Ask Sam Mailbag 3.25.20

Ted Fleckles:

Let's talk 70's era Bulls teams. I was born in the 80's so it's all just stories for me from my dad and grandpa. I know you have often mentioned the toughness and grit of guys like Jerry Sloan and Red Kerr, which was legendary, but I was a bit surprised to hear you talk about how talented those teams were as well and how they could have possibly won a title or two had things gone a little differently. Could you tell us more about those 70s era Bulls teams and guys like Artis Gilmore and Bob Love.

Sam Smith:

OK, kids pull up a chair. Grandpappy Sam has a story to tell you.

Once upon a time, the Bulls assembled perhaps the greatest defensive team in NBA history. Until maybe the champion Bulls of the 1990s. For most of the early 1970s, the Bulls just about every year made up 30 percent of the NBA all-defensive team with Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and Bob Love. In a league with 17 teams and 12 players per team. So more than 200 players not including various callups from the high level Eastern League and players coming back from the ABA. Yet the Bulls dominated the list of best defensive players. They weren't the most athletic players, and the backcourt wasn't celebrated like the famed Gail Goodrich and Jerry West or Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe. But the backcourt of Sloan and Van Lier was the most feared in the NBA. West and Frazier would routinely complain to the league about how rough and unfairly they were treated and admitted Chicago was the only place they hated to play. As great as the champion Bulls were, because of the elegant Jordan they weren't the blue collar team the community most likes to claim. There was no elegance with Sloan and Van Lier. They were stockyards tough, Pullman rigorous, steelworks rugged. They came at opponents with a relentless ferocity that produced the best five-year run in franchise history that missed the ultimate destination because the Bulls were in the Western Conference—then the power, like lately—having to beat Kareem's Bucks or Wilt's Lakers. They gave those teams some of their best series between 1970 and 1974, losing in seven to the Lakers in 1971, to the Lakers again in 1972 when center Tom Boerwinkle was injured for the playoffs, in seven again to the Lakers in 1973 and then to the Bucks in 1974 when Sloan was injured in the previous series win over the Pistons. Sloan had been an expansion draft selection in 1966 when the Bulls coached by Johnny Kerr went on to become the only expansion team ever to make the playoffs. They collapsed the next season and Kerr was fired.

Bulls marketing/do everything Jerry Colangelo took over the new Phoenix franchise and brought Kerr to Phoenix. Where he would have been coach of the decade if the Suns instead of the Bucks won the then coin flip for top draft pick Abdul-Jabbar. But the Bulls began making moves. They acquired former minor league player Love from the Bucks. And in the big move before the 1969-70 season, acquired Chet Walker from the former champion 76ers. Though Love also became a high scorer, Walker became the closer as a version of Elgin Baylor with his twitches and fakes. The Bulls drafted Van Lier about the same time, traded him to Cincinnati in pursuit of a big man (Walt Wesley), but then reacquired him. Their best chance turns out to be in 1975 with Wilt gone and Kareem hurt. Leading 3-2 in the conference finals at home. But the Bulls blew a Game 6 lead and lost to Rick Barry's eventual champion Warriors in Game 7 and the team came apart the following season with retirements and injuries. There was a brief return, the famed 20-4 season close for the Miracle on Madison Street with Artis Gilmore from the ABA dispersal draft in 1976-77. They lost the deciding playoff game in overtime to the eventual champion Trailblazers and Bill Walton. There was one more breath until the Jordan run when Jerry Sloan became coach in 1979 and put together an underrated tough group with Ricky Sobers, Bobby Wilkerson and Gilmore with Reggie Theus for some flair. They lost to the eventual champion Celtics in the 1981 second round. Financial issues crippled the team with Wilkerson leaving as a free agent, rookie holdouts and Sloan frustrated by the inscrutable Larry Kenon. Sloan was fired 50 games into the 81-82 season with GM Rod Thorn becoming interim coach. Thorn then cleverly kept the team bad enough for another two years in order to draft Jordan.

Gorav Raheja:

Do you believe in Zionmania?

