Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.10.17

This is some season Isiah Thomas is putting together! Probably overshadowed by the seasons of Westbrook and Harden. I wonder if this was circa 2011, who wins the MVP – Rose or Thomas?
Andrew Robson

Sam: Well, Derrick’s team did win 62 games. Which has a lot to do with it. There’s often a lot of moaning about the MVP, and lots of revisionist history of the notion of why we didn’t give it to Jordan every year and then deciding after the playoffs who is the best. Hey, Curry didn’t deserve that! It’s a regular season award, for one thing, and not a best player in the league award. You could make that same case for LeBron every year, and I could make the case for him again if he didn’t take off so many games to, geez, rest when it’s charter aircraft, Four Seasons and Ritz, massage therapists and dietician and chefs on the road. It’s shocking how soft the travel is that the best players would need so much rest. Though credit to Westbrook and Harden. They play.

I probably have Harden as MVP this season because of the usual combination of best player having the best season on a best (or close) team. No one knows the actual formula or what it should be. It’s some sort of hybrid. But Westbrook probably falls out with his team hanging onto seventh. I know he doesn’t have a lot of help, but he’s got several top lottery picks playing with him. Too low in the standings, which also means by implication not making enough teammates better. He really doesn’t as his game is pretty much straight ahead. His season and his play have been amazing and I can see voting him second because James takes so much time off. I might have Kawhi Leonard close, but he also takes a games off for no reason. I know that’s the Spurs style, but I’m fairly sure if he demanded to play, he’d play. Are you telling me their coaches would have made Jordan, Magic or Bird skip games even though they were healthy? Good luck.

The Rockets have been one of the big surprises of the league; maybe the biggest. Management did well to add Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and got luckier than New Orleans since they stayed healthy for a change. Mike D’Antoni’s system does work, at least when the best players buy in, and Harden did. Then he makes players better, much more so than Westbrook. Leonard does more isolation stuff, as great as it is and is the far better defender, maybe best in the league. It’s a great debate this season since nobody from one of the best teams other than LeBron will be in the discussion. Oh, yeah, the question, Thomas. Great season. Obviously, no defense, though he’d be the first under six footer to be MVP. We think Cousy was in ’57, but he sounded taller. I’ve not been a big fan of Thomas’, but he has had an amazing ability to get his shot off and almost has played like Iverson with guys defending and recovering misses all over the place so he could shoot again. But they’re only on pace to win 50 games or a bit more. Of course, so are the slumping Cavs. Hey, maybe LeBron will actually start playing all the games. Oh, yeah, John Wall. Second in assists and steals and averaging about 23 points and maybe soon to pass Boston?

So what do you think is going on with Niko, and does he come back? He can be infuriating to watch and he's very inconsistent, but in three seasons here he actually comes across as one of the better players on the team (net rating, plus minus, PER, and whatever other advanced stats I know you don't believe in). But Hoiberg doesn't seem to like him. Will we see Niko next year in Houston or something like that?
Alejandro Yegros

Sam: Sounds like he’s out of the rotation again like in December, though we know these things are ephemeral with this Bulls team. Which hasn’t exactly been a great way of doing things, but Hoiberg is in a tough situation tasked with two goals. Trying to accommodate the veterans like Butler and Wade in trying to compete for the playoffs while running auditions with the young players to see who might be worth bringing back and who to part ways with this summer when the big changes moving forward begin. Remember, this was a breakup only last June losing Rose, Noah and Gasol, and then waiting for the new CBA to be agreed to before proceeding so you’d know the ground rules for the next seven years. That was in January.

So we’re two months since then and probably coming to the point of picking a direction more than having one. There was a lot of hope for Mirotic, like with McDermott, but he’s been inconsistent. Though last season was lost in many respects due to the appendicitis. Then this season he takes a step back with Taj stepping up in his contract year. So he falls between the cracks a bit in the midst of all the changes and never quite got his footing. Hoiberg was clear enough in Orlando he wants to give Lavergne a look. If that doesn’t work, I suspect we see Mirotic again. We know Hoiberg has been consistent with one thing: You produce, you play. It only takes one game with five threes and Mirotic will be back. I’ve actually liked that he’s been playing more controlled, less pump faking and long threes and going to the basket, though he never has quite figured out the defensive switching. But he can’t quite seem to get a footing. We’ll see if he gets back in there. Who knows.

