Ask Sam Mailbag: Zach LaVine's All-Star candidacy, Lauri playing center, and more

Art Alenik:

ZACH LAVINE, ALL-SUPER-STAR: It's wrong that Bradley Beal leads East guards in All-Star voting. The more relevant argument is that if you shoot every time you see the ball, you may average over 30 ppg, but your team still loses. Zach is trying more to share the ball, and still averages over 28. I'm sorry but Zach is not just the fifth best guard in the East. SI lists Zach as a "wild card" to maybe be selected by the coaches. Another reporter wrote that he's "tempted" to pencil in Zach for the 12th spot, but thinks it might be Trae or someone else. Imagine, a guy is close to 40-50-90, but not good enough for the All-Star team?

There are an awful lot of NBA fans, quite a few refs and maybe a number of coaches with their heads up their you know what.

I know I've already written about Zach, but that was one of the most amazing quarters I've seen... yes, since Mike. He pretty much single-handedly shot them back into the game. The Pistons knew he was coming too.

Sam Smith:

We've been embroiled this season in the LaVine as All-Star debate, and we finally get the answer Tuesday when the reserves are announced. It was no surprise LaVine wasn't named a starter Thursday even if he is having a better all around season than Bradley Beal, for example, as you note. The excuse usually is Zach's team has a poorer record. But the Wizards are worse. It was encouraging for LaVine's prospects that among guards he was fourth in the fan voting, third with the players and fifth with media. Sadly, I have to agree with you that most of my colleagues apparently do not watch the NBA much. I saw the TNT show with Kenny Smith already leaving Zach off the top 12. And a New York Times guess list also had Zach out of the top 12 with players having poorer seasons from worse teams like Bam Adebayo and Trae Young ahead and more Khris Middleton. Enough of him. Jrue Holiday goes out. Defenses collapse on Giannis. Bucks tanking. By the way, the Bulls are just three games behind the Bucks and in the last month of 16 games, the Bulls are 8-8 and the Bucks 7-9. Not such a small sample anymore. Meanwhile, LaVine's All-Star prospects still will be a suspense story as much of a no brainer as it seems to us. But here's an even bigger stat in my view. We know Zach can score even as he's been criticized about it. C'mon, they still add the points, right? Anyway, among the top 17 scorers in the NBA, which is 24 per game and above, only four players have played every game: LeBron, Steph Curry, Nikola Jokic and Zach. It matters more in the NBA these days because "stars" seem to take games off for no apparent reason. LeBron has been remarkable with Anthony Davis predictably breaking down, and should be MVP. He was the one we all agreed should take some games off. As great as Jokic has played, the Nuggets are just over .500. Call me when they're 10 over.

The game more than ever now with the virus is about availability. It's shameful given the possibilities of virus outages and games being postponed that so many top players just rest. Jordan never, ever, never did. Not once his career. That;s why LeBron really is in the debate now. He plays. It operates him. C'mon, they're working three or four days a week! Plus Zach takes a beating as the main scorer, he's had the most serious knee surgery, he plays big minutes and he's there every game. That's the real definition of an All-Star. We hope the coaches finally get it right next week.

Michael Murden:

There is always a lot of talk about Trading Zach, but if I'm not mistaken he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year. I don't know if there are three better shooting guards than him in the league. If he makes third team all NBA would he be eligible for a super max contract? If so, should the Bulls offer it to him? Has he given any indication what he might be thinking about whether he wants to re-sign with the Bulls or move on? Does he want to continue leading a slow rebuild or move to a contender? Is he good enough that the team needs to sell him on their future plans? Or might they decide to let him walk?

