Ask Sam Mailbag 4.17.20

Mike Barre:

With the "Last Dance" coming out Sunday, it got me thinking about what the best version of MJ really was.
84-89: The most explosive force in the history of the league, can beat anyone off the dribble and get in the lane, but didn't have the power (no Tim Grover training yet) or the reliable jump shot to sustain the full season. I don't think there's a defender in the history of the world who could have slowed down this MJ, but it wasn't built for long-term success.
90-93: To me, this was the best version of Jordan, because it was the true blend of him still having the explosiveness and driving ability he had in the 80's to get into the lane on any defender, but also had built his body up to take the hit and still maintain control of the ball, and finish the basket mid-air. By this time, MJ had also really developed his post-up and fade-away game, and his jumper was more reliable down the stretch to save energy. He never shot well from 3 but his mid-range game and back to the basket post game was much improved from 84-89. He had bought into the triangle, become smarter, and maybe most importantly, learned how to not waste any space and movement. To me, this is the greatest 3 year stretch in the history of the game from any player.
95-98: There's no question 95-96 was the most motivated MJ the world has ever seen. For the first time since 1991, he had something to prove and felt that hard chip on his shoulder. He was dominant, a better leader, more appreciative of his gifts, smarter player, mastered his post-game, was physically stronger than ever, and his mid-range game was incredible. He conserved his energy but had no question lost a step in explosiveness from the 91 MJ who dunked on Ewing. He just couldn't get to the lane as effortlessly.

I sometimes think the 1991 Bulls were the best team b/c Jordan and Pippen were at their best. But I also think the 95-96 team had better role players in Rodman, Harper, and Kukoc, and Longley, and they were stronger, smarter and more experienced. I feel by 97-98 Pippen's body was failing and Rodman and Harper were just old. That 98 team I don't think was too great outside MJ.

Sam Smith:

I think you have it right, which means I agree. I've always believed the first threepeat group was far superior because Jordan and Pippen were at their athletic best, which was unmatched, really, in the history of the game to have the league's best two perimeter defenders at the same time. And Horace probably was the best power forward defender, at least athletically, the way he could trap and play 94 feet. Rodman was regarded as a better defender in that era, but didn't play the full court game like Grant did. It's what shocked the basketball world, which wasn't taking the Bulls seriously in the 1980s as great as Jordan was. There was almost no media members or league veterans outside Chicago who picked the Bulls in the 1991 Finals. And then when they won everyone couldn't believe how they'd missed it. Pippen probably was the second best player on the Dream Team. The competition in the early 90s was at a higher level as well. The second threepeat was much more famous because of Rodman, Phil becoming the Zen master instead of the former CBA hippie, Michael's celebrated return and the intimidation factor with the winning record. Michael had lost that amazing athleticism that made him able to embarrass four Celtics Hall of Famers on defense in those 1986 playoffs. The 80s Jordan, which I hope they show in the series, was this never-before-seen or imagined athletic marvel. Basically a version of Derrick Rose's quickness if he needed it with a spectacular first step, a Magic Johnson feel for the game and the intimidation and IQ of Bill Russell.

Cameron Watkins:

Do you think the ESPN documentary series coming out this weekend about the 90s Bulls had anything to do with the team's timing in hiring a new EVP? I'm not saying it would have been the only reason for pulling the trigger now, but after All-Star Weekend, I could imagine ownership being anxious to avoid having ESPN and other national outlets writing articles about how great they were and how far they've fallen. The articles might still be written but at least now the team can point to this as an attempt to correct things as opposed to being painted as passive and like they don't care. I'm not suggesting any of that influenced their decision to make a change, just maybe the timing of finalizing it.

Sam Smith:

I know conspiracies are more fun than meetings, but I believe it really did occur just as Michael Reinsdorf said. He tends to be transparent. I believe Paxson initiated this, as they said, and was probably hoping the season would turn around. As it became clearer that it wasn't, John likely understood it was time and Michael agreed. More than anything, I'd heard him talk about how much he was hurting about the way the community was viewing the franchise. Everyone is aware of how people feel about them even if you believe Twitter is another virus threatening mankind. I know they always say on the police TV shows there are no coincidences. But did you think ESPN might have moved up the documentary to take advantage of Karnisovas' popularity?

