Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 3.20.2015

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By Sam Smith | 3.20.2015 | 7:17 a.m. CT

I was wondering what you thought the future holds for Taj Gibson. With Mirotic playing at such a high level, I can't see him going back to third string and I've never bought into him playing SF. Do you think they will try him as a backup center or do you think they will have to trade him? I'd hate to see him go, but it seems like he could be the odd man out.
Steven Schnakenberg

Sam: I've gotten a variety of these emails this week with the terrific play, especially scoring, from Mirotic and the fear he'll return to the bench or maybe Montenegro with little playing time like he did last time Gibson or Noah was out and came back. But this is a work it out thing to me since the future remains murky, as it does for all of us. Noah is going into the final season of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent at a time of the most money for free agents going into the salary cap. It's different than with Jimmy Butler as the Bulls can match any offer to Butler. They cannot with Noah. Pau Gasol will be 35 in July and has been asked to play more this season than he has in three years. I don't see how it makes sense with essentially no other reserves on the front line to give up Gibson given the risks associated with Noah and Gasol. True, Gibson isn't a center, but the game is changing and most teams don't have true centers or use them. Plus, given the injuries this season, I see this Bulls group with a reasonable two-year window before, if things don't work out, changes coming in the summer of 2016 when again because of the new revenues and salary cap the Bulls could be in position for major free agency moves. Make your run these two seasons, take advantage of having that depth and then if it doesn't work, the summer of 2016 potentially offers some of the biggest free agents of the era like Kevin Durant, Ray Felton, Marvin Williams and Luol Deng.

Great win against a hot team in Indiana, Niko was amazing as you pointed out in your game recap. I know it's almost impossible to say, but what is his ceiling? Can he be a Toni Kukoc, or even get to Nowitski status? He can do so much and he's only a rookie! He's so much better than what I was expecting when we signed him, once again GarPax did it again!
Adam Garcia

Sam: It's still too soon to plan his Hall of Fame enshrinement, and as you noted since basically no one had much idea how good he would or could be, we're all watching to see. He's still a rookie, of course, and with his playing time on and off probably hasn't been scouted all that much. So teams will scheme against him better. But he has demonstrated a willingness to compete and challenge teams, excellent traits. He's not your super athlete, so you wouldn't classify him with the greats of the game. He's probably not as skilled as Toni was with the ball—I always felt Toni was much underused and underutilized—and nowhere near the shooter that Dirk has been. I was asked this question a lot regarding Jimmy Butler and, frankly, didn't have any belief he could be a 20-point scorer in the NBA. But given Mirotic still is averaging about nine points let's see if he can work his way up to double digits before proffering elite status.

Almost two years ago I asked you if Mirotic would become a new Novitzki or a new Darko, and you answered "maybe a new Schrempf". I think he falls between the 3 and 4 position, a little too weak for 4 and not that explosive for the 3. He runs the floor fast with great ball-handling (ignore the carrying), good passing and a understanding of the game. When given a chance he averages 20ppg 8reb and clearly has a winning instinct in the 4th quarter. Do you see a path for him? Can he turn into an unorthodox 3? Or should he just bulk up?
Also, Is there any unwritten rules regarding tanking? The 76ers does not surprise me anymore of the stupidity, but last week the Nuggets decided to "rest" Chandler, Lawson, Gallo and Faried. 4 of the starters resting, for what? If 2-3 teams are fighting for a playoff spot, and suddenly in the end, one of those teams are lucky and are playing against a tanking team and get an easy win and push them into a playoff spot.. Do management of tanking teams take this into consideration? Such a cynical concept and dull topic, but it really annoys me.
Kim Halvorsen

Sam: That wasn't a bad guess for me from two years ago, especially since I hadn't seen him play. Actually, I did see him once at a preseason game in Memphis. You could see he was skilled, but he was then just a part on a team with veterans like Rudy Fernandez. And I was too busy buying Elvis paraphernalia. Mirotic didn't speak any English and has come a long way in a lot of areas. He is sort of a hybrid, but someone who fits well in this NBA era with the shooting “power” forward concept essentially perfected by Mike D'Antoni. There aren't as many guys anymore who are going to power you down on the block. Detlef isn't a bad comparison even now given his versatile game and he had some decent years shooting the three, though no one shot it nearly as much back then.

As for the tanking/rest, we all know the mockery the 76ers' management is making of the game. You know they are watching this NCAA tournament carefully to try to get another top player who'll be too injured to play next season. The only thing as ridiculous as the 76ers throwing the season is a team not in contention resting. For what? Their season is over in a month. The only thing those guys did seriously all season was turn on their coach and get him fired. It's so ludicrous to be laughable. I know the players say they were forced by management to rest, which seems dubious. After all, just put on your uniform and be ready if you want to play. Nothing much makes sense out there these days since they made marijuana legal. Could be second half smoke. In any case, these are league issues the commissioner has really let down the fans about since they strike at the integrity of the game and don't protect the paying fans. Or even the league's sponsors who pay so much money and deserve a respectable product every game. Certainly with the Nuggets about to take five months off they could have shown up for the last few weeks.

