Ask Sam Mailbag: Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan's unselfishness, the state of NBA dynasties and more

James Tynen:

I was in Spain on Dec. 10 and was lucky enough to get a seat at the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid game. I had been wondering what Nikola Mirotic was up to these days, so I was delighted to learn he was in the game for Barcelona. He looked terrific: 31 points, 10 rebounds, shooting from 3-point range and inside. He even made a brilliant pass for a 3-pointer while sitting on the court after being knocked down going for a rebound.

More to the point, even from my seat literally up in the rafters, I could see how much emotion he played with. When didn't get a call he thought he deserved, all the history of injustice was visible in his posture. When he gestured for the crowd to cheer, you could sense the urgency of the moment. When a coach on the sideline bawled him out for a shot, Niko's shrug clearly replied: Hey, it went in, didn't it? So it was great to see, but I have to hope that someday we can see him more often in the U.S.

Sam Smith:

Thanks, as Bob Hope sung, for the memory—Some Hope on turning 70: "I still chase women, but only downhill." On 80: "You know you're getting old when the candles cost more than the cake." On 90: "I don't feel old. In fact, I don't feel anything until noon. Then it's time for my nap." OK, I guess I can relate some. On receiving an award, Hope said he felt humbled, but has the strength of character to overcome it. Wish I heard that from an NBA player as they seem to feel humbled so often.

Anyway, I digress—since I really liked that Nikola, too. It was such a bad time for the franchise there would often be a bunker-type mentality with some players, the frustration brooding into a sort of with us or against us mentality, and then some players, like Mirotic, viewed (by fans, too) as too good to, ahem, lead to better draft picks. Which is the very bad about those "rebuilding" projects. But he did have a chance to stay in the NBA with a good Jazz team and decided to return to Europe.

On some level you can't blame him given he's paid well and is comfortable and doesn't have to worry about moving around, i.e., trades. He might be that big shooting four so many write me saying the Bulls need. Though with the remake, it seems unlikely even if he survived it's doubtful he would have this long. I'm pleased to know he's doing well. Give the Bulls this, they recognized his talent more than most NBA teams and worked hard to get in draft position for him. Afterward, between Thibodeau ignoring him too much and Portis not enough, well, stuff happens.

John Leichenko:

Your comparison of Vucevic and the Carlos Boozer is spot on. I knew I recognized the feeling I had watching Vooch this season, but I could not put my finger on it: They both, as you wrote, were the number one options on their previous teams and are now not. They both are missing/missed shots they made on their old teams. They both aren't great defenders.

They both sound like they are getting boo'd when they score. They both seem like low key guys (except for Boozer yelling in the paint). And they both are/were the X-factor for their team. When Booz had a good game, the Bulls usually won. I think Vooch is gonna come out of this, and if he does, the Bulls are going far. They could be going far anyway, but Vooch seals the deal.

Sam Smith:

What's hol-dat in Montenegrin?

Michael Mortenson:

I am way too happy that the day after the Nets let Kyrie Irving play part-time he went into the NBA COVID quarantine. Although, living in NYC and not wanting to pay for Bulls games means I watch the Nets a lot and when Kyrie gets going he is fun to watch.

I don't remember any other player that could make NBA teams look like The Washington Generals. Kevin Durant is a terrific talent, but boring. Not a fan of watching James Harden shoot free throws either.

Sam Smith:

Because that's the Eastern Conference finals? C'mon, you've got to be inside a lot, go for the NBA League Pass. You're missing a heck of a Bulls season. The Nets still do look like the team to beat once spring comes and we get out of this (we hope).

I support Adam Silver that we have to learn to live with this and better to plow the fields and continue to plant for the spring harvest. Having emigrated from Brooklyn to the Midwest, I sort of understand some of that terminology now. I really did grow up thinking vegetables were manufactured (how else did the tomatoes get in those cellophane packs. But I did know what a two-sewer smash with a Spalding felt like and knew the bus and subway routes to Madison Square Garden by 11).

You figured the Nets would eventually relent because human nature generally isn't about principle; at least when principal is involved. Though I doubt Irving has much influence since Nike has yet to start a Be Like Kyrie campaign.

It is an interesting observation about Durant because though he doesn't fly around with what passes for exciting, he does produce wonder about some of those shots. We can just call the NBA's rules adjustments the Harden Rules that have saved the game from Harden's tarnish. It's also why you're better off watching the Bulls. Maybe they don't have the reputations of those three, and perhaps because they don't they can do what they have, which is play an artful and appealing brand of team basketball that New Yorkers have seen. Though about 50 years ago in Manhattan.

Randall Sanders:

What is the situation with Marko Simonovic? There was talk about him being in the rotation when the Bulls signed him. He even showed more flash in the Summer League than Ayo. Yet, With all the players out due to protocols, he could not merit meaningful minutes?