Will Pennix:

What is your opinion of the new regime? What type of system will they institute and which current players fit into that system? It appears that Lavine, White, Gafford and either Carter or Markkanen will remain with the remaining pieces up for auction. Is the focus to add veteran stars or rebuild in the draft?

Sam Smith:

I thought it went fairly unnoticed in Karnisovas' initial comments, and certainly it's too early to predict much since he doesn't even have his staff yet. But with all the moaning here in recent years about the lack of management ability to get a free agent, he seemed to minimize that. I thought this was the salient quote from him: "There's three ways of building teams – through your draft, through free agency and through trades. I think building through the draft and developing your players is the key to getting better every year." So he seemed to be saying, at least for now, they'll concentrate on this draft and evaluating those players you mentioned. Based on his tenure in Denver, it would seem trades rather than free agency is the priority.

Wayne Warner:

The quote of yours is "a core of talented young players who haven't produced as expected in part due to injuries". Seems that Bulls have been at high end vs avg NBA team of man games lost for last 2-3 seasons. Is this just bad luck or is there a need / opportunity for Arturas to make changes in training/ doctors personnel and in approach and in equipment and in motivating players to be in better condition and not have head coach requiring players to "man it out". This question was not asked at the press conference. Need more of the bulls "core" to play 80-90% of the games to win

Sam Smith:

They certainly could use good health, which we wish for many now. But I see the injuries more serendipitous given that Chip Schaefer, Phil Jackson's longtime trainer and medical staffer in Chicago and Los Angeles, is director of Bulls' health performance. He's regarded as one of the best in the league and has frequently been an advisor for teams in other sports and even beyond sports. Kris Dunn slipped off the rim and fell on his head. Wendell Carter was off balance running and pushed down too hard to brace himself and broke his thumb; he sprained an ankle driving to the basket awkwardly and came down on someone's foot. Otto Porter took almost a half year off and basically showed up with a broken foot. Lauri Markkanen seriously sprained an elbow a day into practice to start camp. Bobby Portis punched out Nikola Mirotic. Denzel Valentine tried to play through past ankle injuries and eventually couldn't. Sometimes you get unlucky, which makes the odds looks worse. But Zach LaVine since coming to the Bulls made an historic recovery from ACL surgery to return to his athletic heights. The Bulls medical staff may have helped Zach produce a miracle. The big additions, Young and Satoransky, played through everything. So did rookie White. After all, there's also Kyrie, John Wall, Oladipo, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Malcolm Brogdon, Joel Embiid, Marvin Bagley. Blame the Warriors for Steph, Klay and Kevin? Sometimes you do the right things that come out wrong. But that doesn't mean you should stop doing the right things.

John Petersen:

Gar was very quickly dismissed as the Bulls GM because of a stated difference in philosophy. You know Gar well and his views. It's very early with the new regime but can you generally define the differences? Were there really those differences or just a recognition that it was time for a change?

Sam Smith:

I remember when Doug Collins surprisingly was fired after leading the Bulls to their first conference finals in 14 years (Jordan probably helped). It was stated there were philosophical differences. I later reported it came down to Collins' regard for Kierkegaard's existential theories versus Krause's favoring of Nietzsche's examinations of truth and morality. It's just what you say. I don't know what transpired or even how long they spoke or what it was about. But it was clear Karnisovas—as he should and is typical in these types of situations—was owed the right to staff his team the way he wanted. There was this talk that Forman might be a scout, which never made sense to me. After all, who goes from chief operating officer at General Motors to work in the mailroom when management changes? It's always been easy to pile on when things are going badly. Forman's expertise was the college draft, scouting and talent evaluation from his many years in college before coming with Tim Floyd to the Bulls. Every general manager makes huge mistakes. But consider that since Forman became general manager under John Paxson in 2009, the Bulls drafted Taj Gibson at 26, Jimmy Butler at 30, and then with unenviable picks in the 20s landed strong rotation players like Tony Snell and Bobby Portis and maneuvered overseas to draft players like Nikola Mirotic and Omer Asik. Failing to get the lottery luck the Bulls did in 2008 with Derrick Rose, the Bulls with the last three No. 7 selections made picks that remain praised around the NBA, including by Karnisovas. It's an honorable resume and legacy. Those kinds of jobs rarely last more than a decade. It seems to me it just became time to go out without being asked to make the coffee.

