Ask Sam Mailbag: 02.22.19
Sam opens his mailbag to answer your questions about the Bulls and other stories around the NBA
On Zion. Where's he fit at 6'7" without a jump shot? I know he can drive the ball & jump like a guard, but at 285, doing that incessantly will destroy his knees. Under the hoop, he'll have Wendell's problems multiplied. No matter how high he jumps, a 6'7" guy cannot have the reach of a 7-footer. Barkley is the closest comparison, but he lost a bunch of weight... and he could shoot.
If the Bulls get the #1 pick, I'm leaning toward Ja Morant. On the Bulls, Zion would probably end up on the bench, whereas Ja would be likely to start and push Dunn to the bench. Barrett & Reddish s/b good players too, but probably not significantly better than Otto Porter. Who do you like if the Bulls don't pick in the top 3 or 4? If Zion, Morant, Barrett & Reddish are all gone, who's left who can help the Bulls?
Though the frenzy for top lottery picks is not abating, and probably just getting worse. So... First, I'd drop teams 11-14 from the lottery altogether. Those are the 4 teams who almost made the playoffs. Even though their odds are short, we constantly hear about them rather being in the lottery than losing in the 1st round. Let's start by putting an end to that. Then I'd flatten the odds among the bottom 10 teams, maybe even make them dead even, to discourage tanking into the bottom 3. That might eliminate nonsense like the Knicks sitting Enes Kanter while the fans are screaming for him.
Sam: And, in case anyone wonders, I received this before the latest game of the century Wednesday that went on for about 34 seconds before Williamson got hurt. While the discussion since has been all about whether he should retire (from college ball) and Mars Blackmon's exclamation about the shoes, I think the injury issue is a legitimate question for other reasons. I don't expect the way Zion comes across personally as someone who would run away from Duke for fear of injury. He seems more committed to his teammates and the program. And even if he were to get injured, he'd still be a high lottery pick. Joel Embiid was injured before the draft and wouldn't play for two years and everyone would take him No. 1 now instead of No. 3. Michael Porter Jr. last year got into the lottery even with back surgery and knowing he wouldn't play for at least a year. Williamson doesn't seem the kind of person interested in money only. If he chooses that way, fine. It's his decision and no one will hold it against him. I'd be surprised if he did. But more so, I'd be concerned about injury and longevity given his size, and more than splitting his sneakers. I'm not a doctor and all that, but it seems this era is overwhelmed with injuries despite the incredible medical and training specialists for every team because of the way we (not me) push our bodies to ends perhaps too excessive. It seems like there's the potential for an unusual amount of strain and torque on the joints, as you suggest, with almost 300 pounds on that size of a body given he's not that tall. There's only so much the knees can take. I'm sure he'll be able to shoot at least as well as Barkley, though I see him more like an Anthony Davis kind of player—not necessarily the same style— but what I'd call a finisher instead of a starter.
The biggest impact stars of the game are the players who start the play with speed and ball handling and push, like LeBron and Durant and Harden and George and Westbrook and Curry. The finishers are players like Davis or Klay Thompson who get the ball from someone and then finish the play. They're great to have, but if they're you're best you probably aren't at the ultimate elite level. It's not to suggest Williamson won't be a superstar. We've hardly seen him play enough, and I cannot see anyone not making him the No. 1 pick in the draft. Because we've really never seen anyone like him, and when someone like that comes along you take him and find a way. No matter how good Markkanen is, Williamson would not be a Bulls backup. Or a backup even on the Warriors. But it is a reasonable point about the point. The Bulls may need my definition of a starter the most.
Meanwhile, as anti-tanking plans go, that one sounds like something. Maybe put those better teams in that single elimination thing that comes up occasionally with the seventh and/or eighth place teams in a play in over a few days at the end of the season. Really, if you're seventh or eighth you don't deserve much. Seventh and eighth don't even get into the playoffs in most sports. Then start the playoffs a few days late as that first round goes too long anyway; cut that down. And, I agree, equalize the odds through the worst six or seven teams in a lottery so that trying to get to 14 wins isn't a goal. I'll contact the commissioner once he figures out how to get out of the mess he helped create with the demand that Anthony Davis continue to play for the Pelicans while not caring or trying.
My thoughts looking at the projected top 3 guys: Zion, Barrett and Morant.
Zion - is he starting at small forward over Porter? Probably, but then you'll have a $25M 6th man. Start him at the 4 over Markkanen? Ehhhh... Would Zion be OK not starting??
