Antonio Blakeney shoots the ball against the Portland Trailblazers

Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.02.18

Sam opens his mailbag and answers readers' questions

We don't want to use the word "Tanking" for financial concerns but, why did the Bulls Play LaVine, Markkanen & Portis so many minutes in the 76ers Game? We already know (LaVine-Markkanan-Portis-Dunn-Valentine) are sure keepers going into next season. Grant, Felicio (Due to his Contract) and Holiday are strong possibilities for next season. We Need to see Blakeney & Nwaba more.

Randall Sanders

Sam: I prefer to call it being anti-competitive. Though as you suggest the Bulls perhaps aren't doing it--at least to an egregious extent--because they are playing guys, their three best players, who give them a good chance to win. Though that they aren't having much success maybe is concerning on a different level. Anyone who reads this column knows I abhor the idea of being uncompetitive. The Bulls coaching staff and players insist regularly they are playing to win. I believe them. And their best players are playing. So for now we'll just have to accept they aren't good enough until they show us otherwise. Perhaps you can make an excuse that it takes away from your competitiveness when you know all your best players are not playing, i.e., Robin Lopez. Coach Fred Hoiberg did say this week after the Dallas game Friday, the fifth since All-Star, the rotation or lineup will change again after all five-game sets. The Bulls also signed to a 10-day contract shooting forward Jarell Eddie, who has been with Windy City of the G-league. But all this change and experimentation and examination shouldn't be an excuse for the decline in play of late. A competitor rises above. Yes, I am leaning on the side of wins despite the sentiment I get from actually most of those who are writing who appear to be rooting for losses for improved draft pick odds. I believe winning also becomes a learned behavior. I know the Bulls have been saying their pace has been good and fast even in these losses. But running up and taking a quick shot with one pass belies the notion of pace being a positive. It's the story of lies, damned lies and statistics. You can make all sorts of different things to suit you from the numbers. Tell it to the guy who drowned in water that averaged three feet. Often you know what you see better than what the analysis says.


Lebron James floats a jump shot against the Philadelphia 76ers

Over the past few years in reading your columns, I've noticed a few times where you've wondered why fans still dislike LeBron so much. (I say "still" because I assume most people agree that it was easy to dislike him during his fingernail biting, self-proclaimed "King", teaming with Wade & Bosh to create a great team and then announcing it on TV period.) As you've pointed out, he now seems to be a basically decent person, he plays the game the "right" way, he does it without too much celebrating & taunting, he makes himself available to the media, etc etc. And it's made me wonder to myself, why do I dislike the guy so much? Yes, I'm partial (okay, very partial) to Jordan, so there's that. But there has to be more to it than that, right? Well, it all became apparent to me this year. That is, how he's turned his pouting/moping/I'm-not-going-to-play-hard-if-we-can't-win attitude back to Okay-I'm-happy-now-so-I guess-I'll-start-playing-hard-again. Before the Cav's big trade, there were many games this year where I'm absolutely sure that if he happened to own the ball they play with, he would have taken it, walked out of the arena, left his fans and teammates wondering "Now what the hell do we do?" and gone home. It brought back memories of those 2010 & '11 playoffs when he literally stopped playing in the middle of a game, just stood there on the court with millions of people watching. And during the frigging playoffs, for C's sake. And how he did it time and time again, multiple times in multiple playoffs over multiple years. Speaking for myself, I've never gotten over those memories of seeing him standing around while nine other guys played basketball. But I had thought that at least he'd matured over the years. And then to see him do it again this year, well, can you picture Michael, Kobe, Magic, or Bird ever acting like that? The man is blessed with possibly the best physical attributes of any athlete in sports history. But just when I start thinking that he's a player I can get behind, he starts pulling his bs again. So I don't care how many conference finals he's in or how many championships he ends up winning or any of that. I just can't help but ask myself what he could have accomplished if he had the determination, confidence, and competitiveness of MJ or any of the other true greats. I just can't stand the guy, never have, never will.

