Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.30.18
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer readers' questions.
Maybe I was wrong to complain about how hard it is to watch Bulls games these days. That part's true, but I have to say, the daily Standings Watch is a lot more interesting at the Bulls' end of the spectrum than up on top. I find myself paying attention to Sacramento, Brooklyn, Dallas and Orlando more than I ever have, because they are the other 22-24 win teams in the league. If they all get "hot" and win two or three of their final 8 games, the Bulls could end up with the #4 or #5 draft choice, just by doing what they're doing. This view of the NBA poses some interesting quandaries. Like, when 22-win Orlando plays 23-win Brooklyn, who should I root for? A Brooklyn win puts the Bulls one loss away from a 3-way tie for the 6th pick, or maybe even the 5th if Dallas wins its second in a row. On the other hand, Orlando has to win at least two more games this year if the Bulls are to have any chance of landing in the fourth slot. These are the kind of choices that age NBA fans prematurely.
Sam: If we've gotten there we've all damaged the sport. I'm sure the Bulls are as uncomfortable with this as many of us are. It's almost gotten me to the point now despite my general reluctance about change to open the lottery to all 30 teams and if anyone complains, well you guys caused this. The NBA understands this dilemma as well, and perhaps lessening the odds for the top pick next season will do something. But I believe the analytics people are at fault since I blame them for most everything wrong with sports these days, anyway, and some of the politics and trade deficit. I think the numbers types have persuaded owners it's not cost effective to add veteran free agents. So more teams are deciding, especially like this winter in baseball, that if you cannot be playing for a title, it's more profitable to play for nothing with the view that the great player will eventually be there and your fans want to play for a title or nothing. So play for nothing until you can play for something. It's like all the idiots playing the Power Ball. Hey, what's the point unless I can be a billionaire? And they keep playing, right? So wait all year for that draft, and then another, and another, and then another. I suspect we've seen the end of this with this season with the Bulls no matter how this draft comes out. Plus, they are too far along with the Jimmy Butler trade to be in the position again. Do they have the talent to begin playing for a title? Probably not. But they have the talent to begin playing for something, and what's wrong with that? Forget Jordan-like dynasties. Or Golden State's. What's wrong with playing for a shot at one. The Pistons and Mavericks did in the last 20 years, and though it was just one, they were great runs without that many transcendent stars. Or even one in the case of the 2004 Pistons. It was like the Bulls teams of the early 2000s when John Paxson put together a group with Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon. Maybe the best they'd ever get was 50 wins, but they were tough and played hard and if they got lucky with a trade or a player emerging, who knows. There's nothing wrong with playing out seasons for the sake of competition. Sports devolving in many quarters to this zero sum thing where one wins and everyone else is a loser has twisted the idea of sports and competition. The Bulls, to me, have enough players moving forward to become that developing, intriguing, competitive team of the early 2000s. Maybe Hinrich would move back and become part of the staff. Guys like him know what it looks and feels like. It can produce some great stuff, like that playoff sweep of the defending champion Heat even when there are no rallies in its future. Was there a question there? Let's just get to the draft pick. There's no LeBron in this draft and everyone in the top 10 should get a pretty good player. When does next season begin?
I am against the tank. When I'm in town and pay money I want my team to win. I was curious about your thought on this ESPN piece I just read on the tank. I know it is a baseball piece but they do go into basketball as well.
Sam: Darn, those math guys. I actually was one, an accountant for two years after college studying for the CPA exam when my then company, Arthur Young, and I, seemed to realize about the same time I'd make a better, well, something else. That ESPN story is a good history of what we're seeing in sports now focused more on baseball. But as we often hear in sports, it's a copycat world. So while the Cubs and Astros had ultimate success, once you begin to have success everyone tries it and everyone cannot have the same success and you get into the same situation of odds. It's like when the Lakers with Magic were dominating. So everyone tried playing a 6-9 point guard. But there was just one. The Astros were mocked for three or four years and it worked. The Pirates were mocked on and off for 30 and it really hasn't. Did it work for the Money Ball A's? Or did they just fall into a few pitchers one season and a good author? And if all—or most—try it, then you fall into the same odds again. And the Kings keep losing. I'm for each season mattering no matter your talent level. I like the Broadway show model; put on a good performance every time you get on stage. Excellence is in what you witness, not the rewards from it.
