. The teams ahead of them aren't that special. With 30 games left in the season can Kobe make the playoffs one last time?

Matthew Mikulice

Sam: No, and they certainly don’t want to as they lose their draft pick if they don’t finish bottom three. Kobe’s getting to take plenty of bows. If he had to play in the playoffs, he might be carried off on a stretcher again. We’ll get to see him in Chicago the Sunday after the All-Star game, and the betting is the West guys conspire to freeze out everyone else and get Kobe that last All-Star MVP this weekend.

Why hasn’t the Bulls management figured out that the real reason why this team is so inconsistent (injuries or not) is the fact that we just have too many players in Gasol, Mirotic and McDermott who are all poor defenders? This goes back to last season even with Thibs so it really has nothing to do with coaching change. Even with Boozer he was much better than these 3 guys since he can at least box out and get defensive rebounds.

Tom Choi

Sam: The Bulls miss Boozer?

A lot of people are talking about why this Bulls team is struggling and placing the blame on hoiberg and the players. Players such as Deng and even Nazr Mohammed were good leaders who could communicate properly and the players we have now: So at what point will the front office blow up the roster

Abdinassir Suldan

Sam: And Nazr?

You indicated that the mailbag tone from your readers was angry. I don’t get the anger. Maybe it’s politics seeping over into sports or infecting the general populace. Why be angry, especially now the Butler is hurt. You pointed out that all these guys play hard. I agree. Maybe not smart all the time but there are no slackers. Hard to be angry starting Bairstow. Hard to be angry while playing Felicio. Hard to be angry playing without 4 of your top 6. Tell your readers to lighten up, enjoy the journey and remember that these are people not robots.

Greg Young

Sam: You tell them.

Actually, the tone does remind me of the political season, the name calling, the cheap shots, the vindictive demands for retribution. And then there are the candidates. There’s obviously an anger in the country that has produced such hostile reactions, though these are more common than you think in politics. Jefferson’s win over Adams in 1800 was one of the dirtiest and ugliest ever and I read where in 1796 Washington was routinely called a traitor and a British sympathizer by allies of Jefferson, who were mad Washington sided with Hamilton. Makes Trump and Cruz look passive. We always thought sports was supposed to be the simple escape, the toy store of the world, a place to get away from the anger and ugliness to play games and enjoy the greatest athletes in the world. Have we become that corrupted? Hey, you ever got me being serious. I need to watch an All-Star game.