Sam Smith:

Fortunately you are mistaken as LaVine can become a free agent after next season. There's much more to the super max than that, but that negotiation will be the story of the season for the Bulls and the first really, really big decision for Arturas Karnisovas. OK, second. Coach was a big one, too. I've gotten the sense with the changes in the offseason LaVine is comfortable with the Bulls direction these days. He's bought in with coach Billy Donovan and has improved as a player with better decision making, defense and facilitating. And still increasing his scoring average. It should be one of the bigger stories of the season. The reliable fiction, at least to me, that often is repeated to dismiss Zach is he can't be your best player and seriously compete. Yes he can! The Utah Jazz and Donovan Mitchell is exhibit No. 1. They've been the best team in the league this season because they've built a team around Donovan Mitchell. Who is basically not better than Zach at anything, shooting, passing, rebounding, defense, driving, jumping. Enough of comparing everyone to Jordan and LeBron. They are the exceptions. LaVine can be a Dwyane Wade type best player champion with good coaching, which the Bulls now have, and better players. The Bulls have improved in large part because of the veteran players. But they're not starters. They have several starting holes to fill. They have a star shooting guard, one good enough to win with and lead with like Wade and Mitchell.

Paul Giuntoli:

When Lauri returns, I'd like to see him at center. He got some run there in Wendell's absence, but I'd like to see more of it. I'd argue the best 5 man unit (and maybe should be the starting lineup) is Sato, Zach, Temple, Thad, and Lauri. Bring in Coby, Denzel, Patrick, and Wendell off the bench. Lauri isn't a traditional rim protector, but he's mobile and big and long, and he'd certainly be serviceable if Thad is alongside him upfront. Besides, he's so valuable offensively at Center because he forces the opposing Big away from the paint. I'm also crossing my fingers that AKME keeps the team together through the deadline and tries to make a playoff run. Even if it's to get the 9th or 10th seed, I believe there's value in giving these guys that playoff experience. If we lose Temple/Otto/Denzel for nothing in the offseason, so be it.

Sam Smith:

Markkanen remains the conundrum for me as well. I also see him more as a center—sort of— because of his stretch the floor shooting and size as I've mentioned in a Porzingis comparison. One problem I see—and we all have to qualify because Patrick Williams is so young—is I haven't seen any indication Williams is a small forward/wing/facilitating player. He seems like a perfect stretch four with his size and shooting. He rarely takes more than one or two dribbles when he shoots, and it seems he's only going to get bigger. I really haven't seen any of that point guard youth we've heard about, though he must have gotten a lot bigger since then. And then there's Wendell who has played much better in his return and seems finally to be accepting who he is—not a stretch four shooter as he's finally stopped taking threes—a physical interior player who also has a nice mid range shot and can finish a pick and roll. You know, like when he was a rookie. There are possibilities there, which suggest to me the principal needs are a facilitating point guard who presumably also can score and a facilitating wing player. The way Donovan maneuvers the rotations for matchups and circumstances, I don't think starting matters that much.

The problem with Lauri at center is the lack of the physical component, which I don't see. But he's such a natural scorer and you don't find guys who can get 20 points so easily. The Bulls have some interesting positional decision to make. Especially since their best center still is Thad Young. He's not the future, of course, but I also hope he stays. If you're not getting a top five or six pick for him, I'd also say play for the playoffs and meaningful games. Finally. It means something and makes you a more attractive team. The Bulls have enough high draft picks. They need more of those veteran players. Temple would be great to bring back, but a guy like him with his history just needs to sign for the most money he can wherever that may be.

Dwayne Corry:

Before the draft I promised you that Tyrese Haliburton would be the best player in the draft. A true combo guard who has shown the ability to shoot, hitting 44% from 3, and showing the ability to be a potential all star from years to come. But it looks like I was wrong. The youngest Ball looks like the real deal which I never thought for a second would be true. So Haliburton is the 2nd best player so far in the draft. My question is if we did a real quick draft do over, and I know it is way too early for this question but please humor me, who are you picking?