Barrett- do you put him on the bench in back of Levine? Can he play a bit of small forward? Trade Levine for a point guard?? Would Barrett be OK not starting?
Morant - I hope we get him... Seems like a perfect fit. Dunn seems like a great backup point guard on a good team.
Sam: I've noticed the discussion these days is not so intense about losing games with the percentages the same at 14 for the bottom three and then 12.5 for four, which is where the Bulls now are. But position does matter. The Bulls are playing out the rest of the season to win games. With the addition of Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen finally healthy and playing at a higher level, they'll win a reasonable number games. The way it still works in the lottery is once the top three picks are determined—and usually one team breaks through from the bottom—the selections go in order of standings. So if, say, the team with the sixth best odds moves up to No. 1, then the records count for the succeeding draft slots. So the team with the worst record then goes second, the second worst gets third and so on. So like last season, if you're third maybe you get this year's version of Luka Doncic. And if you're fifth or sixth, well, I really haven't watched enough college basketball yet to know. The consensus seems to be your three guys will be gone by four. Like everyone else, I've mostly watched Duke and I think LaVine and Markkanen are better than everyone else I've seen not named Zion. Though you'd think with Illinois already naming a far Chicago suburb after Williamson, it's kismet.
So, here we (maybe) are again. The Bulls may have an opportunity to draft a guy who's a consensus can't-miss, rare talent...who sprained his knee towards the end of his college career. Although the result the first time around was thrilling and I don't regret any part of it as a fan...I'm not sure I'm prepared to do that again after watching that shoe-fail incident and Zion's attendant knee sprain. Besides...we have two awesome power forwards and a top-ten 3 just acquired. We need a point guard, and there's a really good one available. Even if the Bulls (again, not even as odds-against this time) luck into the number one pick overall, they should take the PG from Murray State. Shouldn't they?
Sam: There are reasons to pass on Williamson, though a knee sprain—assuming it's just that—is not uncommon. But there's that torque from that incredible body. Derrick Rose wasn't even a consensus No. 1. It's been players like LeBron, Patrick Ewing, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal. And Hakeem Olajuwon over Michael Jordan and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Should they? I'm wondering more, would they? I doubt it.
Joel Embiid has knee issues, hopefully not serious, but who knows? Then Zion goes down on a freaky first possession play. Maybe a point in the "tanking is bad" club? So you want to tank like the 76ers and take 5 or more years to be relevant and then uh oh maybe your main guy still has knee issues!? You want to tank to get Zion now? Can this get worse for him or could this just be an isolated incident? Just shows it is never a guarantee unless you are the machine that is Lebron James.
Sam: The holy grail in sports is the elite superstar player, and no one knows how to get one. They just kind of land on your team and then you take bows. You think the Warriors knew about Curry at No. 7 in the draft? They almost traded him instead of Monta Ellis. You think the Bucks knew about Giannis? They were trying to trade that non lottery pick all over the league that season and when they couldn't get much they did a what the heck. Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo went before Westbrook in the 2008 Derrick Rose draft, and then Mayo was traded to get Kevin Love, taken below Westbrook. No one knows how you get a player like that unless it's obvious, like LeBron or perhaps now Zion. So you take your shot because otherwise you'll generally just keep trying, anyway. Ask the Portland Trailblazers when everyone knew the next one was Greg Oden. In the meantime, you keep putting together enough talent, like the Bulls are doing now, to become competitive. And then you hope—which is everyone's plan—to get lucky in the draft or free agency or someone's owner decides James Harden isn't worth the extra $5 million.
Too many teams have created max contract spaces than there are premier, tier one free agent players. Some stars may not want to play in a specific market or for a weak team. It's a reasonable expectation that some teams with abundant cap space will not be able to sign preferred players. This sounds like a rerun of the Krause two full boat debacle with Mercer and Boozer but with more teams. A team like the Knicks with a very high pick may be "forced" into a trade to acquire good tier one talent. Assume for the moment that the Knicks were desperate for a player like Davis and were offering their lottery pick. How does the draft pick trade off against a Davis salary and the salary cap? Would the Knicks need to add additional players in that trade to match up the salaries? Are draft picks salary slotted? How are future picks valued? It would seem that pre draft trades and later free agent signings and trades will be more prevalent and especially interesting this year and be somewhat uncharted territory.