Sean Kilpatrick? Was this a guaranteed three years? Looks like a good bench guy. Janero Pargo 2.0
Sam: There were no guarantees beyond these last few weeks, and what the Bulls like to do at the end of most seasons is put themselves in position to have leverage in deals with extra pieces, which is smart. Sometimes you can get a reluctant team to finish a deal by adding something, the vig, as Jerry Krause used to say. The vigorish is technically the house take in gambling, the little extra. It's what also made Krause tough to deal with, but got the Bulls some nice extras. Kilpatrick hasn't done much yet, but even as he said, every day in the NBA is a tryout, so we'll give him a few more days. The Bulls certainly could use someone who can make shots. Maybe Antonio Blakeney 2.0 for now.
Kawhi may still be hurt. It says a lot that he and his reps have been seeing outside team doctors. Pop orders his players to do a hit job. Remember J.R. Richard? Who's to say he's ready to play. Stephen Jackson went off on Tony Parker too. Says he was selfish in 2014 and he's a dupe now, with what he's saying about Kawhi.
Sam: This all is shocking given the way the Spurs have been sort of a secret government agency all these years. Pop doesn't order his players to do hit jobs, I will correct. Perhaps his greatest strength is his positive relations with players. It's really what separates great coaches like Popovich, Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, Chuck Daly and all the way back to Red Auerbach. They take a personal interest in their players, and their players, ultimately, know that. Stephen Jackson? He pretty much resents everyone. I can see teammates having some questions given how amazingly well the Spurs have done without Leonard. It's still a season Popovoch is having yet another Coach of the Year season, though he won't win. How that team still is a playoff team is remarkable without Leonard, with all this stuff going on, the injuries, aging issues with Parker and Ginobili and Gasol, working in kids and demanding they perform. Popovich's combination of demanding accountability while personalizing the process is an unusual strength. This off season continues to grow in interest for how they can put that Humpty Dumpty of a cracked egg even in San Antonio back together.
Charlotte dangling Kemba during the draft?
Sam: This one is going to be tough for the world's most competitive man, Michael Jordan. But speaking of the losing formula, it may be his turn now like his buddy in Miami, Derek Jeter and his Miami Marlins. Mike, by the way, owns a small share. With new front office leadership coming in after pushing to be on the edge of the playoffs the last few years, it seems like the Hornets are about where the Bulls were with little path forward and some big contracts to pay. Though Kemba is no Jimmy Butler. The interesting part about Walker, who recently was emotional on camera after becoming the franchise's leading scorer, is that not only probably was the goodbye, but he's a bargain. But for one year at $12 million. How much for a rental? Do you want to pay him big after next season when he's heading toward 30 and we're still not sure he's six foot. We'll see how that Isaiah Thomas thing goes this summer. Probably not very well with yet another medical absence. He looks like a J.J. Redick one year deal. The Hornets want a team to take Nicholas Batum, owed a—holy crap!—$75 million over the next three years. Yikes, whose idea was that? Oh, right. But that's another team about to explode. Hey, Dwight Howard for one year, anyone? Just had a 30/30. Now, I've got a Bismack and a Fornier, you give me Dwight and....
I know you don't enjoy the tanking process. Neither do I. You often point out how long it takes and how painful it is to watch. How many times this approach fails. I agree with all of that. One notable exception was the Sonics/Thunder. That's the experience think Bulls fans should be hoping for. Similar to what the Bulls did with Butler, the Sonics sparked their rebuild with the Ray Allen trade. Then a couple of bad years led to very good picks with Westbrook and Harden. Snag Ibaka late in the draft and rebuild is done. It can work quickly. It just takes a lot of luck. The tanking and rebuilding in general is no fun and rarely works. There are countless examples as you mention of it not working. My point was that there are a few examples here and there that do work which is what leads everyone to pursue this route even though they ignore that it takes a ton of luck for this plan to work. I'd much rather they stay a 45-50-win team forever and hope Lebron or whoever is best after him to get hurt. My idea for star distribution has always been to have hard salary caps and to have no individual player cap. So basically no team could afford to have more than one star. But that would probably lead to a lot of teams with overpaid old stars who aren't good anymore.
