Ask Sam mailbag: Playoff predictions, reviewing Patrick Williams' season, and more

Sam gives some deeper thoughts on the Bulls 2020-21 as well as his predictions for this year's playoffs
by Sam Smith
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Mike Sutera:

If I were the Celtics I would rather have faced Sixers over Nets.

Sam Smith:

But you couldn't risk that second game. Especially the way the Celtics lost nine of their last 13, the four wins over teams not in the playoffs. I'm also assuming the Warriors win, though I don't see Boston winning any series. Including against the Bulls, who basically have been dominating them most of the season. Fortunately for Boston, the Bulls aren't in. The Celtics would be fortunate to get two games against anyone. So how do I think that first round might go?

EASTERN CONFERENCE

76ers/Wizards: If Gafford can take out Embiid... Are we talking the old Bulls three-headed monster against Shaq in Gafford, Len and Robin Lopez? If Ben Simmons is the best defender, as he says, he has to take out Beal or Westbrook. The 76ers can't process this too much longer. 76ers in 5.

Nets/Celtics: If only they could defend Tatum like the Bulls do. Brad Stevens says it's hard to see how the Nets can lose. Reverse psychology? Or saying what they'd bury Tony LaRussa for? With the 76ers Three ready, I tend to agree with Stevens. I remember when Doug Moe's Nuggets faced Magic's Lakers in the first round in the late 80s and said no way the Nuggets would win a game. He was right. Nets in 4.

Bucks/Heat: This is the big one for the first round after the Heat took out the first place Bucks last bubble. Giannis has more help now even if no one defends him beyond five feet anymore. He really, really needs to win this one. It won't be easy, but still they should. Bucks in 6.

Knicks/Hawks: This is the other one for the first round, more fun than big. Can Thibs push his guys through one more round? Can Kris Dunn shut down Derrick Rose? The Knicks are the best defense and the Hawks are all offense. It's an offensive league. Hawks in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Jazz/Warriors: One more round of Steph, please. What a delight to watch Steph move, move Steph move. To watch him shoot, shoot Steph shoot. I couldn't figure what the Lakers were up to with all that size refusing to go inside in the play-in . I suspect the Jazz will think otherwise. If Donovan Mitchell isn't back, maybe 6 or 7 for Utah. If he is 4 or 5.

Suns/Lakers: This really isn't fair, spending all season working your way up to second and then drawing the Lakers now basically healthy. I've heard some suggest—mostly with the Suns—saying top seeded teams should be able to select their first round opponents. Tough luck. The Suns had a good season. Bye. Lakers in 6.

Denver/Portland: Sure be a nice time to have Jamal Murray. The Aaron Gordon acquisition looked like a final piece until it became a replacement. Jokic is going to be the MVP, and will have plenty of time to find a trophy case. Trailblazers in 7.

Clippers/Mavericks: Not many teams know how to lose like the Clippers, who played their way down to this matchup and thus also avoided the Lakers until they reach the conference finals. That was the plan last season, also, until it didn't work out. Who knows when and if Porzingis will play, and the Clippers have way too much defensive possibilities. Maybe the Mavs get a game. Clippers in 4.


Stephen Curry and Chris Paul

Kirk Landers:

Everyone seems to think the one move the Bulls need to make this offseason to to get a point guard, but do you think that's true? I look at the box scores of Bulls games and they always seem to have 30 assists, give or take - which compares favorably to the assist totals for teams with highly regarded point guards like Paul, Curry, Westbrook, et. al. How much better would they be with a ball-dominant, high assist point guard?

Sam Smith:

Actually, a lot. Here's the thing about having a real point guard, which isn't a big history for the franchise. It's not about an accumulation of assists. Heck, I could get six standing next to Zach and handing him the ball the way they score those things these days. What a top point guard will do, in addition to score, is get the ball to the right guy at the right time in the right place, recognize immediately who has the mismatch, who can score on whom, who has it going and from where. It's about efficiency, like what Chris Paul brought to a Suns team that was like the Bulls, having a super high scoring guard who was one of the most prolific scorers in the league. And averaged about 25 points the four seasons before this one for a team that averaged 30 games under .500 at the time. And then this season was 30 games over .500 with a similar roster. Paul had a great season and few are as good. But a real point guard makes a real difference.


Zach LaVine

Joe Tanner:

What do you think of this Bulls' season? I'm hopeful after seeing the team come together and play more competitively towards the end. Finally, two all stars and some real development from Coby White and Patrick Williams.

