Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.16.18

Sam opens his mailbag and answers readers' questions

I know you will want it to go to D'antoni, but if i had a coach of the year vote it would go to Nate McMillian. Lost his best player. Got a guy in Oladipo who had flashes but the past 2 seasons has looked a bit lost and turned him into a star. Just look at that roster, it's awful.

Mike Queensworst

Sam: The Pacers probably have been the most unexpected of the season; me included since I didn't see any way they made the playoffs. Though I did have them ahead of the Bulls. Actually, when Oklahoma City made the Oladipo trade I thought it was a good one and would help them keep Durant and perhaps give them a legitimate three. Of course, Durant left about a week later and then Oladipo was hurt and badly misused and underestimated. No one thought he had this star potential he's shown in Indiana, but he should have been a 15 to 18 points scorer with Westbrook. But the coach there couldn't and wouldn't rein in Westbrook and thus made Oladipo an accessory and never took advantage of his abilities. It is about getting a chance in almost any workplace, sports or otherwise. Some of the greatest journalists never got to write. Oladipo never did get a chance with the Thunder, but great credit to the Pacers and McMillan. I can accept McMillan as Coach of the Year. I'd probably go with Portland's Terry Stotts, whose Trailblazers have had an unexpected season in the tougher conference. Many figured the Trailblazers would make the playoffs, and heck the way the West is now they're a solid third. But just four losses from 10th. That three through 10 in the West is going to be the race of the rest of the way. Does Kwahi come back? It looks most like without a major injury that one from among the Nuggets, Spurs and Clippers miss out. Which makes for some intriguing candidates. Popovich again for keeping them there all season without Leonard, Doc Rivers in one of his better jobs having the Clippers there after losing both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and regulars like Avery Bradley, Gallinari and Patrick Beverley out. Dwane Casey will get support for the way the Raptors have pulled ahead with an impressive style change, though the playoffs is their test. Everyone had them top four in the East. I'd have Utah's Quin Snyder top three with Stotts and McMillan with the Jazz losing Hayward, relying on a rookie and making this excellent late charge while remaining in position until Gobert returned. An honorable mention: Fred Hoiberg. The Bulls coach had the best month of any NBA coach not to be honored this season with the Bulls 10-6 December with Dunn just back and LaVine still out and Mirotic being phased into the lineup after the fight. It was the best month of coaching any NBA coach has had this season to win 10 of 12 in that situation. And now basically competing despite this crazy finish with unprecedented league ordered lineups. So the Bulls may win about 25 games, this, too, after trading their leading scorer in Mirotic and working in something of tryouts and almost different starting lineup every game. Plus, the Bulls have been favored to win in games just five times this season and for the second consecutive season have well surpassed the preseason betting odds on over/under. OK, Hoiberg's not likely to get many coach of the year votes, but the Bulls continue to exceed the view of their talent under his coaching. That's generally what coach of the year is about.


Derrick Rose #25 of the Minnesota Timberwolves handles the ball during the game against the Golden State Warriors on March 11, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Now with Derrick Rose joining Thibs, Jimmy and Taj in Minnesota is there any possible chance that they can get Luol Deng and Joakim Noah on board as well in time for the playoffs? What can Deng and Noah do to make this possible? Do they need to give up their money to do so or even if they do (not likely) are there other obstacles that stands their way?

Would love to see if Thibs can somehow get his old gang back together for another shot for the title and this time LeBron will not be standing their way.

Tom Choi

Sam: The unfortunate part about these things is I believe both still can be NBA contributors. But you need a chance. Of course, you have no platform making $18 million (each with two years after this), and neither has said much. Deng did some interviews when the Lakers were in Chicago and showed again why you'd want a veteran like that around your young players, and one who I am sure still can contribute the way he morphed into a stretch four in Miami. Deng always has been on a similar track with Andre Iguodala, who got that chance in Golden State Deng didn't get with the Lakers. It was no surprise Noah had a harder time holding it together. I don't know for sure what happened between he and Hornacek, but it all with Noah stems from merely being a competitor. He's a great teammate and winner, and I believe whatever he did was in the vein of competing. I think Hornacek was wrong to banish him the way he did and it probably will be another of the reasons that ends up with Hornacek out of the job after this season. He was hired by Phil Jackson and a new management usually means a new coach, anyway, but it's been tough to distinguish what has gone right with the Knicks since Phil's departure as they get in the passing lane to more losses down the stretch than perhaps anyone. How it makes sense to not even let other teams see Noah seems incredible mismanagement. But because of those salaries, neither is about to take a small buyout or be traded, so Thibs has to settle for half his Bulls roster. I've heard he's trying to talk Keith Bogans out of retirement. Though when I hear about Deng, what I think about is potentially a great opportunity for a team with a lot of young players and cap room. The only way the Lakers can make room for two max deals is to get Deng's contract off the books. It's not unreasonable the way the Cavs have faded and the Lakers have come on to believe LeBron could go there with Paul George. I'm not much interested in the Lakers 2019 draft pick because they could be really good by then, especially with the injuries finally catching up with the Warriors. I'd take Deng if the Lakers gave me one of their young players. The way Julius Randle has come on to look like Charles Barkley and their love for Lonzo Ball, I'd make a case for Brandon Ingram. Sure, they love him, also. But do you let him stand in the way of the additions of LeBron and George? They're not winning a title just hanging onto Ingram, who would be an ideal wing man for some young developing team in, maybe, the Eastern Conference. Kuzma? Sorry, Ingram. No deal, fine. Tell your fans you gave up on LeBron and maybe the Finals next season for Brandon Ingram. You'd just have to figure out for which East team that might make sense. Any ideas?