Sam: I recall when the Bird exception came into effect when the NBA was toying with a hard cap. The league was in trouble in the early 1980s as the Finals games still were on delay and as famous as we made the Bird/Magic thing, TV wasn't buying it quite yet. But the Celtics and Red Auerbach made an interesting point that resonated. He said you, the other teams, don't want us to lose Larry Bird, which the Celtics were about to with that new salary cap. It not only was creating a potentially dangerous precedent, but it didn't help the league. I know the NFL has many other issues and changes its rules to respond about every three weeks, but the lack of star teams and thus enough games that are significant continues to make it less urgent to watch other than to check your betting card. Everyone doesn't get to win; there shouldn't be trophies for attendance. Maybe some teams never get to win. But you don't want a league like in hockey where they have to dismantle success so often. Organic greatness is good for leagues, and so maybe you might be jealous of some other city's teams. But you certainly wanted Jordan to be able to stay when you had him.
Two NCAA college conferences are the ones proposing ‘two or none'. They probably care more about the marketability of college hoops than about then kids. But I'd still like to see a 2 yr. minimum... and nobody straight out of HS. Too bad for the very rare LeBron/Garnett types.
Sam: I never fully get the constitutional right thing about this. It's no one's natural right to be able to try out for the NBA. The NBA is a private business and like all private businesses, should be able to establish its own set of rules within the framework of the Constitution, which has no clauses regarding NBA participation. You need a law degree to argue in court for a law firm. At least the law firm demands it. You need to pass the CPA exam in public accounting. The NBA should be able to say you need, like a doctor with medical school—and Dr. J did need three year's training—two or three years of training to apply. It's become an issue of bargaining with the players union, which for reasons I never fully understand refuse to agree. It's not racial. It's not to deny opportunity to poor kids or to anybody's kids. It's the right to try to make your business better and more professional by establishing standards of education and development. For everyone.
Darius Bazley the Syracuse recruit is going straight to the G-league instead. This makes no sense to me. You cant jump from HS to the NBA but you can bypass college and still go to the G league. I don't think that's fair to other college guys. I think guys benefit from a yr or two playing college basketball. Last guy to bypass college like this was Brandon Jennings and Mudiay who both opted for China.
Sam: I actually think that's great. Sure, if you are going to be drafted, but hardly anyone is. Get a start on your potential pro career, make some money and not become a co-conspirator in the corrupt world of intercollegiate athletics. It seems to me this kid has a higher level of ethics and morality than the Roy Williams and Bill Self types who make tens of millions of dollars exploiting the charade of student athletics. Sure, some kids profit educationally from those scholarships in basketball and football, though I doubt many. I hear the stories from the kids who come to the NBA, many of whom would like to be students, if only while they are there. But they get forced out of majors to easier majors which require little work so they can be involved in the athletics from almost daybreak to lights out. Sure, it's enjoyable to watch the tournament and an exception like Loyola, where there likely is more adherence to academic standards. Yes, if you're going to get one of those donor $120,000 presents, then sure, go to “school.” But if you aren't serious about school or not ready or not interested, go to the G-league right away. NBA teams have become serious about the league given it's transitioning into a legitimate minor league with coaches connected to the parent team and a system of play. You'll get a fair look and a chance. Actually, I wouldn't say no to something like China with a larger pay day and a chance to experience the country and culture, though I agree at 18, I probably wouldn't have been as amenable. Fifty years later it sounds more appealing. Players certainly benefit from playing in college a few years with its large fan bases and pressure situations in tournaments. There really should be a pro sports major in college where kids recruited come in and their classes are their games. After all, that's what they are being brought there to do. No college president actually wants these kids in classes when they can be promoting donations. Sure, if you're a top guy you'll be better off going to college to get picked high in the draft even if teams have no idea how good you may be because you are, well, 18, and probably in a poorly coached, structured system that doesn't lend itself to NBA play. But if you are not the elite guy and are realistic about wanting to have a pro career, go to the G-league and start earning some money. It probably gives you a head start on those kids who are not the all-Americans, though you obviously won't travel as well as the "student athletes."