Zach LaVine? Is there any other player in the league that is good enough to genuinely compete in the dunk contest and the 3 point contest? What about NBA history? Who had both skills at an elite level?

Sam Smith:

I have to also take—and accept—the long term view for now that this season was despite the talk about at least being in the playin the priority that the development they talked about was really to develop more of a core for the next few years than this season, that this season was more evaluation than evolution. I thought Karnisovas' post season comments about the Vucevic trade were revealing (without being specific, which isn't his specialty) and explained a lot. He seemed to basically decide halfway through that developing Wendell Carter and to a lesser extent Lauri Markkanen was perhaps not the right direction, and he needed to do something significant because if he retained both there wasn't going to be cap room for free agency that maybe was enough. We'll still see about Markkanen, whom at least for now he said is in the plans.

Karnisovas pointed to basically being able to beat only losing teams and still showing little different after All-Star. So it was time to strike. I can't disagree. You don't get All-Stars often even in free agency. So he defined a more manageable core and enabled the Bulls to stand taller, literally and figuratively. Much more work to be done and changes to come, though beyond the immediate disappointment prospects do seem better. The next big question will be Zach and his coming free agency. He's become one of those guys the TV national people say you can't stop. That's a big step. He's become one of the most elite talents in franchise history. His pairing with Vucevic (and Williams) looks like a good formula for the next five years.


Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and Coby White

Art Alenik:

Billy he had no choice but to try different things as the earth changed beneath his feet. That's on AK, but it was done for a greater purpose, which is why I say this was never a "win now" project. It's more like 3-year plan, but with a higher goal than 10th place. They essentially risked the play-in game to get Vuc (and Theis?) and build for the future, and with Zach's Covid absence added in, they lost... but only in the short run. Paxson doesn't get enough credit for setting the table for AK. That's one of the reasons it's a sweet job. Pax already did step one of acquiring some assets, playable ones like Zach & Coby, and tradeable ones like Wendell & Otto. But based on what we've seen so far, AK may be craftier & bolder, so better prepared to take the next steps. He decisively ‘won' his first trades, and if Patrick ever ‘gets it', he'll have hit a homer in his first draft for the Bulls too. But Bulls fans should not forget the good things Pax did to, as I say, set the table. Maybe you should write about that.

Sam Smith:

OK, why not. I know the community became inpatient with the rebuild, but the Butler trade yielded an All-Star and one of the league's elite players and who knows yet with Markkanen. The idea with the Porter trade was to have that cap room. Porter didn't seem much interested in playing, unfortunately, but the appeal of his cap space and the selection of Carter did equal Vucevic. The Bulls never got Zion or Ja lucky in the lottery, which would have made things much better. But the handoff that also includes Coby makes up three of the four main players the Bulls have. Like with Doug Collins to Phil Jackson, maybe A to B and then B to C?


Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry

Ateeq Ahmed:

Was listening to Gilbert Arenas on a podcast recently and he was talking about the 2004-05 season playoffs against the Bulls. He went on to say he felt Scott Skiles lost that series (Bulls had a 2-0 lead) because he benched Eddy Curry. He also admitted the Wizards did not have an answer for both Curry and Tyson Chandler. I don't pay too much attention to him, but it did make me wonder - why did Skiles play Curry for limited minutes? Was it due to Curry's health? How good was that young team with Hinrich, Deng, Gordon, Nocioni, Chandler and Curry? I loved that Baby Bulls team.

Sam Smith:

That was a fun team and actually a heck of a good team that John Paxson built quickly after taking over as GM, stealing Nocioni, buying an extra first round pick to get Deng, hiring Skiles when others were looking away because of his experience in Phoenix, getting a tough Antonio Davis when Jalen Rose had given up on the team. It was when they started 0-9 and were written off by every national media and won 47 games and were on the way to the conference finals... until in March Curry developed that heart issue. Another reason I never listen to podcasts and prefer reading. You can believe a lot more what you read than what you hear. Memories are faulty and on so many of these podcasts with people just talking it may sound right. Until you actually look it up. So here's Arenas who played in six playoff games and still thinks Curry played and was benched. Curry sat out from the end of March through the playoffs, was cleared in late June and then when he and the team couldn't agree on further heart testing he was traded to the Knicks. The draft picks the Bulls got were used for LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah. Obviously, the Aldridge pick didn't go well with the trade for the rights to Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa (can't get them all). I guess it could have been a heck of a trade if they'd kept Aldridge. But Noah far exceeded anything Curry did and became one of the top players in franchise history. He is expected to return to close his career as a Bull like Deng did, and perhaps have his number retired some day.


