Ask Sam: 10.28.16
Sam Smith on the Bulls after game one
Great start for the season (albeit the rebound difference that effectively gave the Bulls the win might have something to do with Boston being on the wrong side of a back-to-back). Do you think that the team might play better this season without the title expectations and contender status it had the previous years? As a fan I know I'm more excited to just see this experiment unfold and have fun with the great plays Wade, Rondo and co will do throughout the season, rather than be over worrying about beating LeBron in the playoffs. Also, is it too soon to start the "Anthony Davis-to-the-Bulls" free agency campaign? 50-16 to start the season makes me think 2021 is just around the corner.
Sam: I don’t think it makes much difference to the players, perhaps other than in the last season or two when the prediction or expectation seemed more a strain or habit from the 2010-12 seasons, that they were supposed to say that even if they privately doubted it. A lot actually came from the players as they’d talk about themselves as a potential championship team, that they were playing for something special and all that. All the time though outsiders wondered what they were looking at. On one level, you’d say what else are they supposed to say. If they said they weren’t, everyone would condemn them as giving up. And also that given only Cleveland was truly better once LeBron returned, they were only a knee injury away. Unfortunately for them it was always their knee injury.
Last season it did seem too much, though injury free they were easily as capable as all those 48-win teams that finished third and they did sweep the second place Raptors. But I do think Fred Hoiberg should get a fairer look in that he was supposedly taking over a potential championship team—again, what else should everyone say—when he really was riding down the last year of that group. That’s how he should be judged, not so much as a rookie coach but a coach who was tasked based on what was occurring and occurred as giving that group one last chance and seeing how they handled it and dealt with it. They made it clear with their play that it was time to move on, that their run was over and they’d crashed. Few pilots can save a craft hurtling down like that.
It’s funny with Davis that after last season you hardly heard his name at all when it came to building your franchise (everyone is on Karl-Anthony Towns now) and among the elite young players and Davis is just 23. And then it took one game. He doesn’t strike me as the ask out type. But New Orleans is a tough city to maintain a franchise with all their economic issues, and when you hear talk now about some NBA team moving and cities like Seattle and Vegas you wonder about New Orleans, which moved once previously to Utah.
As much as I love and root for the Cubbies I am glad to see the Bulls back on the court. Like a lot of fans my expectations are tempered this year - no challenging LeBron and GSW for a title. But I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I'm looking forward to watching this team. I know you've been a big Derrick Rose supporter but I just couldn't forgive his last couple of years and I'm glad he's gone. I wasn't sure about the "rebuilding" process management went thru, but in retrospect I'm glad they didn't tear the house down completely. The "plan" worked for the Cubs, but not sure it translates as well in the NBA (ask the 76ers right?). The Bulls will be competitive most nights and worth watching. In the end professional sports are still just a business so you have to put butts in seats. But I'll enjoy the stories like Wade's homecoming, the hopeful rise of youngsters like Doug and Niko (and Bobby?) or the ticking time bomb that might be Rondo (?).
Sam: That’s a fair take on where they are; yes, even as much as I supported Rose, and much because I felt the vitriol was unfair and out of place because his issues were injures suffered while playing for the team and perhaps at times when he shouldn’t even have been playing but was trying to stay on the court, it was time and a relief; I suspect for both sides. I’m sure Rose will get a positive welcome this week in the United Center Friday. I would not suggest the Cubs method is something that doesn’t work in the NBA as much as it rarely works anywhere; you need some unusual luck, good fortune and special expertise in this era with free agency and everyone having the same charts. Good for the Cubs it worked for them. But franchises like Pirates and Royals tried for decades, maybe got it right briefly and then go back to where they were. Remember, the Warriors went two decades making one playoff. Teams like Utah have taken nearly a decade to get back, Minnesota more than that. Everyone has a plan; Custer had a plan. Most fail. The 76ers will begin to dig their way out, and the Bulls may have to go there eventually once Wade moves on or moves down if their young players don’t step up to assume those roles.
