Ask Sam Mailbag: Early Bulls thoughts, Zach and Coby's growth, and more

Matt Chilewich:

What are we to make of this Bulls team that should now be 5-3 after Portland? I mean we started out terribly but had guys missing. Should have beaten GS, then two big wins vs Washington, smacked appropriately against Milwaukee, big win against Dallas despite no Luka, a huge win last night against CJ and Dame. Hard not to appreciate the improvement. You think this is a mirage of matchups or is this team better than we feared?

Sam Smith:

Better than we feared, eh? Looking for another lottery pick? I know that's appealing, but the seasons are too long for that, which I always believed when the Bulls were, uuugh, not competing that well the last few years. The lottery also is about good fortune, and while the Bulls may have some good players from some of those lottery seasons, they don't have anyone yet who rates as a star. Coby may be making a case, however. I detected a lot of enthusiasm and excitements for the Bulls after DC and Portland, which also suggested to me fans were seeing a difference as well. And anxious to see winning as the priority. Even in these last few years there were some weeks with a few wins, but not so much optimism. The first two games were disturbing, but the Bulls lately have displayed a level of significant competitive nature, LaVine and White look like that Dame/CJ, Westbrook/Beal, Lowry/VanVleet backcourt type you can win with even if neither is Curry or Durant. There just needs to be a few adjustments in the front court with plenty of both cap room and trade possibilities to make it interesting.

Parker Lerdal:

Did Zach LaVine hit a game winning 3-point shot next to the Blazers Logo just like Damian Lillard?

Sam Smith:

It wasn't quite where some of those Lillard threes come from, but Zach certainly outplayed Lillard as Coby White probably outplayed CJ McCollum. Perhaps not strictly in statistics, but in their energy and enthusiasm for the game. Perhaps it has something to do with the ‘Blazers getting into the bubble via a playin run and the Bulls players being off so long. I thought the Bulls also had a lot to do with it. Their scheme of dropping back on defense and closing the lane was effective in thwarting Portland and luring them into more long threes. Not going in the time. But watching the "Blazers this season those Portland "stars" seem casual and somewhat unmotivated for a team being talked about as a potential title contender. Lillard lately has looked more like a player long overlooked who finally is getting recognition as a preseason MVP candidate. And seems satisfied with that. Maybe he wants to be traded and we haven't heard, like James Harden. It's early, however, if you haven't heard that. As for Zach, I know it's not changing, but this constant refrain from some Bulls fans and media to trade him for what is unclear is so misguided. Garrett Temple isn't a company man having been with almost every company in the NBA and a players' union leader. He's admittedly been awed by Zach's talent. Sure, Zach misses some and as we know Jordan never missed one or took an ill-advised shot. None of that film was made available for The Last Dance. It seemed appropriate the Bulls won in Portland because LaVine and White can be a version of Lillard and McCollum. Perhaps a more motivated version. You can have a lot of success that way like Portland has. No, they haven't won a title and may never. But you have a chance with what they have. It's where you need to begin.

Kent Hyun:

What is happening right now? 4 wins in the last 5 (before Sacramento), I'm telling you these Bulls are special. I think we're going to make the playoffs and I say this with confidence. We do play in the East after all.

Sam Smith:

Perhaps the Bulls need to be in the West; we'll see how this weekend goes. I'm optimistic. Back to back for the Lakers Friday, and those West teams tend to rest a lot of guys. The Clippers are notorious for it, and Dallas has started to sit Luka as the Bulls saw. Better weather; I assume they go to the beach more. I feel like the conferences finally are balanced again. Golden State isn't going to be what it was or close without Klay, the Trailblazers and Jazz are overrated—seriously, paying Rudy Gobert that, as Shaq so eloquently put it?—and there are teams basically out of it already like Minnesota, Oklahoma City and perhaps Houston pretty soon if they figure out what to do with Harden. The 76ers are much better with a credible coach like Doc Rivers, the Pacers are better playing at a higher pace, the Celtics are good with Kemba Walker to come, the Nets, Heat, Bucks and coming teams like the Hawks and don't forget the Raptors. We can be prouder of the East, but also not so great for the Bulls anymore. They've played by far their best against West teams.