Billy Donovan

Ben Arrieta:

AK mentioned he will not settle for mediocrity. Do you honestly believe in your heart that the coaching staff did an excellent job why the Bulls were eliminated? Why were the erring players who committed a lot of turnovers rewarded with just as much playing time than those who didn't? Why were some players benched and not given ample time to prove themselves? Is there favoritism or pets in this organization? An excellent coach should be a disciplinarian in turnovers, emphasize team play all the time and objective in his valuation of performance without being biased for the good of the team.

Sam Smith:

Though I had some doubts about Donovan when he was hired given his teams' histories of early playoff eliminations, I believe he turned out to be the right selection at the right time for the right team. Maybe the biggest reason was the credibility it brought the franchise with such a professional coach who is respected around the league. That's a big step. And while some of those inexperienced guys have done well, the Bulls did try that long enough previously, to me. I know it's unfair not to give guys a chance, that you can't show if you don't go. But the Bulls needed a dose of credibility. Check. I also liked that Donovan effectively abandoned the youth development thing for all the talk about it. I don't believe you develop much during the season compared to afterward, and what you do with players in games. I felt Coby White developed his best being benched. It woke him up. I really was disappointed with the season result—especially seeing Charlotte so uncompetitive in the play-in game; what, you finished behind that team?—because I was so looking forward to some sort of post season game.

I really still feel an emptiness watching this week. Everyone is making excuses about Covid and the tough season, though Donovan was always quick to say everyone faced that. What they didn't face was reshaping the team midseason with the trade for Vucevic. It made the season look bad, and though it sounds like spin, I agree with he and Karnisovas that it was more for beyond than this season. Because Donovan had to basically change the entire philosophy of how the team played, from faster and more offensively oriented to slower and bigger. I also loved that everything wasn't about the analytics formulas. He really helped get a lot more from Zach. You're always going to disagree with some things a coach does, which is another reason why basketball is such a great sport. There are so many decisions to make with so many scores and options, there's no way you should agree with everything. Donovan practiced accountability benching White and Markkanen.

Where I mostly differed was the unequal treatment with Patrick Williams. Though perhaps that was the pre-season plan, to let him play and gain experience no matter what being new management's first selection. Because of league Covid restrictions, media was never allowed to speak privately with staff or players. So we really don't know. Thad Young, always the voice of reason and transparency on this Bulls team, pointed it out in his closing media session: Opponents almost always played their worst or smallest defender on Williams because he rarely tried to take advantage. He always got the "just 19" exception, but it hurts your team when the opponent can bury their poorest defender or a little guard on a 6-8 forward and not pay. Thus a better defender and more help could go toward LaVine and later Vucevic. Williams apparently didn't know better as inexperienced as he was. He probably should have been benched to bring the point home as Donovan did with White, Markkanen and even Young at times. It seemed they begged him all season to shoot. That might have been the wakeup call. Analytics doesn't measure that, which is another flaw with the formulas. But if you have a player not doing as much as he can to occupy the defense, the defense then can shift to make it more difficult for others, which so often happened.

Williams will learn. He looks like he really could be terrific. He'll get that Summer League this summer he didn't get. And from what the players were saying in those post season media sessions, he really was 19, asking questions that seemed so obvious to them that many were disbelieving he couldn't know those things. Though they loved—and I do, too—that he wasn't afraid to ask. I believe Donovan did do basically all those things you asked. The better test will be next season with LaVine and Vucevic starting the season together and Williams perhaps understanding it's OK to exchange the glasses and vest sweater for a cape.


Lauri Markkanen

Brodie Larsh:

What teams do you feel are the best fit for Lauri? I'm thinking Phoenix, Miami, and Portland. The thought of him in Phoenix seems especially scary. He also already chose to move to Arizona once before.