Sam: It's another reason we love the NBA. Relax, there's always basketball games talk. Especially playoff time, which is coming most places. The gossip, which always has been part of the NBA back to Wilt demanding trades and Oscar picking his spot with the first real no trade clause, helps make the league special. Draft picks have zero value versus salary until the players sign contracts. Maybe, as speculated and lip read at the All-Star game, Irving and Durant choose the Knicks. Durant would be making the biggest mistake of his career, though what fun we all could have driving him nuts because he reads every Tweet. I can see Irving going to the Knicks because he's always talked about finishing near where he grew up in New Jersey. Plus, I think a part of the Celtics dysfunction this season was the way he bailed out on the team in the playoffs last season and wouldn't even show up for the closing playoff game. Elective surgery from a November injury the day of Game 7? Seriously? Probably didn't want to see LeBron dance after getting himself out of there. Draft picks obviously carry intrinsic value because of their (often inflated) worth in this era.
The reason the Porter trade made sense for the Bulls was the path to attracting free agents is a better record. As Krause painfully discovered. Now we know top guys don't want to be builders. They prefer being joiners. I can see Durant if he chooses to leave, which I wouldn't but which would open up the West, going to the Mavericks or the best place probably would be the Clippers with Leonard. With Kawhi and the guys they have like Lou Williams, the Clippers probably would be better than the Warriors without Durant. Then the West would be wide open, also. If a team like the Knicks got No. 1, it likely would be enough to sell to their fans, like when they got Patrick Ewing in the first lottery, and provide enough hope not to do anything radical. From there, a team can start getting serious. It's ironic that the Bulls were candid and forthcoming and mostly got attacked for it. It made sense to add a veteran like Porter to their young players to eventually get in position for free agency rather than pursuing the fantasy that Durant or Leonard couldn't wait to join a 19-win team and then hear, see, we told you the team would not get a free agent. So why didn't you go for someone like Otto Porter?
Does the Porter trade signal the end of the 'younger and more athletic' phase of the rebuild? Seems to me like they have the pieces they want in place and the focus is on developing them and hoping at least one takes the leap to the next level. Unless we have a top 2 draft pick and get either Zion or Morant, we're likely to add a backup wing/forward. Plan A should be to bring in veteran mentors for the young Bulls. I'd love to see them use their 20ish million in cap space to bring in a combination of players like Rondo, Vince Carter, Danny Green, Taj, and resign RoLo.
Sam: Carmelo should be available, too. Maybe Jordan makes a comeback. You know the commissioner would add him as that 13th guy for the 2020 All-Star game. He and Dominique in the slam dunk. Now that would be something to see. That's a bit too veteran, I'd say. I could see Taj, though I think Taj would rather go somewhere he could play more. I doubt he sees himself as the mentor quite yet.
The problem with bringing in those aging veterans no matter how good it sounds to many fans and media is the players don't much listen to them if they can't play anymore. It's like your parents telling you about what they did. Players roll their eyes, too. With Porter, I think the Bulls are in a good place at, going by the numbers, two, three and four. Wendell Carter is perhaps at five, but they also need some depth and size there. And, of course, there's Dunn and the point guard conundrum. Can he be the guy? If not, you need a fairly high level starter because this time, no really, this time the Bulls have to be playing to be a playoff contender. With Markkanen going into his third season and Zach into his sixth, there's no younger anymore. Porter is a head start into that. We'll, of course, wait out the luck of the lottery and draft. But I expect the addition to be a starter or capable of that. With so many free agents and so many likely to return to their teams, it's too soon to know who even will be there. I expect several new Bulls faces who don't know where the G-league cities are.
Kaiser Gates of the G League Bulls looks ready to come onto the NBA Bulls. He was the Big East's best shooter. I could see him really contributing off the bench as a sharpshooter. And with his size at 6"8 he trumps Blakeney and Alkins. What do you think of bringing him up now?
Sam: Even though guys play for the Windy City team, they are not Bulls minor leaguers. That's only the two-way players, Alkins and Sampson. All the others can sign with any NBA teams. So the Bulls have to have a roster spot to sign someone on a 10-day contract. I think they do have one open, but Hutchison should return soon and I don't know if there's much point in carrying another backup big man at a time they appear to be trying to play a more open game. Is this a tanking thing?
Am I the only one questioning how Anthony Davis can leave a regular season game (and arena) due to a "shoulder injury" but still deem himself able to play in the All Star game? Also why doesn't Adam Silver intervene?
Sam: Plus the Cubs, I hear, feel Sammy Sosa may have made him do it and aren't allowing Davis to come back, either, given their historic anger about anyone leaving early.
