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Ask Sam Mailbag: Bulls award chances, postseason outlook and more

Michael Murden:

Given how much better this year's Bulls are than last year's could the Bulls take MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year? Has a team ever done that before?

Sam Smith:

You mean other than the 1996 Bulls? That's what 72 wins does for you; not 50-some, as good as that is. The Bulls had that triple with Michael Jordan (MVP), Phil Jackson (Coach of the Year) and Jerry Krause (Executive of the Year).

I believe Karnisovas should be Executive of the Year, though there'll be sentiment for Cleveland the way they've been such a surprise team with a few additions. The 76ers' Daryl Morey will get a late boost by having held out and gotten James Harden; also depending on where the 76ers finish in the regular season.

Recency is a bias felt by executives as well. The media votes for the other major awards, but not Executive of the Year. That's a peer vote. So Karnisovas has a chance to move one behind Krause and tied with Gar Forman for league honors.

Even with the Harden addition, Karnisovas in one year remade the Bulls franchise—and without substantial salary cap room—in an unprecedented way that not only changed the fortunes of the franchise but enabled the Bulls to become a contender once again in the NBA.

It's a truly remarkable achievement.

Both Billy Donovan and DeMar DeRozan have had terrific seasons; perhaps the best in their pro careers. It might be tough for either to crack the top three or four in their respective award ballots. DeMar seemed a shoo-in (not shoe; comes from horse racing as in shoo, shoo; let's go fast). I think with all the national publicity and admiration this season he stays in that top five. But he may have peaked too soon even with his February Player of the Month based on the media vote lists you see.

Now it's Ja Morant for March with first that huge game against the Bulls with the highlight 360-degree flying layup and then the poster dunk 50 piece. And with the Grizzlies climbing in the West he, Luka Doncic (West February Player of the Month and the Mavs coming fast) and DeRozan in the latest unscientific media projections are fighting for the fourth and fifth spots after probable winner—this assumes health the rest of the way—Joel Embiid. And then some order of Jokic (especially if the Nuggets move up with Murray and Porter expected to return because everyone love his stats) and probably Giannis. So whatever happened to Stephen Curry?

Consider that four previous MVPs having good seasons, LeBron, Durant, Curry and Harden, don't even get in the conversation. Who saw that coming? As for Coach of the Year, the front runners seem to be J.B. Bickerstaff of the Cavs and Taylor Jenkins of the Grizzlies.

If the Suns hang in with Chris Paul out, Monty Williams likely wins. Because coaching is such a mystery to most, Coach of the Year becomes the coach of the team media most underestimated. That's certainly the Cavs. After all, though many doubted the Bulls, they still were 42 or 43 wins on the Vegas charts with the DeRozan and Ball acquisitions. Memphis was just below that. The Cavs were expected maybe 15 games behind both.

There's also considerable support for Miami's Erik Spoelstra, who has the rare distinction of being named one of the top 15 coaches of all-time despite never having been named Coach of the Year. Spoelstra is in the Pat Riley/Phil Jackson category of being most overlooked because they have talented teams.

The media thinking on this award is that coaching is about improving poor talent or teams instead of recognizing the work.

It's why Jackson won for the first time when he won his fourth title. Riley won for the first time a year after he coached the Lakers to four titles and seven NBA Finals in eight years. But that's also why I believe Spoelstra is the best choice for this season. That would be a recognition of what coaching is about, if also overdue.

Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

Joseph Austin:

A lot has been said about the Bulls poor record against contending teams as it relates to the playoffs. It's hard to ignore a lack of signature or litmus test win. To me, it goes back to the absences of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

The Bulls had a stranglehold on perimeter defense with those two guys. Add those guys in with Tristan Thompson's arrival and it's a different story. All I expect from Patrick Williams is to give Donovan six more fouls to use. I still look at the Bulls as a very dangerous playoff team no matter what.

Sam Smith:

I agree the Bulls have a chance to make a substantial playoff run, but I have been at times disappointed of late to hear what seems a bit too much wishing and hoping. Not from Billy Donovan, who has made clear that you compete with what you have and other teams have endured as much or more absences.

We know there's really no next man up, as popular as Thibs made it with all the Bulls/Derrick Rose injuries in the early 2010s. Because there's a reason why the next man isn't playing. But it seems like some of the players and especially fans are putting too much on the return of Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball.