Lots of concerns being voiced about Zach's game, but I haven't heard much about his knee. What is keeping him out all these games? Should bulls fans be concerned or is this just part of this ugly tank job and the bulls' way of avoiding a fine?
Sam: I don't believe it's anything serious, but he hasn't let me examine him yet. I actually think he's made a remarkable recovery from the ACL the way he plays with such certainty and a lack of hesitation. My guess on this is he's probably had some expected soreness that is reasonable after sitting out a year and coming back and ramping up to more than 30 minutes per game for a month without a hitch. Even with him protesting about not being able to play back to backs. So if I were the team given the circumstances with Dunn legitimately hurt, I might say to rest a bit more since, well, you know, uh....
Carmelo. woof. Not even one 30 point game this season. Looks like he's stuck in cement.
Sam: It never even sounded like a good idea. Oklahoma City? Fight Phil Jackson all that time and refuse to agree to a trade and then, Oklahoma City? Yes, what ever became of Carmelo Anthony? Forget not even a 30-point game. Four of his last six have been in single digits. He played 32 minutes and had two points in a game before that. It was a classic in the press room Thursday in Miami after the Bulls game. They had on the end of the Thunder-Spurs game and Oklahoma City gets the ball down three with a last possession. Sure, we all love Russell Westbrook's hustle and play, but everyone basically says simultaneously Russell's going to dribble down, not look for anyone and take a wild shot. And one air ball later, yes, Spurs win. I'm sure like many American cities, Oklahoma City has its positives. But I cannot fathom a worse place to be for a young (or not that young) pro athlete with as desolate a downtown area as there is among all the NBA cities and, hey, got a basement for those tornado warnings? People there are always so nice to you, but why is Carmelo Anthony there? This is a guy who absolutely loved the New York scene, even the media. He loved the attention; even explaining the endless losing. It's one thing to be Dwayne Wade and defer to LeBron James. But to Westbrook? And Paul George? Heck, they get the ball more to Steven Adams. Phil's not that kind of person, but he deserves a last laugh on that one.
The article I saw on five thirty eight about shooting aid range for the Pacers this season says a lot about Nate McMillan beating able to coach to his players strengths. Not every team has to play the same to win, just be the best version of yourself.
Sam: I love that. I still believe—and I did look it up—a made two is worth more than a missed three. I see the Bulls caught in this too much of going with the threes when, well, maybe you are not the right guy to shoot them. Perhaps more Lauri and less you, Portis. Bobby's become a lot better, but it's not quite as natural. Also remember, the Warriors and the Rockets make a lot of layups. The Pacers have been a great, surprise story this season and McMillan probably will get coach of the year because it generally goes to the coach of the team everyone underestimated. Though you still look at them and ask how it's happened. But McMillan has done well not to force them into what they can't do and take advantage of what they can. And, by the way, they defend pretty darned well. Sounds like good coaching.
Will the Bulls keep Robin Lopez if nobody else wants him? Who will be released or traded? Of the present Bulls, Portis, LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen seem like locks for the rotation next year. Who else do you see getting court time?
Sam: I thought the Miami game was a great example of Robin's value; not just in the statistics, but what he brings in leadership, commitment and curiosity. I admit I was wary of his inability to, as they say, rebound in space, and those mechanical moves that make him look like Fred Gwynn in the old Munsters TV show. But you need competitors like him when sometimes that competitiveness gene drifts. The Bulls obviously need to explore whether players like Lopez and Omer Asik with a year left on their deals will get them something worthwhile, though I would not be surprised to see Robin back as starting center next October. It sure looks like Nwaba has earned a return. Holiday has another season on his deal and Payne also looks like he's got a chance as a backup. Grant has another season left as well and he should be in competition with Payne. Valentine will return, though Blakeney needs to prove some more. But he has a chance. Vonleh is proving intriguing, but where as a restricted free agent and I have my doubts on Zipser, who continues to have medical issues.
Heck of a game Harden must've had last night, if SportsCenter is to be believed. Indeed..."the greatest one on one player ever," the commentator gushes. "What he can do out of the pick and roll…" Leaving aside the laughable non-sequitor...somewhere, Mike is going "hold my beer."
Sam: And knowing him he probably did. Hey, if it wasn't on Twitter, how would anyone know if it really did happen?
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