Mike Sutera:

Kyrie didn't playing for personal reasons against the 76ers on TNT. What happened to not resting in the TV games? Here we go. Pathetic that he won't return a text to his hand picked coach.

Sam Smith:

The principal thing is you want to be sure there's no serious health or family issue. But free agency isn't always so free. Or so certain or so assured. Denver when Karnisovas was there did a good job building by continually filling around the edges with players like Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Will Barton, Monte Morris and a third tier free agent like Paul Millsap with a good draft pick here and there. Sure they got big time lucky with their second round Jokic pick. But you also can build a contending team that way, and I suspect that's a stirring blueprint for the Bulls.

Brodie Larsh:

Some have said the Bulls plan, as far as management is concerned, this year likely doesn't involve trying to win as many games as possible. Should Zach be moved then? What kind of deal do you think they could/should get for Zach?

Sam Smith:

I think it's more that management realizes it needs first to see what it has, so it's basically going with the same roster. But the idea is to win games to finally begin establishing not only some credibility in the community and NBA world, but to create some winning habits instead of the losing ones that seemed so prevalent. The complication is a potentially excellent draft to add a player who can complement the base with Patrick Williams. That's appealing, so it's more like there's not a great urgency to win because the team doesn't match up yet with the best in the Eastern Conference and it wouldn't be so bad to be in this lottery. But they would like to win because it's sort of the goal. Billy Donovan clearly is coaching to win every game the way he is using veterans down the stretch of close games. And it will be better for the fan base as much as another high draft pick is appealing to feel better that the organization is making progress. Contending for a playoff spot in this unusual season with potential Covid absences is not an unrealistic possibility. I see the Bulls pursuing that seriously and with a serious chance for more than just the play-in. Oh yeah, Zach. Enough already. You're not getting another 20-point scorer and high draft picks in exchange, and I feel like the Bulls are in good shape moving forward with Zach and Coby as a backcourt. I'd be more concerned about addressing the other positions.

Robert Curtis:

I saw an article warning about the impending NBA Free Agent market being awash in cash due to teams stockpiling for Antetokounmpo and other big-name stars that were due to hit the market this summer. Now that many of these stars have resigned with their existing teams, there will be a plethora of teams anxious to land whatever remaining talent that becomes available this summer. That puts the Bulls in a difficult position with Lauri Markannen and Otto Porter Jr. The Bulls need to either trade these two or resign them to new contracts. If not, they risk losing these two players for nothing in return.

In light of the upcoming hostile market, what about trading Felicio, Young and Satoransky for Blake Griffin? The appeal of this trade to Detroit is that they would see immediate financial gain by offloading Griffin's unwieldy contract from their books and boost their rebuilding program. For the Bulls, Griffin's contract would only have one year remaining. Assuming he checks out medically and has a chance to fully recover, the Bulls could use him similarly to how they are currently utilizing Otto Porter Jr. on a limited workload basis to minimize the breakdown of his body. Maybe they could negotiate a two-year extension to his contract for $15 million a year with an opt-out for both parties after one year. Griffin might agree to that in order to escape Detroit a year early. I would much rather take the one year risk of Griffin on his bloated contract than compete in an overheated market this summer.

Sam Smith:

I assume you haven't seen Griffin play lately. I'll admit I haven't much either because of the way I have to look away to avoid the ugliness. I agree the Pistons would love to dump $39 million of Griffin for next season, especially since he can't play every game and has been particularly atrocious this season often when he has. Otto has played much better, more frequently and probably even jumps higher. You have to feel badly for Griffin for other than the contract. Though taking on such a contract would eliminate the Bulls from any free agency next summer. I agree the field is limited given players wising up and realizing things can change and more is not guaranteed every year. They took the money as they should have. Markkanen is restricted, though the Bulls to me have a bottleneck at power forward that needs some sorting out. Plus you don't have to pay someone what they want just because they want it. I suspect given the income drains on many teams given the lack of fans, teams won't be offering as many big contacts. Karnisovas and his guys seem sensible and not desperate. I trust their judgment not to overreact, especially since their bosses are not expecting them to. You're really Griffin's agent, right? Cousin?

Art Alenik:

Nit-picking Zach (though I'm a big fan and want to make certain Bulls fans who keep trading him eat their words): Gotta get better control of his handle and protect the ball a little better on dribble-drives. He had a brilliant game (again) against Sacramento (... except for 6 TOs, and at least 2 or 3 of them were unforced. Now that he's becoming an above-average defender.