Sam Smith:

Way, way too early. I remember a GM telling me before the draft that he liked Patrick Williams as one of the top two players in five or six years, but not so much in the first two or three. Haliburton surprised me, though I retain the qualifier of never having seen him play. I did say his interview was the best from the predraft Zoom sessions. What a delight he would have been to have around. Ball also surprised me. I was hesitant because of the family history and the moving around, and wondered what the Bulls would have done if he slipped to No. 4. My guess is they would have taken him. For the Bulls needs and also my guy for impact remains James Wiseman, who I still would have No. 1. The NBA just last week and named Saddiq Bey player of the week, which tells me they also don't watch a lot of NBA basketball. The Knicks Quickly probably gets into the lottery if we redraft with players like Okoro, Toppin and Avdija probably out of the lottery, though I think Avdija has some possibilities. They just don't seem to let him do anything. Toppin looks like huge mistake. Hayes and Okongwu, of course, haven't played enough or at all. I thought Hayes was way overdrafted, anyway. Toppin looks like the lottery bust. I'd say if you drafted today it would be Wiseman, Ball, Haliburton, Edwards, Williams. Subject to changes to come.

Matt Cooney:

This might be one of those imponderable questions, like "why is the grass green, except in Kentucky?" Garrett Temple has been on ten NBA teams in eleven years. His first few years were pretty spotty, with short-term contracts on several teams. But since then, except for the Wizards, he's changed teams just about every year. He is a very solid piece of the Bulls' rotation this year, and I assume that he's a good locker room guy. I know he's heavily involved in the players' union, but I wouldn't think that would negatively affect his value to any NBA franchise.

Sam Smith:

The union thing doesn't. I'm not sure if GMs even know who's a union officer. Chris Paul and LeBron are the two top guys and they seem to have no trouble getting jobs and contracts. By the way, the grass is green there. I went to that blue grass area and it's one of those things where you have to look at it sideways with your hands on your hips with the sun at 4:18 p.m. and then they say, "See it, see it?"

Life and basketball are about opportunity. Though, especially in sports, we hope for the unexpected and then assume everything was meant to be and would have happened that way, that teams that won had to win. You know, because they won. But what if you don't get a chance? It's a curse and a bias that permeates society everywhere. Many who have done well assume that because they did—even though as a contradiction they see themselves as special and unique—then the opportunity was there for others. "My father worked hard every day and I worked hard…" Though it goes back throughout history.

Of course, there are always exceptions. It's opportunity. If you didn't have the same educational opportunities like poor schools, limited access, or actually by law being prevented from being educated like slaves, for example, then you don't learn as much and it becomes the endless cycle that they don't deserve the same chances because they're not as educated even if they didn't get a chance to be educated. That's more a debate for sociology class, though. So let's get to the draft.

Temple wasn't drafted, which with also some exceptions denies you the chance. First round picks have three-year guaranteed contracts, which is nice for them; not so nice for basketball. Teams have invested in them, so they get to stay even if they don't produce. In baseball plenty of first round picks don't make it because they have to produce in the minors. NBA first round picks make it on their name. So roster spots get squeezed with guaranteed contracts. Plus, Temple was a team and defensive guy in college. So he wasn't given a chance to be a scorer and he didn't play point guard so he wasn't a passer or ball handler. He stayed four years, which is another negative and scouting blindspot because teams then decide your ceiling is less to improve. He played defense and left the scoring to others, and for all the talk teams do about the importance of defense, they focus on offense in the draft. Then you get on 10-day contracts and rarely get a chance to play, and if you do they don't let you shoot because they need to find out if their first round pick can play. Most guys don't stick with it. Temple has, and he should get a good contract next season. It would be nice if it were with the Bulls. He's been a star role player this season and one of the best free agent acquisitions in the league this season.

Brodie Larsh:

Should the Bulls have any interest in Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond? I think we'd have to have an additional asset to take back Blake, and trading for Drummond seems pointless for this year. Otto, Thad and a 2nd, for Blake Griffin and a future 1st (like 2025)?

