Ask Sam Mailbag: Thoughts on AK's moves, Lauri Markkanen, NBA buyouts, and more

Sam reaches into his mailbag as the Bulls are coming off victories against Brooklyn, Indiana, and Toronto.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Brian Tucker:

I feel we have something special going on. Surrounding this two headed monster with the very complimentary two vets a rookie, and with Coby and Lauri being the bench sparks, and having Theis as a one-man bench mob... that's a really good core 8 that may make some noise down the stretch if they keep gelling. And I will include Troy Brown Jr., who is fitting in really well and providing long perimeter defense, another key component that had been missing. I like him and think he should stay in the rotation, and that should be our 9. So it gets tricky after that. I really have wanted to see more of Aminu, and it's interesting that we haven't seen much of him. Temple will be ready again and has played well this season, so getting him back involved will be welcomed. That's good depth! We also know Denzel can step in and be serviceable (with shining moments) so hopefully he can handle inconsistent minutes filling in if/when other guys are unavailable. The rest will hopefully stay relegated to garbage time minutes. Basically, AK did something great and it's showing.

Sam Smith:

Too many good players? And almost at .500. It's that jelling thing for now, though who really likes Jell-O? But, seriously, folks, it has been a remarkable makeover that I believe is being overlooked by most of the NBA, understandably, because, well, yeah there's that below .500 thing. We've been optimistic before, but we're really serious this time, right? There are a couple of interesting elements, and not that it's crucial, but Temple might find his seat occupied when he does return. Aminu obviously was a requirement to be taken in the deal with Orlando shedding salary to prepare for the losing. Though since he's among few Bulls who have a full guarantee for next season you figured we might see him more. There's still time. The other elements that have gotten overlooked, for the most part, with the addition of that elusive second All-Star have been the in season makeover from a young to an experienced team dominated by veterans, thus essentially ending the rebuild period. And the change in the franchise core that began the season of LaVine, Markkanen, Carter and White. Carter, obviously, is gone in the trade and future starters Markkanen and White have become reserves with uncertain futures. The next step is to produce to prove the moves. Karnisovas has become the face of the franchise very quickly. There's hasn't been a Bulls franchise remake like this since the early 1970s when management in fairly quick succession brought in Chet Walker, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle and Norm Van Lier. That team never won a title, but was a five-year contender averaging more than 50 wins.


Arturas Karnisovas

Art Alenik:

AK came to the Bulls with the broad mandate to improve the team and its results. Naturally, we all want to know how he's going to accomplish that, or at least what his basic strategy is. AK is so inscrutable that both press & fans are left to guess. We know that he a good evaluator (e.g. Jokic at #41), so we assume that he values draft picks. Most were sure he wouldn't trade first round picks... until he dealt the 2021 and 2023 first-round picks. Among other things we "knew" were that his first priority was a PG and that he was very high on Wendell. If you follow the common wisdom. AK is a man of mystery. He hired Billy Donovan, who was not on his list of candidates. He traded for Vuc & 4 others when we all thought he'd stand pat. He moved on from Wendell, who he had spoken so well of. He drafted Patrick Williams at #4 when nobody had him rated that high (rising, yes, but to #4 ?). So, I think I'm beginning to understand his basic strategy (and I like it). He's an opportunist! AK had his list of HC candidates, mostly promising young ACs. When Billy got pissed off enough to leave, it took half a heart-beat for AK to realize that he was better than anyone on that list and tear it up. Maybe he was looking for a PG at the deadline, but sensed that Vucevic could be had and shifted gears. In the draft, everybody had favorites... and none of them were Pat Williams. AK saw Williams' potential as a very good 2-way player, and it looks like he was right. Williams is coming on slow, but has a high ceiling. I'm starting to believe that, if there is any opportunity for the Bulls to get a good PG this summer, AK will make it happen. If not, I think he'll be ready whenever opportunity does knock.

