Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls dunks the ball against the 76ers

Ask Sam Mailbag: 01.26.18

Sam opens his mailbag and answers reader's questions

Reading through the trade rumors it appears that the next two weeks should be active, especially with the Cleveland situation. The Niko trade talk has subsided as has his recent performance. It's difficult to project his trade value as better than a low first round pick at best as you have suggested. There still remains hope with this fan that the Gar/Pax combo will be able to utilize the cap space and trade assets for something meaningful but expectations are now far more modest. So we wait. Perhaps the promised Senate Dreamer debate will help pass the time. Any revised expectations?

John Petersen

Sam: Glad to see you getting in on the NBA's globalization with the immigrant issue. Too bad the Native Americans never thought of putting up a wall; ah, but I digress. I don't know how the discussions are going, but it's sounding around the league difficult to get a first of any kind. They are becoming more magical without enough empirical evidence. After all, look at the continuing angst about the Bulls giving up a second round draft pick, picks that long have been so little thought of, even by the NBA, the commissioner went home after the first round and the league rushed through the picks to get it over with. Sure, there are hidden jewels, but so very few. What's happened is with the vast expansion of draft world—the sports stations devote months in advance to updating and changing the football mock drafts when nothing has happened—and the commitment to losing by teams that it is some secret formula to success, that the draft has become barely behind the Finals as the elite event on the NBA calendar. So teams have come to fear their communities' wrath about giving up those picks for anything less than bona fide all stars, like Jimmy Butler. Plus, there's always the Mitchell or Kuzma, though exceptions, that fans and media hammer a team for if they give up their pick. So even these low first round picks are becoming overvalued. Added to that is the economics with the crazy salaries; these drafted players become much more valuable on contracts for up to five years with designated salaries that are relatively limited. And rookies in this young league thus are able to make an impact more quickly. So you add to that teams falling out of contention or going for draft picks suddenly dumping a lot of good players on the market, like a George Hill kind of difference maker for a top team. Maybe Tyreke Evans, Marco Belinelli, Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum. Now we hear Wesley Matthews. Start picking your teams. Who do you like on the rosters of the Pistons, Clippers, Lakers, Grizzlies, Jazz, Kings, Magic? We're about 60 percent through the season now and positions harden. Not James, though. It looks like it's nine teams in the East for eight spots with Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana, Washington and Miami for five spots. The top eight in the West looks set with the Clippers probably falling out, though still close with the Nuggets. So not many teams need players now for this season. This opens up much wider once the season is over when you can combine with known positions in the draft and with playoff failures. Cleveland is always desperate because of LeBron. I don't know how much else there will be.


Nikola Mirotic handling the ball.

Where do you think Niko ends up? I'm guessing a team that trades for him would be a playoff bubble team in either conference who believes they need one more piece to get them over the hump. So who would that be? Utah for Favors, since they're gonna lose him anyways? Portland? Or maybe Washington or Miami?

Paulie Giuntoli

Sam: Obviously, the fate of Mirotic has been a talking point all season since the fracas with Bobby Portis. He's still averaging 17 points, which is almost six above his career average in now almost a half season of games. But the numbers are all down in January, shooting 37.5 percent on threes, which is still very good and 43 percent on the season. As I mentioned above, getting a draft pick could be problematic in this environment without taking on massive contracts like the Hornets may be offering and the Trailblazers have done. Is it worth a draft pick to maybe take you out of free agency? And then if you are going to lose him because maybe he wants to start do you just take something? Of course, from his standpoint as we've seen with players like Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah ,now maybe AWOL from the Knicks, the grass isn't always greener. Except at some of those shops in Denver, of course.


Ben Simmons

After seeing Ben Simmons first hand a couple of times now, I'm interested in your take on him. We Australian's (particularly our media) tend to be pretty parochial when it comes to our athletes performing in the U.S. NBA players such as Luc Longley, Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and Mathew Dellavedova are lauded here as they were contributors on championship winning NBA teams. Watch the our national league NBL and you'll see Boguts and Dellavedovas are a dime a dozen! Essentially every American import that comes and plays here talks about the ‘physical' play. Our athletes play ‘below the rim' so need to find other ways to be competitive. The way Bogut and Dellavedova play would not be considered dirty by our standards. To me, Ben Simmons looks like the first real ‘All Star' prospect we have produced. I know it's early in his career, but where do you project he could be in the future. He certainly has a unique skill set, particularly with his size, but his shot looks suspect which could be an issue. In saying that, off the top of my head, I can think of two other point guards with suspect shots who carved out Hall of Fame careers in Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Not that I'm saying he is Hall of Fame material of course, I'd never be that parochial……

