Ask Sam Mailbag: The Small-Ball Bulls, Coby White, Chicago Offseason of 2000 and more

Sam Smith answers your questions about the Bulls style of play, Coby White fitting in and Chicago's 1999-00 offseason
by Sam Smith
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Jacob Henry:

I love this Tony Bradley-Alex Caruso starting lineup combo. Two elite defenders in Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. A solid defender in Bradley. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are showing a lot of effort. Bradley was +17 against the Lakers. They were better with him in the game. He protects the rim pretty well. Maybe Vooch turns it around but his fit with this starting unit is strange. He seems to run around setting screen after screen or clogs up the lane. Then defensively he is not good. I realize we gave up a lot to get him, but am I jumping to conclusions after watching him with LaVine for 30-ish games that he would look fantastic as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate instead? It's all about helping the team win right? A second unit where he is featured with Javonte Green, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Derrick Jones Jr. would provide a nice mix.

Sam Smith:

It's the same discussion after every loss: They need size. Of course, the Bulls have size with Vucevic, which you obviously don't rate as of significant importance. There's little doubt Vucevic will return to the starting lineup and 30-some minutes once he is out of the Covid strait jacket. I know what to make of Caruso, who is the reserve version of Michael Jordan. Plays full out on every play and likely in practice as well. I haven't been as enamored of Bradley, and can't recall if I've ever seen him attempt a shot beyond five feet this season. Most of the time as soon as he gets the ball it seems like he can't wait to pass it and wasn't generally told there is a basket behind him. But you are correct that his plus/minus (though not always the perfect stat) is one of the best on the team, behind only DeRozan and Ball and ahead of Caruso (see, I told you it's not perfect) and LaVine and comparable with Vucevic.

Players and coaches always talk about learning from a loss, so can you imagine how much those players learned the last three or four years. But at least with the Portland loss, I learned about getting fewer trade Vooch emails.

Tony Bradley guards Ja Morant

John Leichenko:

Put me in coach! How bad could Marko Simonovic be? He can't get in a game for a team desperate for a big man?

Sam Smith:

I suppose Billy Donovan could take a look, but it seems apparent by now that he prefers playing the smaller, quicker and more active players. After all, when he got to coach more in Oklahoma City after all the superstars and superegos, like Durant and Westbrook, were gone, he played a lot of three-guard lineups. The season before Donovan came to the Bulls, he started point guards or shooting guards in almost 60 percent of the total team starts. Meaning the traditional two-forward spots and centers were starters perhaps 40 percent when as three-fifths they should have started 60 percent. Donovan comes from the Rick Pitino coaching tree that likes quick play, pressure, transition and disruption. Donovan like Pitino doesn't mind if his guards are small; he'll play them if they are quick and pass the ball. What makes this system work so well for these Bulls is that the guards are tall. Good work, Arturas. Which also is why Donovan would opt for someone like Vucevic. If Donovan/Pitino play big men, they have to be able to handle the ball and pass. Donovan seems like he will sacrifice size for skill. Which is why the center/size issue figures to remain for these Bulls. I question if management were even to get a monster type big man—not that any are necessarily available—that Donovan would use him that much. Not that Donovan would be wrong. Size hasn't really been that big a problem this season. The guards have rebounded well enough, but more significantly the guards and small forward types have made up for whatever size deficiency there has been with the aggressive defensive play, e.g., steals, deflections, pressure bodying defense and switching one through five.

There have been those oddities where, say, a 6-foot-4 Javonte Green is on a 7-foot Ivica Zubac. Or even Anthony Davis, who was so frustrated by the pressure that he appeared to want to get himself ejected (aside: Top 75? Seriously!). But I also would like to get a look at Simonovic since he actually seems to do some of those small ball things. Especially since I was just as I was ready to descend on Hoffman Estates and the new Pizza Hut, and he's gone already.

Marko Simonovic drive at Summer League

Tom Plonowski:

How close were the Bulls to landing either Grant Hill, Tim Duncan or Tracy McGrady? I've heard rumors that McGrady was the closest of the three, but was there ever any sign of hope with him or were those just rumors? Did Hill or Duncan show any interest in the Bulls?

