Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.24.17
SAM SMITH OPENS HIS MAILBAG TO ANSWER READERS' QUESTIONS
If you look at the stat line from Detroit, individually and team, it looks rather nice. Any chance of repeating it? Butler: 12 assists, 6 for 6 from the field, and 0 three point attempts. Likely not going to see Butler's line repeat, but it sure does look good. Of course, you get assists when your teammates make shots when you throw them the ball.
Sam: Including Butler not missing a shot and, no I don’t expect to see 12 for 15 from Mirotic any time soon. Coaches and executives look a lot smarter when shots go in; that’s their frustration. The players get to shrug and say it’s a hit or miss league. The coaches and gms have to respond to the second guessing. Though, yes, Thibodeau was a big one for that hit or miss thing. I can see Butler’s dilemma. He knows he’s the best player, and he also is missing his sidekick Wade. So he feels he has to do more. But when he does it falls right into the opposition’s plan. It’s not unlike what Jordan went through.
The Pistons constantly baited him to take it on himself, thus taking everyone else out, or watching them take themselves out. And you could hardly blame Michael for looking around and figuring not only he had the best chance to score, but he owed it to the others to try and take the pressure off them. Michael could often. While Jimmy will tell you he’s no Michael Jordan. Such comparisons are unfair and inappropriate, and Jimmy can’t do what Jordan did. But he also looks around and sees a preschool of experience, so he decides to take a lot on himself. It’s a delicate balance and looks better when they make shots. When they don’t, then Jimmy thinks he made a mistake and should have shot more. And back and forth it goes until you develop more consistency, unity and stability and have more talent. The Bulls aren’t quite there yet.
Maybe you could explain something to the novice followers like me. Why would a team fight for the eighth playoff position, when they could finish ninth and have a
chance, small as it may be, to get the number one or a very high draft
Sam: Because they sometimes send you to prison for throwing games. You certainly should be in a moral sports prison for trying to lose. Yes, I understand and have debated many times the ethics and ethic of so called tanking and refusing to compete to build a roster, and sometimes it works, lately with the Cubs, and not with the 76ers. In my view, there’s still a purity to sports and what you do and stand for. You play the game to win the game, as the coach emphasized. That’s why you are in the game; that’s what the game is about. I understand odds and possibilities and probabilities, and management can be about that and there are coaches who have manipulated at the end of the season to get a more favorable playoff matchup. I recall Don Nelson doing that some years back, losing games on purpose at the end to get a better Utah team in what become a 2-7 matchup. And Nelson’s team won. One round, anyway.
Yes, we revel in the great gamesmanship of sports, like pretending to catch a ball you trapped in baseball or tricking the umpire with a fake tag and all that falling down or screaming for contact in basketball. I guess that’s cheating in a way also, and difficult to parse it all to what’s appropriate or not. That falls under human nature. It’s why so few governments trust people and vice versa. Perhaps that’s why we escape to sports, for the sport and for the competition, for the level playing field, or as close as it can be.
Maybe, as you say, you get lucky sometime and move up in the lottery from 13 or 14 to the top three, though it is rare. And eighth place usually means a first round out. Except when it didn’t when Derrick Rose had the knee injury in Game 1 or the Nuggets surprised the Supersonics for one of the great moments in franchise history. Just because you are not supposed to win doesn’t mean you cannot win, doesn’t mean something doesn’t happen. After all, they are just people, too. Magic Johnson’s great Lakers lost in the first round once. Not often, but it happens. So play the game, maintain some pride and dignity in who you are and what you and your organization stands for, and I suspect if a free agent is looking and trying to make a choice he might look more favorably on a place that values each and every win. I know I would.
I’m not a huge fan of tanking games as far as the Bulls are concerned, but I’m starting to ask myself what advantage is it for the Bulls to fight for the 8th playoff spot only to get swept or lose in 5 games after watching this weekend’s NCAA Tournament. There are at least 12-15 players I saw that could be huge difference makers to a team and as of right now. Well ok, I may have stretched it a bit. Two players which stood out to me were Monk & Fox for Kentucky. The latest CBS Mock draft has the Bulls Selecting Monk with the 11th pick. Now Hypothetically, if that were the case and Monk did fall to 11th, then this looks like a pretty strong draft on paper.
Sam: I admit I don’t watch much college basketball; basically none. But they’ll be coming to the NBA, so I watched some of the tournament the last few weeks. I admit players who don’t look like much at 18 or 19 can become awfully good, and eventually that’s the NBA. But I doubt I’ve seen five players who look like NBA players to me. At least pretty soon. It’s a big problem with youth in the NBA. You do it in baseball and they get to go to the minor leagues for a few years. You get a guy like the White Sox have who looks ready for the majors and everyone is fine he spends a year in the minor leagues. Maybe two. You get the same guy in the NBA draft and if you say he’s going to the D-league he’s declared an immediate bust.