Sam Smith:

No and no. I've had a number of inquiries about them with Griffin the least interest. Did you see him trying to move around this season? Except for the fact he's making about $35 million this season and $39 million next season, I'd feel sorry for him. I'm not sure he can even play in the NBA anymore with his knee problems. I read he hasn't dunked in two years. Don't think Blake Griffin and jumping over cars. Think maybe Mike Smrek. I'm not sure what Detroit could do regarding a buyout, though I think that's Drummond's path to Brooklyn. Drummond long has been regarded as only somewhat interested in basketball. He produces amazing numbers, but they rarely translate into energetic play. He'd be ideal with superstars, however. The only way to match salaries would be trading Otto Porter, and I doubt the Cavs need him in their trainers' room. Young and Satoransky? No. Drummond is a free agent this summer, but regarding the Bulls the most important element is it would take playing time from Wendell Carter, who has played well in his return and seems healthy again. New management still is about analysis and evaluation of their players. Drummond doesn't have any history, anyway, of elevating average teams. He's not worth the effort. I'm still predicting a quiet Bulls trade deadline.

Girth Long:

Will Zach LaVine ever play enough defense to justify the salary he wants? I personally enjoy watching him score, but I'm not sure that being the worst rated SG on defense is the kind of overall SG Bulls fans got used to.

Sam Smith:

This is another of those big lies perpetuated by statistics. You know, like the guy who drowned in water that averaged three feet. I've seen that ridiculous defensive statistic of defensive plus/minus, and if you use that to measure defense, which really cannot be measured statistically, then basketball is not your speciality. First of all, plus/minus is one of the most misleading statistics because it depends on who you play with. Like Stacey King always says about the day he and Jordan combined for 71 points. Yes, Stacey had two. Zach starts with what hasn't been the Bulls best defenders. When he plays with the veterans like Temple, Satotransky and Young, he has one of the better plus/minus defensive measures. It's also almost impossible to measure defense in the NBA these days because there's so much switching and zone. Which means defense is a team concept in the NBA. Who's helping? Where are we shading that player? Where is the help coining from and who's giving it? Ice! Ice! How then can you fault an individual? Then if you take the time to actually watch a game it's clear LaVine is an improved and willing defender. He's not great and gets caught ball watching and playing lanes, which by the way Chris Paul does all the time to get so many steals. LaVine's not going to be Marcus Smart, but he's also having to score almost 30 points a game to help the Bulls compete. Defense becomes a first impression reputation. It's why Bulls fans always joked about Toni Kukoc's defense. They didn't know what was going on, but it was one of those "everyone knew" things about his defense. There were a half dozen players on those Bulls champions who couldn't defend as well as Kukoc. It just became something you said. Same with Zach. Just don't say it to me again!

Alan Kushner:

I'm curious, why is the NBA the only sport where fans and media refer to the players--especially the stars--by their first name?

Sam Smith:

Well, I used to call him Babe when I'd see him on the golf course.

Kyle McGill:

I've been thinking for awhile now that the NBA should finally get rid of the corner 3's and add a 4 point line. Now, we would really get to see who the best shooters are. Plus, it'll force players to have to shoot from midrange and not just stand around in the corner waiting for a pass. What do you think, good or bad idea?

Sam Smith:

Maybe not so much thinking for awhile. No more corner threes? I'm down with that. Fours? How about sixes for shooting from the mezzanine? The Nets were pretty bad in the 90s despite some pretty good talent. I remember the Bulls would go in there and pregame Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris would be practicing threes from about 15 rows up in the stands. Someone would mention it to Jordan and he'd laugh and say he wasn't going to have to work too hard that night.

Michael Worth:

Andrew Bogut explained about Jordan Bell getting suspended by the team because he was charging hotel items to the charge cards of coaches.

Sam Smith:

Wasn't that the second round pick guy now in the G-league after four teams in four seasons that the talk radios and fans were apoplectic about the Bulls getting rid of as a sign the rebuilding could not work? Thought so. How are you going to win a title without second round draft picks?