Andrew Robson

Sam: When we were exchanging emails about him I rejected Kidd and Payton because of their speed and suggested more a Michael Ray Richardson comparison. Simmons is huge, more in the size of this era like with Kevin Durant that enables players to do things they never could have done 25 years ago because they would have been ordered to play center or power forward or left off the team. Richardson was kicked out of the NBA for drug use, though I have talked with him at some recent All-Stars games and he appears to have turned his life around and has been working with schools and community organizations. He was an amazing 6-5 guard in that era able to play multiple positions, run a team, score and rebound without a great shot. Legends like Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas considered him one of the top talents of the era. I agree Simmons is basically un-Australia-like compared to what we have seen with the tremendous athletic ability that rivals the best in the NBA. I don't believe there are national barriers to that. Most of the Australians we've seen previously have been big guys who seemed to have a marginal interest in the game and were there because of their size; same with the overachievers. Except they loved the game; the game didn't love them back so much. Simmons doesn't seem to have the same open court skills of Magic Johnson, to whom there have been comparisons. Which always is a mistake. But Simmons is amazingly powerful and effective from the three-point line in (not shooting) and I don't understand why teams don't contest him more from there. Once you get him inside he's too big and quick. I understand to stay under because he can't shoot, but if you let him get that close even he can make shots. I suspect his shot will improve because the stroke is OK. Heck, he seemed upset with the Bulls for being left off the All-Star team as a rookie with an asterisk (drafted in 2016). By the way are we counting Kyrie? Who I think was born there. Remember, the Bulls had their eyes on the bar-bee (can we say that?) with Luc, Chris Anstey, Luke Schenscher and, of course, Cam Bairstow. All fun guys. One of my favorite stories was when the original Aussie, Longley, separated his shoulder body surfing early in the 1996-97 season. "Sorry, mate," Luc offered to Phil. Luc, of course, later told reporters he was trying to get away from a massive shark attack and actually broke the neck of the shark (do they have necks?) fighting them off. Luc explained that the shark was bigger than him and, actually, better looking. I do miss that guy.


DeAndre Jordon

Can the Bulls get involved in the Deandre Jordan sweepstakes? Bulls - D Jordan, 2nd rnd pick Clippers - Lopez, mirotic, grant Put us right in the playoff picture this year and doesn't cripple us long term with Jordan off the books in 18mths if we choose not to resign him. With that signing, it may attract a big name free agent his summer I think Lavine could be a SF as he can rebound. The search for a high level SG to complete our 5 with Holiday to the bench. I know, I know, it'll never happen. We'll have a no.12-15 pick and heaps of money for free agency is the path we'll go. Just hope we don't pay 'overs' for some 2nd tier level star.

Andrew Brown

Sam: Hey, you shot it down before I could for the latest trade of the week. Jordan has a player option for $24 million next season and supposedly wants an extension to drop that. Which is why I assume his name comes up so often in trade rumors. I've never been much of a fan of his in a changing NBA where big men shoot, and you hate to have a guy they are purposely fouling so you can't have him on the court down the stretch. If I were a free agent, I think I'd rather play with Lopez, if only for his ability to protect you against hostile mascots. I never quite got the attraction about Jordan; yes, rim protector and all that. But who's he guarding in this era and who's bothering to guard him? And now going into his 30s making more than $20 million. I agree you need some size and the Cavs are short some of that, which is why they finally went back to Thompson at center. But he's also pretty mobile. When the Cavs won they had Mozgov, but he didn't play much in the Finals. Next!


