Ask Sam Mailbag: questions about Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, the 2009 Bulls, and more

Sam Smith dives into his mailbag as the Bulls have struggled since experiencing the success of a short win streak
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Mike Burling:

Bulls fans seems so desperate for a star that they have decided Zach is the man and resigning him is the only way forward. I for one, hope this isn't the case.

I can see a way that AKME actually trade Zach before they have to pay him or they sign and trade him. Look, amazing athlete, sometime amazing scorer but unfortunately, he's not a winner , never been one and unless he gets a change of scenery, won't be one.

Pairing Zach and Vooch without someone to organize the offense was never going to work. Both stat padders who don't play D and have never really won in the NBA.

Sam Smith:

That should fix things. I know when things are going badly, as they certainly are for the Bulls now and even worse with Zach out for Covid, the ready solution is to get rid of everyone. Let's start with the best guy, right. I know these sort of outrageous takes pose as sports debate these days, though this is right out of the goofy sportswriter handbook. He's not good enough to win a championship (as if anyone knows who is and isn't), then let's get rid of him and start over. Because we all know how much everyone loves starting over. There's this zero sum mentality of ignorance that either you are a champion or you're worthless. Sports and life are not that way. The Jazz famously in the late 80s and early 90s repeatedly lost early in the playoffs with Malone and Stockton, two teens draft picks like LaVine who everyone knew couldn't win. The Jazz ridiculously held onto both and true, no titles, but two Finals and one of the great runs of the era. Zach and Vooch are not Shaq and Kobe. But they could be Kemp and Payton or even Ewing and Starks. Maybe not ultimately good or fortunate enough, but good enough with some help around the edges that you can dream and at least have a chance.


Coby White

Brodie Larsh:

Do you expect Coby to start at the 2 while Zach's out? Could be a great test/opportunity for Coby to showcase his talent as a full time off ball guard. If not Coby then who? Temple or Valentine? Could go with a big lineup and start Troy Brown at SG I suppose. It's going to be a rough couple weeks.

Sam Smith:

Donovan obviously prefers Brown and Temple the way he's finished games with Brown and couldn't wait to get Temple out there again. I'm with you. We've been saying Coby is really a shooting guard/sixth man/scorer type. Let him have an audition. The benching really has taken a lot out of him, but we all saw him averaging Zach-like numbers last year after being snubbed for the rookie team in Chicago. The kid has an edge, and he has some game. Guys are supposed to rise above the disappointments, but it's easier said that done. Like with Markkanen. Plus suddenly when you know you're not doing to be in long and getting measured by every miss, which starters are not with more guaranteed time, then you begin to press some, maybe take some risks you shouldn't or defer more than you should. As much as we dead otherwise, they turn out to be humans. I'd love to see Coby starting there for Zach and getting those 15 to 20 shots and let's get a real idea of who he is.


Coby White

Brian Maholo :

While it's never good to lose the best player on a roster for several games, this actual may be a good thing at this time. Zach is obviously frustrated and it seems most of the team just stands around waiting for him to do something. Maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but it is something that happens when someone is so talented and effortless in wowing us all, players included. So he gets a chance to catch his breath and gain a broader perspective. Others on the roster have to step up their games if we are to stay in playoff position. If this happens, our team is better and more capable upon Zach's return. Who do you think steps up?

Sam Smith:

Sometimes you wonder just how great the 90s Bulls could have been if only Michael Jordan had missed more games.


Billy Donovan

Art Alenik:

I'm with Billy. He's proven that he can win multiple ways with differing line-ups and will adjust to the strengths of his roster. He's not a rookie from college or a BS artist. ZACH – Of course he's not a ball-hog. Billy says that he did ask him to get other players involved, but he often seems willing to pass. In fact, he forces it sometimes & gets a TO... because teammates are not doing enough to make themselves available (or aren't even ready). You can see this in Thad's game too. When he gets the ball now, teams concentrate on the passing lanes and force him to shoot. Bulls need to scramble and get open so he has options. Even if we get an elite PG, guys still have to work to get open. Coby – Do you have any clue what's wrong with him? Seems to me he had a much better handle last season, crossover & all. Lately, it's a hot potato. His shooting and his drives are off too. I don't think it's the bench, since he was there last year. Whatever it is, I want the old Coby back.

