Ask Sam Mailbag: DeMar DeRozan's MVP candidacy, Bulls' humbling losses and more

Sam Smith answers your questions about DeRozan's chances at MVP, Chicago's back-to-back losses and maintaining their high-energy style of play
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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John Peterson:

They were without two starters, but a 32-point loss at home to Indiana? Sort of makes you wish to pause just a moment before they are automatically in the NBA Finals. And no, Coby White is not yet back, he could still be yet a month away from adjusting to the different style/players and conditioning. This still feels like a great leap forward from last season but some air has left the balloon as they say.

Sam Smith:

I'm not suggesting the blowout loss was good, and the Houston thing was almost shocking level. Keep repeating, they're all NBA players, they're all NBA players. But that's not bad in the sense—and I'm not trying to make it a low bar—but we were surprised and disappointed. Every team talks about culture, which really means winning, or at least competing seriously. The Bulls seem at least back at that competing stage where they—and the opponents—believe it's a serious game now with the Bulls. Not a time to give your players some load management breaks. Or just wait for the Bulls to fold at the end.

I'm not suggesting merely being competitive is the goal or worthy of buying your No. 1 foam fingers. But it's that not skipping steps thing. It's actually been in the first quarter of this season a giant turnaround from non-competitive. That first week of non-competitive opponents (see Bulls 2017-20) helped. So did some fortunate absences like LeBron in L.A. and Nikola Jokic in Denver. But the Bulls have been the better team most of the time this season, which is basically what this season was supposed to be about. They seem on schedule. I'm still taking the over.


team photo

Kieron Smith:

I mean we lost to the Rockets? Billy's killing the Bulls……Fire him! For not wanting to play both Marko Simonovic and Alizw Johnson in a game, in addition to allowing Tony Bradley more playing time on the court. He thinks that games can't be won with centers?

Sam Smith:

And imagine if the Bulls were to lose in Orlando on Friday. You know what the chant would be at the next Bears home game. I didn't know Billy's work well before this season because he always seemed to have players who were not so much immune to coaching but just who made sure you couldn't be a poor coach. As for the booing of coaches, enough already. This thing with the Bears coach has been so bad I felt like I was in Philadelphia. And we know how boorish that city is. Fred Hoiberg went through it, also, as I know his son had to face Fire Hoiberg chants at his high school games. Is this the friendly Midwest I read about growing up in vulgar New York? I remember this Nagy guy coming to a Bulls game a few years ago. Unlike most NBA teams, the Bulls still sit most media at floor level, and Nagy happened to be sitting three or four seats from me. I refrained from asking for an autograph, but I asked if he wanted mine. He called security. No, actually, he handled the hero role well. He got a standing ovation just coming to his seat and fans stopping by could barely speak or stop gazing at him. Did he get so dumb since then? It's a given in sports that coaches get too much credit when they win and too much blame when they lose. And except for those on the margins—the one or two best and one or two worst—they're actually pretty interchangeable. Which is why so many Coach of the Year winners are fired within two years, among them Dwane Casey, George Karl, Scott Brooks, Mike D'Antoni, Mike Brown. Sam Mitchell and Avery Johnson. Suddenly, Gregg Popovich doesn't look the genius. It was Phil Jackson's genius. He left Jordan for Shaq and Kobe. Which is the long way around to say Billy seems to have done as good or better than anyone could have with this team.

Remember, he lost his starting power forward for the season, and basically the offseason was hiring 6-foot-5 guards in DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball. Would anyone say any were a mistake? The Bulls obviously committed to remaking a defense with speed and aggressiveness. And it's basically worked. They're eighth in defensive efficiency, tied with perennial defensive leader Utah.

Management, I suspect with Billy's endorsement, bought into the small ball philosophy. The problem with that is players have to continually play at such a high energy level to cause those steals and turnovers and transition baskets and offensive rebounds. It's a lot to ask during an NBA schedule with all the games and travel. It's why Rick Pitino didn't last long at his two NBA stops. Donovan is not quite as intense and structured. We've all known the size issue with the roster. But when you opt for more size if it's not size with activity and shooting range, it detracts from the team's system of play. They do have a system, and it relies more on activity than altitude. Maybe you could find a Kenneth Faried-type, but he has little offense like Bradley. To paraphrase Pitino, Giannis isn't walking through the door, Blake Griffin isn't walking through the door (Clippers version), Anthony Davis isn't walking through the door. Billy deserves our praise for now, if not yet a parade.

Derrick Jones and Alize Johnson block a shot

Jeff Lichtenstein:

The "Fire Nagy" chants I think are totally misdirected. It made me realize how fortunate the Bulls are to have Michael Reinsdorf. No outside "consultants" were needed to find Artūras Karnisovas. That was an incredibly important hire and I don't think it has been at all appreciated yet. Can you better explain the organizational structure and how that will benefit the Bulls going forward?

