Ask Sam Mailbag: 02.03.17
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer reader's questions
After experiencing the Bulls for the last week, I wonder if they aren't caught between two teams. The starters, more in the mold of the grinders and the second team, more of free flowing passers. It seems that the issue is when the transition from starters to second team occurs. Then you have grinders, Butler, Wade, Gibson not utilizing the shooter/passers Rondo, McDermott, Mirotic, Feliciano. So now we are back to roster construction and coaching. If I had a say, I might look at a more complete substitution pattern as an experiment, one “team” for the other. Good thing no one asked me.
Does this make sense? The roster/coaching eddy seems with us for the remainder of the year.
Sam: Thanks, by the way, for also being the first one to use “eddy” as a verb and not in relation to that common noun known as Eddy Curry. It never really occurred to me a guy who moved so deliberately could be a verb. Now a gerund, that’s something of a different story. Ah, but I digress. The roster? Here we go again and again and again. As Fred Hoiberg keeps telling us. I guess that’s why he was rooting for Mirotic to win the power forward starting job. But, alas, as we know it was Taj, and while good for him, that’s five guys who no one guards outside—though Taj made a three in Oklahoma City--and Wade always says it’s tough for him to get into games right away and Jimmy likes to survey things a bit early, and so you basically start the games playing 1970s style with Lopez and Taj going into the post and trying to play through them in a more classic inside/outside strategy.
Hey, it worked for six championships first through Cartwright and then Luc Longley. So if Hoiberg hasn’t always done great in confrontation (I’m not good at that, either, which is why the writing thing is good), he’s done a good job mixing and mingling, trying to squeeze out a lineup and rotation that offsets eachother’s weaknesses. And there are many as I stated before because, obviously, this isn’t the finished product. It’s just months from the wholesale turnover of last June. They may have come into something with Rondo and the shooters, which was supposed to be Rondo with Jimmy and Mirotic, but turned into Wade and Taj, neither of whom spread the court much. But you can survive and prosper with different groups and styles. So what may occur is more coming down to the end and not automatically putting in the big names as much as riding with what is working. That’s hard for a coach to do, and Thibodeau, you may recall, never did that. It’s a tough locker room to manage when your best player or second or third maybe isn’t closing. But sometimes it’s necessary for the final result. Popovich has the credibility to pull it off; maybe Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens, too. Phil Jackson. For a second year pro coach, it’s much more difficult. It just might be the way this season has to progress with just not enough guys who can do enough different things.
I see no issue in what Barkley said. He’s paid to give his opinion just like (other media).
Sam: Charles Barkley doesn’t need me—or any of us, for sure—to defend him, but he was the guy doing the right thing in the right way not just for his employer, but the fans. LeBron James wasn’t wrong. You certainly have a right to defend yourself if you feel you’ve been wronged or maligned. No problem. LeBron has a ready and waiting media audience to broadcast whatever he says. This, by the way, is what makes the NBA so great. You saw the NFL this week sanitizing and censoring comments about Donald Trump or the Patriots ball inflation and the Brady suspension. The NBA is the most American league not just for its talent and it’s history of inclusion, but also its willingness to debate and stand up against injustice. You’ll never see or hear that in any other sport. The NBA represents what really is truly great about America better than any other sport. Which is why we had Barkley/LeBron Round 1 this week.
Dwyane Wade got in, no surprise as a banana boat buddy, and maybe Carmelo would if he didn’t have to answer trade speculation every day. What Barkley said seemed fair and appropriate. I thought he actually pulled his punches as it’s pretty common knowledge around the NBA that LeBron’s primary goals are to win championships and cost Dan Gilbert as much money as possible while doing so. How else do J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson get contracts like that? I saw the other day Forbes reported the Cavs lost $40 million winning a title. Go back and read that amazing open letter Gilbert wrote when LeBron left for Miami. You might be doing the same as he is. Guys have called out teammates and coaches before; despite what you may hear about the “old school,” it’s nothing new. The NBA always has had an element of wild west, shoot from the lip. But it came with commentary, condemnation and critique. LeBron doesn’t like being called on things; OK, who does?
But Barkley need not back off. LeBron went below the belt to some of Barkley’s shenanigans, which lets you know Barkley was pretty accurate in what he said, and Barkley hasn’t been the most appropriate citizen all the time. He started the “We are not role models” debate, and good for him. Athletes and entertainers are not. They are great talents; it doesn’t translate to ethics or citizenry. LeBron has been a good representative for the NBA and his family; the treatment he got after going to Miami was undeserved and unfair. But I take Barkley as the better representative for the fans.