Sam Smith:

The reign is plain for Arturas to see the lane. Art, I've think you've got it. By George, you've got it. Or at least him. Jerry Krause and John Paxson, remarkably the extent of Bulls top executives for about 35 years, tended to be more conservative and emphasize the draft. Karnisovas is choosing his own lane. We won't hold him to matching Krause's six championships. Plus, "Karnisovas" may be too long a name, anyway, for one of those banners. But given the way things have gone since Derrick Rose's knee injury in 2012, the bar is somewhat lower. As a former practitioner of the trade machine before there was one, I like the less conservative style. Plus, patience is much less welcome now than it may have been when now a media scoop is being able to report something five minutes before it's being announced. And readers incessantly refresh for something new. So ‘Wait 'til next year," which was our annual assurance about the Dodgers in Brooklyn, becomes, ‘What's next? And, "I want to see it now." It seems Karnisovas also is responding to the zeitgeist of the world, basketball and otherwise. It seems to be working. Now about getting to .500.


Arturas Karnisovas

Chris Granner:

I'm wearing my replica Lithuanian National Team T-shirt today, designed by the Grateful Dead & that team's trip to the Olympics partially financed by the Dead as well, all in honor of Arturas our fearless leader, who has conjured up the closest thing this side of Denver to the immortal Arvidas Sabonis, who we never really got to see play against NBA men until he was past his prime. Clearly, AK was a fan. Even in his twilight years with Portland he was as much a wizard with the ball as Magic, Bird or Pistol Pete ever was. How lucky are we that we have a VP who values that kind of player? How far can we go with a guy like that dishing & dashing?

Sam Smith:

I'll admit I never would have suggested a slow center based offense. But Denver has made it work impressively. And now the Bulls? Who figured? Yes, there are other ways to play and succeed.


Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic

Peter Toluzzi:

This week's unbridled enthusiasm suggests:

1) This is Vooch's team now! Exploiting his skills is clearly the best way for this team to win.
2) Is Zach now the best pure scorer to play for the Bulls since You Know Who? Only Ben Gordon comes close
3) Aim high this year! Fifth place is one game away from eighth. Gosh, it's been a while, I'll go sit down now.
4) If Donovan can navigate this well, he's in serious competition for COTY.

Billy Mumphrey:

Are you talking about the love for Vucevic, the deception in LaVine's moves, the greed to seek more than the play-in and the lust for more awards? Yes, Billy was something of a simple country boy, as much as you can be from Rockville Centre on Long Island. But this is now a high stakes game in the Eastern Conference and with Boston and Atlanta in something of a free fall, the Hornets losing their likely rookie of the year and the Knicks falling back to reality, diplomacy should be out for the Bulls in this intriguing last 20 games or so. It's the stretch run, and the Bulls suddenly feel as fresh as a Mackinaw peach.


Troy Brown Jr.

Nicholas Hill:

What is your opinion of Troy Brown Jr so far? I liked him a lot in that draft a couple years ago and I'm impressed with him so far with the Bulls. I'm honestly hoping he and Patrick Williams are starting together next year. They both have shown flashes as cutters, versatile defenders and 3pt shooters. Troy is a good passer as well. That would be ideal next to Zach and Vooch. My second question is about the PG position. There aren't a lot left in free agency outside of maybe Lonzo and Schroder (Both are starting to look unrealistic to me with their price tags and the Bulls cap situation). It seems that the majority of Bulls' fans' eyes are on them. AKME's track record so far has shown that those eyes are probably misplaced. I think a trade is coming for someone we're not expecting. Is there anyone who'd you like to see them make a move for? Aside from Steph or Dame. I'd start him at SF with Williams at the 4. The Bulls don't have anyone else under contract at the 3 next season. He's only 21. So, I'm sure he'll get better. He's shot well so far although it's admittedly a small sample size.

Sam Smith:

There's that offense/defense debate. Perhaps the only criticism about the Vucevic trade—and criticism may be overstating it—is that your best players now, Vucevic and Zach LaVine, let's say aren't considered elite defenders. You know, like James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic…You get the idea. There are a lot, lot of guys you'd like to have and are the faces of teams that aren't exactly known for defense. It's helpful, but defense also is system based, especially these days with so much switching. I feel like you can get away more with the weaker defenders than the weaker offensive players. I haven't seen enough of Brown to really know yet, but even when he played relatively regularly in Washington he didn't shoot well. Though he did say he never got much explanation in Washington about his role, and he hasn't hesitated on taking some big shots with the Bulls, which is encouraging. Given Williams still is such a hesitant offensive player, I don't see how you could start he and Brown. Then again we get into the debate of Zach being a three. Eventually I still believe the Bulls needs upgrades at small forward and point guard, but that's not always possible. As for point guard, Karnisovas surprised us with Vucevic and Theis. He's pretty much out of draft picks, but with White and Markkanen playing off the bench now they may become such candidates. But teams change their views once they see how they did in the playoffs. Or didn't do. And how the draft went. After all, three days before the trade deadline the Magic was telling teams not to bother about Vucevic. Let Karnisovas surprise us again.