Sam Smith:

I think Coby is a pleaser and committed and the staff probably loves him for that and roots for him and is so desperate to help him that maybe he's on information overload. He seems like he's not so much playing naturally as trying to process everything they've told him about being a point guard, a good teammate, a facilitator and scorer and now sixth man. It's like sometimes when I see the coaches screaming in plays all the time. I wish the guards would just ignore him and play. They know what's going on. It's terrible what's happened to sports with Aaron Rodgers, who is smarter than all the coaches, having to read off a cheat sheet and baseball catchers who wouldn't pick some of their managers to be team managers for their high school teams having to get signs from them to relay to the pitcher. Coby, just play! Though it's a good point with Thad. Teams anticipate your tendencies, and so he's made more turnovers. With Zach out, it does given Donovan an opportunity to try a lot of changes; maybe new starters, new rotations, Dotson and Mokoka. After all, there's no bad losses now. They won't be expected to win much without Zach. Maybe Donovan gets back in that coach of the year conversation many fans had him during that three-game winning streak a few weeks back.


Nikola Vucevic

Vito Tams:

We blew another lead against Memphis and lost another game to a not so great team and we may not even be eligible for play-in. I know it is still just 10 or 11 games after those big trades and people need to get to know each other and we need to test out different tactics and blah blah blah, but I believe a team with Zach and Vooch as the core isn't going to work. The first game after the trades, we played at Spurs and the Spurs commentators gave a stat that was quite striking: before the trading deadline this season, Vooch had the worst +/- among all nba players who played significant minutes, and that commentator said, 'I don't understand why Bulls fans are so excited about this trade.' And what we saw in the last 10 games kind of testify what he said. His defense, however, may be even worse than Markkanen. Magic was an 8th seed contender at best with him leading. When AKME came in, they said this season is the evaluation season, and then after about 2/3 of the season, they said enough evaluation. It's win-now mode. I understand the hype when AKME and Donovan arrived, but apart from those nice things they said and these (crowd-pleasing and sending-a-message) deadline trades, there are no real changes. As a fan, I am very unhappy about their impatience, in particular this all-in move for Vooch (someone tells me how much more impactful to winning. Trade Vooch for the likes of Lowry, Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Miles Turner, Capela.

Sam Smith:

Well, that was a short honeymoon. I really enjoyed Vooch when he was here, though. How's that go: Ree-Lax! No one was making excuses because everyone has a crazy schedule, but it makes sense they'd blow a few late leads playing basically 18 straight days on the road (coming home for one game). And we're always told how tough that first game at home is. There are some lineup and compatibility issues for now, like Thad Young with Vucevic, which I don't believe works as well since they often compete for the same space. But this was basically the plan, to address needs. Once the new management came in it appears they recognized the need for a point guard, center and wing/small forward. I believe the biggest need was a center, and they got a good one. Not the best because you can't get the best. It's not unlike when the Bulls got Bill Cartwright. It wasn't to be better than Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon or Brad Daugherty. But someone to make it more difficult on them and make them defend. Wendell could not. Vucevic can. No, he's not the elite defender, but he's a star big man in this league who can match the best; some days better, some days not. It's a great addition and step one in the process which apparently is rebuilding the roster with their exclusive view of the makeup of a team. Which also obviously means no one tenure.


Timberwolves

Brian Tucker:

Twolves with the worst record in the league and another disastrous 4th quarter... seriously! I understand how the players and coaches are showing disappointment and talking about the need for wins and learning how to win, but I'm starting to get the idea that there is some half-tanking going on. Like some directive to make sure to stick to that 10 seed. I won't dive too deep into conspiracy, but say if the Bulls finish 10th and don't manage to win both play-in games to get the 8 seed, would they be in the lottery? Getting a chance at the playoffs and the chance at striking it rich in the lottery would be a dream outcome for AK and Billy I'd imagine.