Jeff Lichtenstein:

If the NBA plays this season in empty stadiums then every team should qualify in a mass tournament. The country deserves to see its team play for a chance to make the finals.

Sam Smith:

The championship Bulls? We knew Karnisovas was good, but that good? That's been one of the many, many suggestions, that the league try a bracket, elimination tournament with every team, if only to allow people to use their NCAA brackets. It seems even from the medical people the best possibility is this bubble idea of isolating everyone in a hotel, checking their heath every day and keeping them there the entire time. There's been some whining from media about how can you lock up players for two months! Heck, soldiers go away for months. The players probably could survive for two months in, say, a casino. You know like the guys who retire to say they want to be with the family more and two months later are applying for an assistant's job. It reminds me of the biosphere experiments of the early 1990 when they put a bunch of scientists in this dome in Arizona for a year or two to learn to survive organically. I think it's still around at the U. of Arizona, but I think everyone came to hate one another. You know, just like on an NBA team. There are some clauses in the TV contract of teams needing to supply a certain number of regular games to receive payment. I don't know if they have. What seems most likely for now is to have the 16 teams isolated for a full, regular playoffs with gone fishing exits every two weeks. It's been about a 65-game season so far, about the same as the 2011 lockout year and more than the 1998 lockout season.

Kent Hyun:

I know you're probably getting a ton of emails about Arturas Karnisovas, but I wanted to know your take on having a starting 5 of D. Rose, Coby White, Porter Jr, Wendell Carter Jr, and Andre Drummond. Arturas making two big trade bringing in Wood and D. Rose for Markennan and Shaq and Andre Drummond for Zach Lavine, straight up. The trade proposal aside, do you think Arturas has that willingness to completely altar the Bulls by trading all of our "Tradeable" players?

Sam Smith:

Well, that's bold. The Pistons are very committed to Rose. For Markkanen they might not be as much. But even with the change in management, who had passed on Rose, my sense is the new group wants to look forward I think the exciting part from a fan perspective is Karnisovas isn't committed to anyone. It's the rare executive—and why Jerry West was so good and unique—who doesn't become perhaps a bit too enamored of their own choices in the draft or trade. So now with the clean slate, it's not so much that Karnisovas might want to dump someone. But that there's no blood on his hands. There's some excellent talent. So there's no rush to start all over again. We've seen enough of that. The interesting part will be who he tries to trade since there are several players with value. I'm sure he's examining who fits with whom and even if someone less talented might be better as a result. His connection to the draft picks starts only now. As for Drummond, I've never been a fan. Too often seems bothered that he has to play basketball to get paid.

John Leichenko:

Bulls fans pretty much hated brad sellers back then. I remember a common complaint about brad being soft and who we could have drafted instead, I think it was Hersey Hawkins? Maybe Johnny Dawkins?