Besides, those three there were other free agents - Eddie Jones, Tim Thomas, and Austin Croshere. Did the Bulls have any shot at any of those free agents? I also heard of a rumor that a season prior to that days before the 1999 NBA Draft the Bulls and Hornets had talks about trading Kukoc and the number one pick for Eddie Jones and the third pick. Any truth to it? Jones was in the prime of his career, and the Bulls would've certainly had a chance at one of Elton Brand, Steve Francis or Lamar Odom with the number three pick.

Sam Smith:

Mistakes were made; it was a bad time. Such painful memories. There were other factors at work as well. The narrative, which actually Michael Jordan curiously kept going in the Last Dance despite him really knowing better, was that the team could have made another run in 1998-99. Jordan, of course, knew better because he had that cigar cutter injury and needed surgery. And we have since learned—or at least more outside the Bulls organization have—that Scottie Pippen wasn't coming back to be in the shadows (his view) any longer. See, that's what everyone was trying to say then. OK, me. A wink is tougher to express in print. Dennis Rodman, of course, had spiraled into his own world closer to North Korea than reality. Anyway, the narrative then was big bad Bulls management broke up the team, so there was some reluctance. And bad vibes. Kevin Garnett publicly said they chased out Jordan, so he wasn't going there. KG versus Krause wasn't a fair fight. Jerry Krause's plan, which worked so well in the mid-1980s, was the same. Addition by subtraction; get rid of everyone and get draft picks and maybe then acquire someone. Just that part of not having Michael Jordan to start. Anyway, there never was a chance with Duncan or Hill. Though Tim Floyd, happy with the job but not so happy doing it will kids after getting out of college, persuaded Krause to make a last bid for Duncan and Hill even after McGrady was pretty much on board.

Seeing that quixotic quest, McGrady apparently rethought the whole thing and decided a return home to Florida would keep his shooting arm warmer. Jones also wanted back home to Florida, but the Heat didn't have money and his Hornets were mad at Miami for poaching Alonzo Mourning and wouldn't agree to a sign-and-trade. So Jones agreed to sign with the Bulls and even changed some wording on the press release announcement. But he hadn't signed. Then Miami caved and added some players, so Charlotte agreed to the sign-and-trade so Jones could be paid. The Bulls backtracked to sign Ron Mercer. It didn't end well. Or start that well, either, as I recall. So the free agency of Hill, Duncan, McGrady and perhaps Jones became the free agency of Ron Mercer, Brad Miller and Dragan Tarlac.

Oh cruel Fate, when wilt thou weary be? When satisfied with tormenting me? What have I e're designed, but thou hast crost? All that I wished to gain by thee, I've lost.

Tracy McGrady

Kirk Landers:

I don't really understand why DeMar DeRozan's defense is so routinely castigated. I can see that his on-ball defense on the perimeter is only average (as you've pointed out many times, in the NBA almost everyone guarding wings on the perimeter gets beat off the dribble a lot). But he stays in the play, helps on defense, and he rebounds. To me, rebounding is as much a part of playing defense as moving your feet.

Sam Smith:

Like DeRozan said the other day about those chips on his shoulder, which is a typically American phrase. I first saw it in a Mark Twain book of a kid placing a piece of wood on his shoulder and daring someone to knock it off. It does sound so American. Though unfortunately now they probably try to shoot it off. Curious that gun rights were so original they were still using fists in the 1800s. So I digress. DeRozan is tied with Ball for second on the team in rebounds, which is defense and another reason why I believe Donovan is satisfied not to clog up the paint with some relatively immobile big man just to get the "size" on the floor everyone says the team needs. The Bulls actually have done well driving out of the game the kind of big guys you could get now. Sure, if you can get Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. But the Bulls have mostly succeeded in driving your commonplace Hassan Whiteside, Ivica Zubac, Andre Drummond or Blake Griffin from the game with their swarming team play. Even Anthony Davis.

DeMar skies for the rebound

Ryan Carpel:

We have like the Flying Illini lineup. I love it but we need a good PF like Marvin Bagley to fill the lineup.

