Ask Sam Mailbag: Questions about Billy Donovan, "Learning how to win", and more

Sam reaches into his mailbag as the 6-8 Bulls begin a stretch of three games in four nights.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Joseph Austin:

What effect do you think the Harden deal will have on the Bulls future, specifically this summer in free agency? Will most teams see the Bulls as the stars of this trade deadline when wanting to acquire veteran help?

The Bulls played without Porter, Williams, Sato, & Hutchinson against Houston and still played a 10-deep rotation. Do the Bulls really need to make a trade at the deadline?

Sam Smith:

We're still not fully sure what is management's view for this season: Analyze and evaluate, which is what it seemed, and begin to put in a plan next summer with cap room? Or maybe change course and make a move now and go for something with the East, at least, up for grabs? Though let's consider this hypothetical: Kyrie. In watching this small sample since the Harden trade, what seems apparent is Harden likes playing with Durant and not so much Kyrie. Harden practically never even looked at Irving down the stretch against Cleveland the other night dribbling between his legs with Kyrie open. Harden with the connection to Nets assistant Mike D'Antoni seems to have walked in taking the ball, and that's that. We all had doubts whether this would work because of both the three balls thing and who'll play defense, no bench, no size. A lot of reasons. But this Big Three concept is a bit of a misnomer because teams really have room only for a Big Two. In Miami, Chris Bosh agreed to step back as basically a spot up shooter and defender.

On to the Bulls. Something we always hear is how do you get a star. Free agency this summer seems out for now with basically all the big names having resigned. So how do you get a star? Everyone seems to agree Zach LaVine can be a No. 2 star, but then how do you get better than him? You see where I'm headed here? To a crash? A disaster? Falling off the end of the world? If you don't luck into a star, it requires risk. Kyrie is as risky as it gets, but he's a star scoring point guard. He's made big shots in a championship game. The Bulls have a great locker room now with guys who love to be with one another. That's great, but it doesn't equal a title. Michael Jordan didn't even speak to half his teammates, same with Kobe Bryant. The superstars are not always the most humble and welcoming people. It's part of what makes them who they are. Bill Russell carried feuds with teammates for decades. Kareem may not ever have spoken to anyone.

What the Nets probably need more than anything the Bulls have, veterans and size to fill out their bench. As great as the Warriors' Five were, the reserves often were the difference. Heck, Andre Iguodala won a Finals MVP. I've never been a fan of Irving; and the Nets probably will want to play it out to see if it works and maybe figure they owe him for signing. Though maybe Kyrie will not want to be the third guy in the Harden/Durant buddy story. It would be a simple deal to make with the Bulls depth. Plus, the Nets would love to recover some draft picks. Would you do that if you were the Bulls and you could? Me? Let me think about it.


Daniel Gafford

Kieron Smith:

Starting five for now: Daniel Gafford, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Denzel Valentine, Coby White?

Sam Smith:

Well, probably not Denzel. But with Wendell Carter Jr., it seems, out Friday in Charlotte with a thigh issue (listed as doubtful). It's a fortuitous time to take a look at how Gafford's energetic game might fit with the starters. The Bulls seem committed to Carter starting, at least the rest of this season. Though the starters, especially some of the front court, aren't the most enthusiastic people. A number of games have started with a lack of energy, and perhaps Gafford will be a better fit with the pithy Markkanen and the somewhat laid-back Patrick Williams, who is probable after missing the Houston game. Though you never know with the wily Donovan. Thad Young could be the center.


Arturas Karnisovas

Brian Tucker:

There are a lot of comments flying around about how this Bulls team is fun and playing basketball the right way. Definitely issues with turnovers and defense and the biggest need is that killer instinct/learning how to win.

Nothing really to argue here. Other than that last point of instilling confidence, is there anything that can be changed? Are turnovers inevitable with this style of play? You've talked in the past about the players being so much bigger and faster now and it's a legitimate conversation that maybe we need a larger court. On the flip side, would a larger court make the league-wide lack of defense go completely nonexistent? I'm not sure what we can do about the current defense. Is it that playing a motion offense with high pace of play and a lot of deep shooting puts the defense in a vulnerable state more often anyway? Our interior defense could use an enforcer or rim protector for sure, but those types of players tend not to fit in with the high pace of play, and the ones that could fit are not readily available.