But for this season it is a nice blend and should be intriguing to watch. Even if they hadn’t made a few big plays down the stretch Thursday. They obviously have a limited margin for error, and the absence of Wade for any period could be fatal. Hoiberg was masterful in limiting and juggling Wade’s minutes to keep him fresh for the short and long haul. Frankly, a more insecure or uptight coach would have brought Wade back with seven minutes left when the lead started to fade. But Hoiberg manipulated players and waited until four and a half minutes, thus also giving Wade the legs to finish as he did. Coaches get a lot of second guessing, and Fred got way too much last season in, as I noted above, tasked with riding the ship down while having to present a face of competing for it all. I thought his rotations were terrific in Game 1. He gave Canaan a good look, and when he was missing didn’t want to pressure him back in, but stuck with Mirotic, who is a better competitor than often given credit for and Mirotic responded. He matches Wade, Rondo and Butler to basically always have two out there while keeping Wade and Rondo under 35 minutes in a tight game and no one playing near 40, which is what wore down that previous group and eventually necessitated riding it down. Sometimes short term winning covers up long term best interests. Don’t worry about Rondo; he’ll be fine. Back to baseball, I see him somewhat like A.J. Pierzynski. An acquired taste to some, but you want him on your side.
If you know you could have MCW this October, will you still sign Rondo?
Sam: Absolutely. Whatever the circumstances have been with Rondo before, and they seem to me have always been about a player and person who is proud, speaks his mind, has strong opinions that might be counter to others but is about success and not just going along (again some A.J. in there). And he’s been a popular teammate. Gibson was effusive after Game 1 the way Rondo was serious about the game even when others were relaxing a little. That mix with Wade seems ideal, two who have won titles, who respect one another but may not be that close, and who have a voice others regard. They may never rap together (does anyone do that other than maybe with Shaq on the TNT show?), but they provide the voices and presence that demand attention. The Carter-Williams deal, as I wrote last week, could turn out to be a great one, and no offense to Tony, but if they think he’s a starter….Rondo was one of nine against Boston, but it was also interesting how unnoticed it went (OK, a win does that), but he brings so much, like opening the game stripping the ball from Boston’s best player at midcourt. I thought that sent a message as much as anything that the team was there to compete and if you didn’t match it you’d be embarrassed. That’s what guys like Rondo bring. You need that, you want that.
I hope this RJ Hunter is a steal. Maybe he will be a decent three threat with one year of pro ball under his belt. He played great in the ncaa. Looks like a Reggie Theus!
Sam: I know Reggie Theus, and he is no Reggie Theus. I know the name (Theus) may be unfamiliar to some as he played in the second worst stretch in Bulls history, but Reggie was one of the best pure scorers of his era, a big guard who also could make plays, a player more burdened by being on too many bad teams. He had some near 20 points and 10 assist seasons with the Kings. He could have been a Hall of Famer if he weren’t playing for 12th half the time. So let’s set some reasonable expectations. Hunter is worth a look as a player who came out of college with a reputation for making big shots, if not a great three-point percentage. He was a first round pick, albeit low, and the Bulls certainly have potential questions on three-point shooting, though not if the opener holds. The wild card will be Wade. He’s shown he can make the shot, and it was obvious in Miami they didn’t want him to nor did anyone show him how to make it better if he did. Give Hoiberg credit for being a head coach who’ll not only work with players—most like the Patton model of generalship from the sidelines—but who knows what to say. We’ve seen Hoiberg working with Wade on shooting after practices, and Wade has said Hoiberg opened his eyes not only about some elements of shooting, but his shooting. Fred already saved the Bulls money as they no longer need one of those shooting coaches, also. Extension time?
I’m not sure about the number of wins but if the relationships continue to build, this will definitely affect the final total.