Great if they can come back and have a similar impact. But it's really unfair to ask or expect guys who were out two months injured to walk back into the rotation and not only perform, but play the dirty work roles of defenders, hustlers and playmakers to shake the team out of its lethargy against teams like that. After all, this was the fourth best starter and sixth or seventh man. This isn't Klay Thompson returning. This is asking two players who have had serious injuries and missed half the season to save the team's defense?

It's not right to place those sort of expectations on them.

They'll likely return later this month, and they should help. But this Bulls team is about what LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic will and should do. They're the ones who have to provide the cover for players like Ball and Caruso. Not the other way around.

Steph Curry and Chris Paul.

Parker Lerdal:

How can the Suns and Chris Paul go to the playoffs this year and think they can win a 1st title in franchise history after the horrible loss to the Bucks and Giannis?

Sam Smith:

You figure they are going to lose some of that cushion with Chris Paul injured and out for more than a month, though the Warriors have been sliding as well without Draymond Green. And they don't say much, which leads you to suspect Green's back is worse than they let on. It's actually enjoyable to see the West in such free fall this season compared with the much stronger Eastern Conference. Just the Bulls luck, eh?

They finally improve and so did everyone in their conference. Heck, the way it's going in Memphis assuming Ja continues his Ja-dropping play, actually could overtake the Suns for first. More likely second ahead of the Warriors. Continuity and having been there means a lot; it used to mean everything. That's why Miami looks so good.

This is basically their third season together with a Finals run in there. Having played together and experienced the playoffs and defeat long had been the formula for ultimate success. It played out for decades in the NBA and in that first Bulls run and when the Celtics lost to the Lakers and then won and then the Pistons lost to the Celtics and then won and the Bulls lost to the Pistons and then won.

There are exceptions, but even LeBron's Miami super team had to lose in the Finals before winning. That's also why when the Bulls beat the Lakers in 1991, the belief during the seasons was it was Portland's time after they'd lost in the previous Finals. But playoffs also are about matchups, and Portland got upset by the Lakers in the conference finals.

Sometimes there's a team you can't beat in the playoffs, but someone else can and you hope they get them first. The Suns this season have played like they know how to win. It's one of those you can't always describe but you know it when you see it. But they need Paul healthy or they have no chance.

Tristan Thompson dunks at Bulls practice.

Jay Choi:

Tristan Thompson has been a great pickup as expected. He's exactly what this team needs. However, Billy Donovan must figure out how to utilize him better. I know he's had difficulty playing two big men at once when we had Daniel Theis last season. It's so frustrating to watch how he continues to go with a center and four guards which clearly doesn't work when they play a great team.

He must figure out a way to play Tristan and Vucevic together. Let Tristan be our Dennis Rodman and let him do what he does best, rebound and play free safety since he covers so much ground in the paint.

Sam Smith:

Unless it's against big teams like the Cavs, I don't see it occurring that much, especially with the injured guards returning. But maybe Billy will surprise me. Donovan did take a look at it in the second quarter Thursday against the Hawks. Not for that long.

In five possessions, it was 7-4 Atlanta. Which doesn't mean much. Donovan took another look at it to start the fourth quarter and the Bulls stretched out the lead some, though that was mostly DeRozan. And then down the stretch he went with the two bigs. That sequence didn't work well as the Hawks took control and were able to provide more help on DeRozan without having to worry much about Thompson.

But what about Patrick Williams? I don't expect much from Williams, and at his age—amazingly still 20 years old and with no serious playing experience—it would be difficult to ask him to miss all season and then expect him not only to produce, but produce in the playoffs when the game is so much tougher.

It's probably better to mostly let him watch this one and contribute a few fouls. But in bringing back Ball and Caruso—yes, I have counseled patience—I also think what gets overlooked is not only the way they played defense, but the speed in which they play. Which led to that defensive play.

Although Billy never articulates it, it seems obvious he prefers to play smaller and quicker and offset the size disparity with the steals and deflections.

It seems why he's kept Javonte Green in there starting at power forward. You could see Billy didn't like playing Theis with Vucevic. Though Theis seemed like a better fit with Vucevic that Thompson. Because Theis liked to shoot 3-pointers. But if you play Thompson with Vucevic, then Vucevic has to go outside since we know Thompson doesn't shoot perimeter shots.

Vucevic has been best this season when he's worked consistently rolling inside the lane and midrange. His 3-point shooting is his lowest in six years, though he made some Thursday. But late in the game he got stuck mostly standing outside.