Antonio Blakeney #9 of the Chicago Bulls dunks against the Atlanta Hawks on March 11, 2018 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.

It's heartening to see some positive development from Payne but it's still early. Maybe he could be a better second unit point guard than Grant or is this just wishful thinking? Apparently Blakeney can score but is he willing and able to learn defense? I'd much prefer to have a scorer that needs to learn defense than a strong defender that needs to learn to score. In this brief trial period do you think he has promise/potential as a rotation guard? With a good draft, a lot of development and luck the second unit could be a real force.

John Petersen

Sam: I'm sort of rooting for Payne because of the way he was so unfairly maligned last year after the trade. Seems to happen to Bulls point guards. The Bulls had no intention of resigning Taj Gibson as much as we all admired and respected him. He's in a better place in what I believe is a more appropriate use of that phrase. Even Minnesota. Yes, maybe the Bulls hang onto McDermott a little more, but at some point you get to feel maybe it's best for both sides. I still believe McDermott can be a productive NBA specialist in this era, but evidence continues to point elsewhere given the way teams continue to move him. There always are reasonable circumstances like being parts of trades of better players, but there also becomes a reason after awhile. I root for McDermott as well, but with the Bulls not exactly loaded with athletes, it made sense to move on. The Bulls still didn't have Kris Dunn in sight, so it still was point guard tryouts. Payne was a late lottery pick. Worth the attempt. The mistake was the way the Bulls forced him into the lineup, especially with veterans like Butler, Wade and Rondo, who weren't going to accept that and basically undermined him as well. It was like when all the better Bulls demeaned the defense of Toni Kukoc. Kukoc wasn't that bad, but when your favorite guys pick on someone the media generally picks up the hint to both further ingratiate themselves with those veterans and create a talking point. Similarly with Payne, he became a target of what's wrong. The problem is he's more the modern scoring type point guard who is shoot first. He reminds me, as I've said, of Brandon Jennings, and not just because of the lefty thing. OK, some of that. But the best the Bulls played against the Clippers was with Payne and Blakeney on the court, pressuring, using their athletic abilities to pursue defensively and create offense with defense. It happened against against Memphis Thursday. The starters don't do that as much. Blakeney has the potential to be a Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford type. He is the sort of athletic scorer we haven't seen much with the Bulls, able to make athletic moves on the run and finish. It seems not so much his lack of defense as his uncertainty about how long he'll play. So he takes some unnecessary shots. He needs more time and can really explode offensively, but the Bulls don't appear comfortable giving that to him yet. That's an issue with a big G-league scorer: You get to the NBA and they want you to be a role player. Blakeney could be like an Isaiah Thomas type if some team wanted to give him that volume shooter role. The Bulls don't.


 Noah Vonleh #30 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the Detroit Pistons on March 9, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan.

Call me crazy but I like Noah Vonleh. He's really bulked up since his hornets days. More physical and a better rebounder than Portis.

Bob Ding

Sam: Well, not crazy, but I still don't know what to make of him. He looks most like he could take the backup center role from Felicio, who has regressed. Though he may have had his best game Thursday and made two clutch free throws at the end after missing his first three. But Vonleh might be worth a longer look. He does have a nice stroke from distance even though he's not making many yet. He's really been best as a defensive rebounder. He's also got a decent first step off the perimeter, though he's a bit small for center. Again, I like the idea of taking a look at former lottery picks. No, not crazy.


Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves handles the ball against the Washington Wizards on March 13, 2018 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. Wiggins is unhappy. Brings me joy. Love to see discord around Thibs and Jimmy. Now my question is. Would you do a sign and trade for Wiggins using Lavine?

Mike Sutera

Sam: Nah, we like the TimberBulls. This is just talk show speculation for now, though it's been long rumored Wiggins' desire was to return to his native Canada and play for the Raptors. I thought last year a Wiggins for DeRozan trade made sense, but the way the Raptors have played—still have to prove themselves in the playoffs, but you can't until you do—and DeRozan as well, I doubt that's not going to happen. Wiggins signed a long term deal with Minnesota and they're having their best season in his short career and with Butler's return still could go a few playoff rounds as Towns has been terrific in Butler's absence. Actually, if there's an issue you figure it could be in Butler's return to see if Towns would take a subsidiary position. Wiggins' personality never suggested he resented being tertiary. Actually, the Timberwolves may like it if he actually does want a bigger role.


Lauri Markkanen #24 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Mike Muscala #31 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 11, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia

From the scouting reports before the season, Lauri was supposed to be a stiff, soft, sweet-shooting stretch 5. He's basically been the opposite: he's extremely agile, he gets a lot of dunks and defends much better than advertised, but his 3pt-shooting is nothing like it was the first 20 games or so. He misses a lot of open ones, so I don't get the sense that "defenses have figured him out." What are you seeing with him? Fatherhood? Meanwhile, Lavine reminds me of Wade on defense, and I don't mean that as a compliment. He doesn't hustle back because he's too busy complaining about foul calls. His defense is really, really poor. I know you like Lavine and wrote a pretty positive article about a month ago about how he's impressed in his comeback. Do you still feel the same way?

Alejandro Yegros

Sam: Good points about the Bulls future. Both are in a sense starting again, so I don't grade too harshly now. Attendance is more important. There's no question Markkanen has been the most impressive of the three. If you had to pick which one would be an All-Star first now, you'd say Markkanen. The question, as you note, was this finesse, big guy thing, and he's nothing like that. It's true he hasn't shot as well, though other teams sort of looked around and decided—and I wouldn't argue—who else really is such a threat? So they have been running him off the three-point line a lot. He's a very smart and unselfish player and he'll move the ball, which is not that common with his starting group. So as we've seen he goes long stretches without shots. Then it's natural to take a quicker shot without being set. It's understandable with so many rotating rotations that the Bulls are not going to have much continuity on offense. But they do a poor job swinging the ball for that better shot. They should find Markkanen more for that, but they don't. I assume next season when this experimentation is over his shooting will continue to get better. He's the real deal. I have hope for Zach because defense is want to, and he hasn't wanted to yet. He can because he's an athlete and smart, but despite what he says it's not so simple to come back from that sort of injury. What I wanted to see from him was good health and confidence, and that's what we've seen. I continue to be encouraged the way he plays without hesitation. I know he takes some questionable shots and gets caught up in isolation, he seems to prefer having the ball in his hands rather than playing off a point guard, and, you are right, he's been stopping a lot to do the Wade imitation of arguing a no call and waving for his teammates to pick up his guy. He joked after the Clippers game about that maybe the referees forgot who he was. It's really that he's not quite who he thinks he is or was. He wasn't an All-Star or a team leader or ever played in a playoff game. He and Dunn haven't been very good playing off one another, but they hardly should be at this point given Dunn's injuries and LaVine's late entry. I think they both seem willing to work together and remain encouraged more about the big picture of both looking like legitimate NBA starters rather than their misdemeanors on the court for now.


Kris Dunn #32 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 15, 2018 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee

Do you think the Bulls should draft a point guard if that happens to be the best player available at their draft spot? Despite Kris Dunn?