Sam: And only 81 to go. If only you can start the playoffs after a home opening win, but alas. It’s not fair or accurate to blame anyone, more like picking sides in a divorce after you have heard one side, but it’s clear the atmosphere around the team is more relaxed, less tense, more open. Wade—yes, him again—is a huge reason. I’ve rarely seen a star-like player of his caliber transition so smoothly and easily and effectively into a late career with such a high level of ability. It’s unusual for a player like Wade, who frankly relied so much on explosion given he was not a big guard. He plays a ground based game, but is smart, but also extremely tough, an attitude Bulls fans didn’t like much when he was, say, hip checking some Bull into the stands. He’s got a real edge to him that is masked by an amazing public grace. He had to adjust for LeBron in Miami, and probably was reluctant to at first. But he did so in the best interests of the team, but more is so bright and aware he understood where he needed to be and what worked for everyone else. It’s more than seeing the court; it’s seeing the big picture. Also, it’s a game, and you could see it was no fun the last two seasons for the Bulls. Jimmy talked about that immediately after game one, and the best teams have some level of that. I do think that’s a big reason why Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, and I don’t fault him in the least. You want to be where it’s enjoyable to be and the people are enjoyable to be around. You could see with Westbrook that was not the case there. Now the Warriors just have to get rid of Green.
Taj really is a quality guy. Maybe my favorite Bull with Noah gone. Reminds me a little of Pax, when they kept on trying to get guys to knock him out of the starting 5. Those two and Luol could start the Underappreciated Bulls Club.
Sam: Though the coaches probably wanted to see Mirotic win that starting power forward job for his theoretical shooting, I think it’s clear—yes, I should remember my own warning it’s one game—that Taj needs to be that starter all season. Look, as we know and hear it’s all about who finishes and rotations change all game, which the Bulls did in the opener. Taj played just 27 minutes starting, but the force he brings to start is nice to see and his pick and roll with Wade is excellent. Plus, he’s no longer the reluctant shooter. He’s developed a nice mid range shot and finally isn’t afraid to take it, though I would also have been afraid of the one he had his first few years. Which is also, by the way, let’s not be too quick to judge on someone like Bobby Portis, who I feel will be a good player. I’m not surprised he didn’t play in the opener because there really is no room. Hoiberg played 10 guys. And Felicio is the more natural and appropriate backup center. Gibson and Mirotic take up power forward. But, remember, Taj came into the NBA at 24; Portis was 20. What Portis has going for him is he is a competitor and plays hard when he gets the chance. He will get a chance, but he’ll have to be patient again. I did expect to see Denzel Valentine, but again, 10 is enough. Michael Carter-Williams was too good to take out, so Valentine may do some switching off with Canaan. But I like Valentine’s ability to make shots without a fear of taking them. I expect we’ll see more of him sooner.
Team looked good. Showed more chemistry in 1 game than the team did last season from 82 games. Wade was clutch Taj was amazing; Lopez is so fun to watch; MCW is a super sub with these older guards. Very valuable; MCW is sooooo much better than Snell it's not funny. Even when his shot isn't falling, he's still able to affect a game defensively and on the boards. The Bulls have the best rebounding guards in all of basketball and it's not even close. 55 total for the game; They out rebounded Boston by 19! If that trend continues, and they keep getting to the FT line, they'll be winning a lot of games. And on another topic, man, the Thunder don’t have any offense really outside of Russ. gonna be a struggle nightly.
Sam: I didn’t see their opener, but part of the issue is the way Westbrook plays. I do think they’ll get offense going, but he’s tough to play with because of that head down, ferocious game. Great player, sure. You’d always want him. But, again, I can understand why Durant had enough. Good point on Lopez; overlooked in all the Wade, Jimmy, Taj, Niko, but he is solid in there, a bit slow, though that’s offset by the guards. Lopez sure helps Taj be in position to get those shots and gives the Bulls a physical presence they never had with Noah. Noah did so much else, like switching the perimeter stuff few big men can do. But not with the force and bulk Lopez brings. You can see the big men he covered for like LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis miss him. Obviously impressive was the group rebounding that produced the margin over a Boston team some say can win the East, or at least the race for the East in the league other than Cleveland. But it also gives the Bulls a dimension they lacked of not having to rebound and then find a guy. The rebounder can carry the ball up into a break. This group will have its issues with a margin of error not great, like much of the East, but Game 1 was a positive notice they’ll compete and be worthy of your affection.
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