I loved that Flyin Illini team. Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill. We gotta get a good big for Coby White because we really don't need him now and quite frankly that shoulder is a liability.

Sam Smith:

It is an interesting comparison, and we do have Kendall at least on the pre and post game shows. So he should be understanding. But that model with a little bit of Vooch does seem to be the Donovan philosophy. Plus, I'm sure they'd settle for losing in the NBA's Final Four. Marcus Liberty at 6-foot-8 was the tallest guy on that roster, which you can get away with more in college. Heck, the 1987 Providence College team was in the Final Four with some barely 6-foot (college height 6-foot-2) starting. Perhaps it was that Providence staff with assistant coaches Jeff Van Gundy, Herb Sendek, Gordon Chiesa and Stu Jackson. Everyone who scored in double figures was a guard or small forward. Joakim Noah and Al Horford? What was Billy Donovan thinking? Heck, his Florida teams were bigger than the current Bulls. Anyway, as I was saying/writing, Billy likes it this way and it also makes for a crowd. Coby White is discovering that.

Glen Rice guarding Marcus Liberty

Joe Tanner:

I've been curious to hear your thoughts on the new "circus" shot rules (my term). I personally love it and the player I thought it would affect the most was James Harden. A couple years ago, many analytics types were saying that Harden was the best scorer ever—even better than Michael Jordan—because his points per shot were so high. I appreciate analytics but I never thought of him at that level. Jordan always had this overwhelming athleticism combined with the best footwork I've ever seen and he always seemed to get great separation. Harden, by contrast, is clearly a great ball handler and shooter but flails around everywhere to draw cheap fouls. Hardly what I would consider elite.

Sam Smith:

And now the spread sheet guys have quieted. I love the rules changes which basically are bringing the game closer to the way it was intended to be played. Well, actually we have no idea of that since Naismith had a closed bottom on his peach basket. Though I love the term cagers for basketball players because the game was once so vicious they had to use cages to enclose the players to protect the fans. Apparently where MMA got the idea. The other question—and it's too late—is top 75, or 76 with ties. Harden was something of a given considering his scoring and those analytics advocates (can I say nerds in this era?). But you take out his penchant of hooking the defender and then flailing out his arms, and with his relative lack of athleticism and explosive play he goes back to being a nice player to have, if not to always remember.

It seems unlikely under these rules he'd be an all-time great. Though I believe you judge players in their times, and Harden in his time was deserving. I know, Bob Cousy and George Mikan today, but they had more impact on the history of the game than Shaq or Chris Paul. Which is what legendary is all about.

James Harden passing the ball

Bill Kochneff:

These Bulls have had very little time together on the court, but it's obvious there's a lot of chemistry on this team. It's so nice to enjoy watching them again. I remember thinking Zach LaVine had difficulty letting the game come to him, but it seems like that is largely in the past...for the most part. Of course, it helps having others on the court whom he trusts!

Sam Smith:

The community always has been tough on Zach, which is somewhat of a mystery. Though there always seems to be a player who gets excessively scrutinized while the flaws of others are ignored. Perhaps it's a good thing that people expect (and want) more from Zach. He'll make five of those "don't shoot, don't shoot, good shot" efforts. Then he misses one and there's an outcry of why he took that shot. It's sort of like genius. You have to accept the eccentricities. And if you read about our geniuses in American history...Zach is as remarkable as perhaps only Jordan and Derrick Rose in franchise history (maybe a little Reggie Theus, too) in the ability to get, get off and make any shot. It's a lot more difficult than it sounds. As impressive is his willingness with this group to defer, support and encourage others, like DeRozan, who may even take his place as a closer. Not many stars do that, and especially in a contract year. But there was LaVine the other day encouraging DeRozan to get that 40th point.

I'm not sure how it occurred, whether management attempted to match the talent and dispositions or whether they identified a common goal or just simply liked one another. But it has been an unusually supportive group in such a short time. Maybe because the Chicago weather stayed pretty good for a long time. Maybe watch them starting now.