Stu Gilbert

Sam: So that's final? Gosh, I hate to have to keep defending LeBron on the Bulls web site. Hey, maybe he'll look here when free agency comes this summer. Bulls need a small forward in the worst way; they have young talent and LeBron, frankly, teased the Bulls enough eight years ago he owes them something. Right? By the way, did you miss when Kobe after the Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the 2007 playoffs actually sat around in the summer and called radio stations to complain and ask to be traded. Until the Lakers pretended they would trade him (including to the Bulls) until he finally calmed down four months later and they traded for Pau Gasol? I seem to recall Barkley whining his way out of Philadelphia and Hakeem saying he'd never play for the Rockets again until they spent three months ignoring his whining and trade demands and then won two titles a few years later. And so on. I'll accept LeBron is not perfect, and it probably doesn't help him nationwide that ESPN believes he's only one of seven players in the NBA. Yes, he likes to exert a lot of diva influence over his franchise, which is why he eventually left Miami. Pat Riley wouldn't allow that. And Riley would take him back, and the Bulls would take him, also. So would anyone. He also appears (you never truly know) to be an exemplary person off the court. He seems to care about winning all the time, and unlike some he didn't bail out on a representative occasion like the All Star game saying he was, c'mon, tired. He understands his position to represent the game enthusiastically, with passion and professionalism. He may be dominant as a teammate, but he lets everyone else play. He doesn't monopolize the shots and he demands excellence. You may feel he's showing off sometimes when he picks on a teammate, but he demands accountability and controls the locker room. Some say he's the coach, but he also makes it easier to coach. He's cut down on his early career strutting around antics that offended the Bulls and Joakim Noah, though I'll always treasure Noah answering a question about Cleveland being great that after all, who even says they're going there on vacation. One of the great spontaneous moments in NBA history. Given the landscape, I'll accept LeBron's peccadillos. He's a plus guy.


I was at the game Thursday and Ray Clay was back doing the announcing, but I've found nothing written or said about it anywhere. Is he back for good?

Nathan Hennenfent

Sam: Ray subs occasionally for Tommy Edwards and does a good job. I know there's nostalgia associated with Clay because of his presence during the Bulls title years and the famous intro. But it was current Bulls p.a. announcer Tommy Edwards, more famous for his Animal Stories era on Chicago radio with Larry Lujack, who actually was the one who discovered and inaugurated the Alan Parsons Project song and made it the Bulls intro until he left Chicago in 1990 after about 15 years as Bulls announcer. Tommy is as good as there in the business without the affectation of some of the annoying arena announcers like in Detroit, Miami and Orlando. He's a real pro with just the right amount of enthusiasm. Tommy probably came up with more in arena innovations than any, and we'll forgive him for being the first to also play Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll Part II.


Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks scores a total of 31,000 career points during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on February 28, 2018 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

What is Dirk Nowitzki still doing on the Mavs? They have the league's worst or near worst record. They have a rookie point guard, a highly overpaid Harrison Barnes, and a highly overpaid Wesley Matthews. Dirk Nowitzki is 40. Granted he delivered the 1st title to the Mavericks in their history along with Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Terry, and Tyson Chandler. He's nothing short of an NBA legend, but he should've probably retired after the 15-16 season when he was still putting up close to 20 points a game. Now he's either a role player or a ..has been. I felt the same way when Olajuwon went on to play with Raptors, Pippen in his second stint with the Bulls, Malone and Payton with the Lakers, and even Magic Johnson returning to the Lakers in 1995 after being a head coach of that team. Jordan was different because he was still a very dominant player even at that age.