True the game has evolved but how is that 6'3" guards are delivering triple doubles on almost nightly basis? I remember everyone being awed when Fat Lever (6'3) used to do that in the late 80's. Now it's gotten to a point where it's surprising when Westbrook doesn't get one. Elfrid Payton just did one on us and even Rondo used to get one pretty regularly or at least get close. Is it the pace of the game or are these guards just freakishly athletic nowadays? Then again, Rose is/was strong and extremely athletic but he's never been a high rebound or assist guy. Perhaps Brook Lopez should get some rebounding lessons from some of these guards.
Jay Choi

Sam: I don’t want to get into a good old days thing, but I will say I never made kids get off my lawn since I grew up in New York and we didn’t know what lawns were. Anyway, it’s easy to understand when you understand the evolution of the game. Not to take anything away from Westbrook, who has had a remarkable season, but triple doubles now are like always playing for Mike D’Antoni: You’re getting better stats. There are not so much fewer big guys, but fewer who play by the basket. I explained my theory last week of big kids basically telling the coaches in AAU and high school that if they can’t shoot threes they’re transferring to where they can. So you develop fewer great big men and teams have fewer so called rim protectors, who we called centers.

The rules changes that limited physical play on the perimeter thus enhanced penetration. Now it’s much easier for guards to get to the basket, and with fewer big men there in this era of so called stretch fours (power forwards playing 25 feet from the basket), the area around the basket is much more wide open so the guard can get in there and follow his shot, as Westbrook does so much for rebounds, or rebound. For guards, rebounding should be the most difficult element of the triple double. It will be tougher for Westbrook now with Gibson with the Thunder since now you have an extra stronger rebounder instead of a power forward playing near midcourt. After all, the guards should have no problem getting the assists, especially with all the outside shooting.

That also has led to more small men rebounding because there are so many longer rebounds now with those springy shots from 25 to 30 feet bouncing outside. And the biggest thing with the assists to me is the change in the scoring rule. It once was when Oscar played, for example, that an assist was a shot after you catch the ball. If you put the ball down, the assist was wiped out. That’s not the case anymore as players can make a move after a pass and an assist is recorded. So that inflates the assist totals as well. These triple doubles are certainly impressive, though there are many reasons they are not so rare anymore and likely to be quite common the way teams continue to shrink the size of their lineups.

Darrell Walker got Clark College into the tournament (Division 2) when they were winning like seven or nine games before he went there.
Mike Sutera

Sam: Another vote for former NBA players as college coaches. I wrote about Walker last fall and how those basketball powerhouses like Illinois and DePaul wouldn’t even give him an interview. There’s this dirty little secret old boy’s network in college basketball in which whether the athletic directors don’t want to be overshadowed by a coach with a bigger name or fear the confidence of former NBA player or are just protecting their buddies, but the big colleges do their teams and alumni a great disservice by basically excluding former NBA players.

DePaul gave Mark Aguirre a big runaround; Illinois supposedly wouldn’t even talk to alumni like Eddie Johnson. Yet, these are places that want to attract young men who want to be pro players. Who better to learn from than guys who were there? Colleges say those guys won’t recruit. That’s why Walker went to Division II in Atlanta to show he’d recruit, build a program, and he won right away. Sure, there are very good colleges coaches who didn’t play in the NBA. The problem is having played in the NBA seems almost to black list you from big time college coaching programs these days. The success of Chicago’s Walker should be further evidence that there’s great coaching talent from the NBA ranks and that the college presidents and athletic directors are selling out their basketball programs by limiting their hiring to this revolving list of perhaps the latest guy who won some games somewhere else.

I don't wish injury on people and I'm not glad Bogut got hurt. But this is what players who don't want to work hard deserve when they try to chase a championship by always running to the best team in the conference. It's lazy - like a college student who plagiarizes because s/he doesn't want to create his/her own paper. The point is that it'd be refreshing to see or even hear a player go to a challenger - not the reigning champ - and take on the attitude that Jordan had: "I'm going to take this team that never won (i.e. Memphis, Pacers, OKC) and turn them into a champion". That's what Michael did with the Bulls. And that point gets lost by many kids today - including Lebron.
LongGiang Le

Sam: Well, Bogut has a title with the Warriors, which was sort of a surprise in itself because he was one of those guys who never much liked basketball, sort of like Luc Longley, nice, fun loving guy who the basketball play wasted a lot of hours that might have been spent body surfing. Bogut wasn’t chasing. But there is something about these late season additions the NBA needs to stop. It circumvents the salary cap theories of evening the playing field by allowing these guys with small buyouts to come and join the best teams as short term rentals. At the very least not allow these guys to be eligible for the playoffs. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for two great teams to square off year after year, like some feared was to be Cleveland and Golden State, though the Warriors look awfully ordinary without Durant. And the Cavs not so good lately, either.

