Ask Sam Mailbag: Zach LaVine's toughness, Lonzo Ball comparisons, team chemistry and more

Sam answers questions about the Bulls rotation, playoff concerns and more.
by Sam Smith
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Greg Young:

The two players I am most reminded of when I watch Lonzo Ball are Wes Unseld and Tim Duncan. Please bear with me. Ball throws full length passes better than anyone I remember since Unseld. Maybe Kevin Love is raising his hand but really? He is also as stoic as Duncan in his demeanor on the court. No ups, no downs with a few side eyed looks at the refs. My question is: does he enjoy the game? He must but you can't tell. I sure am having fun watching. Curious how he interacts with the rest of the team, although in general it seems like a pretty chill group.

Sam Smith:

You left out Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis. Lonzo is a curious sort of point guard, who comes as advertised, best in transition and not so much in the half court. Which is the question some raise about the playoffs, which I mostly ignore because as good as this season as been so far, it's still a team out of the playoffs the last four years and five of the last six. First things first as much as I'm now seeing comparisons with these Bulls to the 2008 Celtics after they acquired Garnett and Ray Allen. I'd prefer to worry about the playoffs, but they seem as good as any in the East. Especially the way some of the top teams are more like at the Bulls level now than them having to raise their level to theirs. Things change in an NBA season. The frustration for many of us in the media even this year as well, and perhaps it gets worse with the latest virus variant, is we have almost no interaction with the players, coaches and staff any more. Lonzo's reputation in L.A. and New Orleans was good guy who didn't much love the game. I haven't seen that. He seems engaged, if stoic, a good and popular teammate and serious competitor.

Lonzo is not particularly expansive in interviews, which I suppose is understandable given the home he was raised in. But he's direct and cooperative. In addition to the virus restrictions, it's difficult to get a sense with this group because it does really seem like a contingent of nice people who like and enjoy playing with one another. I cannot foresee controversy or contretemps. They appear to get along well and appear to have accepted their roles and places in the hierarchy well. The one who might have the most problem with that is Nikola Vucevic because he goes from a No. 1 option to maybe three or four. But he's international chill, as it were, and long one of the more welcoming players in the game. Plus, his game is coming on strong now. The coach is unfailingly cooperative and supportive, if not a great story teller, and the one thing I'm sure about with this team is there's not much of a book there.


Erik Spoelstra

Parker Lerdal:

Are Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra making it to the Hall of Fame? Erik Spoelstra was born on November 1970 in Evanston IL where Dwyane Wade lived.

Sam Smith:

I forget about Spoelstra and Evanston, though he grew up in Buffalo where his father worked for the NBA team there, briefly. I liked those Buffalo Braves, a fun group with Ernie DiGregorio, the original 'white chocolate'. I knew Spoelstra's dad some when he was in Portland and recall when Erik Spoelstra was hired even Pat Riley was reaching out to say this guy would be good. He's been better than that, overshadowed some by LeBron and the so called Heatles, but an effective and now overlooked coach who's quietly working his way to 1,000 wins and the Hall of Fame with a nearly 60 percent win percentage, and a lot of years other than LeBron's four. Wade, of course, is a lock even if I only believe he visited Evanston.


Ayo Dosunmu

Tom Golden:

What did Ayo do to deserve a drop in minutes? Billy is shortening the rotation. I have always been a tight rotation guy, but we do seem to have some very good bench players which, at least to this point, have always had a positive impact on the game.

Sam Smith:

Donovan was working in Coby White more for his potential scoring and shooting, which I endorse. And now Coby without LeBron's healing power is in virus protocols for a few weeks. So Ayo was first off the bench Thursday against the Knicks.

I believe Ayo has a nice NBA future, though I'm not a huge fan of rookies with a major role on contending teams. I believe Ayo needs more work on his game, especially getting his shot off more quickly. He's shot better than advertised from 3-point range, but if you notice the stats, he usually has a negative plus/minus in games. That's not always the best stat because it depends on who you play with, and Dosunmu often is with non scorers in a reserve group. I believe he was even minus in that Orlando game until going in with a late group in the large win, a stretch of about two or three weeks when he was positive once. Coaches tend to value that stat more than some others. He might benefit from some G-league time to get big minutes and practice against closing defenses, though perhaps not now. His instincts are good and he plays aggressively, but Coby when he returns still has much more offensive potential that the reserve group needs.