Tom Plonowski

Sam: Talk about your quiet farewell tours; if it is that. So you're disappointed about what you've been seeing with the Bulls lately--well, maybe not according to the advice in my mail--but there's plenty more to the NBA. Come out Friday and see a legend. Perhaps for the last time in the United Center. Dirk Nowitzki is the gold standard for the European migration to the NBA, a craftsman who demonstrated all the strengths and qualities you'd want and expect from the greatest ever. He's stayed with his team no matter the circumstances, he's sacrificed salary so the team could add better players to have a better chance to succeed, he endured during years of close and no cigar, Auerbach's and others, and then was there when they won and right in the middle of everything. Plus, he's been a wonderful spokesman for the American game, an elite person with media and fans, a gentleman and a player without ever being an athlete. There's a lot bad going on with the Mavericks these days, which his too bad, but Dirk is an awful lot of good. Which is the other great thing about the NBA. Actually, this is what we celebrated in Chicago in the early 1980s until Jordan began getting things going in 1986. Bird was coming in with the Celts, Magic with the Lakers, Doc with the 76ers, Isiah with the Pistons, Dominique with the Hawks. Yeah, I've got to see that! The Bulls rarely had 30-win seasons in those days, but it was a glorious time to see some of the all-time greats of the game. So Monday it's Kyrie Irving and maybe the East's best and LeBron makes another trip in, later Giannis, some pretty entertaining Nuggets, maybe John Wall with the wailing Wizards and Dirk Friday with the Mavs. Nowitzki has been vague about his plans and has a team option at $5 million for next season. That's what he's been playing for this season and clearly could have demanded more. He still was hoping, I guess. I sort of love the irony of one of those mostly politically anti-immigrant states like Texas has as one of its primary faces of sport this wonderful, unselfish, talented guy from Germany. Dirk was slow when he was fast, so he's not as different. He's started every game he's played and still is averaging double figures. He still flashes that unusual stork jump shot of his off one leg with an amazing ability to get it off and a toughness that made him a big shot taker and maker. He's at career lows at most everything. Except threes, shooting a career high 42.2 percent, showing still the ability to evolve with the game. He's worth another look. It could be the last one here.


Cristiano Felicio #6 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on February 27, 2018 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I'm guessing the rest of this season will feel more like 'work' to you than your job usually does. Oh well, we all have to sacrifice for that draft pick. Four games initial impressions of the experiment? I'll go first... It's a mixed bag. I think David Nwaba has earned himself a spot, but I sort'a knew that already (and I think Gar/Pax did too). Felicio showed me something last night (Charlotte) then went brain-dead later. Open at the hoop, he was surprised to get a pass... twice! Talented kid, but needs to start thinking... and running the floor. Cam-Payne Is better than last year, but still doesn't impress me. I like his length & he moves well, but he can't shoot, which is kind of important for a guard. I'll have to see more of Vonleh. He does jump! (More than I can say for Portis & Lopez.) But I'll need a better look to see if he has game. So when does Blakeney get his 'audition'? I still have hopes for him. The one thing that is working well is the losing. Statistically on track to win 27, I'm guessing no more than 24, and probably fewer. The only problem is there are some really awful teams below us – teams bad enough to lose most or all of their remaining games. That leads me to my main point (about time, eh)...This isn't going to work for Markkanen, Dunn & LaVine. You can't build chemistry playing alongside 2 guys who are just trying to make the team, especially when the three of them are all trying to establish themselves at the same time. Is it any surprise that everybody looks a little selfish? Hey, I'm in the same boat. I watch the games, but mostly to see individual players. I don't expect to see a team out there, and I don't care if they win or not. No fun! I just hope everybody can shake it off and start over and start over from scratch this summer and build a team. I wish we could fast-fwd.

Art Alenik

Sam: If it's just this stretch post All-Star, well in the long run that's not too bad. I really don't expect the Bulls draft position to change much because, as you note, because there's that lack of talent at the bottom, those teams playing many fewer NBA regulars than the Bulls are. But there have to be at least 10 starting level players in this draft. Often there are more, so I still think the Bulls get a decent player and maybe two, though the Pelicans have been on a roll. Darn, that Niko. Though it actually may have a bit more to do with Davis and Holiday, Davis particularly. Your point which didn't last that long is the one we've been seeing, and it's an interesting test for those three to respond. Yes, you can fall into a woe-is-me thing and say no one cares--and the media keeps asking us if we are purposely losing--so why should I care, and then you can check your wrist bracelet to see WWMD, What Would Michael Do? Certainly not accept defeat. Those three playing together are good enough to make some special things happen. Find one another, support one another, get up on defense, pressure, get some steals and out on the break. Hoiberg lets them run a lot of stuff. Take advantage of that. Show what you can do as a team. We haven't seen much of that to start games and third quarters. Felicio isn't as good as Lopez. But he's trying, we hope. Nwaba doesn't hold anyone back. It's not hard to see he's trying. There's obviously not going to be much chemistry and that certainly will hurt defensively. So stay more aggressive on your man. I hate all that switching, anyway. Thanks for the concern, but like you I enjoy watching because they're all trying to figure it out, and maybe some will. I'm also somewhat intrigued by Vonleh. I like taking a chance on former lottery picks, and he's shown the skills to be a pretty good backup center. That would be a good find. Blakeney? He's going to be shooting. I assume we see him in the next week or so. Yes, plenty to see. No need to leave.


