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What did you expect out of the Lakers?

“[Now] that the Lakers are committed to D’Antoni, they have to let him coach. Because you can win the way he coaches. He has won,” writes Sam Smith. “I know D’Antoni is criticized for lack of defense, but that misses the point. It’s also how much you score against how much you give up.”
"The Lakers weren’t going to be athletic," writes Sam Smith. "They were going to be vulnerable to the speedy, athletic teams in the Western Conference, that they’d be better late than early when the game slowed down in the playoffs. So maybe they will be, assuming they make it, which is no real assumption now."
(Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Look, we all knew the Lakers weren’t going to be that good. Hey, hey. No, really. Well, I had them third in my preseason Western Conference picks. So, yes, I was a bit off as they now are as they head to Chicago Monday for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day national TV 8:30 start 12th in the Western Conference and 17-23, a game and a half ahead of the Kings, though not being sold to Vancouver interests yet as far as we know.

Look, we did know this, especially with adding Steve Nash. The Lakers weren’t going to be athletic. They were going to be vulnerable to the speedy, athletic teams in the Western Conference, that they’d be better late than early when the game slowed down in the playoffs. So maybe they will be, assuming they make it, which is no real assumption now.

I still do assume they make it, though a couple of teams will have to get really bad and they may not think the national ESPN and TNT ratings for Lakers’ games is important enough for their demise.

Not that I ever was a fan of Mike Brown, but his half court, not-coaching-offense style was not unreasonable for this half court style Lakers’ talent. But we know management had enough after five games, they decided on Phil Jackson and daddy Buss said no and in came Mike D’Antoni.

Not that it’s a wrong choice. But now that the Lakers are committed to D’Antoni, they have to let him coach. Because you can win the way he coaches. He has won. It’s just that David Stern took away his title in Phoenix with the pettiest technicality suspensions ever in 2007. Remember that Suns team, which isn’t exactly this Lakers team or this Steve Nash? No one in the East could play with them. They blew through games. Eastern teams just can’t keep scoring like that. I know D’Antoni is criticized for lack of defense, but that misses the point. It’s also how much you score against how much you give up. If you score 120 you can give up 110. The Lakers won a title in 1987 giving up 108.5 per game, in 1985 giving up 110.9 per game. But scoring way more.

I know it was a different era, and this Lakers’ team is 26th in points allowed. But it’s fourth in scoring and has a plus-margin in points scored versus allowed, which means it should be better than .500. It’s because they won’t allow D’Antoni to coach. Look, if you are going to have him, and he has been a winner for decades — it was tough in New York, though, with Carmelo Anthony telling Jeremy Lin if they refused to run his plays they could get him fired — you have to run it his way. No, he doesn’t post up, particularly. So first, you have to trade Pau Gasol.

He wants to start. Fine. I understand, and D’Antoni is trying to be the good coach. But I saw him finish the other night with Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kobe, Ron Artest and Nash. That means you have maybe the league’s worst three point shooter, Artest, as your spread the floor guy. I know the Lakers fear losing Howard as a free agent, so they are afraid to deal Gasol. But they have to take the risk and commit to Howard. So if he leaves? Someone always comes to L.A. D’Antoni desperately needs his power forward to stretch the floor and shoot threes. His game is all about spacing the floor, running and shooting. The ball finds energy, remember? Not 29 percent three point shooters, as Artest was last season. Nash and Kobe still can do it.

Yes, there are flaws. The Lakers with Howard, who isn’t nearly as good a defender as advertised, are an awful pick and roll defense team because Howard doesn’t like to play it. The Bulls will run dozens of picks and rolls, which gives them an edge, though they can’t score with the Lakers.

And Howard is as Robert Horry and Shaq suggested, a clown. You can’t win if he’s your main guy as the Magic learned through years of being blackmailed by him so they had to put up with his puerile antics in doing everything but wearing a red horn for a nose. But with Kobe you still can because he’s still great. Not the best. Just great. Howard, though, is a force and you have to take your chances. Get rid of Artest, who’s also a distraction, add an athlete and a shooter in a trade. Pau would be the East’s best center. He’ll win for someone. Take the plunge. He probably fits D’Antoni better as he can pick and pop, but you went for Howard. So you have to ride it out. The Lakers always have been bold. Now’s the time again.