Patrick Williams

Matt Chilewich:

I'm curious if you are hearing chatter out there from colleagues or NBA contacts about where Patrick Williams ranks in this rookie class and if his upside is still higher than most. I sense he is just so young and raw right now - I do remember Kahwi being a defensive stopper and little more his rookie year, very passive. There is so much talk of Lamelo, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Halliburton, Quickley and even Jae'Sean Tate. We obviously were not going to get Lamelo or Edward's with 4th pick. But do you think NBA experts/GMs still see the unlimited potential in Patrick Williams?

Sam Smith:

No one believes Williams is a bust and most tend to believe he'll develop, but because he plays a supporting role—and perhaps out of position as a small forward now—he's not that highly regarded in this draft class the way several of the rookies you mentioned have become crucial players for their teams making late game winning plays. Though being one of the youngest players in this draft class and not even a starter in college, not much was expected of Williams his first few seasons. One GM told me before the draft he wouldn't be surprised if Williams in five or six years were the best from this draft. The Bulls seem to have no regrets about the selection, which probably is all that matters.


Andre Drummond

Matt Cooney:

We can agree that the buyouts mid-season affect overall competitive balance: the top four NBA teams in the league get stronger at the expense of the bottom 26. But I'm not sure what the remedy would be. By nature of contracts, almost all of them have buyout/escape/cancellation clauses. If Andre Drummond wants to "risk" the open market that's his prerogative. I don't know that anyone would force him to go to one of the lower tier teams.

Sam Smith:

I've mentioned before how much the buyouts aren't in the spirit of the league's mandate to provide teams with a level playing field and then let talent, intelligence and luck determine the rest. The world has been trying to offset that rich get richer thing forever, so it's obviously not unique to the NBA, if wrong. First of all, the players are getting paid. They agreed to the contracts. So there's no hardship there. The teams signed them. Teams can't opt out of salary cap responsibilities; why should they be able to opt out of contractual totals? Baseball handles it right. You want out of your contract or get released? OK, then going in inverse order teams with the poorest record—just like the draft, which was set up that way for that reason to level the playing field—get first choice and then second poorest record and so on. That should limit "rich" teams like the Lakers and Nets from adding top talent even when well over the salary cap. Heck, you can't even whisper the name of another player on another team or give one of your players an extra candy bar for fear of providing a benefit in avoidance of the salary cap. And then you can despite being over the salary cap add a Hall of Famer or an All-Star for your playoff run? And that's not circumventing the salary cap? Now I'm really mad listening to me.


Zach LaVine

Orlando Cruz:

I watched the the Bulls play the Raptors and have felt something I haven't felt watching Bulls basketball in years, I felt I was thoroughly entertained. This group has been together for a short while and it seems the growing pains are paying off. Guys are moving on the court, recognizing where their teammates are and moving the ball beautifully. I love to see a group of guys that like to play with each other and have a great chemistry and mutual respect between the coaches and players alike. Going forward do you believe that Chicago could become a desirable free agent destination not because of the "market" but because it has a reputable team culture?

Sam Smith:

Winning is team culture. I've made this case often, though the team's lack off success obscures the facts. The Bulls have been a free agent destination more than most, Pau, Ben Wallace, Dwyane Wade, Boozer, all All-Stars and top free agents in their class. Though Karnisovas demonstrated you don't need to wait for guys and stand around saying pretty please. You can make trades and go get them. He has and there's plenty of opportunity to do so again this summer.


Lauri Markkanen

Matt Wicks:

I, presumingly like other Bulls fans, am intrigued by Lauri Markkanenn coming off the bench for the remainder of the season. Lauri has kept his scoring aggression up, even in his now limited role. Even better, his offense fits naturally off the bench and doesn't hamper the game's flow like it did when he started. In this new role, does Lauri remind you of early 1990s Detlef Schrempf? The shooting ability and the offensive strengths are there. Running him as a jumbo small forward helps the comparison, too. Maybe we can get Lauri to grow a mullet. Of course, this summer is a chance for Lauri to make some additional money and get a fresh beginning elsewhere; is there any chance he would stay at a reduced rate to become the new Detlef Schrempf?