 David Nwaba #11 of the Chicago Bulls dunks the ball against Jeremy Lamb #3 of the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Spectrum Center on February 27, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

LaVine looked like a wing playing emergency point guard in a manner that suggests that he's the twist Hoiberg would spring on the other team in game 2nd in the second round of the playoffs. He seemed stiff and programmed. However, have to say that he does a nice job of feeling pressure and seems to have a pretty good idea when he should keep it and when he should let it go. That's plus. There won't be any John Stockton comparisons any time soon. Or Rickey Green comparisons for that matter. But you know what? in a situation, he can work. Granted, MIN not exactly the '89 Pistons (or the 2004 version for that matter). But he got by people so easily. That's plus. He seems to like the middle of the floor and may need to learn to work the baseline a little harder. That's nickles and dimes, though. Hope everything is holding up medically. I do very much like the ball advancement. Dunn looked a little jumpy and pre-occupied. Still his mid-range game looks really good and he seems to get deflections just showing up out there. I was really liking the trap they sprung on high s/r with Vonleh. I need to see more of this guy. He was showing some nice in-traffic rebounding. Got a little dog in there someplace? Could use a guy like that. Portis is just doing what Hoiberg is asking, but the volume shooting from him at times seems not just forced, but frantic. I'm not 100% sure what his game is, but I don't get the feeling I'm seeing it right now. Markkanen will be fine. I thought he did a real fine job on Towns before he got tired. Nice feet. Payne. Hmmmmmmm. Not all bad. Need to see more. He needs a lot of practice and game minutes with these guys. His shot isn't there yet. I do like how he plays with his eyes up and how he keeps it going towards the basket. The other thing I liked there is that he seems to move to ball pretty okay. Need to see more, and against a better defensive team.

Dunn needs to knock off the dumb fouls though. He loses key minutes because he gets two quick ones. Ach. Wise up, kid. Dunn gets better and better at taking the ball into traffic. On the way in, he's got his eyes up and that's not every guard I could name. He's a loose/limber player. NYC ballhandlers often pound the ball, maybe that's what you kinda got used to. That's functional, but Dunn gets it done differently. Dunn glides. He's really deceptive with those limbs; you don't think he's going as fast as he is.

Pete Zievers

Sam: I feel like Bill Murray in the movie Stripes--yes, I only have a few for references--when they drilled and finally started marching. "Hey, we're walking." Hey, we're talking basketball! It's out there if you can find your way to take a breath and stop obsessing over some 19-year-old who never heard the term box out. Those are some interesting points, especially about LaVine and Dunn, which is, to me, more of what this closing stretch is about. Yes, there's been all this angst about Felicio, but, hey, no one ever thinks he'll be a starter in the NBA. Can he be an NBA player? The Bulls made a sizable investment. At least let them try to find out. We know Nwaba can play in the NBA and isn't a starter, but should the Bulls up the ante on him? Worth finding out. More so, we get to see what the future really is about because perhaps other than the No. 1 overall pick--and there's still plenty of discussion on who that exactly is--the Bulls immediate future is these three guys, LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen. I actually like an element of seeing if they can work their way through, let's call this, adversity. There's a great chance to show some stuff because not only is no one expecting much, but many are hoping for less. Can LaVine truly be an elite shooting guard? We know he can dunk, and I've been amazed how he really does play without hesitation from his injury. But elite shooting guards also defend at a high level and keep moving and moving the ball. Can he do that? Can Dunn cut down those turnovers? He must think at times his teammates have hands at their feet, especially the big men. He throws way too many passes hard to catch. The great guards get you the ball where you want it ready to shoot. Keep the ball moving. The lack of trust has been apparent and understandable given the changing rotations. No one seems to think they'll ever get the ball back for a better shot. I know Hoiberg emphasizes first good shot, which also speeds up the game. Of course, then you also have to get back. Hey, we're talking actually basketball! It's possible even these days.

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