I find it interesting that there is a controversy in baseball as it applies to Kris Bryant and service time. This is over Bryant sitting out the first nine games of the season. Commenting on the subject has been the MLBPA director and Bryant's agent. Both contending that the Cubs are displaying poor judgment in not putting the best team on the field. Does this logic carry over to the NBA where players' sitting out games us becoming commonplace. I think the NBA players association and the players agent are doing themselves harm by being complicit in the sitting out of games. Or does it matter if the best team is put out on the field?
Mark Schweihs

Sam: I guess I can slip in some baseball with everyone watching college basketball, anyway. Wow, is that a dull game. And watching that you better never complain about an NBA official. Anyway, while I prefer American League baseball to the National minors, the Cubs would be doing a disservice to their organization and fans to have that kid on the roster to start the season. Of course, the agent—and especially that agent—is upset as he is supposed to be about money for his client (no issue there) and couldn't care less about the success of the team or the interests of fans (common among agents, though, true, it's not their job). Anyway, the baseball rules on free agency mandate “rest” of a few weeks for that kid. Not that it's going to affect the team or paying customers like it does in the NBA. I've railed about it often and it is a constant embarrassment for the NBA that some teams—and resting a player now and again is fine; it's the massive sit downs that make the games uncompetitive—fail to deliver a responsible product to the fans. And I will say you don't see that even baseball, where we know they aren't even athletes. I hear the comparison with understudies in Broadway shows. But the cast never takes off en masse. I will say you don't see that stuff from the Bulls. And, really, most teams. Like Jimmy Butler says when asked about leading the league in minutes: “I asked to play and I want to play. That's what I'm here for.” It's a league responsibility to remedy, which is easy. Just fine the ownership $50 million. The commissioner can do that. They won't allow it again. You dream as a kid to get into pro sports to take rest days?

This isn't a knock on Noah but with Mirotic playing so well, would it be possible to have him start at 4 and have Gasol at 5? I imagine a defensive bench of Noah and Gibson would lock down bench scoring for the opposing team. Also I would hope it helps manage their injuries.
Jason Kuang

Sam: None taken. I've mentioned this at times because I see Noah as one of the best teammates ever and a guy who would not let his ego (starting, reigning Defensive Player of the Year) get in the way of team success. This crazy minutes thing discussed on and off all season is sort of a red herring (though mine were more gray and pickled). Most players, especially those like Noah coming off knee surgery, aren't capable of averaging more than about 32 minutes per game. The big bull in the room is the playing time for Mirotic when everyone is healthy. Thibodeau is correct it often depends on matchups and situations and he is good at that. You may not always agree with what Thibodeau does—or Phil then or Popovich now as sports is a palate for all colors of second guessing—and I don't always as well. But Thibodeau always has a good and reasonable reason for what he does. Few people are as well prepared. I'd like to see more offense to start games and I think the Noah/Gasol combination leads to a stagnant start, though that should change once Butler and Rose are back. But I feel sure Noah wouldn't mind more time coming in with Gibson, perhaps cutting Gasol's playing time some down around 30-32 along with Noah's and moving up Mirotic's. The issue is Gasol and Mirotic are the poorer defenders and playing together isn't ideal from a defensive standpoint, which is Thibodeau's priority. And in the playoffs most coaches'. So there'll be mixing and matching in the playoffs and second guessing and those of us who'll be right are the ones who say what to do after the game is over.

Reggie Miller called you his good friend on twitter today. I hated Reggie as a player but like him a lot as a commentator and media personality. Trying to think of examples like that. On the other side of things, Shaq was very entertaining as a player on the court and with his pre-written post game comments/one-liners but he's terrible to watch in his current role on TNT. Can you think of any other examples of guys whose on-court personalities have either been or appeared to be the opposite of their off-court personalities?
Cameron Watkins

Sam: We really all should forget any personal contact and make all human actions on Twitter. It could help limit germs. Reggie is a really good guy, charitable, great teammate. Reggie always said he needed to be the bad guy, black hat guy because he knew he wasn't as talented as so many guys he played that he had to have that extra motivation to drive him. Reggie was a great example of the player you wish your players were like, working hard all the time (psst, he really was talented) because he always feared he wasn't good enough. Reggie routinely would show up at hospital kids' wards, schools to speak without any notice. The Pacers never knew. He's that kind of person. Shaq's gotten a little better on TV, though I guess mostly because he couldn't get worse. He is a fun guy to be around, though a bit sensitive—big guys tend to be—and did get mad at my jokes a lot. There were some guys who simply were miserable and showed it, like Laimbeer. Rasheed Wallace seems to be trying to change as a recent appearance in Portland suggests, but has a long way to go. Zach Randolph was one of the classics as a guy overwhelmed by the bad Rasheedesque environment in Portland that took him in. Nice guy, really. The larger lesson or advice is what you should know about life: No one is quite what they seem. Until you live with them. And then you have to wait for the bath room.