I'm really at a loss for solutions on which direction we can go. Another example is that a more traditional facilitating point guard would help reduce turnovers. Then again, we definitely want to keep multiple scorers on the court and it's not like those guys that can do both are really common or available. The best solution may be to just see how it plays out with Coby.

We have a good mix of young talent and quality veteran depth. We are winning games and in the ones that we are losing. It's exciting at the very least! I say let it ride instead of selling guys off for future assets. This team can make it to the playoffs, and that's good enough for now. The continuity will be better for developing the young guys. And we may even find a solid core to go forward with.

I just wonder what AK is thinking. Is he excited for these players or does he want to build his own team from scratch? That's what matters in the end. Either way, what's happening is a win-win for him. There is hope for success, positive attention for the franchise, and rising trade values. He's got to be happy. I am.

Sam Smith:

Best sub-.500 month in team history, eh? Again, we don't know what they are thinking, but my sense is they are thinking like you are. Probably in a bigger house with a better car. I know fans and mostly media generally look at teams for the pure talent and what can enhance that, but I think the comparison issue with that is the finances. The salary cap has to take a hit at some point with the lack of fans, and the Bulls have several of their main players coming up for perhaps huge extensions. Are they part of the future? Build around them? Make changes? Those probably are some of the bigger concerns, especially when few seem to believe that No. 1 guy is here. Maybe it becomes Williams. Maybe Zach, who is closest. The way the game is played now with all the long shooting and the severe limitations to basically guarding anyone away from the rim without fouling, I still believe you can prioritize offense and play that way, as the Bulls have been. Even the best teams only have one or two really good defenders. Williams certainly will be one. With these elite teams you have to keep scoring. Probably more ball control from a facilitator, though maybe Williams develops into the Pippen/Kawhi point forward type. More size at the basket. Maybe Gafford still is growing. But at least everyone's not looking at the draft any more as good as this one is supposed to be.


Billy Donovan

Jim Dahlin:

Halas. Jackson. Quenneville. Maddon, Ditka. Billy Donovan? Hyperbole? Perhaps. Been a while since I have been excited about a coach. Seems to be a basketball whisperer. I would love to be coached by this guy. Would you please find out if he gives golf/life lessons in the off season?

Sam Smith:

Forget Thibs already? And Skiles? I don't know much about Donovan given the lack of access this season because of the virus. I'd probably hold off on the Jackson, Maddon, Quenneville stuff until they get to .500. But Billy has been a welcome addition with his message getting across. Plus, he seems to have a nice way of both holding players accountable while not alienating them Ditka-style. I haven't heard him mention anything about golf, but I did hear he vacationed last year at a Caribbean spa known for its lectures on the side pick and roll.


Bill Walton

Larry Jurkens:

It was the anniversary this week of the Notre Dame/UCLA game. I've heard Bill Walton a couple times and he always says that was the worst loss of his career. And let's not mention the phantom traveling call on Tommy Curtis.

Sam Smith:

Always blame the refs, eh? I know Bill well and over the years have helped him with some of his writing projects. It's an interesting thing I've discovered with the truly great players. Bill without the injuries—and by now, I don't know, 40 surgeries and the happiest, most friendly guy with 40 surgeries the world ever has known—would have been one of the all-time greats, a top 10 all-time player. Which I might also say about Derrick Rose, though I digress yet again. I've been around a lot of the great players when fans or media ask them about their great games and highlights. Some barely remember. What they remember in most detail is the losses. Not because they are depressives, but they generally are shocked they didn't win. Something I've noticed with the truly elite players is how much they expect to win and how surprised they are when they don't. What drives them is defeat. Because it is so unexpected. It's often why you hear such silly answers when players are inevitably asked after wins how it feels. It doesn't feel like anything because the great ones expect to. Better just to ask the bench guys if they make the winning shot. They don't expect to.