The Lakers and Celtics basically were there or favored just about every year in the 80s and it was the best decade the NBA ever had. But this overloading of players to just the best few teams after the trade deadline goes against the best elements of competition and should be stopped. But don’t blame LeBron for this. This is the league’s fault. Well, Westbrook sort of said that he’d stay, and perhaps Harden as well. Durant gave them nine years. I have no problem with his free agency choice. That’s what the players fought for and there’s a great book coming out this fall about that from Triumph Books (Oh, yeah, that’s my book. More on that later). Actually, despite the LeBron move to Miami, a lot of guys, like Dirk who just hit that 30,000 points mark, ride it out where they are. Things don’t always go well, like with Derrick Rose, and players are moved on despite their intentions. They ought to have the right to make some of those decisions also. Though not in February.

Here's something that I find frustrating: "Obviously, we were right there with the score tied going into the fourth. I thought we played some pretty good basketball."
No, Coach, your team did NOT "play some pretty good basketball". They got outscored by twenty pts. in 3 Qtrs. They were out-rebounded by 11. They got beat 58-32 in the paint. They didn't defend. And they didn't run your offense after the 1st Qtr. I'm not saying this is all Fred's fault. For example, he has 5 point guards, and the only one who can pass is hurt. He also has a bunch of young guys who play differently every game (or every qtr), and no set rotation to speak of. But the least Fred can do is be honest - at least semi-honest - with us.

Sam: Now I’d say that is the larger fantasy than covering for your guys. Some coaches blast their players, and I know fans and media like that in this notion from perhaps a half century ago that yelling at the guys means you are coaching. Instead of, you know, just yelling and realizing at some point that you are at work and screaming at grown men about a game. First, things have changed from those times, especially because guys have “brands” these days whereas the good ones years back would get to endorse a brand. You want to yell at LeBron? How’s coaching in Israel fit you for next year, bud? You can have some yelling moments, but only a few times a season. Maybe an occasional lollygagging explosion. And speaking of lollygagging, well, that’s a larger issue for me like in the Pistons game you reference. And it was 26 points after the second, but who’s counting.

I know there’s a lot of talk around the Bulls of lack of ball movement, of isolation play, but, well, that’s who their main guys are. I remember a guy named Jordan who did a lot of that, held the ball, surveyed the defense, didn’t pass all that much; media in the 80s, I recall, saying you couldn’t win with a guy who played like that, that you have to pass like Bird or Magic. You know, that Jordan guy and his supporting cast. Jimmy’s the Bulls main guy; he’s most comfortable scoring that way. The team has succeeded when he’s closed games that way; lately he’s had to try to score more and, at least against the Magic, didn’t have much left to finish. You have to put up with some of that. What is more difficult to accept is players who are playing five or seven minutes a half standing and watching balls scooped up by someone else, failing to box out, losing defensive rebounds, making lazy passes on the perimeter. If you’re playing 15 minutes in the game they should be an all out, hustling, diving, ferocious 15 minutes.

There’s been too much cool around the Bulls lately. Giving up 15 offensive rebounds, like in Orlando, 25 fast break points, smothered with layup after layup against Detroit. Pick up in the backcourt, pressure, fight over the screen, harass your guy. OK, maybe Jimmy or Wade is holding onto the ball. Fine. They can do some things. There are other ways to help your team and establish yourself. People have to be who they are. Have you seen Kyrie Irving pass to anyone this season? Talk about holding and jab stepping. It looks a lot better when you are doing it with LeBron on the other side of the court. Remember Kyrie doing that with the 32-win Cavs? One reason the Bulls hired Hoiberg was because he wasn’t hysterical, that he was not going to call every play—though he has gotten in the habit calling too many lately—and enable the players to take some ownership of their team. He’s not a screamer. Phil Jackson wasn’t, either. Scott Brooks has done a nice job with the Wizards, and he doesn’t yell much, and basically never did when they started 3-9. Since we view everything in sports after it occurred, we know not yelling at them was the right tactic. Of course, had they gone 6-18 then we would have known he needed to yell at them. Heard Billy Donovan ever say any of his players weren’t the greatest ever? Honesty? Sports? Hmmm, hadn’t thought about that one. You mean like before trade deadline or before the draft? Or in free agency? Or before the season starts about where the team should finish?

Silver and CP3 want to make the All-Star game more competitive so there is talk of a 4 pt shot being added? Does that make sense? If NBA ever adds a 4 pt shot to an NBA game, I am done.
Bob Ding

Sam: I think we’re getting to the point where they should just have the players play the NBA video game in front of the crowd since, after all, video gaming is becoming a college team sport and even leading to scholarships. They should either do that or simply have a skills competition, though the dunk contest is that and the top guys generally have been afraid to try. If you can’t get NBA players to show at least a modicum of personal pride and support for the league that has enabled them to have the amazing lifestyles they do by simply playing an actual basketball game and trying just a little, then you probably should give up the whole idea of having an All-Star game. Or calling them stars. If they really were stars, they’d care more about their professions and the public who so emotionally support them. Sorry; I’m cranky this week, I suppose, watching Bulls basketball.