It’s also difficult to analyze some of these kids with the mostly poor level of play in college ball. The game is tightly controlled with simplistic, patterned movement that doesn’t translate well to the NBA. As an aside, pay the kids now! I still don’t get the deal with college coaches who as soon as a better job comes along just walk away. Why are the contracts only one way? You pay them if you fire them. They walk away when they feel like it for a better job, leaving the kids they promised the world to standing there? Some way to teach the sanctity of a contract or agreement? Yeah, they’re educating them. OK, rant over. Back to the draft. You have to be patient because it was tough to see five kids in this tournament who were ready to do much in the NBA. I know Ben Simmons got hurt, but you can barely find anyone from this 2016 draft doing much in the NBA this season.
Sure, some will in a few years. But let’s not overvalue too quickly what you can get from this or any draft. When there’s a Lebron, sure, but that’s the 10-year flood. The only guys in the current NBA top 20 in scoring from the draft in the last five years are Towns and Wiggins and they were No. 1 overall picks. Antetokounmpo was a mid-first round steal, but an unusual risk. Sure there are guys, but if you are not in the top five, you also have to get a little lucky. It’s generally a good draft, you hear, and since I haven’t seen but a few games the last two weeks I’m not making any definitive judgments. Of course, I can as it’s my column. Still, don’t be oversold. Guys will take a lot of seasoning. Just look at the Lakers guys; high picks, solid players, but still not capable of being anywhere near the playoffs after two or three years. I’m not condemning the draft because that’s how the Bulls built a dynasty and from where you can become competitive again. If you’re watching the NCAA tournament it’s fun and entertaining, but don’t get too excited too quickly about building your team.
The stories after Jerry Krause died brought back great memories of how I remember the Bulls. The way they should be. Always competing for a title. RIP Jerry Krause. Truly the under appreciated greatest GM in Bulls' history.
Sam: Jerry did get some stirring tributes, though it’s always sad in a way that they say the nicest things about you at your funeral. I know there was this notion that perhaps it’s guilt or regret and Jerry didn’t get his due. I don’t think it’s quite that. After all, he is the only general manager I know to have his name retired with a banner in the team’s arena and he was named NBA executive of the year twice. It’s a heck of a lot of honors for anyone. Deserved, as well.
The dynamic you often see in organizations is credit. Jerry didn’t get as much, but it’s understandable. You had the player regarded as perhaps the greatest ever, another named top 50 who played on the most famous team ever (Dream Team) and the coach who won the most titles ever. Fourth on that list isn’t bad. Jerry’s reign was conflicted because of the nature of the confrontation: A general manager often needs to live in the shadows to ferret out the talent he needs to do his job. Information that leaks out can help the rival. So privacy becomes a necessity. For Jerry it became a religion combined with his private nature and his scout’s nature of privacy and secrecy. But the job requires a public face and ease, probably a self deprecating nature and welcoming personality.
OK, Theo Epstein has it. Players shouldn’t be compared with Jordan and executives shouldn’t be compared with Epstein. Jerry had six championship rings; when he was boss, his company was the greatest in the world. It doesn’t matter if it was because of the chef who made the greatest tasting product. We like to celebrate those to whom we can most relate. Not everyone gets the public acclaim. But a great job done is its own reward. You hope Jerry understood that because that was his worthy contribution.
Rondo is their best #1, and that's not so awful as long as they keep looking for his 'replacement'. In the meantime, he runs the offense better than any of the others and is the smartest player on the team.
Sam: For all the plans everyone may or may not have, most everyone makes judgments on the last thing they saw. I’ve always assumed, unlike those who believed Rondo was a buyout or trade possibility, that he was around for one season as a transitional player, possible trade piece with the small buyout and then onto someone else. It may still be, but for all the changes and tryouts and auditions, Rondo has remained and emerged as the one true point guard on the roster and the best for doing what coach Fred Hoiberg wants to do.
He’s not quite the dynamic player he was in Boston, but he’s been a great mentor for the young players and has learned to shoot the three much better. He’s been a nice influence to have around, perhaps the league’s most misunderstood player, one whose image and reputation doesn’t match the reality. It no longer seems ridiculous to think the Bulls would pick up his option for next season as with the circumstances and Wade probably returning, it might make sense to run with him another season before perhaps a big payroll available for free agency the summer of 2018.
We both were excited the Bulls obtained MCW, especially for Snell, a "get something for nothing" trade. Although he can be excellent defensively, he is not a point guard who can penetrate or distribute the ball. It’s amazing that in his third season he has not found a favorite spot or two where he can consistently hit a fifteen foot jump shot. And after trading Taj the Bulls announced that they were going to give the younger players extended playing time for further talent evaluations. So, what was learned? No single player exerted himself to even suggest they could emerge as a potential starter on a good contending team. At best, maybe one or two are rotation players.
Sam: It’s still a bit soon to know whether they can be starters. Valentine could, it seems. Mirotic might. Maybe Portis. But that’s the point. You have to begin to see them to have some idea of how they play and where, and who to pay. That likely was an issue with McDermott. Ready to give him an extension? So put that off a bit. After all, this is also about not locking yourself into big money contracts with players you’re not thrilled about moving forward with. The Bulls have guys they don’t have to do that with yet, except perhaps Mirotic, and that also depends on the offers in the market. Like Miami. What a great run they’ve had from that 11-30 start, but then do they want to start paying these James Johnson and Luke Babbitt types who have gotten them to .500?