Ben Simmons

Lee Headlee:

Ben Simmons is dragging the Sixers down, and they will never win with him and Embiid.

Sam Smith:

I haven't seen a lot of the 76ers, but Doc Rivers seems to have Embiid finally being a dominant player. His shooting is much improved along with his scoring, which suggests Doc got him off the three-point line and back where he can have the most impact. So, Simmons' numbers are correspondingly down as Embiid's gotten his space. We all suspect Daryl Morey never will be happy just sitting around being happy, and having failed to get Harden, you figure Simmons might not fit into his witch's brew. He'll also be a player to watch before trade deadline, and someone I'd certainly like to watch more often.


Young Bulls

Fred Robinson:

As I remember it management promised to return us to playoff contention ASAP. Need I remind you that there is no formula to win a championship without making the playoffs. This team is 1 game out. I still believe the veterans on this team could be packaged to a contender if our effort falls short between now and the trade deadline. As for Michael Jordan's Bulls my paradigm is they were routinely a playoff team before Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant arrived. Veterans like Bill Cartwright facilitated that resolve. Pippen and Grant closed the deal. I would not be presumptuous enough to suggest this 2020-21 team is in that mold, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that veterans played a significant role in that team's success.

Sam Smith:

Yes, it's a process. The interesting part of all this with the virus and games postponed and there really being no dominant team in the East—have you noticed the Bucks don't even throw the ball to Giannis down the stretch now and often put him in the corner out of the way at the end? And Miami being the last East champion, that it is wider open than perhaps... ever. The Cavs just outplayed the Nets and all the stars. We always say it's early and the best rise to the top. But with 72 games, a big March break going to make up games and who knows what else, the Bulls combination of youth and veteran depth could be a heck of a starting point.


Garrett Temple

Greg Young:

Here are my 3 surprises so far this year: Garrett Temple who I did not know of before he came to the Bulls. What a delight and an illustration of what professionalism looks like.

Patrick Williams who I did not know of until he was drafted. He looks like he will more than earn the #4 slot.

Billy Donovan who I knew but did not realize how much the Bulls missed a calm, collected leader as coach.

Did I miss any bigger ones?

Sam Smith:

Perhaps not bigger, though it was hard to imagine that from scoring 25 per game with now with better talent LaVine would be averaging more points, and that veterans like Young and Porter have been so unselfish just trying to fit in even as both potentially could be free agents after this season. And playing the Lakers and Clippers like they did after those games with Atlanta and Indiana.


Isaiah Thomas and Zach LaVine

Ryan Carpel:

Was Zach LaVine lobbying for Isaiah Thomas? Last summer Thomas said he had always wanted to play for the Bulls on his Instagram, adding that "playing in Chi with Zach would be cold. Zach's my lil homie." A few weeks later, Thomas posted a video of LaVine and him working out together.

Sam Smith:

I'll admit I'm a little surprised Thomas hasn't been picked up, though I said the same last year about Jamal Crawford, also from Seattle like Zach. Zach is friends with them, but Thomas is such a ball dominant player and small, so a defensive liability, that I doubt he's in the Bulls plans. Or an answer to the team's turnovers issues since Thomas was a high turnover player compared to his assist's totals. He did have a tough break with his injuries in Boston and I would like to see him get another chance.


Zach LaVine

Art Alenik:

Zach impressed the crap out of me against Dallas. For a guy who's supposed to be a one-dimensional scorer... 10 dimes and only 2 TOs! Maybe Zach should work on playing PG full-time to cut down on his TOs.

Sam Smith:

Zach really has been trying for a guy who long has been doubted for his ability or willingness to be other than what he is. And we've seen Donovan come to rely on LaVine as a playmaker down the stretch. It's probably not the best use of LaVine, but he certainly deserves credit for doing what the team is asking even if it's not the best thing he does. He may not be what everyone wants, but you don't find many players who can do what he does. And seemingly so effortlessly.


Billy Donovan

Gorav Raheja:

How does a team "learn how to win"?