Melbert Tizon

Sam: Well, they always say best player available. I recall the Nets saying they had Deron Williams and wouldn't need a point guard, so they traded the pick used for Damian Lillard. You always can trade a good player. Plus, Dunn hasn't quite yet shown that he's going to be a perennial All-Star. He's done some very good things and takes a big shot. There's a lot there. But he still tends to coast some in games, commit unnecessary fouls and get caught in isolation mode before establishing himself as a player who should be in isolation mode. That's why if the Bulls end up at the bottom of the top 10 in the lottery, where they are now, there are going to be some interesting decisions. I haven't watched any college basketball yet this season, so I can't judge them yet. I'll do that once the season is over and by draft time I'll know it well enough. Not that I get them all right, but last May when I did my mock draft on the night of the lottery drawing, I was arguing for the Bulls to take Donovan Mitchell. Many were high on him. Not that I expected what he's done alerady, but it seemed obvious he was an NBA talent with his athletic ability and aggressive nature. NBA scouts often overthink the draft with all their psychological and analytical tests and interviews. You know what an NBA player looks like when you see one. From the reports I've read, there are two players who could be top 10 type point guards, Oklahoma's much hyped Trea Young and Alabama's Collin Sexton, the latter coached by longtime NBA point guard Avery Johnson. The Bulls greatest need is a wing athlete as they don't have an NBA starting small forward on the roster. They also could use a center with Robin Lopez going into his last season on his contract. So with Dunn, point guard is hardly a priority. But a potential top NBA point guard can get you an athletic wing player. The Bulls have the flexibility to take the best player since I doubt they'll be a serious contender next season. And then there's Zion Williamson for the 2019 draft who is supposed to be some LeBron/Barkley cross. Sorry, I couldn't take another season waiting for even that guy.


Omer Asik #3 of the Chicago Bulls watches from the bench

I am assuming that Omer Asik is okay and he is available to play. I understand that management wants to see Felicio and Vonleh, but for old time sake, maybe he can play some garbage time or play with the Windy City Bulls. Maybe he can return to his old self and become a feasible trading chip. What is his status?

William Blanco

Sam: There's no crying in baseball and no sentimentality in basketball. I believe the Bulls basically have informed Omer there is no hard feelings, but not being part of their future they see no reason to play him. Maybe next season, I'd say, to show other teams he can play. To his credit, I see him preparing for games as if he will play. He had an illness that could not be diagnosed for awhile, but he's OK now, fortunately, and while we might recall he didn't have the best hands, he really is a good, solid, fundamental defender and smart player with size. The Bulls, I believe, hope they can turn his expiring contract next season into cap space for some team looking for free agents and get something. Understandable.


Noah Vonleh #30 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the LA Clippers on March 13, 2018 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

It's now clear to me what's going on here with the Bulls. The players who are sure of their spots for next year are mostly working on their own games and not playing enough D to get hurt. The rest (i.e. Nwaba & the 2nd unit) are competing because they all have something to prove. They're fighting for a roster spot, with the Bulls or elsewhere. I'll include Portis, still trying to prove he's better than Niko (if not Lauri). So they play with more pace, move it around better, and bear down on D. That explains the growing tradition of ceding the 1st qtr, and coming back in the 2nd. So, what do we see? Nwaba is a keeper; even hitting his 3's. Cam-Payne has looked a lot better than last yr. I still hate that shot, but they're going in... somehow. (After Noah, I guess I should be more open-minded about form.) I'd like to see some of Arcidiacono in that role too, for comparison. I kind of like Vonleh, though I'll need to see a bit more. Was pleased with Blakeney's outing this time. Seemed a lot less nervous. Still think he's a keeper; maybe at the end of the bench for now. He should beef up some, and probably needs to work on his defense, but it's nice to have an instant-offense guy like him when you hit a cold-spell. Think Vinnie Johnson. Blakeney is "Skinny Vinnie". But I don't think they are 'comfortable' with this (or with their own individual games, right now). You can see on the court that Zach is often frustrated. Dunn & Markkanen are both pretty low-affect guys, but you can see Dunn get mad at himself when he turns it over. I'm 100% sure they'll all play harder next season. The question is, 'How much better will they play?' Loads of potential there, but they all need to realize it. For me, the big question is how it may affect young & impressionable players when you put them in a position like this. The hope is that they can put it all behind them this summer, get their edge back, and Fred can get them running and playing defense again. But who knows? It's an awfully cynical 'process' to put these young guys through.

Art Alenik

Sam: It's why I assume we will have seen the last of this after this season. Actually, I think the Bulls—no, not just because I am writing here—have been the most transparent and honest about this, basically trying to present a competitive product all season, playing their best players as long and as often as they could, bringing back LaVine earlier than expected, playing Markkanen throughout. But then I know when they get the eighth or ninth pick in the draft, they'll be barraged with criticism about not losing enough to get a better pick. Look, they couldn't have put out a weaker (on paper) closing group Thursday and had one of their best finishes of the season. And Memphis played its best players, which, I know, isn't much for now. It's an impossible situation to be in without completely surrendering your morality, credibility and ethics like the 76ers and the NCAA. I haven't liked the individual play of the starters the last month or so, but your explanation is not unreasonable on a human nature level, and they are human. Hoiberg did say it's not about wins and losses, so if it's not, and everyone says it's about development, why not develop yourself? It's not going to lead to any sort of team continuity, though many will say that's the point because then you will lose more. But then you cannot judge individuals defensively or about team play and hustle, at least to some extent. So you do tend to see more hustle with the second unit because they are playing for their careers. It's that Catch-22 for the team of trying to be successful and judge players doing things the right way, but if they do the team does better and then there's a poorer draft pick and maybe a lost chance for the player who makes the bigger difference. I'm still for Al Davis, at least on the field, Just win, baby.