Your Tweet of Harden w/50. I've got an MVP tiebreaker: Curry takes off to rest; LeBron takes off to rest; Harden has missed 1 game suspension. He plays. I like this. Don't count out Westbrook either. Playing so soon after the dented face was the epitome of toughness and playing for the love of the game.
Jake Henry

Sam: I don't tweet much--basically just during Bulls games--because I have many thoughts and you know that old saying about keeping things to yourself, though it's probably not used as much anymore. Anyway, I've been on this campaign as in some of my answers here suggest in continuing to be appalled about how the greatest athletes in the history of the world can't play three or four basketball games a week after traveling first class on private charters, basically never having to carry a piece of luggage, having catered meals basically three or four times a day and staying in hotels they only dreamed about visiting the lobby as kids. I know four whole basketball games and sometimes even playing more than 35 minutes in one can be grueling for six whole months. As a nation, we completely have lost our compassion for the athlete. So given it was NCAA tournament time, I was watching the Houston Rockets and saw James Harden score 50 points and thought about the MVP race, which is pretty much among Harden, Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Yes, I know Westbrook has had some amazing statistical lines lately. But it hasn't translated to much above .500, though the larger point is you cannot be an MVP when your team finishes eighth or maybe doesn't even make the playoffs, which only takes being able to have your fans declare, “We're No. 8!” Except in baseball, whose box scores I can no longer read, anyway, given all the new statistics they made up. I hope they still think Willie Mays was good. So I thought about LeBron relaxing for a few weeks back in Florida and Curry taking off when all those people from North Dakota finally came out of the house and drove to Denver and Harden basically playing every game all season as teammates came and went from the lineup with injuries all year. And had the ball in his hands all the time, which wasn't perfect, but it can make you sweat. He missed one game and that's when he tried to kick LeBron in the groin, and who hasn't thought about that? It would seem a good case could be made for any of them and you wouldn't argue much if any of the three won the award. But how about a little help for the guy who came to work every day except when he was bad, and he still wanted to be there but they locked him in his room.

I was listening to an old Elgin Baylor interview. He said that they didn't cross over back then because palming was called. True?
Adnaan Hamid

Sam: I would not contradict Elgin, who was the first great “Air” player. It's true. For one, it was the rule. You dribbled with your fingertips and could not have the ball in your palm. It was against the rules. Also, it wasn't an era when the NBA was that profitable. So they didn't exactly spend a lot of money on anything, including the balls. Many used in games were smooth and you couldn't grip them like you can grip balls now. I don't know officially, but the first guy I can remember palming the ball was Earl Monroe in the 1960s with his famous spin moves. We'd never seen anything like that and I don't think they called palming on him because they never saw anyone do anything like that. It's why he was the first guy known as “Magic,” black magic.

I think Russ may have read “There Is No Next” and gotten offended at all the Jordan-esque stat lines you listed off. Credit to him, he plays like a man possessed and is putting up (dare I say it) numbers that would make Oscar proud. Though Oscar did it for a season. Without a 40 inch vertical.
Yoni Solomon

Sam: Yes, I heard that new book is sort of the 50 Shades of Gray of sports, both shocking and appealing and you never want it to end. Westbrook would love the book, I feel, if he put some actual lenses in his glasses so he could read it. Though Westbrook has a much better shot at the quadruple double since he's averaging about seven turnovers a game this month. They didn't keep turnovers back then, but I doubt Oscar averaged two. It also would mean a lot more if Westbrook's team made the playoffs this season.

So while this 'dark' injury cloud hangs over the team, I see layers of silver lining:
1) Re-assume underdog status. Let's face it, no one likes the pressure of lofty expectations. Back to being the Bulls the media writes off, but the opponents dread playing.
2) Realize depth. Finally we've seen some minutes for Niko and Tony, and in return we now have two guys that have found their feet and will be equipped with far more confidence when they're called upon in a deep playoffs run. If Thibs could only find some more for Dougy and ET we would be sporting some Spurs-esque depth when the big boys return. And how hungry are Derrick, Jimmy and Taj going to be when they come back... with fresh legs!
Blake Gillespie

Sam: Shsssh, it may have been the master plan all along. But how could management and the coaching staff let everyone in on the plan lest the league would find out? You know, sort of like at the draft when they can't believe the guy fell to them at 26. Of course, after Gibson, Butler and Mirotic we may have to stop joking about that one.