What are the odds the Bulls bring back Luol? watching the Bulls haven't been the same since they traded him and it would be nice to see him retire a Bull!
Sam: Well, I suggested that recently for Noah and Rose; at least the retirement part. Actually, Lu could be one of those veterans that might be fine closing it out being the bench mentor. How much anyone 22 would listen is another thing, though it would work for me. Though that stuff didn't work too well in the early 2000s when the Bulls brought back Scottie Pippen, Will Perdue B.J. Armstrong and Charles Oakley. Tough to see these guys finish on those 60-loss teams.
Am I right in noticing that amongst the under-25 players in the NBA, the cream of the non-USA players are clearly better than the cream of the USA players?
Simmons, Doncic, Giannis, Embiid... maybe KP or later Markkanen for PF. What group of USA 25 and under is beating that?
Sam: And you left out Jokic and Porzingis. It is an interesting evolution, and at least demonstrates what we often fail to accept in the United States, that there's excellent athletic talent everywhere. Notice they usually lose the Ryder Cup golf, also. This should be viewed as a positive for the NBA, which remains without walls. You know, Basketball without Borders. Obviously, the depth of talent still is from the United States given our infrastructure. But what we are seeing is more fundamentally sound, mature players coming from outside the U.S. because of our flawed and often corrupt AAU and prep feeder systems. The training and coaching overseas tends to be more disciplined. I suspect it accounts for many U.S. players not reaching their potential, which also helps explains the surfeit of depth. We've got a lot of kids, but they jump around to schools and AAU teams in mostly informal competition and then into the NBA. And aren't ready. It can short circuit a career. I remember when the NBA started the high school direct to pros. Obviously there were some great players, but I remember one GM telling me many of the players who'll be hall of Famers now would max out as all stars, and the players who might be all stars would max out as just good players. Can't prove it either way, but I would not be surprised. So many of these players from overseas are on professional teams playing with adults at a younger age and knowing the game better. Which also is a reason why as they get older and learn the game and competition more, it's so many U.S.-born players who emerge at the top. There are enough developing, young NBA players now no to quite embarrass the U.S., like Karl-Anthony Towns, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, De'Aaron Fox. The U.S. will be fine; it's good for the game and the country.
I can't seem to understand the lack of recognition Lauri Markkanen is getting from the media outside of Chicago. I was having a look at his stat line this year and thinking that his improvement as a 2nd year 7-footer has been impressive and he is balling at the moment. For comparison, I compared his 2nd year to more 'hyped' young european bigs - Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis to highlight this
- Markkanen (35* gms) - MPG 32.3 / 18.5 pts / 8.8 rbs / FG% 43.7 / 3P% 38.3 / 1.3 ast / 0.7 blk (Season ongoing)
- Porzingis (66 gms) - MPG 28.4 / 18.1 pts / 7.2 rbs / FG% 45.0 / 3P% 33.3 / 1.5 ast / 2.0 blk
- Jokic (73 gms) - MPG 27.9 / 16.7 pts / 9.8 rbs / FG% 57.7 / 3P% 32.2 / 4.9 ast / 0.8 blk
In Porzingis's second season he was being touted as a revolutionary type player who would change the way the NBA was played. Maybe with New York being the centre of the universe for the media it swayed in his favor but still. Jokic wasn't the high pick the other two were but again, his passing ability and strong play had the media gushing at his 'point-centre' style and he quickly came into the calculation for most promising bigs in the league.
My point is Lauri's stat line is equal and if not better to those two in their second years and yet, we do not hear the plaudits that Jokic and Porzingis were getting at this point in their second year. When it comes to top young bigs in the league, I am startled he doesn't at least seem to be in the conversation.
Sam: Out of sight, out of mind. The combination of being on a team last year not much interested in winning and then being hurt half this season, and not being in New York while doing so leaves you out of the conversation. Last year he was awfully shy and didn't speak much to media. He's broken out of that this season, but is mostly humble and defers to others. He's a bit too much of a team player sometimes, in my view. I'd rather see him taking 10 "bad" shots than many others' good shots. He doesn't think that way. But people who know, know. That's why despite not playing until December and playing hurt that month, he still was selected a Rising Stars game starter. The coaches know, and when the Bulls improve, as they should substantially next season without another epidemic of injuries, it's not inconceivable Markkanen could be in the All-Star game conversation as Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton were this year. He's got a higher ceiling than both those players, but still a team not on TV much.