Sam Smith:

I'll concede I had no idea about Karnisovas, so credit Michael. I know, I know, I work there. But I'm also too old to have to suck up anymore. Still, it's not easy to move on from someone you are so close to (yes, Michael and his family were close with Forman and his family and he practically grew up with Paxson and his wife and kids). I don't know Michael that well, but he tends to be deliberate and analytical. Like his father when finally moving on from Jerry Krause, it wasn't immediate, but he knew it was time. Michael basically took most of it on himself and did the background. I know he asked for help even among media and fellow owners. But he made the decision. It's proven, albeit in a small sample, a choice that should endure. Karnisovas runs the basketball operations (marketing and business are separate and where Michael primarily is more involved day-to-day) and basically leaves the basketball to Karnisovas and his staff. In part because of the pandemic, none of us in the media have gotten to know them much. Though the staff with a big buildup in developmental personnel seem very serious. I get that not only from observation but also because they don't laugh at my jokes.

I believe no matter what occurs this season it's a makeup that will endure because Karnsiovas has shown more of a Pat Riley tendency to try to win immediately, and not try to persuade his bosses to give him five years of draft pick hopes. I prefer that philosophy. He also seems to understand team building in fitting players and assessing needs. It doesn't mean any championships because that involves some good fortune and some really, really good players. The Bulls have some really good ones. They need someone or others to add that second really. Arturas, any suggestions?

Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley

Parker Lerdal:

So is DeMar DeRozan really an MVP candidate this year?

Sam Smith:

Well, I did suggest it a few games ago, Maybe that's why they're face guarding him now. Sorry, DeMar. He's not going to be in that MVP top five at the end of the season, but he legitimately has been there this season for the first time in his career. Which is almost like an award in itself. I believed his acquisition was the most important in the last year to take the pressure off of LaVine and give the Bulls that vital second scoring option late in games.

DeMar has been even better than I expected, and most opponents did as well. Which is probably why teams now are playing more zone against the Bulls and crowding the lane to make his mid range game more difficult. Watch him. He's the ideal example of not playing too fast, letting the game come to him if you never understood what that really meant. He has an uncanny ability to create space with his body, as unlike LeBron's as it may be, and a wonderful sense of time and space, like I used to read about Bill Bradley or Bob Cousy, players whose vision was so acute they could relate what was going on behind them in sense if not sight. It's been a joy to watch him on a regular basis and a credit to LaVine, who's not only demonstrated no hesitancy or jealousy, but has deferred to allow DeMar to expand his game for the team's benefit. All-Stars don't always do that. Especially ones coming up on a negotiation. It bodes well going forward, though you pretty much have to be just about perfect compared to the big names (like in the college football tournament) to get into that MVP conversation if you haven't been there before.

DeMar DeRozan

Joseph Austin:

I agree that a big man who clogs up the lane isn't what the Bulls need. That kind of big man would make life really hard for Zach, DeMar, Ball, and AC. However, at one point during the Knicks game, Green, AC, & Ball, had four fouls and all had to guard Julius Randle. I'm not taking about another 20-point, lane clogging big man. It just might be a lot to ask those guys to be at a continual size disadvantage for 82 games and the playoffs. Unless you're the 76ers, Lakers, Nuggets, Knicks, or Blazers, the rest of the league doesn't excessively lean on a big man. With the new additions, the Bulls don't even need to lean on Vucevic.

Sam Smith:

The other part of that issue most raised by fans is some of the best teams this season play no bigger than the Bulls. We'll get a look with Miami on Saturday, who have Udonis Haslem just for size in the pregame warmups. The Warriors also use a 6-foot-9 center as we haven't seen James Wiseman yet. The problem perhaps is more longevity in how long can you continue to succeed that way?

Someone mentioned to me Tristan Thompson, who ran afoul of Luke Walton and could be a buyout candidate. But Alvin Gentry replaced Walton and Thompson has played. The other part of the Bulls being competitive that should help is they should finally be a player in the (illegal/improper/unfair) buyout market when players escape to the better teams. It is clearly salary cap avoidance that the league hasn't figured out how to combat yet. The problem is that it's difficult to accommodate someone who plays so differently than you played all season. But Karnisovas has surprised us before.

Tristan Thompson grabs a rebound against Portland

Luke Freiburger:

I've loved the intangibles Lonzo Ball offers as a big, physical guard with his help defense, ability to guard wings, and the much needed guard rebounding to make up for the lack of size down low. Although I've been disappointed by his lack of creation in the half court for a guy who complained about not being fitted in a traditional PG role.