Sam Smith:

I actually think that was mostly his family talking about the rotation. He's skilled, sure, and could develop. But Bol Bol-like in being pushed around and too weak for now. By the way, I never could understand the appeal and excitement many had for Bol Bol. Those too skinny guys never really make it. Tacko Fall? Even Porzingis is just an NBA rotation player these days.

I like that Simonovic doesn't fear being inside; just that he can't hold his position there for long. Plus, as we know, Billy prefers small and quicker unless you are a bit taller and quicker (and just as tough).

Trevor Hoffler:

With the LeBron James-era of player empowerment and players less likely to attach themselves to a singular team over the course of a career, any given team could look vastly different over the course of a couple of seasons.

Is it safe to say that the era of dynasties in the NBA is over?

Sam Smith:

Mostly since the 60s. Sure, the Lakers/Celtics of the 80's dominated and then the Bulls into the 90s, but it's not like teams weren't put together for dominance and still can't be.

It seems more that with (virus excluded) the injuries and then thus the caution displayed makes it difficult to sustain for a long period. That's another issue with better training and nutrition and bodies breaking down more frequently at a younger age. By the way, I'm all for so-called player empowerment when it involves being able to select your work place. Players earned, worked for and deserve that, and it's hardly hurt NBA popularity.

The problem is when you are sad after signing a four-year deal to secure your future you want to be somewhere else and decide to stop playing, or not get vaccinated for the common good of your teammates. Plus, some great players like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson do apparently spend their careers with one team. One element of interest in this is that the big free agency auctions of recent years haven't led to all that much with the movement of Kawhi Leonard, Durant and Irving, and lately LeBron.

The Suns and Bulls now seem like two great examples of what the NBA can be by adding some talent to complement your young talent and playing team ball and getting on a run. Like perhaps those 70s Knicks, Kobe's Lakers with Pau, Dirk's Mavs, Nash with the Suns. There are many ways to succeed, and in the NBA these days there seem to be many much better ways than purposely losing games. That's really how you end tanking.

Kieron Smith:

Why can't Alfonzo McKinnie be the starting power forward?

Sam Smith:

I guess first they'll have to keep him after his second 10-day contract ends. But he does seem to be exactly what the team can use and a player who fits with the way they want to play, fast, aggressive and good for him that he's made himself a threat with the 3-point shot.

He's not quite the ballhandler/facilitator Donovan likes from his smaller front court players, but he has good size for switching and even if the Bulls should have given him a longer look when he was right in their neighborhood a few years ago, it's never too late to be early.

Alejandro Yegros:

This isn't the usual Bulls question but more of a media business question: I've often watched the national talk shows and I enjoy the showmanship of the main guys (Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe especially). I've stopped watching because, when it comes to basketball, they do not talk about anything relating about to the games if it doesn't include LeBron James.

It's Lebron/Lakers no-matter-what. It seems worse than ever. My question is: I'm assuming they're responding to audience desires? Does the general public really not care anymore about the NBA unless it's LeBron (kinda like golf ended up with Tiger)?

Sam Smith:

I've never been sure if this is one of those self-fulfilling prophesies the media prefers and which I saw for years when I worked at the Tribune. They talk mostly about LeBron, so then people ask mostly about LeBron, so they have to talk mostly about LeBron because people ask about LeBron. It's the explanation that it's what the public wants. There is a general media rule (one of those unwritten ones, in this case because then you'd be too offended to stay with them) that they believe people are dumb. So what you often were told was to write to a sixth-grade level, and then everyone would understand. If it were too simplistic for those at an eighth grade level, well, they could read beyond the first three paragraphs. Something like that. So now that seems to have evolved into yelling about a simplistic topic.

It was like the Suns/Lakers game the other night. The Suns won and have the best record, but all the post game discussion was about the Lakers. I turned to a Law and Order rerun. We all understand, Yankees/Red Sox, Cowboys. The NBA TV media is not unique. It's also sort of like the lead up to the draft. If everyone has the same basic list—and we know by a few weeks into the season the real top-10 is way different—then no one can be faulted since they all agreed.

Perhaps similar with the LeBron/Star Team effect. If we all talk about the same thing, then everyone will think that's the most important. It's why I enjoyed doing an NBA column at the Tribune. Did you know the Kings...But with the decline in print media and increase in shouting on TV, the search for subtlety often becomes scarce. It's also why I don't think many saw what local media did about the Bulls, that they were looking pretty good. The rest of the world was typically Pavlovian: Bulls = Bad.

Those of us here were seeing it immediately and the local predictions—and Chicago media hardly roots, e.g, the Bears—were much higher than the national. There are places, like the NBA station on satellite radio (though they still talk more LeBron than anyone else) and web sites like HoopsHype and Basketball Intelligence, which examine the NBA beyond the notion of a five-team league. Though with LeBron in poor-me mode, it is appealing.