Kris Dunn, David Nwaba, Lauri Markkanen

I don't agree with your moralist take on tanking. Everyone is always bringing up what the 76ers have been doing the last half decade or more with "the process," as a way to ostracize tankers in the NBA. But we're talking about the most extreme form of tanking maybe ever, and a team that has the unfortunate knack for drafting players who sit out their first year in the league. (Noel, Embiid, Simmons, and now Fultz) No one is suggesting the Bulls take a decade off in the cellar to pick up 5 #1 or 2 picks. What a lot of Bulls fans think makes sense (including me) is to play out the rest of this year with the mentality that we play hard for most of the game and then Arcidiacano it up towards the end. We've already watched the Baby Bulls with Scott Skiles give Chicago Rudy-like performances for several years and then with Thibs, we celebrated winning an occasional game in Miami or Cleveland without Derrick Rose in the playoffs, pretending it was a major achievement. We've done the whole heart thing, as far as it can go, and now it's time to see the wizard about a brain. We've been sold this older-than-Sam-Smith mentality in Chicago that playing with heart and sticking to the whole blue collar ethic of never giving up or tanking games because we're morally superior. Those were fun times but we want to win again. So let's gingerly tank one year. No big deal. What's the best thing that can happen this year, winning a playoff series against watered down Eastern conference sludge? Nope. Getting a top 5 pick and adding him to a roster that can step up and win a title when the Warriors disband and Lebron retires. And don't give me that bologna that it goes against some honor code of the NBA. The Warriors are a 4 superstar corporation that made the NBA like college football, played out in the off season. I know you're giving us the old school perspective, from the times when teams didn't tank, but then again the classic NBA teams didn't need to tank. It's one pointless year. Call it something else if you need to. But we need to "defer" this year.

Marcus Nikokiris

Sam: Oh, yeah! Well, I'm fairly sure you're not paying to go to any games. OK, forget that you owe some level of competitiveness to people paying to see your show. And when you reduce sports to basics, that's what it is: A variation of a Broadway-type performance (though I prefer the Paramount in Aurora; just as good) of the most talented people in their profession putting on a show. I know morality isn't necessarily in style these days in our country. So, yes I suppose I am somewhat unfashionable in hoping for honesty of effort. Looking at it the way you do, the Bulls set up the team exactly as you hoped and with a 3-20 start were right on course. So then the players they acquired developed more quickly than expected. Would the team rather have Markkanen and Dunn have poor seasons? Then what would be your view of the trade of Jimmy Butler if two lottery picks look like losers. Congratulate the team for being bad? And always remember, players around the league watch. When you accept losing, you become a loser. It's why teams like the Kings, Timberwolves, Suns have been in these extended losing periods. Players used to run to play in Phoenix. No more. And when we get around to it, which teams that have so successfully "tanked" in recent years are playing for titles? The Warriors were a great example of a team that never did that but kept adding players, signing free agents, rarely drafting top five, basically. This theory came out of the Rockets organization with Sam Hinkie, but you'll notice the Rockets never did it, basically stocking up on free agents and constantly churning to remain in contention. The last time they won fewer than 30 games was 2002 when they got Yao. Plus, as Miami found out when they tried it there are few guarantees. They had the worst record and got the No. 2 pick and thus Michael Beasley when the team with the ninth odds got Derrick Rose. In case you haven't noticed, the Bulls have basically been playing everyone on their roster. G-league two-way guys like Arcidiacono, 16th and 17th players, by the way, have played. Zipser, Felicio, David Nwaba, cut by the worst Lakers team ever, Pondexter. They've all been playing this season and all have been in the rotation at one time or another. Of course we can all agree you cannot expect players to do poorly so teams can get their replacements and they make less money and coaches to lose so their successor has more talent. Instead of endorsing crime—asking a business to defraud its customers by diminishing its product and performance—why not realize the Bulls traded for a guy who could be the No. 1 pick in this draft in Markkanen and the best point guard in this draft in Dunn. Close your eyes and maybe you have the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in this draft. They just happen to be on the current roster, and one would still have plenty of college eligibility left. Sadly for your view, the Bulls appear to have more talent that you'd want. Have the best teams in the NBA today been built with multiple top five picks or a combination of draft picks, trades and free agency? I know it can be embarrassing to some and certainly quaint these days, but I still feel being honest about your intentions to do the best you can is a worthwhile trait. Yes, even in sports.


Nikola Mirotic shoots the ball against the Pelicans.