Sam Smith:

I guess that might make some sense if they, you know, had their draft pick. The losers of the play-in who don't get the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds go into the lottery. But with the poorest odds of getting a top four pick. That 2021 pick is believed to be protected top four; not so in 2023. That's a heck of a gamble to risk missing completely to hang onto 10 and lose to get, what, a five percent chance for a top four pick? I always default to no one in the NBA being smart enough to carry out a conspiracy and keep it secret. I know there's been talk about this being a great draft, but I wasn't particularly impressed with what I saw of the supposed top three picks during the NCAA tournament. The projected No. 1 guy, Cunningham, looked like it was a bother for him to even play basketball. I'm sure they'll be good just as many of the players in this draft have been after being doubted. It also doesn't seem the Bulls direction anymore with the Vucevic trade and featuring guys like Theis in place of Markkanen. Williams looks like their lone young guy. I don't believe they want too many more.


1996 NBA Draft

Mike Sutera:

Also in ur opinion what was the better draft? The Jordan draft or the Samaki Walker draft? I meant the Kobe draft.

Sam Smith:

I know ESPN recently did something on the 1996 draft, but not really that close. Yes, the '96 draft was loaded with nine All-Stars. The '84 draft didn't have as many, seven. But not only did the 1984 draft have more Hall of Famers (four to three and five if you count sixth rounded Oscar Schmidt, who didn't play int he NBA), but it's the quality of the elite. Sorry, Kobe's not top 10. But Jordan is and you might be able to make a care for Olajuwon. There was Barkley and some would say perhaps the greatest point guard after Oscar, Magic and perhaps Isiah in John Stockton, who has just about every point guard record. What was off about that 1996 draft was how many busts there were in the lottery with Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller and Vitaly Potopenko right before Kobe last in that lottery at No. 13. I keep telling you there's no special training or expertise to be an NBA GM. I rank the 1960 draft with Oscar, Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens ahead of 1996 for at least two players in the all-time top 10, Robertson and West.


Patrick Williams

John Petersen:

It's about time that Williams starts to be accountable for his lack of impact. Yes he is only 19 and was not a starter even in college, but he has started most Bulls games and has consistently played substantial minutes. He has a mature frame and while he has been durable and available he has not really dominated any opposing player. No one would expect a dramatic rise to stardom but Williams does not seem to be developing or showing ‘flashes". You'd think he'd have to face it after the Minnesota and Memphis games.

Sam Smith:

It seems obvious that he's exhausted by the season and what the team just went through with this unusual almost three-week trip. And then the daily Covid tests and 19 and no Summer League or much training camp. Sure, they're all excuses and I get the Bulls seem to want to push development. I believe more will come once he gets some time off and a chance to work on his game in the summer. He does look like he could be really good some day, but especially since the trades he has been overly deferential. I see more fatigue, which is why they named a wall for rookies. It's not unusual. He's mostly playing out of position against smaller, quicker players as I believe he eventually becomes the power forward, and he doesn't have a dynamic personality. After all, he was comfortable being a bench player in college. Heck, Jordan never forgave Dean Smith for decades for not even letting him be with the other upper classmen starters in the Sports Illustrated cover picture when he was a freshman. No one is expecting or asking for Jordanesque traits. No one else has them. You never know what a person is like until you live with them. Williams just moved in with the Bulls this season, so now they are finding out. He does seem somewhat acquiescent, though for now we're attributing that to being 19 and having probably been intimidated being around presumed idols like Luke Kornet and Otto Porter Jr.


Billy Donovan

Greg Young:

In your mad scientist analogy for Donovan, what needs to happen next? The final quarter of the season will be his crucible but what to put in it? This is one where I (maybe like him) am out of new mixtures. My only addition would be for him to scream ICE ICE from the sidelines in the hopes of stirring past defensive ghosts. The Bulls pick and roll defense is quite indefensible but everyone knows that. I still think the missing catalyst remains a point guard who can semi corral the quick, physical PG's that most teams seem to possess. Until then, I fear, the smoke and fumes and fires coming from the laboratory will be for naught. It remains an interesting season but frustration is rapidly surfacing again.