Thompson likens it to he and Kevin Love, though Love is primarily a 3-point big man. Vucevic isn't. I'd prefer Thompson be the second unit big man, which I believe he will be once all the guards/perimeter players return. Thompson is a great addition and will help a lot in the playoffs with his toughness and experience, and maybe Friday against Milwaukee.

Though when you are preparing to rob a bank—and kids I am not suggesting that—perhaps you don't tell them your plan first. The Bulls were doing pretty good playing smaller and faster before Ball and Caruso went out. I expect they will try to return as much to that style as they can.

Nikola Jokic throws a pass against the Sixers.

Mike Sutera:

Nikola Jokic's agent said he will sign the max this summer with Denver. Darn. I thought that might have been AK's plan.

Sam Smith:

It sounded like a plan, ease Vooch out after next season when his contract expires, Denver-AK connection, bring in The Big Man for the next level. But with Nikola Jokic's MVP, he's eligible for the super max, and only your team can pay a super max. And as appealing as Chicago hot dogs are, it's tough to pass up maybe $70 million for the epicurean availabilities.

I know there's this ambivalence about Vucevic. You know, why isn't he Embiid? But try also to remember how long it took the Bulls to find a center with his skills, someone who is such a good teammate he's willing and anxious to accept the criticism and do less so the team can be more.

To find any real center since Joakim Noah. I'm convinced DeRozan doesn't consider the Bulls if his former teammate isn't there. The trade for Vucevic was a coup and I hope he'll be resigned when his contract expires after next season.

Zach LaVine.

Andrew Brown:

I don't get this team. Yes we are missing three key defenders but seriously we've had our ‘big 3' for the majority of the season. Zach LaVine needs to help this team win bigger games. There are teams like Dallas, Memphis with one star and really a bunch of so-so players around them and they are rising now, not falling.

The Bulls have two All-Stars, one past recent All-Star and a deep team of good players. They even brought in a player who's won a championship. The Bulls need to look themselves in the mirror and figure themselves out and quickly. Playoffs will be here before we know it.

Sam Smith:

We can go with the everyone goes through it as it's been just three losses, and it took a couple of amazing "Traes" for that on Thursday. So there's the plenty of time stuff. But it is true that while the Bulls have suffered some significant injuries, their main three haven't missed as many as some others'. Which is why I believe Donovan dismisses the excuses all the time.

The Bulls three main players have missed a combined 23 games. For example, Miami's of Lowry, Butler and Adebayo have missed 61 combined, almost three times as many. And, of course, the 76ers went through all that with Ben Simmons.

Even relatively healthy Milwaukee's big three of Giannis, Middleton and Holiday has combined to miss 39 games. As I think about it, does anyone ever play!

That all said, with Zach having some knee issues and DeMar seeing so much defensive attention with all the national attention, it's tough. But back to the big cliche, there's a long way to go and plenty of time for a week's rest once the season ends and before the playoffs. I'm not recommending obsessing on this period when the Bulls always knew the schedule would be more difficult. Better to examine the whole in time.

Ja Morant and Derrick Rose.

John Leichenko:

Ja Morant vs. Derrick Rose. I'm watching highlights; maybe Ja doesn't have longer arms bigger hands. He just jumps higher. Ja is clearly a special player, like Derrick. I am jealous of Memphis fans! But, I am still quietly excited about a healthy Chicago Bulls team.

Sam Smith:

I wasn't sure we'd ever see a next Derrick, but I've heard the comparisons frequently.

Derrick was more physically powerful and perhaps intimidating. Even fans forget, but other point guards seemed to actually fear playing him and being embarrassed. Partly because he didn't act out and trash talk and provide drama.

I recall the way top point guards of the time like Chris Paul and John Wall would shrink in comparison. Deron Williams almost would pretend to be injured. Stars like Steve Nash and Rondo couldn't come close to competing. Westbrook was explosive, but didn't have the power Rose did. Rose's launch from almost standing by the basket was nothing anyone ever had seen before.

Much more physical and powerful than Morant, who probably is more acrobatic and probably weighs at least 30 pounds less. Even players underestimated Rose's upper body strength and that he could explode like that with such power.

Derrick Rose drives to the rim.

Mike Queensworth:

Oh no! Derrick Rose's return over with a second ankle surgery?

Sam Smith:

Everyone should know better by now with perhaps the best comeback of the last decade or two that you don't write off Derrick Rose.

I heard it's not so much a surgery than a concern about infection and being cautious. Though if anything is over it's probably the Knicks season as they're out for a long road trip and if they can't win a lot of games soon there may be no point in returning.