I am also perplexed by a guy who can be so physical on defense, yet plays like a 6-foot small guard when going to the hole or finishing at the rim soft. What do you think about playing Lonzo in more of a Klay Thompson like role? I can't help but think we are underutilizing his 3-point shooting ability and using Caruso more with the starters. I think it would serve Lonzo well as he seems to be a significantly better 3 point shooter off the catch-and-shoot. Or do you think running Lonzo off of screens would wear him down and affect his stellar defense too much?

Sam Smith:

Now that's something we (nor anyone else) ever thought much about, signing Lonzo to be the designated shooter. He's truly been impressive with his three-point shot; even against good defense. It even looks good. Beyond his value to the team, he could be a clinic. Hey, if he can do it with the way he once shot, then you can do it. There's no excuse! Not to diminish Lonzo's work ethic and willingness to change, but no one should have an excuse for poor shooting, especially if basketball practice is your main job. One of the questions regarding Ball the last few seasons was whether he'd be willing to go to the basket. Didn't like contact? Doesn't seem so the way he defends. Just not confident? I've noticed lately him trying to finish at the rim more than previously. I've mentioned the need for a pure perimeter shooter like some of the guys Miami has. But that's more a reserve role. If Lonzo were to start with Caruso since you need a point guard, then the Bulls are really small with DeRozan at power forward. Of course, Donovan was closing halves a lot with that lineup earlier this season. With absences lately he's mixed and matched other ways. I'm not as opposed as many fans since I thought this would be an "outscore you" Bulls team. It hasn't been as much as it's been a bothersome defensive team.

Replacing Green or Jones with Caruso gives the Bulls more ball movement and shooting, if somewhat less of that defensive energy and size in the front court at times. I prefer Lonzo in a point guard role, but I'm not opposed to that sort of offensive-oriented lineup. As helpful as Green and Jones have been with activity, they're more limited. Put your best talented five on the floor? Why not? Donovan does that a lot the way he mixes lineups and rotations. So the starting thing at times is merely for show. For now Lonzo throws in too many one for six or one for seven games to be that sort of go-to.

Lonzo Ball shoots a 3-pointer

Bill Kochneff:

Would the Bulls be where they're at without Caruso? Sure, Caruso isn't a scorer, but you gotta remember: If a bear is chasing you and another guy in the woods, you don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the other guy. The Bulls may not be as good offensively with Caruso on the floor, but the difference between them and the other guy certainly seems to widen! Imagine what the Bulls could be like if Caruso develops his 3-point shot like Lonzo Ball did!

Sam Smith:

And he did make several against the Rockets. He's actually been a competent 3-point shooter in his career, and his form is good. So he'll revert to a reasonable norm. The thing you wonder with Caruso—as remarkable as these defensive assignments have been and the trouble the big guys have had with him; I can't wait until he defends LeBron. Could LeBron have stayed out against the Bulls in LA to avoid Alex?—is can he hold up the way he plays? Remember, he mentioned his skinny legs. We all hope our team's players will compete like Caruso all the time. But can they? Can he? It has been something to watch. He's averaging about 50 percent more minutes per game than the most in his career. He said a big reason he signed with the Bulls, though he did initially want to return to the Lakers and they apparently realize their mistake now with an aged, poor defensive team, was they'd let him be him. Can he all season?

Alex Caruso steals the ball from Will Barton in Denver

Richard Meagher:

The Bulls have looked really good thus far in the early part of the season. Is this team the real deal?

Sam Smith:

I believe so, except for the last two games which apparently occurred after you wrote this. That said I still believe they are because they still have the elements for success with the offense. Though I'm not a huge advocate of the 3-point game, it's a part of a good system. The Bulls need some more of that, which could occur with Coby White and Vucevic returning.

Their replacements mostly have not been shooters. While most critics want size and rebounding and a power forward, I'd almost rather have a catch-and-shoot, pure shooting player to space the floor that way. J.J. Redick is really good in media, but someone like that. Eric Gordon still seems too far away from a buyout, but who knows what the Rockets will do. They're not ideal, but enough of the real deal.

Derrick Jones and Javonte Green

Michael Mortenson:

Two years ago (Nov 12, 2019 to be exact) Coby White's college coach, Roy Williams, came to watch him play against The Knicks and Coby set a team-record by draining 7 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. Since he's now retired, I think The Bulls should bring Roy Williams aboard to help Coby find his game again. If not on the bench as an assistant coach.

Sam Smith:

I know 22 percent on 3-pointers probably isn't ideal, but Coby's slump is not that bad yet considering the time off and surgery. Williams could stop by for some support, though maybe just some Carolina blue shorts like Michael Jordan used to wear for every game. Seemed to work for him.

Roy Williams at the United Center in 2019

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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.

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