LeBron’s life is primarily private, and that’s certainly his right, and if he wants it that way no one should interfere. Barkley lives an unusually public life, and when you do you can become a target, as he did when assaulted in a bar. So he fought back. That’s American, too. The window just didn’t stop the other guy. He apologized with that spitting thing, but it was not intended for the kid but the guy hurling racial slurs. I’ve been writing about these NBA guys daily for more than 30 years. I’ve got a book dealing with an element of NBA history coming out later this year with Triumph Books and worked with dozens of NBA greats like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Dave Bing, Lenny Wilkens and many of the lesser stars and role players. There’s rarely been a more accommodating and fun loving NBA player than Barkley. He was a media delight, but the rare part was that he also has been a fan delight.
I’ve never known an NBA player to spend as much time with fans; of course, when you do that it’s often in bars, and we know people don’t always exercise great judgment—or think they are someone they are not—with alcohol. Yes, don’t put yourself in those positions, we are counseled. Perhaps Barkley shouldn’t have in some instances. But rarely has there been an elite player who reaches out to fans like Barkley. He’s a star you can touch. NBA players always are in roped off, security guarded places in restaurants and lounges. I understand. Not Barkley. He is as much every man as you can be in the Basketball Hall of Fame still earning millions of dollars annually. Part of his great appeal is while he can dish it out, he also takes it better than anyone I ever have known who is famous. He makes fun of you, and you can make fun of him, and when he’s wrong he acknowledges.
What pro athlete lets himself get made fun of as much as Charles Barkley with golf? As great as Magic Johnson was with people, and he does headline the writers’ award for good media and public relations, there’s never been anyone like Barkley to remain at fans’ level. You’re never going to see LeBron there, nor many in sports, and it’s OK. They deserve their private lives as well. But stand with Barkley because he stands with the rest of us.
Does anyone recall when Jimmy Butler was a country music listening outlaw? Now it seems the brand managers have gotten a hold of him. I blame this on his friendship with Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg, which started around 2015. Outlaw Jimmy Butler was so much more interesting. Remember when he stared down Nene in the playoffs and Nene head-butted him? Jimmy gave him this look like he would shoot him if there weren't so many witnesses. I miss the outlaw Jimmy Butler.
Sam: Well, he still listens to that music; like they said in Blues Brothers, both kinds, country and western. My sense is that Wahlberg thing is somewhat overstated and I plead guilty as well. We all mentioned that because we don’t have Jack Nicholson. Our biggest courtside celebrity is, well, I don’t think we have one. Sometimes a Cubs or Bears player shows up and you go, hey, I didn’t know he was bald. The toughest thing for Jimmy in his development as a star player, perhaps as unexpected and surprising as that with Kawhi Leonard, has been how to be a leader. Jimmy’s not particularly good at it, like Rose wasn’t good at it. But there’s often this demand in the community that if you are the best player you are also the leader. Leadership is organic. It’s not much built.
Jimmy’s success came, in great part, both from his determination, but his willingness to spend hours and days alone working to improve. He grew up in that dysfunctional situation, but which we knew involved him being on his own a lot. That hardly evolves to natural group leadership. I think Wade has helped a lot in showing Jimmy how it’s done, though few do it as naturally as Wade does. Some are teachers and some are doers. Both are good, but if you can do one it doesn’t mean you can do the other. I, too, think Jimmy is better off just playing and letting coaching and management take care of the direction. His job is to be the best player he can be. I’d take Rose on my team, but I also know there’s no chance anyone sees him as a leader; it’s OK. Most teams don’t have them. The best advice is always to be who you are and not who others want you to be or who they think you need to be. And as long as Jimmy keeps his headphones on, I think everyone will accept that.
Being 6 ft 6, Denzel could really use his size to become a better defender - add that to his offense and he can be an ascending player in the NBA.
Hard and unfair for any player to compare themselves to Jordan usually - but Ron Harper was about 6 ft 6 - and he played tough defense. Didn't get credit like MJ, but Denzel would probably do well to be as good as Harper was on D, and to study those game films of 1995 to 1998...What do you think?
Sam: I guess you never saw Ron Harper before his knee surgeries. He was an amazing athlete, every bit as spectacular as Jordan, able to play in the air and accelerate like Jordan. It was why in 1989 the national media and no less than Magic Johnson said the Cavs were the team of the 90s and Jordan likely was destined to be a great scorer who never wins a title, or maybe gets one joining another great player somewhere. Go back. I remember my old media colleagues writing column after column about how you never could win with Jordan. Yes, it’s much easier to predict when you know the result. Once Harper was hurt, things changed. It wasn’t just the 1989 shot. Denzel has nowhere near the athletic ability, but you are right that Ron with much less athletic ability when he came to the Bulls in the mid 90s—remember, Pete Myers beat him out as starting point guard after Harper became the highest paid free agent in Bulls franchise history—worked himself into a good defender.