Zach LaVine jumping for a layup

Mark Kollar:

The beauty of the playoff format is that by the end of the series the better team wins. You can overcome a bad game. Bad breaks and bad calls more or less even out. Also in a seven-game series you can usually appreciate good scouting and good coaching. During the Cliff Levingston-era switching Scottie Pippen to the main defender against Magic Johnson was a memorable adjustment and a great example of effective coaching. Obviously it is necessary for the players to be able to execute the game plan. It's been fun to see how the rest of the league is adjusting to the Bulls and how the Bulls are adjusting to the league. Over the next 60 or so games I expect to see all kinds of zone schemes. I also expect opponents to try to slow the pace and try to establish a half court contest. Do you beat the Bulls by going bigger but slower?

Sam Smith:

Thanks; didn't know Cliff had an era. I'm also an outlier from the conventional wisdom that I believe the Bulls need less size than shooting. They'd obviously tried to use Coby White in a developing catch-and-shoot role. Before he fell ersatz ill. Though he's been as much of a scorer on the run. I believe the Bulls moreso lack the pure catch-and-shoot guys like some Miami have, including former Bulls hopeful Max Strus.

I hear all these suggestions about some great power forward who can rebound and shoot and the Bulls need that guy. Haven't heard who exactly that is. Or who is giving him up. Plus, the Bulls really haven't had big rebounding issues. Their totals are not high, but the differential is about even and about the middle of the league. Plus, it's clear Donovan prefers a faster style with more movement, which is inhibited with another big guy. It seems like he and management discuss these things, and my guess is he's not lobbying very hard for another big guy. Remember, Donovan lamented slowing down last season after the acquisition of Daniel Theis to play with Vucevic. And the Bulls seemed to make little effort to retain Theis.


Zach LaVine pumping his fist

Alejandro Yegros:

Am I right in that Zach LaVine is no longer wearing a thumb brace? How is that going? Has anybody asked?

Sam Smith:

For all the doubts about Zach since he's been with the Bulls, it seems people understood less how tough he really is. Toughness and physicality is often misunderstood in the NBA because it's not about posturing because you can't fight. Which is a positive, by the way. Zach's one of your tougher players because he plays. He doesn't ask for games off to rest, and when something is wrong you never hear from him. Hardly anyone noticed he wasn't using the thumb wrap for a few games because he never said a word even if Donovan said it wasn't quite healed yet. Then against Charlotte apparently with a fever and cold or flu or who knows what other than Covid since no one ever really says, LaVine not only played when he was not really expected to, but was dunking and flying around more than anyone on the floor.

Availability is a big-time skill in the NBA these days, and few are better at it than LaVine. Nobody who's had an ACL misses fewer games and does more in the games than Zach does.


Bulls team vs. Miami Heat

Art Alenik:

The Heat are pretty good, the Bulls weren't awful and it was close. So if this was a test, I'm not exactly sure how to grade them. Maybe it shows that they're good enough to hang with the good teams, but not quite sure how to beat them yet. The Heat aren't too big for us, but they play great (and physical) defense... and apparently they have the best 3-point shooting this side of Steph Curry. The Heat are a very ‘physical' team and it's clear the refs are allowing a lot more contact this season. The Bulls haven't responded well to bullying, so that's something for them to work on. They also threw some zone defenses at the Bulls, which seems to be a growing trend, and we responded by missing a bunch of 3-pointers. So that's another thing (or two things) to work on. They did a pretty good job on Jimmy and Bam. Now if they can figure out how to stop Duncan Robinson & Superstar Gabe Vincent.

This Bulls team is better suited to regular season games than the playoffs. They need work on half-court offense and, as already mentioned, breaking zones. All that said, and even losing 3 of 4, they're still on track to win 51 games.