Zach LaVine hanging in the air for jump shot

Kieron Smith:

I read a suggestion that once Patrick Williams is able to return to the Bulls team, that they should consider trading him and Derrick Jones Jr. to the Sacramento Kings. In return, the Bulls would get both Harrison Barnes and Jahmi'us Ramsey. Sounds ludicrous right? But they insisted that the Bulls should be looking for an elite power forward trio, and feel Patrick, Alize Johnson and Tyler Cook isn't it.

Sam Smith:

I doubt we see Patrick Williams this season even if he can return on the lower side of four months. As we're seeing with Coby White, it's tough to come back and then come back to this 48 minutes-of-heck game. I've gotten several Harrison Barnes suggestions. But with mostly modest rebounding stats until this season, I doubt he's what most have in mind. Assuming the Kings are also calling it a season already. Williams' spot will be interesting as he'll come back to power forward when he's ready, but will he and can he play in the fast paced, disruptive style Donovan favors? I doubt given the team's belief in his potential that he'd be involved in any trade discussions. Well, maybe if those involve Luka Doncic or Giannis Antetokounpo or Kevin Durant. I did hear Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving may be available.

Patrick Williams dunking in a white jersey

Mike Arndt:

I love the idea of Coby White filling some type of Ben Gordon role. He showed last year that he played best as a starter and I'm not sure if we want to take shots away from Lonzo Ball or Zach LaVine in favor of Coby. Also it feels like Donavan is trying to get Ayo Dosunmu in playoff shape. Donavan seems to like the young guys who play defense and gives them trial by fire experience to learn the variations of picks they see in the league, which makes sense.

Ayo and Alex Caruso have skill-sets on paper that offset LaVine and Lonzo more than Coby so you know where I'm going with this...Who are we trading Coby for? An athletic PF who plays defense and can slide to C for small ball seems to be of need. Thad Young, miss you bro. What are your thoughts on Marvin Bagley? Only thing that makes me hesitant is that Coby is Zach walking in FA insurance and I bet the salary cap goes up next year and everyone has money to throw at him. I'm scared that LaVine goes to the Bucks next year. I think Zach has already accepted that he's not a supermax guy and needs to be someone's Robin to consistently compete for Championships or he wouldn't be letting DeRozan get the ball so much. Maybe we should be talking about trading Zach and Coby for Bradley Beal after the Wizards come back down to earth?

Sam Smith:

There's a lot in there. It's obviously been a shaky start for White, and understandable missing so much time and camp and surgery and all. The larger issue for him is where. And how. It's not so much the Bulls signed point guards, but point guards who don't play like him. White is more of the modern NBA point guard who likes to have the ball and is scoring-oriented. Coby is accustomed to having the ball and I think shoots better that way. That's not happening the way the Bulls play now and with the personnel they have. White is a willing learner and good teammate, and based on how hard he tried to become the facilitating, pass-first point guard they wanted, I'm confident he'll do whatever the Bulls ask. The problem is Ball and Caruso do what the Bulls want so well, and Donovan already has said he won't demote Dosunmu. And plays small with other guys like Green and Jones. Which makes it difficult to find catch-and-shoot time for White; even if he can adjust to that. I assume the Bulls work on it for a few months because they really could use some second unit scoring. Remember, by the way, Ben Gordon started a lot. And often was the designated scorer for the team. The Bulls have a few of those.

I believe you misread Zach. I know everyone loves conspiracies and behind the scenes manipulations, but I think Zach truly is a simple guy who wants the best for the team. Perhaps he's not a supermax guy, which he'd qualify for with an all-NBA position. Which is possible the way the Bulls are playing this season. But since only your team can give you the supermax there's no point in leaving for spite to make a lot less money. I don't believe Zach is plotting an exit; or plotting. I believe he truly is enjoying DeMar and his scoring because it helps the team, and I believe he wants to be in the playoffs more than any individual achievement. Especially now that he's had several. Of course, as an unrestricted free agent it's difficult to see how it would make sense for the Wizards to want to trade. Beal may choose to become a free agent, but he at least has a player option of about $36 million for next season. And he's shooting about 28 percent on 3-pointers and trails Zach in just about every statistical category expect turnovers. Right, Beal commits way more turnovers. Not watching the Wizards, eh?

Coby White jump shot

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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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