A lot was due to Johnny Bach’s system of play with the help defense, and having three of the best defensive players ever in Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman on the court with him. OK, that wasn’t a little thing. Denzel’s limited some by not being the elite athlete, but many top NBA players aren’t. You see how effective Wade can be and yes he dunks sometimes, but rarely is off the floor anymore. Denzel with his size, shooting ability and floor vision, I believe, will be an excellent NBA player. He’s just caught in an unusual situation with nine guys having NBA tryouts. On a team that cannot sacrifice wins because the playoffs remain a serious goal. That’s the other thing about having so many young players; you can only play some. Some good ones don’t get a chance. I’m confident Valentine will and will be an excellent player.
There's a rumor by Fansided that states the Bulls are willing to trade Dwyane Wade, based on his last comments about how the team's been playing. Now I know himself/Jimmy said some nasty things about the team, and Rondo said some things back to defend the other players, but after Sunday's game where they beat the Sixers, Wade was said to think of Rondo as a excellent player, so would the Bulls still want to trade him?
Sam: No. There’ll be plenty of rumors in the next few weeks involving Bulls players, and especially if this brutal stretch up to the All-Star break doesn’t go well. Even if it doesn’t—and I know if it doesn’t the wail will be to trade everyone—the Bulls won’t be out of it the way the East is and with the concentration of games against Eastern teams in March and April. But one guy who won’t be traded is Wade. I assume the team and he have some sort of understanding that unless it’s to Miami and he wants to return, they’re not sending him anywhere. It wouldn’t be right and not a great message to future free agents. He’s said he’ll make his decision this summer about next summer, and I still believe he will return to the Bulls unless Miami makes some sort of nice offer and apology. He could have made more money this summer going elsewhere, but Chicago made sense as his home and where he could have a major impact because of his name in community work.
Everyone believes he’ll eventually end up back in Miami some time, that they’ll have a statue in front of the arena, that he’ll be involved in the organization. He built that franchise and most of us still cannot understand how this happened. It wasn’t a great week for him unnecessarily speaking out like that, but he’s handled it well since. And maybe he was right the way the team played against the 76ers and Thunder. He’s been quieter, less expansive with media, more subdued lately. But he’s still a good player, and still has the ability come playoff time to be a deciding factor in big games. He’s also still sort of a glue guy the way he’s worked so well with Butler even if those two have cut themselves off from the team a bit. Wade’s well respected for what he’s accomplished and still a guy when he speaks, you stop to listen. As he said after his remarks, he’s not always about being loved. He remains a strong influence with the team and I believe the Bulls like it that way.
I see this tumultuous season is giving you plenty to write about. I have looked at this team and despite its problems see some upside to the future. We expect that the Rondo situation will work itself out in a year, and Wade may only be here for one season as well. I want to keep Jimmy and build around him, and this brings me to what I see is the Bulls biggest weakness and that is post scoring. Everyone is focusing in on the 3 pt. shooting, but unless you have a post presence the 3 pt. shooting will not improve. Now for my trade proposal, how about trying to swap to the Sixers in exchange for Okafor who Philly obviously does not need.
Sam: Okafor is an intriguing guy for a lot of teams and probably undervalued around the league because he isn’t playing and, you are right, looks extraneous. That’s why I think nothing is being done and doesn’t have to be even if Okafor probably isn’t happy about it. Bryan Colangelo is one of the more shrewd executives. He’s got Okafor for a few more years before having to make any decision and as the third pick in the draft, he’s not about to let him go for other than comparable value. So you better be able to give back a top five or 10 draft pick or pretty high level player. Colangelo is in no hurry. He still doesn’t know if Embiid can play a full season and what he has in guys like Noel. So unless you knock him over with a deal, I don’t see Okafor going anywhere soon. And the Bulls don’t have much knock you out stuff to give away.
Please tell me Kirk Hinrich coming back!? Call him, text him, email. He was/is one of my all time favorite Bulls. We need him.