Back in the fall, I wrote to you suggesting mediocrity was the great enemy of this season. You wittily assured me that it was an unlikely outcome. Of course, here we are, knocking on the door of a 30-35 win season, and a late lottery draft choice. I won't join the chorus of fans who are disappointed we won't get first choice of the 19-year-old saviors, mainly because I'll get to proclaim loudly about how prescient I was back in the fall when most of us didn't know most of the players on the Bulls' roster. This, of course, reflects the unending value of an English major's higher education. The other reason I'm good with how things are is, this team is in a stage of development contending teams have to go through. They have obvious talent, including more good shooters than the Bulls have ever had, but the young guys have to learn how to play the game. I think they've come a long way offensively and they're definitely better defensively, so the progress is there. They remind me in some ways of the Bulls when Pippen and Grant were new to the league. I especially remember when we all wanted them to make a big trade to bring in a big-stats veteran, but the Bulls stood pat and Pippen and Grant made great leaps in their development and all of a sudden the team was in the thick of the conference race. As for missing out on a top-3 draft choice, as you constantly point out, the teenage picks usually need a year or two just to contribute as rotation players, and stardom, if it comes at all, comes much later. I suppose you have to consider trading Niko if he's intent on being a starter and commanding top dollar, but it's hard to see a player swap that would benefit the Bulls. Maybe they could take someone's bad (but not fatal) contract and a first round draft choice, but the draft choice would be in the twenties, probably.

Kirk Landers

Sam: So no Fred for Coach of the Year? He came in with a loaded hand? Again, I'll agree I didn't see this coming. I can name them, and, of course, they will deny it, but I spoke with several NBA general managers last spring who said Markkanen was Channing Frye, big guy shooter and a poor rebounder, finesse player. Wrong! That you saw this coming suggests more gms need to be English majors. Heck, more gms need to actually read books. Which may be asking too much. The Bulls currently are on pace for 31 wins, though not likely to have another 3-20 stretch. So, yes, 35 wins doesn't seem unreasonable even with whatever moves the team might make. I don't see anyone from the top eight really flaming out. So with 34 games left, you assume you need a .500 record to make the playoffs. That would require a 23-11 finish. Not even Niko could inspire that, you'd think. So get in the lottery and you should add a pretty decent player or prospect. And, yes, they are in position to take on some salary for a player or pick as well as a free agency piece to fill in now that they have from among three players perhaps one or two who look like potential All-Stars. It's a good point about Pippen and Grant; Pippen didn't start that entire first season and wasn't much regarded. We knew how angry Jordan was when Oakley was traded; not just for Cartwright, but for Grant to start, and that was going into Grant's third season after four years in college. Yes, having the guy many regard as the greatest player ever on the roster, it still was five years before his team got past the second round of the playoffs. And then it was considered an upset. Patience as the Niko drama plays out for now.


Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets handles the ball.

What are your thoughts on Chris Paul, Paul George, Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons all left off the roster for the All-Star game?

Tom Plonowski

Sam: Life, as we know, isn't always fair. Though, again, it's not a 15-player team. If you add someone you have to take someone off. I saw Westbrook basically dumping on Lillard—who finally made it—and, I guess, Draymond Green, for his teammate Paul George. Who has been OK, but I understand Westbrook having resigned with the Thunder trying to persuade George to stay because who, after all, is going to Oklahoma City. Chris Paul just missed too many games. Played about half the season. No chance. Rookies, for me, need to be exceptional to be All-Stars. Jordan, Bird, Magic sort of rookies. Simmons has been good, but who wants to see him in an All-Star game, anyway, when they shoot 100 threes? That's not the point; it's performance, of course. The coaches vote the reserves and they lean toward team success. The 76ers have been good, but still around,500, which isn't a very heady place in the East. Which is why you can make more of a case for some Eastern guys not on the team. Especially Horford, who has been good, but no better than a half dozen other Celtics players. The coaches wanted to pick someone else from Boston besides Kyrie and didn't want to award the rookie quite yet, Tatum. Makes sense. Beal probably has been a bit better this season than Wall and perhaps you can make the case of the somewhat underachieving Wizards teams doesn't deserve two All-Stars. But Drummond pays attention about half the time and the Pistons probably are the greatest underachiever in the East this season. As usual, the fans, media and whoever else votes got the starters right and the coaches got the reserves close enough. If no one is sure whether you deserve to be 11th or 12th man, it's no snub.