Ateeq Ahmed:

Another amazing performance from DeMar DeRozan against the Lakers. I'm all for ball distribution but you still need a 4th quarter killer who can isolate. Zach LaVine even said as much in one of the post game interviews. Give him the ball, get out the way, I'm here if you need me.

Amazing to hear our star say this about a teammate. These guys are going to be a big problem for Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs.

Sam Smith:

There were a lot of reasons, and many understandable, why the Bulls have been seen as a surprise. It was a new team and all the yadda, yadda. But as big as any was how misunderstood Zach LaVine has been. Because he's played with only bad teams, the A plus B equals C view was, well if he's so good how come they're not winning? Must be because he's selfish. It was anything but, though like Jordan in his early years, Zach had to shoot that much to even give the team a chance.

Everyone talks about winning, but Zach has shown that he is about that the way he often steps out of the way for DeMar to close most games. Sure, Zach gets his points, but you don't see that kind of thing coming so quickly. Dwyane Wade gets credit for deferring to LeBron but it took a whole season.

The Celtics still have that simmering issue. Zach did what was best for the team as soon as he could. You don't see that often.

Phil Smailes:

Watching Ball playing a great game hitting 3's which is nice to see. But he's being guarded by 5-foot-8 Thomas. How is he not posting him up forcing a double team? Statistically it might be better for Ball to shot the 3-point shot, but at least a few times take him low. When ever Thomas is on the floor he should be posted up or made to switch on a pick and roll covering someone rolling to the basket. Bulls should be attacking both Deandre Jordan and Thomas on a pick-and-roll. The Bulls never attach their physical advantages when they have them - which is rare these days with their small line-ups.

Sam Smith:

There are two issues. One is some players just are not comfortable or adept posting up despite what seem like obvious advantages. Markkanen had that issue. There's the old thing about putting players in the best position to succeed, and not having them do what you need but what they do best. Donovan is good at that. Ball isn't a classic in-the-lane point guard, but has penetrated on the dribble more this season. Though his strength remains his full court game and now shooting. Also, the Bulls are more effective playing faster than walking into a post up, slower game. Sure, you can get some scores with the mismatches, and the Bulls did well against the Rockets with Vucevic on switches. But against an older team like the Lakers, I thought it was smarter to play faster all game, which is the Bulls style, and wear them down as well. Which is what did occur. Sometimes the obvious play isn't the best, which is why it's often difficult to assess because we don't know what they were trying to do.

Rob Piper:

I was surveying the NBA landscape to see if there was any player(s), particularly in the front court, who could help the Bulls in their quest to contend in the playoffs. I'm intrigued by guys like Damontas Sabonis who is rumored to be available because of his talent, but I think it is a rather wonky fit next to Vucevic. Plus Billy likes to play smaller and get out in transition. The one player who I think can really help the Bulls contend is Jerami Grant. Hear me out.

We are a relatively small team right now, but Grant could play the 4 in our starting lineup and give us one of the best five-man groups in the league in my opinion.

Grant could be a body we could throw at guys like Giannis and KD to at least make it tougher one them come playoff time with his 7-foot-3 wingspan. The cost of such transaction? If we were to make this trade it would likely contain Patrick Williams. It would be tough to part with Patrick as he's still only 20 years old and has potential. However, he is likely done for the season and I feel as though it's too much to ask a 20 year old to be this team's "X factor" to deep playoff runs/hopefully winning a championship.

It would make sense for the Pistons to get something for him as far away from competing as they are. The Lakers come up, as they will for just about everyone (as if they have anything anyone wants) as they stumble. But given Grant is out with that finger surgery for maybe two months, it's unlikely he can get back to form this season for anyone. And with his $20 million salary you don't want to endanger Zach's extension.

Sam Smith:

It would make sense for the Pistons to get something for him as far away from competing as they are. The Lakers come up, as they will for just about everyone (as if they have anything anyone wants) as they stumble. But given Grant is out with that finger surgery for maybe two months, it's unlikely he can get back to form this season for anyone. And with his $20 million salary you don't want to endanger Zach's extension.

Joseph Austin:

Should the Bulls pick up recently released wing player Danuel House? He could come off the bench behind Javonte Green. If House came to the Bulls, he might revert back to what he did in 2020? The Bulls would probably have to cut Matt Thomas and Alize Johnson to do it?

Sam Smith:

With Joe Johnson returning to the Celtics in this era of emergency additions, where is Kris Dunn? Though the Knicks beat the Bulls to the many puns I could have used to bring down the house. We may be seeing some unexpected names before too long. I'm for keeping McKinnie instead of adding another 6-foot-7. Plus no way I'd have gotten his first name spelled right for weeks.