Sam Smith:

Which is the definition of a good team. I didn't feel watching that game the Heat was any better than the Bulls, and now obviously somewhat less with Bam Adebayo hurt. Perhaps that's also the larger point, that the Heat is considered a potential finalist. And then come the favorite Nets Saturday, whom the Bulls already have beaten once with still no Kyrie in sight amidst new virus variants which seem unlikely to change the New York rules for some time. The takeaway for me in all this is not that the Bulls can or will win a title this season or next, but that in this NBA with no super team, fewer transcendent stars (LeBron aging, Durant off major injuries), and perhaps a dozen teams in this more egalitarian league capable of being at least in the conference finals, this Bulls team can compete with anyone in the NBA.

As impressive as the Suns have been—and their secret is more excellent combinations more than excellent talent—can you say the Bulls couldn't compete with them? Or anyone else? That's what really 'being back' is about.


Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso

Bill Kochneff:

I must admit, I'm totally amazed at the abilities of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Who knew? Certainly not the teams that let them go. Why are intangibles so difficult for some franchises to recognize? I hate to say it, but you have to give a hand to management.

Sam Smith:

Go ahead and say it, you don't have to hate all management. Though even when the Bulls were winning championships and creating one of the great dynasties in league history, fans were blaming Jerry Krause…..for something. Though the new guys seem popular. They've both been excellent with Caruso perhaps the greater surprise because playing with LeBron we never got to see him do as much. Plus, and to some extent with the silly MVP chants, you thought he actually was somewhat a fan pet like Brian Scalabrine. The Lakers are competitive this season. They just need someone like, say, Caruso.

It's a given LeBron basically runs all the teams he's on (other than Miami, which is why he left during their run), so it's confusing how they let Caruso go since he wanted to stay and LeBron liked him. Good for the Bulls. The Pelicans had been whispering down Lonzo around the NBA for a year or so, didn't go to the basket, didn't like contact, didn't love the game, wasn't a real point guard. Maybe to get him back on a better deal? It's not unusual. Good the Bulls didn't listen, and their pairing gives the Bulls a strong defensive component many didn't see coming (OK, me too) on what seemed like an offensive-oriented lineup.


Bill Cartwright

David Dermer:

Watching the Bulls game against Charlotte, it was great seeing Vooch play at an all-star level. I think a lot had to do with the first play being called for him to shoot and see the ball go through the net early. I remember back in the 1st three-peat that Phil would run plays for Bill Cartwright early, posting up and looking to score. He knew Jordan and Pippen could turn it on at any point. Do you agree that this is a good strategy for this Bulls team?

Sam Smith:

With Cartwright and later Luc Longley it was more to send a message to the defense that these guys were possibilities and to spread the floor some to start with a center making a play. Bill and later Luc never got much involved in the scoring part of the offense afterward. That's not the case—at least the Bulls hope—with Vucevic, who needs to be at worst a third option. It's been difficult to start the season for Vucevic, as he's acknowledged, to have to wait for the ball as he has, which Donovan tried to remedy by getting action going toward him to start, at you note, and out of some timeouts. It's looked good against the Hornets and Knicks. It's not that DeRozan and LaVine are selfish, or that they are not team players. But their specialty is going with the ball to their spots, especially DeRozan. He won't pass quite as much as Zach, though the Knicks traps Thursday got the ball moving well. There's a pure ethic of the ball moving to the best shot every time, which really is unrealistic with players like DeRozan and LaVine. Like Jordan used to say, he's better taking a tough some than many guys are taking an easy shot.

And so they need to—and should—get a lot of those shots. It's easy to pick them apart when they miss and say they should have passed, but that's what great players are about, and you don't win without them. You have to accept some of the misses because no one else can duplicate many of their makes. There are going to be more ups and downs this season for Vucevic as a result, but he seems to have the demeanor to accept and work with it.


Nikola Vucevic

Mike Sutera:

I like how Vooch threw his mouth piece on the floor, picked it up and popped it back into his mouth. Sanitary.

Sam Smith:

I thought it was frustration not only about his play, but his place with the team. Then I realized with so many fans scrambling that they were anxious to sell it on the internet. Talk about expectations for Vooch, but it may really be something when you are talking expectorations.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

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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