Sam Smith:

As Neil Diamond wrote and Mickey Dolenz sung, I'm a believer. I said I was doing grandpappy stuff this time. Look it up! Like most everyone else in basketball, we knew two things about Williamson: He was vulnerable to injury because of his relatively compact size combined with that amazing explosiveness. It's not clear the human body can absorb that. And that you had to take him No. 1 in the draft. That's why they had all those bad games on TNT the first few months. He's probably the biggest attraction in the game (LeBron? Been there, seen that). Pelicans staff sounds like what you heard from the late 90s Bulls and recent Steph Warriors about crowds waiting at hotels after midnight and screaming at team buses. Zion doesn't have a mature game yet given the lack of shooting, which is vital in this era. But his power, strength and interior quickness with the way they judge contact these days makes him an automatic 20 points per game. He's willing to pass, so can play against pressure. It's like watching a great ensemble cast in a show. There's generally one character you can't take your eyes off, and it's Zion.

Ateeq Ahmed:

Great news about Joakim signing with the Clippers. Very happy for him. Was there any truth to Rose almost being traded to the Lakers? Imagine them going against each other in the playoffs. I couldn't root for one over the other but those games would be so fun to watch.

Sam Smith:

I'm not sure they would have been defending one another, but it would be prime viewing for us. The Lakers were interested, but the Pistons were not. The Pistons probably could have gotten a first round draft pick, which you'd say was worthwhile for a rebuilding. But Rose's renaissance has been so impressive for them that the word is the Pistons want Rose as a major part of their rebuilding. And why not? Even without his amazing explosive play before his first knee injury, Rose's quickness and daring still makes him one of the more exciting players in the NBA to watch. And having a veteran who can be in the middle of the action takes a lot of pressure off young players while giving fans of a losing team something to watch and enjoy. It's great for two of the best guys who have been with the Bulls organization.

Tom Plonowski:

When the 1995 expansion draft took place, did the Bulls along with other teams submit a list of players left unprotected for Toronto and Vancouver to choose from? Was there any chance that Armstrong would have returned to the Bulls the following season or were the Bulls expecting to lose him in the draft or free agency?

Sam Smith:

It was a sore point for BJ for awhile, though he and Phil Jackson got past it. It proved a surprise to all of us when BJ was left unprotected by the Bulls a year after being a starter on the 1994 All-Star team. But when Michael Jordan returned in 1995, things changed for Armstrong. He was more of a ball dominant guard and the Bulls decided to opt for more perimeter spacing shooting around Jordan, like with Steve Kerr. They had made a big financial commitment to free agent Ron Harper, which had gone badly to start and were trying to work him into the triangle offense. And Kerr didn't cost so much as the Bulls were also coming into having to pay Jordan and maybe satisfy Scottie Pippen's financial concerns. Plus, Armstrong was seeking a bigger role, and roles were being reduced with Jordan and soon to be Dennis Rodman. Armstrong became the Raptors first pick, but quickly told GM Isiah Thomas he didn't want to play for an expansion team. He was traded to Golden State and eventually had a little bit of a run and one big shot against the Bulls in the playoffs for Charlotte.

Matthew Hoffman:

I was a young kid in the early 90s, can you refresh my memory? I noticed what a big role Ron Harper had in the Clippers' offense, but his minutes and shots went down drastically when he joined the Bulls. Sure, Pippen was "the guy," but in LA Harper was contending for shots with Manning and Wilkins and still dropped 20/game. I only remember the facilitator/stopper Harper. Was it injury? Faith in B.J. Armstrong?

Sam Smith:

BJ, as I noted above, was on the way out as both had some issues with the offense, BJ sometimes breaking it and Ron having difficulty adjusting to it. After Jordan "retired" in 1993, the Bulls had their true miracle season in 1993-94 winning 55 games with an MVP-level Pippen. But Horace Grant, who also was Pippen's closet friend, left after that season as a free agent for the Orlando team that may have been the greatest ever never to win with Shaq and Penny Hardaway. Which left the Bulls most vulnerable without a rebounding and defending power forward. But Pippen lobbied the team hard for his buddy Harper, who had come back from serious knee injuries. Though Harper was no longer the great athlete. But the Bulls wanted to do right by Pippen. Harper had relied on dominating the ball, which was anathema in the triangle. Plus, the Bulls still had BJ, and Pete Myers knew the offense better, further pushing Harper down the rotation in what then seemed to be a disastrous signing. Plus, Harper was a poor three-point shooter, which BJ and Kerr did well. To Harper's great credit, he reinvented himself without ego as a defensive player and facilitator to support Jordan and Pippen. And with a gregarious and engaging personality with an often severe stutter he became a part of Jordan and Pippen's Breakfast Club of pregame workouts through the championship seasons. The investment eventually paid dividends for the Bulls. Patience, patience.