Sam Smith:

Stay the course. I believe the Bulls will come out of this latest depression, if also hopefully the fans. The Bulls did have leads with seven minutes left in Minnesota and Memphis. And if they decided to play more than nine minutes against Orlando….They became desperate; how about haste and not waste. Donovan has been switching lineups often, so the starters don't matter that much. Though I like Theis more with Vucevic both for defense and it seems like Young takes away Vucevic's interior space. Theis also is a better perimeter shooter and seems a better fit with Vucevic. But they said it would take some time, and fewer than a dozen games in season isn't that much time. I believe the larger point is while these are moves that could help a run for this season, and Vucevic was part of that desire for a speedier improvement, they're moves more about the next few seasons. It's still evaluation, but with different personnel.


Daniel Theis

Liza Johns:

Do you, like many other professional and non-professional pundits, believe that the Bulls' defense is worse now than it was before the big trades? And if so, why do you think that is?

Sam Smith:

I do not. I believe it will be better even if Vucevic isn't considered a high level defender because he isn't that athletic. But he brings so much else with his perimeter shooting by forcing so many switches and mismatches. Yes, I know the Bulls have to start recognizing them. I assume it's part of the post season plan. I believe this group's defense will be better with players like Theis and Brown and then the time to play together since defense is a team function more than individual. I like the personnel now more for defense than before and believe it will improve in the offseason. Tell that to those pundits!


Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine

Tapani Kivini:

Do you agree that Bulls new strategy has some negative effect to rest of the team. "Two All Star" players will never win the games in a long run, if they do not get enough support and effort from the rest of the team. Like Lavine's 50 points is just great for him, but during that early scoring most of the other players lost their touch to scoring and when Lavine were trapped the rest of other "cold players" were not able to step up. If that king of strong play is in the end of the game no problem, but is first 24 minutes there were only Vucevic and Lavine. All others were more like statistics. It is a team game in both ends. Actually in many games where Lavine has been a star by 30+ points Bull had lost the game. When he scores about 20 point they have won.

Sam Smith:

Actually, I think Zach is doing what Jordan did, which is make up for the weaknesses of the rest of the team when they've been struggling. If you'll notice most games he comes out looking for other players, as Jordan did, and then takes over when they aren't producing as much. He's not good enough to do as much as Jordan, but let's also remember the Bulls didn't win every game Jordan played. In Jordan's third Bulls season, the Bulls were a sub-.500 team. As his teammates improved, his scoring went down (a little) and others became more involved. When they couldn't, he did. I believe Zach sees the game that way and scores when he has to more than because he wants to. I would like to see Markkanen more involved because I believe he has much more to give. But it's understandable when the team moves away from him as they have with fewer opportunities for him it's difficult to maintain that same level of competitiveness. I believe as the lineups settle in there'll be more equalized scoring. Though I guess we get a chance to see it now without Zach for awhile.


Arturas Karnisovas

Alejandro Yegros:

The Bulls made a win-now trade and they don't seem better than they were before. They acquired a two-time All-Star... and while he's been solid, you can't say that he has clearly outplayed guys like Capela and Valuncinas. Worst of all (in my opinion), this team has always struggled because 1.) they lacked a starting-caliber pg, and 2.) they really don't have any wings... and yet they expended both significant draft capital and cap space in a big trade that did not address either of those needs. So, can you spin this trade in a positive that doesn't include: "Maybe the Bulls will lose so much that we get a top-4 pick and the draft protection this year kicks in"?

Sam Smith:

They are better than they were; just not in the standings yet. Is that spin? We know it's not a complete team, but it's difficult for me to see where they don't have a better center and in Theis they don't have a valuable defensive big man. They are bigger and tougher with a player like Brown, and no offense to the former Bulls, but none really have done much or had much of a role. And do you really want another 19-year-old next fall to decide the team finally is on the way. Now how's that for spin? Not bad, eh?


Stephen Curry

Pete Zievers:

An entirely qualitative, subjective thing to say: it's way more interesting to watch a game where the whole floor is used. It was boring/kinda numbing to watch the ball get dumped into Kareem & Lanier over and over. It's boring today to watch Curry launch one 30ft bomb after the other. It was a lot of fun to watch Richard Hamilton make the second pass off the catch to a wide open cutter. It was fun to watch Kerr and Paxson drain clutch jumpers off penetration within the offense. I really liked watching Bernard work the baseline. Shoot, I'd come early just to watch Bernard work out. He was amazing and incredibly skilled.