Sam: I also saw Kirk was in line for that audition look with the Cavs with LeBron’s demand for another playmaker. Actually, Kirk fits exactly what LeBron is talking about, a veteran guy who can get you into offense and play tough defense. I do speak with Kirk occasionally and he told me he wasn’t retired, that he had a few possibilities, but if he plays again he wants to go to a seriously contending team with the possibility of a long playoff run. I’m not dismissing the Bulls yet, but they’re not in that discussion at this point. Plus, it wasn’t great when he was traded late last season. I think he’s fine now with everything that happened and still keeps in touch with some old teammates. He’s been working out and is healthy, and I hope he does get a chance, and no offense I’d like to have someone to root for on the Cavs now that Mike Dunleavy is gone. Oh, right, Kyle Korver. Maybe you need former Bulls to win a championship; the Warriors do have Kerr and Ron Adams. And I hear if the Bulls were the favorites, David West was going to pay them to let him play.
Amazing Bulls finished in 9th place last year. They are in 7th place now and the world is going nuts negatively and players are turning on each other. Everyone needs just calm down! They have a decent team and might be a threat early in playoffs if they play inspired ball. One vet pickup and they could knock off some big team in the playoffs. I'd focus on Lance Stephenson since he gets in Lebron's head.
Sam: But what if he has to get in Kyle Lowry’s head?
How about this one...Wilson Chandler for Niko, MCW, 2nd round draft choice, cash.
Chandler wants out of Denver. He is a player I've always liked. Tough. Can play multiple positions. Can replace Taj next year in the hope we don't resign him. A vet but still 29. Can hit a 3. Meanwhile the nuggets stock up on young players and lose a 12 mil a year player.
Sam: I thought stocking up on young players and losing $12 million was what the Bulls should do. This gets very confusing. Didn’t we want Carter-Williams a month ago? I deal with these occasionally as the allegedly unhappy guys get mentioned. So a player about to be 30 in May with a serious history of injuries who’s played in just over 50 percent of his team’s games the last four years and who plays an isolation game with a career average of fewer than two assists per game who is on the books for two years after this at more than $12 million. This is how you think the Bulls should try to improve?
What's your take on Jerian Grant so far? Not enough time to assess him yet? I just don't see anything special from him that makes me think he's your point guard/shooting guard of the future. Is there any part of his game that excites you much? Since I still am a D-Rose fan I guess it makes it difficult to impress me, but I was just hoping for something to see from him. I think I saw more potential in Portis, Valentine or Zipser than Grant to not just be another Marquis Teague.
Sam: I’ll admit I wasn’t that impressed when I saw him last summer, but he’s started to grow on me. I don’t think he’s a point guard in the traditional sense of actually passing the ball to someone else—not that many NBA point guards do anymore—but there is something to him. He’s plays with real confidence and swagger and that’s something that’s been missing with some of the Bulls younger players. I see that in Zipser and Valentine, as well. Grant isn’t going to hesitate about his shot and despite the statistics this season—understandable with a lack of consistent playing time until recently—I think he’s a pretty good shooter. And he can defend. He may play a bit like he thinks he’s better than he is, but I’m OK with having some guys like that. Though I’m not sure, my guess is he was one of the young guys who spoke up forcefully in that meeting. No, he’s no Derrick Rose. But he’s also no Marquis Teague. He’s an NBA player, and I’d like to see more.
Did you hear the story from Ryan Russillo of ESPN about management and Jimmy? True?
Sam: I did hear something about it as I saw a mention on the Hoopshype basketball site, which is great for basketball news and gossip, though the Basketball Intelligence site also links to some of the best basketball in depth work. Anyway, this is crazy. How does that make sense to anyone? OK, if you don’t like Bulls management you might want to believe it. But do you really believe over $1 million, which was basically the difference between the Bulls offer and Jimmy’s agent’s request, the Bulls would point to, of all guys, Tony Snell as leverage? C’mon, really. At least threaten you were giving his minutes to Mike Dunleavy, coming off a terrific first season with the Bulls with 82 games played or your new favorite Mirotic. No one that stupid, forget could run a basketball team; they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. OK, maybe that’s not the right comparison these days.
Anyway, you might have noticed that pretty much as soon as Thibodeau was out, Tony was out of the regular rotation and traded. I saw mention that Tom saved it all, which was nonsense. The truth is Tom, like the rest of us, wasn’t sure if Jimmy was an NBA starter. I remember in Jimmy’s second season when he still was begging for playing time before Deng got hurt, Tom didn’t see how with his lack of shooting range and limited offense he could be more than a defensive replacement. Plus, this notion that management was going to dictate a lineup to Tom is as out of touch with the Bulls as you could be. Even if relations were good, and they were declining, the Bulls never tell coaches who to play. How long, OK. But not who. Phil Jackson always made that point and when John Paxson took Gar Forman on scouting trips when Forman was breaking in as Paxson’s assistant, that point likely was clearly made.