Sam Smith:

Hersey was 1988. But I think this is what Jordan meant in that brief promotional interview he did the other day on one of the morning shows for the documentary. He said people won't like him. Wrong! People will love him more. But as we have long heard and seen—and has long been accepted as his unique brand of motivation and leadership required for excellence—Jordan could be awfully mean with some teammates. Scott Burrell and Dennis Hopson were famously brought to tears. Others who suffered were guys like Rodney McCray, a various combination of players Jordan didn't want or those he believed weren't committed enough as inaccurate as he may have been at times. Sort of the trial by fire thing that Steve Kerr talked about in earning Jordan't respect when Kerr badly bruised Jordan's knuckles with his eye. The Sellers/Dawkins thing was, typically with Jordan, multi-layered. Jordan was mad at the Bulls from that minutes restriction late in the 1985-86 season and then swept in the playoffs when he had the 63-point game. That team lacked a point guard, a familiar issue pretty much since Guy Rodgers and Norm Van Lier. Kyle Macy started at point guard in the playoffs with John Paxson joining the team that year and Jerry Krause bringing in a half dozen ersatz point guards the next few years to try to run out Paxson. Krause next had his eyes and heart set on trading for Steve Colter, whom Jordan later tormented for that reason. So Jordan also took it out some on Sellers, who actually led the Big 10 in rebounding. But as a thin seven footer, he was two decades ahead his time, a sweet shooting big man who ran the floor. He made one of the biggest plays in franchise history when he held the ball until a breath before a five-second violation until Jordan freed himself for the winning shot in Cleveland in 1989. Brad was cerebral and went on to be a city planner and big city mayor in Ohio. But more than anything, Michael always relied on his North Carolina people. And they were always pushing ACC players on him. Dawkins was from Duke. Yes, the rival, but ACC. Dawkins went on to have a credible, but injury-plagued nine-year NBA career. And also wasn't really a point guard. He's had a good run as a college coach. Michael always swayed public opinion, and only Toni Kukoc's toughness saved him when Michael and Scottie piled on at the 1992 Olympics in a message to Jerry Krause. Sure, there likely were things Michael regrets, and things he did which weren't so nice. But it was part of being a shark about success, keep moving and not showing much mercy because it was about survival in the toughest waters. By the way, 1986 was one of the weakest ever drafts. No. 1 pick Brad Daughtery and Arvydas Sabonis as a future at 24 were the only first rounder who became All-Stars. All-Stars Rodman, Kevin Duckworth and Jeff Hornacek were second rounders along with Mark Price. Yes, there was the point guard.

James Costas:

With the hiring of Arturas Karnisovas, and rumors of others to fill in front office positions, where does Doug Collins fit in? As there has been little to no public mention of him since he was made an advisor, how involved in the decision-making process has he been? With his wide-ranging experience, he seems like he'd be a good resource. But have not heard much as to his contributions, at least publicly.

Sam Smith:

To be determined? Again, Karnisovas made clear in his opening remarks he's going to be careful and certain and is intent on putting together a staff in which individuals complement one another. Doug obviously was hired during the previous regime. But he's one of the most intelligent analytical figures in the NBA. Along with Phil Jackson, Doug is one of the few people I speak with in basketball I feel I learn something from every time. Doug has a remarkably facile mind to analyze the game and see ahead like a point guard. I believe he's still under contract, and I'd want to employ him as an asset/advisor because, after all, he knows the game and knows this team. Karnisovas may not want to with all the changes. Karnisovas deserves his clear slate if he prefers. But know this about Doug, and it means something: He coached four teams in his NBA coaching career, the Bulls, Pistons, Wizards and 76ers. Each team made a double digit wins improvement in his first season. That can't be just coincidence.

Art Alenik:

I'll say Pax's shortcoming was how so emotionally involved he was. That's why I never turned on him. I could always tell that Pax really cared and really wanted to win. Another thing I liked about Pax was his honesty. He never made promises... or excuses. He never talked in circles or resorted to platitude and cliché. I'm sure he tempered his remarks, but they were always essentially the truth. I'm sure that Pax wanted more than anything to bring the Bulls back to prominence and maybe another title. That's my only regret. I would have loved to see him celebrate – and be celebrated – again as a champion. If AK does great and goes on to get us a ring, I hope the fans won't forget Paxson's contribution.

Sam Smith:

Well said. And perhaps Paxson also understood the similar emotional involvement of the fans. And that it's probably not personal. Or at least should not have been.