Sam Smith:

The Bulls? Both Karnisovas and Donovan expressed admiration and desire for Markkanen in their post season comments, and I've long maintained a belief his style of play, if not always what you most want, has an important place in this offensive-oriented NBA. Plus on a team like the Bulls which lacks three-point shooting, though Vucevic will help. There's always a great offseason question facing the Bulls, and Lauri's future will be it this time. And free agency, of course, and the point guard prospects. OK, three questions. I believe Markkanen will have a healthy market, especially among Western Conference teams playing more spaced with shooting. The Spurs with huge cap room and speaking many languages for years have been frequently rumored in media speculation. He's a restricted free agent, so the Bulls, like with Zach LaVine, can match any offer. That eats up cap room. Sign and trade? Match because, well, shooting is good? I guess we'll finally find out what they really think of him before too long.


Patrick Williams

Ben Luke:

I'll admit I switched over to watching the Sox the last 3 weeks over the Bulls, but look at P-Will's rookie season compared to Jimmy Bucket's first two seasons. It's similar with Jimmy's second year when he started 20 games closer to Williams this season. My first impression was the Bulls snagged another Luol Deng. From my 3/4's of the season watching I think he can be Jimmy with a real 3-point shot. Don't want to get ahead of myself but I'm excited to be a Bulls fan for the first time in a few years.

Sam Smith:

Now even Williams seems to be sticking to the Kawhi—large hands, little personality—comparison with his post season media comments about enjoying playing against Leonard because they played from the same spots on offense. He's no Jimmy because Jimmy was wild and aggressive from the beginning, berating Thibs for not playing him more, alternatively angry with media at times when he was in a bad mood from not playing enough, eventually manic when he got into the game. Jimmy didn't—and probably still doesn't—have the skills Williams possesses even now with shooting. With Williams, it's all attitude and desire. If he had Jimmy's, he'd be LeBron. But you are who you are. Though it's better to be able to get there than not having the chance to ever do so.


Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine

Joseph Austin:

Can we say that the Bulls actually improved? I know that they won 9 more games than did in each of the previous 2 seasons. With shortened pre-season, Covid-19 situation, missed game due to injuries, and the trades. Outside of the record, did the Bulls improve?

Sam Smith:

From no All-Star to two All-Stars. That sounds a lot better.


Toni Kukoc

Mike Queen:

Who is the presenter for Toni at the Hall of Fame?

Sam Smith:

It probably will be Dino Radja, who was his best friend growing up, and maybe someone like Vlade Divac. It was interesting to see Michael Jordan at last weekend's enshrinement ceremony for Kobe Bryant and then also Kim Mulkey. It would be so cool—and appropriate—for Jordan and Scottie Pippen to stand up for Kukoc the way they tried to shut him down the first time they saw and met him in the 1992 Olympics in their puerile response to Jerry Krause. What a nice mea culpa that would be and unconventional and expected celebration of the championships and the Last Dance. Finally, case closed.


Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal

Elijah Humble:

So without knowing the contract situations, what would it take to score a guy like Beal, DeRozan, CJ McCollum...to me those guys are the real game-changers, more than Lonzo or the aging vets Lowry or Conley, as much as I like those options. Rondo will be due to change teams again soon.

Sam Smith:

It's a difficult calculation, especially before the draft if the Bulls happen to luck into a top four pick. That adds another $5 million or so to the payroll. The way I figure it, the Bulls if they release Markkanen, Young, Satoransky, Felicio, Theis, Temple, Valentine and Green have about $25 million in cap room, which is enough for maybe one top player. I seriously doubt they release all those guys, and the odds aren't good for a top four pick. So maybe using exceptions with the largest close to $10 million and some smaller ones better fills a roster. Then there are trades and would they match an offer, which all are too difficult to determine now with so many moving parts. Talk about another interesting offseason.


Squad

Chris Granner:

The fact that we're not playing any more would make any Bulls fan sad...but for all the things that happened to close the season that commentators have written much about, it's not really a shocker. And...think of the possibilities, of a guy who can shoot & score so effortlessly from anywhere like Zach; of a big guy (Vooch) who demands at least a double-team from 27 of the 30 teams in the league; of a guy (Patrick) with a level of athleticism and upside that legitimately rivals Scottie (the last Bull I saw with a pull-up one-hand jump shot); of a tough 4-5 banger & warrior in Daniel; in a dead-eye spot-up shot and someone who clearly the game is slowing down for in Coby. It'd be great to have Thad back, and I'll miss Lauri when he's gone (and I expect him to be, as I don't think he made the ultimate sale to Arturas)...but seriously: give me any 7 legit NBA players to pair with those 5, and give Billy a full offseason & training camp to work with...and I like our chances next year. Bring it on!

Sam Smith:

That's the spirit.

Got a question for Sam?

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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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