Nikola Mirotic shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors

Trade deadline coming up. Please tell me Niko is staying put! After drafting him, we waited 3 years for him to finally come over stateside, his first 3 years in the NBA he was up and down, but at least we saw the potential during the month of March every year. Now, although not starting, he is playing with that consistency and confidence we've been waiting for. He's upped his defensive game, and he's become more versatile on offense, scoring inside more often now. You can pair him with Portis or Markannen at any point, so really there is no glut at power forward, as one might suspect looking at the depth chart. To recap, the Bulls have a guy they drafted and developed. He's just starting to come into his own. He's on an affordable contract with a team option for next year. He's a perfect guy for Hoiberg's system. He's bounced back from the fight in camp this year and he and BP are playing great together. So, why would the Bulls move on from Niko now? The only real upshot I see for trading Niko (outside of perhaps landing the next Niko at pick #22 this summer, then waiting another 6 years for that guy to become a useful player) is that if they trade him, they will go on to lose more games this season and get into a better draft position with their own pick. Which is something I'm not really interested in-- I like this team, and I like how they are coming around. Why can't this group be the foundation going forward? I know the Sam Hinkie Sixers would definitely have traded away Niko, Lopez, and Holiday by now while sitting Lavine for the season, but I am hoping the Bulls' mindset with this rebuild is different, and I suspect it is. So, as you can tell, I am hoping for a quiet trade deadline for the Bulls this year. What about Cleveland, though? Any chance they could land Boogie Cousins, who is on an expiring deal? New Orleans has cap issues and wouldn't that Brooklyn pick look pretty good to them if they could get it for Boogie? He's going to want a big contract next summer if they keep him. Cleveland obviously values that pick, as they might need it to start the rebuild if Lebron leaves, but looking around the league, I really don't see where Lebron would go. Why wouldn't Cleveland load up with an all star and Olympian? He would greatly improve their team, and what a matchup that would be for Golden State to try to deal with if and when they meet again in the Finals this year! GSW might think twice about going small with Green at the 5 if Boogie Cousins is on the floor!

Hawk Gates

Sam: Hey, sounds like a radio show. As for Mirotic, that makes sense and I do think we are past the small sample and fluke season. Though he has fallen back into one old, bad habit of putting the ball in front of him when getting ready to make that move. He's starting to get it stripped again. Faster decisions! The larger issue comes down, again, to his flexibility after next season assuming they pick up the option to walk for nothing. He probably wants to start; can't blame him. I wonder about LeBron, too, as we all have to if we watch ESPN, which, of course, we have to. You know the Cavs will do something, but I believe they will hold onto the Brooklyn pick to challenge LeBron about where he can win more. Would Philly let him take over the ball from Simmons? Boston back with Kyrie? With John Wall? DeRozan? Even the East has questionable choices. Houston with Paul and Harden? C'mon, they're standing around waiting for LeBron? I wouldn't be surprised if James says the heck with it all, his legacy is assured and just hang out in L.A. and be beloved because, after all, they'll be sick of Ball's dad by then. It seems New Orleans to help keep Davis happy will pay Cousins. I don't believe they've ever been in the luxury tax and where are they going otherwise? Depends on the playoffs, of course, and making it. But not a lot of teams are going to be bidding for the erratic Cousins, who has an awful reputation in a lot of league front offices. Media and fans like him much better, but few are offering him more than fantasy league spots.


LeBron James and Chris Paul

Why did the NBA not televise the All-Star draft. I'm quite certain it would have generated a lot of attention/ratings/publicity. probably more than the game itself.

Alejandro Yegros

Sam: The greatest athletes on the planet—I hate that as, of course, our "world" series always basically banned anyone from outside the United States—were fearful that the players picked last would have their feelings hurt. So the players association led by Chris Paul and LeBron James asked the NBA and TNT not to televise the selections. I can't even joke about that I'm so disappointed.


TJ Warren shoots the ball.

I think bulls are in a prime position to trade next years first round pick to Phoenix for TJ Warren or josh jackson to fill their void left by the trading of butler. Considering most of the top five picks are bigs - I think it makes tons of sense to got for known commodities versus speculating on upside. What are your thoughts on trading off picks for one of their small forwards to create a real beast in the east now in Chicago?

Ryan Carpel

Sam: Of course, T.J. Warren shoots about like Nwaba, but this is the appropriate bookend for this week and season. It took just half the season of a projected rebuild for trading the pick and going for it all. Isn't it great to be a sports fan.

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