Sam Smith:

Now that he's not going to be Dirk anymore, the next best German player? Lauri off the bench with his scoring is a heck of a luxury to have. Unless he is forced to change his name to Detlef, I doubt he'd go for it. He's said he sees himself as a starter in the league, and as a starter, albeit for a losing team, he was averaging close to 20 points per game. With that 26 and 12 for a month. How's that go, tough to keep ‘em back on the farm after they've come out with the starters during Alan Parson Project's Sirius.


Tomas Satoransky

Robbie Robinson:

It is interesting to note that the last 4 games the Chicago Bulls had less than 10 turnovers 3 times. While they lost 2 of those games it is further interesting to note that the only game that Coby White played in was the Indiana game. The Bulls won that game but turned the ball over 20 times. If this team is destined to make the playoffs they need to come to the realization that White is a catch and shoot option not a "dribble, dribble, dribble fanciful shot" option. He needs to cease shooting the ball (heat checks) 1 on 4 especially late in games when we have a lead. He is not the only reason for our losing games, but one cannot ignore less turnovers without him on the floor has made us more competitive.

Sam Smith:

Yeah, I think they've probably noticed that. Oh right, Satoransky is starting at point guard. So they did notice. You can't blame White for all that since I recall Young that game starting out with several turnovers and the usual suspects adding. Donovan has White mostly playing in that role now. White doesn't seem to have any objections, and as we note from time to time very good teams need a good sixth man. In part, because if you only have five the other teams will have more.


Kemba Walker and Brad Stevens

Mike Sutera:

Who bites the bullet in Boston? Ainge or Stevens? Something needs to change. This is one unmotivated club.

Sam Smith:

Should have taken the IU job? Not that Daniel Theis was their go to option, but letting him go to get under the luxury tax seemed to be a signal that they don't believe this is their season after the loss of Hayward and before that Kyrue Irving without getting anything significant in return. Despite the chemistry and health issues, that's a lot of talent to make up for. So I'm sure Ainge and Stevens are fine and that's been ownership decisions. It's good for the Bulls because as small as the Celtics are now I like the Bulls chances against them with two more Boston games coming up. Who gets the blame? You assume the way these things go probably Luke Kornet.


Lauri Markkanen

Ateeq Ahmed:

Kendall Gill was echoing sentiments on Lauri that he's playing more freely on offense since he doesn't have to guard the bigs anymore. He said Lauri is not as tired. He said it jokingly, but there is truth in that.

Sam Smith:

You mean because he's too slow to keep up with the smaller guys and just gives up? It's not ideal for the defensive metrics, but then Lauri gets the mismatches and let's see what he can do with that. It's a tactic Don Nelson used a lot, and which I liked. He'd lure you into matchups you didn't like by putting Keith Jennings, who was about 5-7, on 7-4 Mark Eaton, who was their least option on offense. But then how could they not go to him? But Eaton couldn't post up or shoot. Now Donovan is sort of sacrificing some defense to see if Markkanen can take advantage of some of those mismatches. It should at least accelerate the Bulls decision making on Markkanen as free agency arrives.


Lauri Markkanen

Calvin Metts:

It seems like the Bulls are in the process of turning the page on Lauri. I'm trying to hold out hope that he gets it together because I feel like this situation is eerily similar to the Bears when they decided to move on from Greg Olsen only for him to turn into a beast on another team. Different sport I know but I see a link between the potential that the two players exhibit. The flashes of something more. The Bears never had a quarterback who could get Olsen the ball in Chicago and the Bulls have yet to have a difference making point guard who could actually spread the ball and make the other player better. Given that both sides seem to be already heading toward a split why not flip Lauri for another player in a bad situation from a fit standpoint. The Bulls two biggest holes current are at point and small forward. Why not flip Lauri for Indiana's Caris Levert. The Bulls are currently trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with trying Lauri at the 3 spot. Why not just take a flyer on a young player whom is the ideal age to pair with LaVine and Vucevic. Why wouldn't this fit work for both teams if they decided to do a sign and trade at the seasons end?