William Pennix:

First let me say that I have not been an advocate for the "Ball" show in Chicago. With that said, Lonzo has good size, plays good "D" and can distribute the ball more effectively than the current roster provides. His shot is broken and I don't believe it can be fixed. I believe he would be a great addition to the team but that will depend on the price. What would it cost for the Bulls to make this trade? Would it a lottery pick and salary (Thad Young) or a young piece (WCJ or LM) get the job done?

Sam Smith:

It's not broken anymore. He shot well against the Bulls in that Zach and Coby show and the last 12 games is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA at 46 percent. He made seven in one game. I even liked him when he couldn't shoot. There are plenty of rumors and there's the smoke there's fire thing. If there is something to it, I'm not sure what it's about: Don't want to pay him with Zion? Like Kira Lewis? So it's difficult to figure what the Pelicans would want even if it were true. You assume at least this year's No. 1. I'm interested to see how it plays out since he's also playing more than 30 minutes per game and thus apparently not being protected for trade.

Jon Kueper:

I just saw that Tatum said he is still feeling effects of COVID, but sometime you take for granted how a player's body can react to getting COVID. Our family had it in November. I am a healthy 36 year old with no medical conditions, obviously nowhere close to the type of fitness and athleticism as an NBA player, but I literally couldn't run more than a few minutes without getting really tired, and that was for 6 weeks. I was tired and had no energy for 6 weeks, and I am one of the lucky ones really. I am just thinking that some of these guys may end up not having the same energy for an extended period of time, and how hopefully by playoff time everyone is back to normal (as best as can be I guess) so it can go smoothly.

Sam Smith:

It's why it's going to be a different season like last season with exceptions, like Miami in the Finals. It still counts on the franchise record and the championship is worth the same. But it's also why you play it out as I hope the Bulls do without selling off players no matter where they are next month. This season it seems like you just have to get there considering the combination of injuries, excused rests and virus effects. Plus especially in the East there's a lot of doors opening. The Bucks are stopping there, as it were. Without transition and fast breaks and putting Giannis in the half court, they're a different team. So who knows how Holiday comes back from his virus absences. The Nets can score, and we assume they get someone like Drummond on a buyout. But there's not much defense or rebounding there for now. The Pacers and Celtics with players out look like .500 teams. If Markkanen gets back and who knows maybe even Porter, well who knows. The best on paper don't always win when there are such unusual conditions.

Mike Sutera:

Zach was huge against Indiana. Glad he got that T. The refs show him some disrespect on a nightly basis. He needs to earn a fine.

Sam Smith:

I generally defend the officials because they not only get it right almost all the time despite all the whining on TV—it's supposed to be a non contact sport that allows contact; figure that out—but are the most scrutinized in sports with the replays and two minute report and literally required to give an explanation for every call they make in a game. To the league. But I do agree Zach isn't getting the calls, which reminds me a little of what went on with Derrick Rose. I think part of it is their quickness and their natural tendency to try to avoid contact with their quickness. I think the officials miss that. The eyes aren't that good. Zach gets hit a lot, but he finishes so well through contact I think he fools the officials. Plus he's a classy guy and doesn't act like he just endured a sucking chest wound with every drive to the basket like LeBron and Harden. It's awful that it tends to work and that there's an art to the gamesmanship basically of faking. Though as we're always reminded here, Hey, Jordan got every call!

Peter Moore:

Playing downhill? I thought the court was flat, just like the earth (thx, Kyrie). When did it become a thing to "play downhill?" Does that actually mean anything? Did Phoenix Suns invent downhill-play back in the early 00s? Did the Pistons' "Jordan Rules" defense try to make the GOAT run uphill?

Sam Smith:

These are especially interesting questions. I did deal with scoring the ball last week. This one, I agree, is particularly confusing since there's so much talk on leveling the playing field. Which figures to make playing downhill much more difficult. I'm always pleased my readers are examining the finer point of the game. Like George Carlin used to ask, if firefighters fight fire and crime fighters fight crime, what are freedom fighters doing? And can we ever know what a deserted area looks like? Or that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac. There's so much to think about other than basketball, which is what makes it all so confusing.