Ruben Imperial:

Didn't they call today's NBA games "positionless basketball"? But why are they still talking point guard, small forward, etc.... in the discussions? They still do exist and in place.

Sam Smith:

All sports involve a sort of shorthand so we all know what everyone is talking about even if no one else does. It's out secret clubhouse with the handshakes (or used to be) and passwords. The so called "positionless" basketball, which is not that new since the Bulls were using it during the second three peat when Toni Kukoc replaced Luc Longley, is something of the evolution of the game with the size of players increasing. So the pure notion is then maybe you have five players all 6-7 to 6-9 who can defend all the players, so they can switch constantly giving the defense an advantage. But you obviously never have five players of such equal defensive ability. That was the secret strength of the recent champion Warriors except for Curry. With Durant, Green, Thompson and Iguodala and then some various additions like Livingston they could constantly switch on defense and have a star level defender at virtually every position. The Bulls had an element of it when they could play Jordan, Pippen, Harper, Rodman and Kukoc. But those are once a decade teams. And you still need skilled players who see the floor and anticipate and can make plays and tall people who can rebound and guard the basket. So we still need positions. Save our positions!

Stephen Zwick:

With the way the Bulls (were) playing and the Bulls recent lottery luck, it looks like the Bulls may end up with anywhere between the 4th to 6th worst record in the league (they're currently at 8th worse), so my question is who will the Bulls end up selecting with (again) the 7th pick?

Sam Smith:

I wrote about the potential top four picks Monday.I'll get to the following group next Monday. It seems like this outage may take awhile.

John Leichenko:

Watching classic games on the nba channel - bring back the hand check! The game was more exciting, players really had to work to get off a good shot. That ‘88 lakers pistons game 7 was FANtastic! (Remember that?) How would james harden deal with a defender draped on him? The splash bros? It would be fun to see. Also, how bout bring back the travel call?

Sam Smith:

I'm feeling like I've got the senior audience this week. Maybe just bring it back against Harden. Actually, the NBA called a lot of traveling this season, though mostly from a spin out of an isolation. Harden's four steps back are mostly going uncalled. And, really, to me that eurostep still seems like the old three-steps-is-OK in Europe. But as much as we might want to reminisce about those good ‘ol not so halcyon days, the game's opened up considerably and is emphasizing skill, which players in the 80s often begged for. Things—and pendulums—often swing too far, as the game has at times with the emphasis on the three-point shot. Too many teams have settled for too many at the expense of other elements, which we've seen in baseball with the absence of much movement, like stealing, hit and run, not having to look up from reading the newspaper except when you hear the crack of the bat. I'm not sure anyone envisioned in a game that is supposed to be without contact that holding someone is acceptable. The NBA game became too bogged down in physical play in its early history and in the 80s. If you want a basketball ballet, perhaps it's OK to help guide a dancer, but not necessarily body slam them. Of course, if anything leads to Harden not flopping his way to 35 points a game, I might have to rethink things.

Carlos Ramos:

John Paxson has been under intense scrutiny from us fans and most media members during the last three seasons of rebuilding. Before the rebuild, Mr. Paxson and Gar Forman where receiving tons of deserved scrutiny over the construction of those Jimmy "Buckets" led Bulls teams. Going back further, the front office was criticized over DRose's injuries and how those teams never fully reached their potential. At some point, critics united to form a popular #fireGarPax movement that has gained tons of momentum and created mass hysteria amongst fans. Ouch! Admittedly, I have an unhealthy love affair with the Bulls and I've started to wonder, "have we been overly critical of the front office? Are we too emotionally consumed with this organization and grown dramatic in displaying our displeasure? Have we taken our John Paxson and Gar Forman angst too far? Or is it all fair in love and basketball?

Sam Smith:

I'd say it's gone too far not because my work appears here and I'm friendly with Paxson and Forman, but mainly it's just the third season of a rebuild. I'm not sure anyone expected more the past two seasons. Yes, this season has been disappointing to everyone and I know no one wants to hear about the injuries. But they basically got the draft picks right; just no lottery luck. They haven't gotten tied up with long term contracts and basically said at the beginning these things last four or five years. The Bulls seem to acknowledge it's an evolving process, though I'm not sure the venom is necessary. But if not fair, all is pretty much expected in the land of social media. And, frankly, I never felt it was fair when my dates pretended it was their sister when I called back.