Expect more changes in Phoenix

-- Much of the trade speculation lately focuses on the Grizzlies with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and just about everyone but the rights to Big Country Reeves. Also, the Jazz with their forever speculated about big guys. But my guess is we’ll see the most deals from the Phoenix Suns, who Sunday added interim coach Lindsey Hunter to replace the fired Alvin Gentry. With longtime Piston Hunter, who was a Bulls player as the league’s oldest in 2009 and later assistant, named interim coach it suggests given Hunter’s lack of coaching experience and that he was in development that the Suns are going to blow up the team to go young. Which basically means, and understandably at this point, really, saving money with declining attendance. If you can’t draw fans with a competitive team, which was the ill-thought-out notion to start the team with a badly flawed roster, then you cut payroll and costs. And while the Suns have an awful mix of talent, they do have some nice individual players who could help teams, like Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola and Jared Dudley. Michael Beasley, meanwhile, is always available. They’ll probably keep Goran Dragic, though they did draft point guard Kendall Marshall No. 1. Scola and Dudley have two years left after this season and Gortat one. You assume the Suns gladly would take expiring deals and draft picks.

Could Bulls have two All-Stars?

-- I know Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has Luol Deng a lock for the All-Star team, which is as close to lobbying as Thibodeau comes. And I now do think Deng makes the team, though it will be close. This is not a homer pick as I think the coaches pass on Chris Bosh given his poor rebounding and Paul Pierce given he could barely guard Thibodeau and the Atlanta guys may have shot themselves in the foot again. Joe Johnson? He didn’t deserve it last year. But one could slip in. I am saying Joakim Noah definitely makes the team as well, even with getting benched at the end of that Saturday night loss to the Grizzlies. Of course, Dwyane Wade similarly was benched along with Chris Bosh last week against Utah, and Wade is starting the All-Star game for the East. Yes, it happens all the time. Coaches are like that. Otherwise, why would they make so much money? They have to have these strategies and ideas. I even remember Derrick Rose getting benched occasionally the last few years in rare bad games, one against Miami and once against the 76ers. As for the Eastern Conference reserves, who will be announced Thursday, the coaches are asked to vote for two guards, three front court players (no designated center anymore) and two others. And, yes, Kevin Garnett remains an East starter even though he is having basically his worst season when he’s not having knee surgery. Is the East that bad? Garnett probably shouldn’t be on the team, which hurts the chances of players like Carlos Boozer, leading the East in double/doubles, though no way the Bulls would get three. I’m saying the 76ers Jrue Holiday and though I’m not sure he makes it, I’d go with Brandon Jennings given the Bucks playing well. There’s sentiment for Kyrie Irving, but, geez, you have to win some games. I say Paul George, Tyson Chandler and Brook Lopez. The East really is down, so maybe Josh Smith makes it even after the suspension or Al Horford or maybe David West. I know the TNT commentators were lobbying for J.R. Smith, but get serious. In the West, you’d add James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who are better than the East starters. Then Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph and Stephen Curry. Sorry to David Lee, Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol.

Grizzlies could follow Blazers’ 1977 blueprint

-- When Memphis coach Lionel Hollins won a title with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, they had just remade their team. They got rid of their leading scorer, a forward, actually, Sidney Wicks, got Maurice Lucas from the ABA and with young players and built around Bill Walton and won. So perhaps that’s the model for Hollins’ Grizzlies as they obviously are trying to move their forward and leading scorer, Rudy Gay. It’s obvious new ownership doesn’t believe this Grizzlies team can win. And maybe they’re right. The talk around the NBA is this is financial, that new ownership was undercapitalized and is scrambling. But they haven’t come close yet. Still, you’d like the players to have a shot. And so would Hollins. It was especially interesting to read Hollins’ comments on local Memphis radio — it seems likely Hollins in his contract season is being ushered out — as Hollins seemed to indicate new management’s fascination with advanced metrics demonstrates they mostly are accountants. Said Hollins: "The reality is that we have a very versatile small forward that is 6'9". There aren't many guys out there like that. He can post up, shoot from the perimeter [and] he can attack the basket. He defends LeBron James, he defends Kevin Durant and all these guys that are tall and strong and quick and athletic. We don't have another player on our rsoter with that versatility, and most teams don't. That's the bottom line. You hear people say that Rudy and Zach can't play together and they don't fit. They do fit! They need each other. Zach needs Rudy's versatility, and Rudy needs Zach to post up and get rebounds. We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that's a bad trait all over the league that's taken place. The media has done it because it's easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. Just the analyzing, I see it every time listening to talk show radio. You've got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat. The bottom line is going out and contributing to your team for winning. Analytics has a place. It can't be the be all end all. I'm still trying to figure out when the Oakland Athletics won a championship with all the analytics they have (Moneyball). When it comes down to big shots, there's only a few guys that will take those shots, want to take those shots, have the bravery and courage to take them. Because there's a lot of criticism when you miss a shot. You have to be mentally tough and courageous to take those shots at the end of the game. There are some guys that contribute so much that the stats don't even talk about. A guy running the court, filling the lane 100 percent of the time is better than having a guy that's a little more talented that fills the lane 40 percent of the time. That guy filling the lane 100 percent of the time is going to create a shot for somebody else. There's a lot to be said about stats, but there's a lot to be said about heart, toughness, courage and bravery to go in the big moment." Rumors recently have intensified about Gay being traded since the Grizzlies hired ESPN stats analysis John Hollinger. According to the statistics system Hollinger came up with Gay’s salary outpaces his worth. And Portland didn’t win with Wicks. Of course, you only needed to watch to know why. By the way, the new team owner last week had a dinner with players and didn’t invite Gay or Randolph. Though credit Gay. When told, he said: “I hope it wasn’t at my favorite restaurant.”