Bobby Portis #5 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 15, 2018 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee

So all the talk about the "Big (medium?) Three" for the Bulls with Dunn, Markanen, and LaVine. Where does that leave Portis, Valentine, and now Nwaba? Do you think they can be starters or key reserves on a Championship caliber team or are they just stopgaps and fill ins for a few years? Which of those guys would you bet to be with the Bulls after next season?

Mark Zylstra

Sam: I really don't see any as starters, though good teams have good bench groups. Look at the Raptors. Their bench has been the big difference for them this season being No. 1 in the East along with spreading the scoring around. We'll see how it plays out in the playoffs when you supposedly aren't playing the reserves as much. I know the philosophy mostly pushed by Pat Riley that you play eight and so on, trust five in the playoffs, your starters. I agree with Dwane Casey. I don't see why you can't play your reserves, especially since Lowry and DeRozan haven't exactly lit it up in the playoffs. Opponents famously focus in on your best players. But if you use a deeper rotation, that's more difficult. It's another interesting storyline in what looks like it will be a great playoffs in both conferences. The East isn't walkovers between the top and bottom anymore with the Cavs down and the bottom teams like the Bucks, 76ers, etc., capable of a first round upset. The Cavs should get better with Kevin Love's return, but if they end up with a three/six matchup with a confident young team like the 76ers, it wouldn't be ridiculous to see LeBron out in the first round. Not likely, but not shocking. The issue I see with the Bulls reserves is while they have been very good lately, arguably better than the starters since All-Star break, there's some lack of athleticism. That's why they had a boost lately with Blakeney and to an extent Payne, who are quicker. But the Bulls are, indeed, putting in place the elements of what could be a very good reserve group. Though no matter how good they are, you need the star starters, and that's still a question. At least to what level.


David Nwaba #11 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 15, 2018 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee

Dunn would do well to defensively kick it up a notch (or three) in the last five possessions before halftime. Really make it unbearable. Sends a message to his guy to think about during the break. Also sets the tone for Bulls team on the floor to close the half. I agree with you that he's uneven as a distributor. You see he wants to be The Guy that way. That's a start. I keep thinking that he needs to see his offense through his defense. He seems bright enough. He plays like he hasn't 100% put it together for himself. Enough of these "lineups/rotations are changing" excuses. He needs to push through the center of his game - defense - and start setting the tone. When he pops the ball loose on the perimeter (and face it, not only does he have the talent to do it, but he's actually making that happen pretty often) he gets into easy passing decisions that stack numbers up and start up that part of his game. Ok, I'm a greedy fan. I like watching him work out there too. It's fun. They've gotten away from that consistent up floor push. Not good. They're playing like they are distracted. LaVine is coming along really well. He's playing his whole game. Isn't that great to see? He needs to understand that sometimes you have to go slower to go faster. He plays on defense like the game is too fast for him. What the Bulls could use is a nasty ass rim protector with a proprietary attitude. That would reward LaVine for getting his center of gravity lower and forcing the ball to really commit. If these two guys can keep working this season and then really cram this summer, you are looking at a pretty wicked backcourt. Athletic and long, good burst for trapping, some hands too. Nice. If Nwaba survives you have your (defensive) shell.

Pete Zievers

**Sam**: I'm not sure about Nwaba, but just that he's viewed as an NBA player now is something we doubted last summer. I agree on Dunn where on defense he could truly be a game breaker. He does sometimes; not all the time. Yes, enough of the excuses, but playing with different guys in almost every rotation is sort of like looking around with one of those "follow me" charges and no one's there behind you. I'd also like to see him play more regularly on defense because I, too, believe there is amazing potential there with his long arms, his quickness, his hands like a snake's tongue. But it could also be that they are a bit satisfied they are the core for next season and as they often say, they'll work on it this summer. There's some great competitor stuff missing in that, but I have to excuse them some because this has been such an unusual season with the trades, the losing, the tryouts, the minutes limitations, the future. Remember, this is the start, year one after a decade of basically the same run even as it handed off from Rose and Noah to Jimmy. Getting a foundation in place in one season that you can say you really could move forward with is pretty impressive when you step back and consider how long that takes with so many of these lottery teams.

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