Sam Smith:

That is a concern with Markkanen because we have seen it, and to the point there was once a debate about which was the better choice among Lauri, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Though there's been disappointment and criticism of Markkanen, in large part because of lack of team success, it's very valuable to have a seven footer who can shoot like that. Especially with a Bulls team that isn't the greatest from three. But they seem to be heading in that famous another direction with their big guys. Though it seems it could be difficult to retain Theis and seriously explore the free agent market. So perhaps a trade, a sign and trade like you suggest? I do believe Markkanen may have a better reputation in some other places. And when teams are not successful, they like to try other things. A lot of trades become, "Well, we know we can't win with our guy; let's try their guy." I've long believed Williams fits best as a power forward with his size and at 19 he probably still is growing. Just another of the big decisions ahead. But this has been a new management that seems comfortable with big decisions.


Dario Saric

Wayne Warner:

I would suggest that Dario Saric is comparable for Markkanen. Many were optimistic on his potential with Philly but eventually a bench power forward that is good but not a difference maker.

Sam Smith:

That's a good comp, if not exactly the same kind of player since Saric is more physical inside. Saric is playing an important role off the bench for one of the best teams in the league. Lauri is capable of much more scoring, however. You don't always become who you wanted to be, though you still can have a great career. Sometimes it just comes down to choices and it's not personal and you can't keep everyone in a salary cap league. It still seems to me there's plenty of there there with Markkanen. I'd still be loath to give up on him too quickly.


Daniel Theis and Zach LaVine

Kirk Landers:

I was skeptical of the trades at first. I love Theis' game and I thought his toughness might help, I didn't really know anything about Troy Brown Jr.. And while I knew Vucevic was an outstanding shooter, I didn't appreciate how strong his overall game is. The next few weeks will be interesting. There's a lot of work to be done on defense. On the other hand, they are playing with a lot of energy and that's a big part of defense, so we have reason for optimism. As for the two first-round picks we traded, those were going to turn into teenaged apprentices the Bulls paid a couple million dollars a year while they learned their craft...if they learned their craft. I'll miss following the mock drafts, but it's nice to have the talent and the basketball acumen on our local team.

Sam Smith:

I do enjoy the draft, but I think I'll enjoy it more not having to watch more teenagers the next few years. Like the title Bulls aways said, you win with men. Though the Bulls didn't make such a declaration, the rebuild is over. They're veteran, experienced and now looking for that elusive next step piece. I understood the desire to move on in 2017, and if the Bulls had gotten some Rose-like luck and maybe gotten Zion or Luka or Morant, I'd feel differently. But they didn't get lucky, which is what the draft is about. And then you have to hope you can "develop" your guys who don't look like stars and maybe five teams later you can find a Chauncey Billups. The new management being new had a chance to say they weren't our guys, and they did. And it seems they still have opportunities to make moves as the last guys left some nice cap room, some good players for trade possibilities and some vital veterans like Young and Satoransky. We also shouldn't forget the ride just didn't start.


Joakim Noah

Rui Dias:

I was watching some videos of Bulls history and I ended up seeing that Noah dunk over Pierce in the 3rd OT of that Game 6 ECFR 2009 Playoffs and after that I had to watch the game... How amazing was that series? This new NBA doesn't think about defense, watching that Game 6... how amazing was that defense? Still trying to understand how can Captain Kirk be that good. He defended Pierce, Allen, Glenn Davis... how good was that team defensively on those games? They switched all the time. Noah would guard Pierce or Allen if he had to. Kirk would defend Perkins if he had to. Even now I get goosebumps watching those guys play. How much that team deserved to get a title.

Sam Smith:

It was a team that would have won a title, I've long believed, but, well, we needn't go there again. Don't discount the NBA. Defense is played, but in a more spread game with so much switching and shooting those long threes, it's not as apparent all the time. You'll see it plenty in the playoffs, which is another reason the Bulls need to be there. They need to play in those kinds of games to see how to play in those kinds of games. Though having Vucevic, Young and Satoransky now starting with Theis off the bench prepares them much better than when the season began. Yes, that was an excellent defensive group back then, but it also helped that it had at least four and maybe five all-league defenders in Hinrich, Noah, Butler, Gibson and Deng. And Kurt Thomas off the bench to scare the crap out of opponents. That team was loaded with defense. It was like Allen Iverson's 2001 Finals team with guys like Eric Snow, Theo Ratliff/Mutombo, Aaron McKie and Tyrone Hill, basically four guys to rebound, defend and keep getting the ball back to Iverson to shoot. Derrick Rose was their Iverson. If only.

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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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