NBA news and notes

-- The Celtics still are fuming about the jump ball call at the end of regulation Friday that enabled the Bulls to beat Boston in overtime. Though you see that often with .500 teams, the Celtics Sunday falling back to even with their fourth loss to the Pistons. Like Toronto Wednesday, with the league admitting the officials got the call wrong benefitting the Bulls, the Celtics also are appealing to the NBA, though, as coach Doc Rivers said, “just to make me feel better. He (Paul Pierce) was fouled, no doubt about that,” said Rivers. “But if you watch it, (Rajon) Rondo absolutely called a timeout, and he was an inch away from (official) Marc Davis’ face and did it twice, and then you can see (official) Sean Corbin’s hand go up for a jump ball, so it was clear that, in my opinion he was fouled, No. 1, and No. 2 we got the timeout and it wasn’t called (the Celtics also said Jimmy Butler and not Joakim Noah, who jumped, was more involved in the play. We’ll send it out,” he said. “What I try not to choose is bad calls. It’s a human game. We miss shots. They miss calls, it doesn’t make you feel better. But on (something like this) you do send them in. I know Butler tied him up, and then they called jump ball, and then Noah reaches in afterward. They called that one, so if that was true then they fouled him five times.” It also was official Davis who made the call who was bumped by Rondo getting Rondo one of his several suspensions for bumping officials in the last year. ... Watch out for the Bucks? No, we haven’t said that since 2001, which also was the last time the Bucks were 3-1 on a Western trip, which they just were with Saturday’s win in Portland. Of course, the Lakers being so bad helps a lot of East teams look better going West these days. Brandon Jennings had 30 in a late All-Star push and they are 5-2 under interim Jim Boylan. Whether it’s a coaching change bump or a roll will probably determine Boylan’s fate. ... Chris Andersen, the so-called “Birdman,” formerly of the Nuggets, was picked up on a 10-day contract by the Heat. His home in Colorado was searched last May as part of an investigation into what was described as internet related crimes against children. The Nuggets waived him through the amnesty clause in July, but he was not charged and apparently not targeted and he has said it was an extortion attempt. He could prove a valuable pickup for Miami, or at least a nice addition for the Art Deco Miami Beach architecture.

-- He’s sick of questions about his starters playing too much and says he’s not answering those questions anymore. Tom Thibodeau? No, Portland’s Terry Stotts. Portland is the only team with three starters in the top 15 in minutes played with Nicholas Batum third, rookie Damian Lillard tied for fifth and LaMarcus Aldridge 12th. Luol Deng remains first, but he has dropped under 40 minutes per game. "It’s been done before," Stotts told the Oregonian Saturday when asked about minutes. ... It was no surprise when former Suns coach Gentry said goodbye with praise for owner Robert Sarver but didn’t mention team president Lon Babby, who basically saddled Gentry with a poor roster and then publicly blamed him for failing to make the playoffs. Babby supposedly is trying to sell the Gentry firing decision as a reason to begin a rebuilding to get himself an extension as his contract is expiring this season. ... Every time a coach gets fired basically every coach in the league declares he is a great coach and undeserving. Loyalty to your colleagues is commendable, and no one is more supportive than former coach and now TV commentator Jeff Van Gundy, who basically blames every league failing and unexecuted strategy on players, owners, executives, the commissioner, media, fans and mascots. It’s the nature of the business and many great coaches have been fired. But if the coaches really care about their colleagues, they will make sure not to vote Deron Williams to the All-Star team. Williams agreed with the basketball world he’s not an All-Star the way he’s played this season. But Williams was mostly responsible for two coaches leaving jobs, and if coaches really care those are the guys they need to not reward. And figure Josh Smith blew yet another chance with that suspension for being thrown out of practice after the 39-point loss to the Bulls. The Hawks losing eight of their last 10 probably hasn’t helped, either. ... The Pistons Sunday dedicated their press room as the Matt Dobek media room in honor of their late executive Matt Dobek. Evidence of Dobek’s love within the organization was the presence of numerous former Pistons, including Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, John Long and Earl Cureton.