Do you think Rajon Rondo will ever be a head coach in the NBA? You could see what happened to the Pels when they let him go, and we all agree pretty much that his absence against Boston cost the Bulls that series two years ago.
Sam: The NBA is a lot about out of the box, and if I were looking for a coach I would take a chance on Rondo as player/coach. He's pretty much like that when he's on your team the way he works with the young players and always is searching out film and knows every opponent's plays. He's fit enough and smart enough, I think, to handle both in the model of the Hall of Fame's Lenny Wilkens, the last great player/coach. I know it's said now there's too much to do, but, really I'd take my chances. After all, doesn't everyone have about eight assistants hanging around?
Sam, what is a "protected" draft choice. And what is the significance issue and how is it utilized by management?
Sam: This continues my NBA 101 since we always take for granted everyone knows what we know because, well, if we know it how hard could it be? Perhaps that didn't come out right. A protected draft choice means it is transmitted to the other team unless it is at a certain position. It's a way for a team to "protect" itself in case they have a poorer season than they expect. So a team wants to make a trade and the other team wants the first round draft pick for the player. There always has to be some value in a trade. But the team receiving the player is afraid something could happen and their season goes bad. So they "protect" the draft pick through, for example, the first 14 picks. It means if it's in the top 14 they keep it. If it's 14 to 30, it goes to the other team. But the other team eventually has to receive something. So there are provisions written in for, say, "protection" through top 10 the following year, top eight after that and so on until the other team eventually gets something. The terms are part of the trade negotiation. Management uses it as something they can add to a trade of value if just, for example, one player for another isn't enough to get the deal done while having "protection" against a disastrous season and the other team then falling into the next Zion. Oh no!
I was listening to sports radio this morning as White Sox fans called in to complain about the team not signing Manny Machado. One caller blamed it on Reinsdorf being cheap. I'm not really writing about that topic. As evidence this caller said, "This is the same guy who when he signed Michael Jordan said, 'I'm going to regret this.'" The hosts, both longtime Chicago radio and newspaper personalities, didn't contradict him on the quote. It's not a quote or story I've heard before so I wonder if you can shed any light on it.
Sam: It is longtime "evidence" that is specious, but why, you know, mess up your bias. This is what happened back then: Jordan, and to his credit with the occasional private compliant, had finished his eight-year $25 million contract. It was groundbreaking and shocking deal at the time, and, of course, outdated in a few years. Michael never demanded a renegotiation, saying he signed it, so he'd live up to it. Yes, how quaint. Obviously, Michael couldn't lower his ethics to be a college coach. But the White Sox did bring him into their minor league system, as he requested after his this-is-really-final 1993 retirement, and paid him his $4 million annual basketball salary even though he was a minor league baseball player.
SamOK, so he returns to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season and plays for $4 million in the magical 95-96, 72-win season, and is that season about the 150th best paid in the league. He doesn't say much. Now it's time to pay. How much? The salary cap for 1995-96 was $23 million for the entire team. Patrick Ewing was the highest paid in the league at about $18 million. Only six players earned more than $6 million. Jordan asked for about $55 million over two years. The Bulls proposed year by year a deal that, in the end, would work better for Jordan. So they finally agreed on $30 million for one year. Remember, just four teams in the league had entire team salaries that exceeded $30 million. The Knicks were highest at $43 million with Ewing's 18 million. Pay one guy $30 million? Sure, it was Jordan and he brought more attention to the league than anyone. But pay him more than almost 90 percent of the teams? It's like you are buying a $100,000 auto. You say with a laugh to the salesperson you hope it doesn't break down on the way out of the showroom; you know, I hope I'm not making a mistake. Ha ha. So Reinsdorf offered a bit of a quip about the salary, which was with a laugh, "I hope I don't regret this."
SamLook, Jordan and his agent were smiling. There were cigars. No one in American sports ever even thought about a salary like that. The Bulls team salary immediately went to No. 1 in the league and 35 percent more than the second highest, a rare financial gap. Jordan alone was paid more than the entire payrolls of 20 different teams and well above for one player the total salary cap per team. Maybe you'd make a bit of a nervous joke, also, but the negotiation started above the per team total. No player in the league was even making half Jordan's salary. It even seems like a lot 22 years later when today it would still be in the top 10 of current NBA salaries in a period when the salary cap has gone up more than four fold. Which means in today's NBA it would be an annual salary of maybe $135 million. It doesn't strike me as being cheap. But that's just me.
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