Anyway, Jimmy, to his credit, made himself better than any of us ever believed he could be. As for the alleged threat, it also simply was a different time. I’ll be honest. I thought $11 million or $11.5 million, which was the Bulls offer, was too much in that era before the TV deals and the economics changed. Gibson had signed for $8 million and I didn’t see Jimmy 50 percent better. Truthfully, not many did. I know management is supposed to know the future, but no one does. You can guess, but no one had any idea then the cap would explode like it did. Plus, you have to be careful with your role players and lower level starters because if you pay them too much you can’t get into free agency, and so the Bulls were trying to balance, not unlike Miami with Wade. If we pay you too much we can’t take a run at anyone. It’s hardly personal.
So the Bulls made Jimmy a fair offer then. Look, it was maybe $1 million away from what he was asking. Why would that difference need the threat of we’ll play Tony Snell and run down your value? C’mon, that’s ludicrous. Plus, the Bulls already were having doubts about Snell, who wasn’t a starter, and were trying to win games. Remember, that was the summer the Bulls pursued Carmelo Anthony and ended up signing Pau Gasol. It was their last title run. So you mean to tell me they were going to threaten Butler that they’d play second year Snell coming off averaging four points instead of him at a time they just invested in a top free agent to go for a title and Butler was supposed to believe that over a $1 million difference? I wasn’t in negotiations, so who knows what was said.
But like in baseball arbitration, you have to point out a player’s weaknesses. It’s not bargaining if you go in like the agent and say he’s the greatest ever. That’s why they tell players not to get involved in negotiations and not to take any of it personal. It’s business. All management points out a players’ weaknesses and flaws in negotiations. It’s their responsibility. Otherwise, why negotiate? Jimmy played it out, as many players do, and got paid. It’s the way the labor rule was meant to work. Like his consigliore would counsel, it’s not personal, strictly business. Though I generally prefer the advice to leave the gun and take the cannoli. I think that’s the great thing about saying things on the radio, that people are always half listening and by the time they think they heard, you are talking about something else.
Are Bulls involved in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes?
Sam: As I recall, he had his chance to be with a better Bulls team and said no. Yes, things change, but, no, the Bulls to my knowledge have no interest and I’d be surprised if they did. Anthony turns 33 this June and is a really poor defender, not in very good shape it seems these days and is almost strictly an isolation player now. I don’t dismiss his talent, which remains very good, but defense has been a big issue for the Cavs and inserting Anthony—even if it’s for Love—doesn’t seem to make much sense. Yes, he can create shots on his own better than Love. But if the Cavs do add him, it just tells you that LeBron officially gets in the executive of the year voting. Who the heck among the Warriors is Anthony guarding? The Cavs are in the bottom half and bottom third in most of the defensive ratings. So then you add the guy the Knicks say hurts their defense?
As Mark Cuban becomes ever more irrelevant, whether it's in the media or the Mavericks, has anyone thought to ask whether he could either sell the team, or since his ego needs a team, maybe demote himself and let someone who knows what they're doing run the organization? Given several stories that he overrules and makes all kinds of silly decisions, which is why the team is as bad as they've been for quite a few years - including this year, do you think it's time for the NBA to start fining him more significantly for his constant carping and whining about refereeing conspiracy theories he claims? Maybe some draft pick fines? The officiating isn't the reason why his organization has been so poorly run. It's amazing that he would want to continue to one a team in the league where he thinks there's a "conspiracy" among officials to hurt him.
Sam: I agree this referee conspiracy thing is an embarrassment, but he has been fined a lot and seems to have toned it down. I also—and I hate to be in agreement here with Mark, who once did try to have me fired from The Tribune when I wrote something he didn’t like—understand his position with the Mavs. They had to ride it out patching as long as they had Dirk, try to get a second or third star. They always failed, and so much for all the mail I used to get about him being the ideal owner. I remember Cubs fans furious when his bid to buy the team failed. Anyway, with Dirk on the way out it’s time to pick a lane. They’re not unlike in the position the Bulls are in with some good players, but how do you get better without some truly great players? And how do you get them? Though there seems to be something about Texas as Jerry Jones has made himself Cowboys GM and they say Mark is for the Mavs. It just further supports my belief that we should allow Texas cessation from the union. Forty-nine always sounded right, anyway.
If the Bulls are able to acquire Carmelo this season, and then next season somehow get Chris Paul without trading Wade or Carmelo, Lebron James might be interested in playing for the Bulls. James once said, before the end of his career he would love to play with his three brothers; Wade, Carmelo, and Paul. I know the possibility on this happening is a low, however how the feel about the plan?
Sam: Hello, Gar, I just heard something you might be interested in.
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