Sam Smith:

Donovan is seeking a similar perfection, I guess, since he complains about turnovers a lot, like basically every coach. The Bulls had just 14 individual turnovers in Sacramento, which isn't unusual. It's going to happen because Zach is playing a lot of point guard this season. And often when White brings up the ball he hands to LaVine and then retreats to shooting position on the wing. Not like I'm making a comparison, but Magic averaged almost five turnovers per game one season and about four for his career. It happens when you have the ball a lot, especially when it's not your prime duty. Zach's a remarkable ballhandler as much as he attacks the basket in traffic with so many poking at the ball. I'm not so worried about his assist to turnovers ratio. More points to turnover: 32 to six work for me.

Ron Goldberg:

The preseason and first couple games were bad. It was hard to notice anything different. As the team has come closer to full strength we have seen some better results, but again, I am not seeing too much different about their style of play. Sure I read the quotes about player confidence and trying to put players where they are most comfortable on the floor. The coaching staff is excellent and we need to give them time, but tell us what you are seeing basketball wise this season to give us confidence for the seemingly very gradual improvement.

Sam Smith:

Actually, I see a lot different given a virtually identical roster. There's health, which does make a difference, especially having Porter back. After all, when that trade was made he was a $100 million free agent and the third guy on a playoff team who was supposed to be a No. 2 or No. 3 at worst for those Bulls. That's losing a lot. Like Garrett Temple noted after the Kings loss, LaVine is playing more certain with less three-point shooting and the bizarre plan last season to basically scrap the rest of basketball for three-point shooting has been abandoned. There's accountability in the right direction. Not holding up players to personal ridicule but by making in-game adjustments as the circumstances warrant depending on how teams are doing against you and where you might gain matchup advantage. We've seen some interesting looks with Markkanen pre-Covid at center and then Thad Young some. Lots of matchup looks and finishing with savvy veterans and, no offense, not the G-league tryouts of previous seasons. You're not turning Zach into LeBron or Markkanen into Anthony Davis or Coby White into Chris Paul. But at least we are seeing them getting an opportunity to play to their strengths, at least most of the time. I wouldn't worry so much to make White a facilitator as I liked the way he concentrated on offense to close the Sacramento game. If you don't have a natural lead guard you cannot create one. It's OK. I would like to see Patrick Williams more with the ball and perhaps in more late game situations, but for now it seems Donovan is trying to establish more of a winning culture, which everyone should appreciate after all the experiments of recent seasons. It's been a very positive start.

John Petersen:

It's early but are there significant positive signs for Williams in growth and development? It is impressive that he apparently is not overwhelmed given his minimal experience.

Sam Smith:

He is an unusually composed rookie performer, though that could be his nature and personality. Since media is not allowed to be around the team this season because of the virus restrictions, it's difficult to know what some of the new players are like. Given we haven't seen a lot of variation for what Williams can do, he still looks more like a power forward, a position where you can make a case for he, Thad Young, Markkanen, Wendell Carter and Porter. That probably requires some editing. So Williams doesn't exactly fill a position need as some identified point guard or center and certainly small forward. Karnisovas said he was selecting best available in the draft, and you can make the case for Williams that way. It's not truly a position less game since Coby isn't guarding Anthony Davis. But Williams looks like he's going to be an excellent player for years.

Rui Dias:

I wanted to know your insight on this "new" NBA Era. How bad is it? Like, I'm a young guy, I've been watching NBA since early 90s and I still can't figure out how the NBA turn out to be this bad. Most will say It's just me being nostalgic or that I can't really focus on the fact that things change. People will say we have players like LeBron, Durant, Steph Curry, and other stars that are great or better than those other legends on the 80s or 90s. But really, how bad is this NBA?