Given the dual goals of the Bulls to compete for the veterans while looking at kids, you can’t say yet along with the shifting rotations that you have seen enough to make a determination. But you had to start looking at some point. As for Carter-Williams, I still like the trade as we knew Tony had no more future with the Bulls. When you realize that you have to move on. You don’t know if the new guy will work; maybe he won’t. But you know the last guy won’t work, and hanging onto him for fear of future failure and criticism is never the right thing to do. Carter-Williams really hasn’t gotten a consistent role with the Bulls. He shows abilities. I’d like to see him finish at the basket stronger, but he competes, is one of the few willing to play half and three quarter court defense, seems to try. His shot does seem broken, but so was Jason Kidd’s for years. And Rondo’s. He’s probably still in the conversation.
Help me understand. The one player who has gradually improved his shooting each month to eventually become one of our best shooters get rewarded by being relegated to the bench for two guys who are probably not even going to be on the team next year. Grant shot over 50% from the field and 48% from 3 point range in February and we reward this young man with the bench.
Sam: That’s the life is not fair thing around the Bulls. Stay ready. Grant got back in against Detroit, and while no one much likes it, it’s happened to just about everyone. Grant’s had his moments making shots, but hasn’t done enough to stake a claim among everyone else. You can’t play everyone and Hoiberg has been under pressure even from the players to tighten the rotation. Which means fewer guys play. He’s now giving Carter-Williams a run for defense, which has been better than Grant’s. The issue is just too many players who have excelled on one end, so Hoiberg mixes and matches, gives guys chances to excel, and if they do they stay. When they don’t as much they go down for awhile. Valentine has deserved more of a run, and he’s gotten it. Hey, Anthony Morrow probably is the best shooter, but he’s been a good soldier without any play and so has Canaan, who played a lot early. It’s just the way it goes on a team in transition like the Bulls. Nothing personal and hardly unexpected.
Whereas I can understand sitting a player like Lebron after he's been to the Finals six consecutive years, or an older player like Wade who is frequently injured, I don't have much sympathy for the Leonards, Thompsons, and other stars who sit without comparable fatigue/injury excuses. Greg Popovich claims that sitting players throughout the year effectively extends their careers up to three years. Not buying it.
The Spurs have gotten superstars and stars to buy into the idea of taking a backseat to up-and-comers, thereby allowing those players to thrive as role players in reduced minutes; that's a far more compelling case for career longevity than sitting players. Furthermore, this could have happened at any point in history were it not for the pride of once great players who had earned enough money realizing they were no longer great and not wanting to play the game at a diminished level.
Jordan could've played longer and settled into an 8th man role; he just viewed it as beneath him. If anything, the demand for international play during the summer puts more wear-and-tear on players' bodies than a full season of play. I actually wonder if that has anything to do with the spikes in injuries we've seen over the past few years. It's even worse for players who typically are never in peak condition (the Lowrys and Marc Gasols).
Sam: You know I have been on this one for a long time, and it seems to have gotten some traction now that they woke up someone at the league offices. My guess is it was someone from ESPN or TNT or ABC that let them know, you know these big contracts we signed for your games, well they are ratings disasters because of your entitled players and now we can’t charge the advertisers and we are going to lose money and that salary cap that pays everyone that’s built on these deals, well, let’s rethink that. Now, I will say most teams frown on this and so do most players. The top MVP candidates, Harden and Westbrook, don’t subscribe to that. A lot of NBA players are put off by the phony rest gambit. But the biggest thing that’s gotten lost among some of these entitled guys and teams is the responsibility to the league and the great partnership that enabled the NBA to grow as it has.
The salary cap came about in the early 1980s because players of that era, great ones like Bird and Magic and Erving, understood that working together for mutual benefit was going to enhance everyone and grow the game. Yes, suspicions and rivalries built with the lockouts, mostly in 1999, but the new media deals and recent collective bargaining agreement should have extinguished that bitterness and suspicion. Everyone is winning financially now, and the only obstacle to continued success is actions by some of the players and teams to try to embarrass the league with its sponsors and partners. Players of previous eras will argue against forced rest and its value or virtues while today’s players will point to longevity or health. No one really has certain proof.
It’s like in baseball with pitchers never completing games anymore. Does it lead to fewer arm injuries? Seems not. Longer careers? Maybe. Does rest prevent injuries in the NBA? There’s no proof. Rested people sprain ankles and blow out knees. That can be debated endlessly. If you believe something is better for you, it often doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t; it’s just the belief. But what is bad for the NBA is its marquee players and teams playing hooky like they do. When you represent any organization because of your excellence you have a greater responsibility. The health of the organization often depends on that.
The NBA only got better after Bird and Magic and Jordan retired. It will get better without LeBron and Curry. We’d miss them, but we’d still watch if they never played another game. Sure, it’s not fair to fans to buy tickets and then not see their favorites. But it extends beyond that. You’d hope they’d care enough about the league and its best interests—and theirs whether they acknowledge that or not--to not continue to embarrass and demean the product as they do.
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