Bill Kochneff:

COVID, obviously, is making it difficult, if not impossible to predict the final standings. I fully expect the Heat to rise, pun intended. I don't see the Celtics improving much, if at all. The Bulls? I expect to see them stay in the top five, and perhaps challenge for the best record, though that may be a bit of a reach. All depends on how their team play improves, COVID stays away, and how healthy they will be. But, you could say that about every team.

Care to tell me who you predict will be in the top five at the end of the season in the East? Me? I believe it will be Nets, Heat, Bucks, Bulls, Sixers/Cavs. I think that other than the Suns and Warriors vying for the best record in the West, the West is much harder to predict.

Sam Smith:

It looks like we're heading to asterisk season number three, though when everyone looks back they still are championships, and you get big rings to put away and sell when you are 82. I believe I had the Bulls four/five in preseason predictions because none of us here were labeling DeRozan the big mistake of the summer that the rest of the insider world was.

I don't recall where that appeared most, though that's also why if you run a team you never listen to fans and media. When they are wrong they just say oops, and never even address a full column or much mention to it. And then go on about what else you should do instead. I really did believe the Bulls had a chance to be even better than that because also we knew here Zach was better than he was getting credit for because the team had played poorly, but we all had to see first.

Not because they are No. 2 now, but the Bulls do have a good chance for being the 10th-to-second Suns this season. We assume if teams ever are able to reassemble, the Bucks, Nets and maybe the 76ers if they do something with Ben Simmons have more legacy. But I believe the major step the Bulls have made is they can beat any of those teams. It doesn't mean they will if they get the chance, but they can, and that's the first big step.

It was with the 90s Bulls. It took longer, but by about '89 they knew they could win. It took a few disappointments to occur. It doesn't always work as the Cavs of that era were better than the Bulls in '89. It's then when you need some luck, which everyone will because of the virus, to be able to be smiling in June. July? August?

Brett Rasmussen

I love Billy Donovan's demeanor, communication skills, substitutions, and the way he's gotten the team to buy in defensively. He's a coach of the year candidate so far. However, he rarely If ever uses his coaches challenge even in situations the Bulls would clearly get a meaningful reversal.

I know coaches like to keep it in their pocket for late game scenarios (although in my opinion 2 points is worth the same no matter the quarter you score it in). But Donovan must have the least amount of challenges in the league. Why is he so reluctant to use them?

Sam Smith:

It's a good point and one I haven't thought about much because I don't like the rule. Maybe at the end of the game since you don't want a last call to change an outcome without having the chance to make it up. But the game has way too many stoppages. With so many possessions even though you are correct that a coach's job is to protect every possession, it feels a bit like an artificial way to win. Win it on the court, and not with a lawyer's challenge. I hadn't noticed, but I checked with the league (at least you made someone in New York work more) and they confirmed Donovan has challenged the fewest in the league.

Toronto has challenged the most often and they're under .500, but that might not be the direct correlation. I feel sports uses technology too much because they have it. Unless it's an egregious and obvious situation, I'd rather play the game.

After all, if there were 20 challenges and a team used them all, they might win at least five or six given the unscientific nature of contact. So it's just arbitrary that they decide to use one. Billy got burned a few times last season losing challenges, and it's obvious he prefers to maintain his timeouts the way he tends to use them early in games of halves after a bad start. And often a challenge results in a point taken away and perhaps a jump ball when the other team can get possession again and score. Maybe not worth losing a timeout that at the end of the game that could mean a clean possession to set up a last shot. I agree with you that Billy should be among the Coach of the Year frontrunners for the way he's expedited a personnel transition no one believed could come this quickly.

If he's that, perhaps he's doing the right thing regarding those challenges.

Tom Golden:

Every great team of championship infamy, had a song.

Sam Smith:

I know we're excited about the Bulls, and yes the Super Bowl Shuffle, which is what I assume you are getting at, was done well before the end of the season. These Bulls players probably probably are too nice and mature for such a spectacle, but I assume they also hope to sustain things compared to that Bears team, particularly the coach, who turned four titles into one. OK, they did get the one. Which I guess is why there was no album.

Gorav Raheja:

Do you think LeBron James has lost a step or are his teammates just not as good? Any truth to the rumor that he wants to go back to Cleveland?

Sam Smith:

Now that is my favorite rumor of the season. He looks pretty good to me. I sort of understood getting Russell Westbrook expecting Anthony Davis (check) and LeBron to be injured or resting. Though Westbrook's the kryptonite to success with his manic play. More great players have done all they could to get away from him. I believe they like him personally, if not professionally.

How cool would that be, LeBron seeing the Cavs young core is his only chance at his age with the team he has to get back to the Finals. Hey, you never say never in the NBA, right? He's a free agent after next season just when those Cavs big guys will be maturing. We know he's not going anywhere until he breaks Kareem's scoring record. And shouldn't Bronny play his first NBA game back in Cleveland where he was born?