Sam Smith:

I don't believe many remember Bernard before his ACL injury. It was the first truly remarkable comeback from the then career ending injury. Bernard then was media combative and so many didn't fully appreciate what he was going through as he jumped around to three teams in his first five years after a tough childhood that ESPN explored in a 30/30 documentary. His comeback to make an All-Star team was one of the great stories in 1991. You know, other than that Bulls team. He was injured again the next season and his career was basically over. Not so unusual is Bernard has become one of the more approachable retired players in recent years. And he should have been a Bull. The Jazz were looking to get rid of King and there was a strong trade possibility with the Bulls. But fearing King's past and issues, the Bulls opted to pursue free agent Larry Kenon. He and coach Jerry Sloan feuded and it destroyed the team and cost Sloan his job. King was traded to the Warriors and became an All-Star before being traded to the Knicks and averaging 33 per game before his injury. His mid range paint game was something to behold. By the way, Billy is working on that. Like he said after the Memphis loss, tough to have a lot of guys scoring in double figures when so many guys are missing shots. That seemed to make sense.


Lauri Markkanen

Peter Ousley:

The Bulls are significantly better after the trade and they are far away from being good. Lauri has become a ghost, Coby can't see his teammates and Pat just doesn't score. Without a pick in the first round how does this team get good enough to compete for a five seed next year.

Sam Smith:

Free agency? Trades? Growth? As optimistic as it seems after the three wins, it becomes as discouraging coming home after the losses. I guess my response for now is do you like the starting lineup from last December or now? Which should improve this summer.


Joakim Noah

Fernando Schmude:

The 2009 Bulls-Celtics series made me feel old with the way you were asked about it last week. However, I'm of one opinion that I don't see many people talking about. I think that team would've win it all. They should've kept BG and Tyrus, instead of going after Boozer, IMO. I mean, Boozer was a nice inside scorer, decent for mid range pick and pop game with DRose, but a poor defender who didn't close out games (Taj did that). So, if we had kept BG and Tyrus, Rose certainly would've had more help to close games against the Heat. They wouldn't be able to blitz him the way they used to or BG would make them pay, as we saw in the Celtics series. Tyrus also was very serviceable, athletic and Taj became the main guy anyway. Then, with Jimmy coming along later, this team would be complete.

Sam Smith:

I agree not many people are talking about it. Though I would liked to have seen what happened if it were Skiles that Tyrus tried to fight instead of 65-year-old Paul Silas. And Tyrus lost that one, anyway. There was no scenario in which Tyrus was a productive player as his derailed career suggested. It seemed like reasonable idea at the time the way fans were demanding a super athlete to go along with the basketball types the team was accumulating like Hinrich, Deng and Gordon. "We need high flier!" Never mind. Ben's situation was a little different, one he came to regret but which happens in pro ball. Ben became resentful the Bulls offered Deng $57 million for four years and him $50 million, which still was a lot of money then. Ben said he was the leading scorer and deserved more. Forget he was happy and a starter and a near star. I know people in all lines of work fall into that trap of loving what you do until you find out someone is making more money. My advice is if you're satisfied who cares what the other person has. I know, naive. Ben didn't much care for my advice, though I did copy fashion advice from him wearing a golf shirt over a long sleeve t-shirt. It tremendously extended my golf logo wardrobe. I'll always be grateful. But that all was moot because it was all about LeBron. I've explained that before about the 2010 free agency and about how the Bulls were certain LeBron was coming. Though I always had my doubts, even today those same Bulls executives will say it was a done deal. Whether true or not, the Bulls were clearing the roster except for basically Rose and Noah for at least LeBron and Wade. Boozer became a fallback option and though he was not popular with fans, the Bulls with Boozer—hol dat!—if not because of Boozer led he league in wins two consecutive seasons. Until, yes, I've gone through that before as well.

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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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