January 6th we had eleven games. Only two had less than 200 points combined, and it was 196 and 198. No team scored less than 92 points. No one is saying those 78-77 games were great, but c'mon most of the games on the NBA are now All Star Games. Hell most of the All Star Games on the 80s and 90s played had more defense than most of these regular games. How is it that defense is so undervalued now? We are not talking about one or two games, we are not talking about half the games... I'm talking about what? 90 plus percent of the games now ends with both teams over 100 points? I know people love to score but for real this game is so one dimensional. Lets put 5 guys that are at most 6-6 ft on the floor that can shot the ball and what the heck maybe we can win. The Bulls are starting Coby, LaVine, Porter, Williams and Carter. This would be a laugh 15 years ago. Watching these games really makes me sad, because I really really really enjoy those high pressure moments on defense. When people actually cared about staying in front of the other guy. Now, it's "Let him pass quick, maybe he'll miss, let us outscore him on the other end". How depressing is that?

Sam Smith:

I tend to agree less for the nostalgia—and I am not a young guy—and the familiarity of always believing things were better when you were young because, well, you were young and things were probably much easier. There are some contributing factors like some guys basically not caring because of the pre-Christmas start close to the end of last season and the long layoff for others and thus not being in great condition. But there is a fundamental problem the NBA doesn't care to address yet with this three-point shooting. It was evident in the Bulls game with Portland when Lillard and McCollum basically came over half court and threw up threes. Makes you vomit at times. Didn't make them, so move on to the next game and maybe make them then.

I've liked the way the Bulls are playing compared to many teams with somewhat more ball movement and taking advantage of the the whole court. They've often been a better team to watch than others; also a nice change. And you can win games that way despite the formulas. The problem is not that players can make too many threes, but that too many are too easy. I get that many teams believe if you make more threes than the other team you probably win. The problem is how easy that baseline corner three is that so many teams essentially run a high screen to make one pass and then find someone for that corner three. So then players—Patrick Williams too much for me—stand in the corner posing like statues until someone decides to throw them the ball.

The NBA game always has evolved. The lane was six feet and then 12 and 16. Changes always have been made to help the product, if not as many as in football. The NBA fears the loss of courtside revenue, but the court probably needs to be lengthened and widened. It's size was made for humans from 70 years ago. They're bigger and stronger. Heck, even golfers are too big for NBA courts. You can't really run a fast break. It's too congested. If they won't change the court size, they need to eliminate that corner three. Just draw the three point circle line into the corner so players have to get out more on the wing. Teams are smart and always will figure out ways to take advantage of the rules. There are positives to what the NBA has done with less of the brutal physical play and opening up the game. The three has helped in that manner. But in the too much of a good thing dilemma it's also helped diminish the creativity, texture and breath of strategy and tactics that has eliminated so much of the game's variety. Things always are changing. The NBA needs to keep up.

Matt Cooney:

For the sake of this question, assume Lauri comes back to the starting unit and Otto goes to the second unit. What is the good vs. bad of bringing Gafford in with the starters? What is the good/bad of having Carter coming in from the bench? Carter seems to have overcome some of his self-confidence issues? Gafford is high energy and a terrific spark plug. Then there's the Lauri-as-center that would potentially put both of them on the bench for big chunks of the game.

Sam Smith:

This is a popular narrative these days, though I might be more inclined if they are making changes to see Markkanen at center, Porter at power forward and Williams at small forward and out on the wing more with the ball. I understand the enthusiasm for Gafford given his exciting energy and the way he gets the ball on the offensive boards. He also has good hands to catch lobs. Highlight stuff. But the way he jumps around he's not a very good rebounder the way he's out of position so much. Donovan was pushing Carter so much to shoot earlier, which clearly Carter doesn't like to do, to spread out the floor to give Zach and Coby more space and more space for movement. Gafford has almost no perimeter offensive element, so I wouldn't expect Donovan to embrace that. Wendell is being limited by a lack of athleticism and it will be interesting to see how it works out when Markkanen returns. I don't believe the center position is set yet.

James Phoenix:

To expect a playoff appearance does not seem likely with the Bulls' defensive struggles. And they cannot play the Wizards the rest of the season, unfortunately. The team has been in a wait-and-see approach with the young, but at some point a significant move needs to be made to address this defense. Is there anything you can say about the new management in charge and the direction they plan to take?