-- Nice reception for Joe Johnson on his return to Atlanta as fans chanted, “We don’t miss you.” It’s the price, which Carlos Boozer has felt in Chicago, of being oversold to the community even if you have played well. ... He doesn’t get mentioned much for Most Improved, but you have to be surprised by Greivis Vasquez (I thought he was another one of those many Maryland guards who were just good college players). He remains third in the league in assists — third! — a 28th pick already traded, and by the way another nice pick by former Memphis GM Chris Wallace as new management is breaking up his team. And now with road wins at Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and the Clippers the Bulls home loss to the Hornets doesn’t look so bad now. ... The 76ers are sliding out of the playoffs, losers of 14 of the last 19, and you wonder if they’ll make a move as coach Doug Collins effectively told local media they just aren’t good enough: "We have a weakness. We have a lack of speed on the wings, and you get broken down. We don't have rim protection. We're not communicating with one another, so we're not helping in and getting out. It's a disconnect. Our lack of speed really hurts us. We can't keep the ball in front of us.” But Collins stood up well when the notorious local media started baiting him. Asked if the team just wasn’t listening to him, Collins responded: "No. That's not a fair question. All that does is stir up doo-doo, and that's what people do in times of crisis."

-- Sounds like Mark Cuban was scared straight by Dirk Nowitzki, who didn’t say no when someone pondered to him about joining Stave Nash. All sides quickly dismissed it. I’m not sure what that Bank of Cuban stuff means, though supposedly it has to do with one of his TV shows. I guess you’d want O.J. Mayo, but Cuban says he wants to keep him. Chris Kaman? Vince Carter? Those are short term rentals, but I suppose if you could dump a bad contract. But then how would that make sense given Cuban broke up his title team to go after major free agents? Which means you cannot take on contracts. ... Iman Shumpert trying to dunk in his debut was encouraging for Bulls fans estimating Derrick Rose’s return, though Ricky Rubio’s return has been more halting with several games taken off. It seems unlikely the Bulls would allow Rose back until he can play all the games. ... I agree with George Karl they probably should have an All-Star given being seven over .500. But who would that be? The best player I’ve seen on that team is Kenneth Faried, but then you’d have to find Morehead State on a map. ... I know the Thunder is good, probably favorites. But can you win this way: This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have scored of the team’s total the last four games going backward with Sunday’s loss to Denver and then three wins: 73 of 118, 83 of 117, 52 of 117 and 77 of 102. ... The Timberwolves have had an incredible number of injuries, though when the Bulls lose the league MVP and continue to compete does it have an effect on the future of management as the team likely will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season? ... With trade rumors season and Eric Bledsoe playing so well, his name comes up. The Clippers rejected it and it’s obvious as you certainly couldn’t consider moving Bledsoe, probably the best point guard not starting, until you have free agent Chris Paul resigned. The Clippers’ bench, by the way, is improved from last season by 15 points per game in the top five as a unit in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. The Spurs bench in the leading scorer among reserve groups.

-- When a door closes there's a door that opens. Former Bulls player and head coach Bill Cartwright, who left the Suns staff before this season, is back in coaching. Cartwright accepted a job as head coach of the Osaka team in the Japan pro league. ... It’s amazing these detailed conversations international players have with media from their home country and then just said it never happened, like Leandro Barbosa being quoted how he was trying to get out of Boston with details of negotiations. And then he says, nah, never said it and that’s that. It’s great to play in a country where no one knows a second language. ... James Harden is finding out it’s not that easy. The Rockets have lost seven straight and Harden is shooting 23 for 80 the last four games as the weight of carrying a team has pretty much gotten to him. ... That’s Nuggets coach George Karl working on his 1,100th win and you better add him to your future Hall of Fame list. Karl’s teams don’t have a title, but Karl is now going on 21 consecutive seasons coaching Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver without a losing season ... I don’t know who he is, but the Spurs are adding Australian center Aron Baynes, and if the Spurs went him you know he’s going to help. Tiago Splitter now has double figures scoring in 12 of his 18 games since starting. ... Former Bulls 10-day player Mike James has been getting minutes and big shots for Dallas over O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison. ... The Pistons, whom the Bulls host Wednesday, quietly have won eight of 12 and imagine how well they would be doing if coach Lawrence Frank were trying. I guess it’s an excuse with 19-year-old rookies, but opposing coaches have been thanking Frank for playing Andre Drummond limited minutes, though increasing of late with 16 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes in Sunday’s win over Boston. Drummond was considered raw coming out of Connecticut, but is unusually athletic and poised and looks like he’ll be a daunting front line with Greg Monroe. Oh, no. Will we have to listen to that P.A. announcer again? ... Reports late Sunday were the Kings are being sold to a Seattle group. They lose Kevin Durant and get DeMarcus Cousins. How much are they paying for that?

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