Sam Smith:

Wikipedia? I think what Donovan has been getting at is that if you do all those "little" things, like cut down turnovers, be responsible defensively, follow the fundamentals of boxing out and rebounding, pass to open teammates and such that you'll get better results. And that leads to success. And there's an intangible, also, which I think he was getting to, that winning and losing become habits that are compatible with confidence. When you have success, you tend to believe you will have more. Then you tend to perhaps hesitate less on a last shot or crucial play. And vice versa and all that. As they say, that's why he makes the big bucks.


Damian Lillard

Mike Sutera:

Now Nurkic is out and McCollum, Lillard isn't getting any younger.

Sam Smith:

Portland will be another deadline team to watch, I guess. They were everyone's sort of dark horse favorite to bounce back big this season with Nurkic returning and some of their good additions. So, I know what you're getting at. Would Lillard want out, though he seems loyal and comfortable there. Same as Beal in DC, though there's continued speculation about him because of the losing, as there is with LaVine. Three big names to watch this trading season.


SGA

Adam Groner:

Fake trade question: As my friends and I watched the Bulls lose to the Thunder, we wondered how many draft picks/swaps the Bulls would have to give up for the Thunder to trade Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Given what Brooklyn just gave up for James Harden.

We all agreed this would never happen for many reasons. OKC has exactly the type of player that they want to rebuild around in SGA and have no incentive to trade him. Any amount it would take the Bulls to give up for someone who's not primetime ready also doesn't make sense. What about including Zach instead of Coby?

Sam Smith:

This makes it more difficult for me since you send a question and then answer it. They got a guy and unlike the 76ers project they'll keep him and comfortably be in the lottery for a few more seasons. They're not ready to be competing; the Bulls are much closer despite how that game went. And seriously, how much do you hate Zach? He builds up to maybe a team that can have a winning record and you want to put him back with another 30-win team?


Phil Jackson

Joe Vachon:

Imagine after the Bulls turn the ball over 3 consecutive times. On the next possession, Billy calls a timeout, and the meditation coach steps into the huddle with a singing bowl and directs the team in a guided meditation implementing breathing techniques that helps stabilize emotions, and closed eye visualizations to quiet the mind. Then Billy gives some brief guidance, and the team goes back out on the floor with greater composure and focus. This team clearly has the talent, physical abilities—and now coaching, to win a lot more of these games. What seems to be lacking is the mental and emotional stability that is required for consistent play, and meditation is proven to help in these regards—so why not?

Sam Smith:

As I recall Phil Jackson did some of that. But then he called a play for Michael Jordan.


Scott Skiles

Tom Reedy:

I know it's one game, so I don't want to overreact, but I do think it's somewhat telling to see how well the offense functioned with Zach playing point. He seems to be more confident and more able to get to his spots for better passing angles than Coby. And since he can score from anywhere on the court, defenses have to collapse on him more readily making guys more open. This season is starting to remind me of the 0-9 rookie season for Ben Gordon and Deng under Skiles. Skiles was obviously not quite the players' coach Donovan is, but they're similar in their preparation and ability to develop young players, putting them in a position to succeed and working towards an identity. In terms of similarities to the 04-05 season, I see a similar growth arc even though this team has won more out of the gate. You could see the growth even in those first losses and felt like they would break through at some point. Fun fact, I was a lowly ticket rep intern that year, and it wasn't easy selling season tickets for that 0-9 team, but once they were looking Playoff bound for the first time since the dynasty years, things got a lot more fun!

Sam Smith:

Well, it is tough selling tickets now, also. It is an interesting comparison I've thought of some, too. Skiles had come in during the previous season, which limped to a 23-win close. Then to start 0-9 was the usual dismissal. I had my doubts as well, but I remember Skiles calling me out one day—he was great about that with everyone—and insisting the team was making progress even as there were some brutal losses, like 20 pointers twice to the Suns. But no one in the East could keep up with what D'Antoni unleashed that season. That team also has some of those underappreciated veterans like Antonio Davis and Adrian Griffin and veteran newcomer Andres Nocioni as John Paxson truly put together a surprisingly good group. There are some similarities, and that team finished 47-35 after the 0-9 start. Could it happen again?

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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