Sam Smith:

Up? None of us really has any idea what they are thinking since with the virus restrictions no one spends any time with any of the staff anymore other than the players. I doubt they know, either, since all are auditioning for jobs. I'm not as concerned about defensive issues because the Bulls have an offensive oriented group for now. Play to your strengths, which is scoring. You're going to be outscored at times, which is the way the NBA mostly is these days. But if you play with some variety—a plan, mid range and long distance, penetrating and posting, as the Bulls have done—you can survive and thrive. Perhaps going a long way in the playoffs requires more of a defensive component; not just making the playoffs. But you don't need great individual Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard defenders to play good defense. Zach has improved and I suspect the Bulls will improve as personnel settles in. Williams does have strong individual defensive potential, which also suggests management is aware of adding to that mix.

Stian Nordvik:

Denzel Valentine and Coby White are my two keepers now, and my favorite talent but most unlucky Bull, Chandler Hutchison.

Sam Smith:

Valentine is quietly been an interesting player this season. Again being left out of the rotation early, Donovan apparently has seen something he likes and has been playing him the last few games in a regular spot. Denzel has shot well and has that uncanny floater, but much missed has been back to back best plus/minus the last two games and the highlight pass of the season, that three quarter court bounce pass for a Williams score late in the third. And a look away pass for a Young basket also on a break. Valentine may be the team's best in transition, though without the athleticism he doesn't always get the notice. But he is showing now heathy a very high basketball IQ and a value like Shaun Livingston had for the champion Warriors. I agree; he's a keeper.

Ben Arsh:

If you're running the Wizards and decide its time move Beal which of these offers sound better? To the Knicks for Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox? Or to the Hawks for Clint Capella, Kevin Huerter, and DeAndre Hunter?

Sam Smith:

What, no Bulls package? With the thinned out free agency, Beal's name is going to be most prominent in potential trade with the Wizards no wizards again. Especially since he could opt out after next season. I assume with the Westbrook deal they're going to try to make a run of some sort this season. Neither of those deals would do it, especially since Thibs inflates stats with how much he plays some guys like Mike D'Antoni did with his style of offensive play. If the Wizards move on from Beal, I assume they'd want multiple first round picks. Isn't that three Hawks reserve players, by the way? Felicio, Kornet, Hutchison and a future No. 1? There are going to be some very interesting offers for Beal depending on how this season goes for the Wizards. With so many signing with their teams he may become the big name for next summer.

Mike Worth:

How about Thibs for COY with these Knicks. Quickly or Coby?

Sam Smith:

I especially love to hear from New Yorkers given the level of basketball knowledge. It always elevates the rest of the country without anyone having to say anything. Thibs is an excellent coach, and with Taj Gibson coming back can Noah be far behind? I've been with Thibs mostly on playing players since like baseball pitchers many players are coddled too much, mostly Brooklyn Nets and L.A. Clippers these days, and that you become just as accustomed to not playing as playing. You can't talk about how much you love the game all the time and then take rest days when, you know, you're working three hours a day. But you have to laugh with two Knicks one/two in leading the league in minutes played and checking the Knicks box score and seeing a seven-player rotation eight games in. Dennis Smith, anyone? Has Frank Ntilikina defected? I am glad for Thibs, and the Knicks were my childhood team. So I watch. They've been outplaying teams in the second half of games, so they're not tired yet. Hey, it's just 72 games. Maybe Thibs has the right idea.

Jon Kueper:

Ok, so how about this for an overreaction? No Lauri = better Coby and Zach. But seriously, the Bulls look pretty good without him in the lineup, and Lauri is looking pretty tradeable right now. I hope when he comes back it only boosts the Bulls and doesn't slow those 2 down. Do you have any preference on either keeping Lauri or trading him? I guess someone could also say they are playing well without Sato too, but I think Sato will just solidify that bench and he will only be a positive addition, so that is very promising to me. Either way, it's looking like a fun season.

Sam Smith:

You can't seriously expect them to want to trade Arcidiacono too? Of course, trading someone coming off his poorest season doesn't produce a great bounty. Then adding to that not playing hardly seems to enhance the value. Perhaps we should see Markkanen play six games before doing anything. Actually, he's been playing very well, and perhaps if they had him they wouldn't have needed a last second LaVine winner in Portland and might have long outscored the not too Fox-y Kings. I like the look Donovan has been using at times with Markkanen at center and want to see how that works out. Though if the Bulls can't win this weekend, maybe Markkanen gets into the running for league MVP.