Thibs has been dealt a bad hand, but the way things work in New York it's going to be tough for him to survive this. I see reports that GMs like their youngsters, and it's pretty unclear what they're talking about.

Years ago I thought when Westbrook became a free agent because of New York's star attachments and his attachment to the fashion industry that was his destination. There's been speculation now with the Lakers' demise—and it was obvious they were trying to trade Westbrook—that maybe New York does seem like the destination.

Not that Julius Randle and Evan Fournier is an answer for the Lakers, but step one has to be moving on from Westbrook. And running that team with Rose to come in for some support and together at times at least was a dream at one time. Unfortunately, a decade ago.

Ja Morant.

Rob Piper:

With Ja Morant playing some incredible basketball this past week and setting back-to-back career highs everyone is comparing him to Derrick Rose during his 2010-2011 MVP year. I understand there of course are some parallels, like this also being Ja's age 22 season. And Ja quickly becoming one of the most exciting young players to watch in the league just like Derrick Rose was. But having said all this, I still think it's a bit premature.

Maybe it's me just being a biased lifelong Bulls fan, but I still think Rose's MVP year was slightly better. And if it weren't for LeBron creating a super team in Miami they could've possibly made the NBA Finals in that season too.

Of course, Ja will (hopefully) have a longer time at his peak than Rose did, but if you are just comparing the two age 22 season's I would still give the nod to Rose.

Sam Smith:

All these comparisons from greatest ever and ranking in order a top 75 are debatable and hardly determinate. It's part of the stuff that keeps sports going.

It's great that the league has someone like Ja Morant to watch, and you hope the best for him as we know that high wire playing act comes without a net.

Morant is not going to be the MVP this season because he came on too late and voters often are reluctant to move off a strong belief this late in the season. The end case they'll make against him is he missed a dozen games and the team was 10-2. Which is still hard to believe.

In any case, consider that Rose called his shot—Why can't I be MVP? before the season—and beat LeBron in the middle of LeBron's prime when LeBron won the previous two seasons and the subsequent two seasons. You can relax for now.

Billy Donovan and Zach LaVine.

Brian Tucker:

Can't say I was surprised by the terrible loss to the Miami Heat. Especially now with these less meaningful regular season games and looking forward to having their defensive stalwarts back in a few weeks...hopefully. Chicago's defense is just plain bad right now. But I cannot fault them for not laying it all on the line right now. There is really no incentive for exhausting themselves coming out of the break and even for the next few weeks.

Then we'll need a bit of time to ramp it up for everyone to get in a groove together. So I'm really just looking towards that last big five-game home stand from March 31st-April 8th against five playoff teams that will be a true measuring stick for how high we can gauge our playoff expectations for this team.

Sam Smith:

So there goes March?

Though everyone always says April is the cruelest month. Maybe this year because of baseball. Or trying to watch it in person in Chicago. Anyway, I guess that's a way of coping. But I suspect the Bulls' fate will be determined by then.

The Bulls have five consecutive home games in early April with Miami and then a Milwaukee/Boston back-to-back. But that close to the playoffs, positioning is often determined and teams tend to rest players more than go full out at that time. What's going to be most interesting about those last few days is the maneuvering.

You might even see teams trying to lose to avoid a potential matchup. The biggest elephant in the room is going to be the Nets, who seem likely to be in the play-in tournament.

Kevin Durant is back, though maybe not Ben Simmons for awhile. But would you want to have a first round series against the Nets even if Kyrie Irving can only play in your arena? Who knows? Maybe by then New York changes its stupid rule again.

Yes, to protect citizens New York doesn't allow an unvaccinated NBA player to play in New York. But unvaccinated players from the rest of the country are welcome. And you wonder why you have to say the name twice, New York, New York? Because pretty much everything they do there you end up repeating and scratching your head.

Twenty five dollars for a corned beef sandwich! Twenty five dollars! That's an hour wait! An hour! Anyway, if you're No. 1 or No. 2 you might take a look those last few days and think No. 3 or No. 4 might not be a bad place to start from.

Steven Adams guarding DeMar DeRozan.

Jeffrey Pierce:

Maybe you were wrong about Steven Adams.

Sam Smith:

You mean when I wrote he was the most worthless player in the NBA when Bismack Biyombo wasn't playing? Maybe Taylor Jenkins is Coach of the Year. Anyway, I officially apologize.