Ask Sam Mailbag: 03.31.17


By Sam Smith

Cavaliers stink!

OK - not exactly but they are a very questionable team. The Bulls can make a run at the ECF next year. Find that center - get Jimmy & Wade healthy.... Rondo, Mirotic....

LongGiang Le

Sam: Yes, things look good after a victory. It was a nice one, especially because of the way LeBron came out. Serious. Wanted that one with the Cavs slumping, dominating early. Big first quarter lead on the road. I know, Kevin Love was in foul trouble. But their plus/minus was much better with him off the court that first half. They’ve made a load of moves, but their bench is poor and LeBron has got a shooting mental block. You saw a few times in that game Thursday when the Cavs swung the ball and he had the open three and he kept moving it. Didn’t want the shot.

That’s how you play them: Lay off LeBron until he can make shots, stay on the perimeter with the shooters and run like the Bulls did with Rondo because with guys like Frye, Love, Korver (who didn’t play), they don’t defend much. But can anyone in the East beat them? I’m still not sure given LeBron still is the conference’s best player. But the way the Bulls have played them has to encourage Boston, Toronto, Washington. Richard Jefferson the savior? The Bulls. It’s tempting to say with a fix here and a tuck there and a tweak, hey, how much better are the Celtics, the Raptors, the Wizards? The Wizards didn’t even make the playoffs the last season with basically the same team.

The Bulls finally lost to the Raptors for the first time in three years and had to collapse at the end to do so. That’s all that stands between them and the conference finals? Rondo was almost off the team two months ago. Mirotic a few weeks ago. Is this enough talent to compete for a title? For the playoffs? These last few weeks should actually tell a lot, but these still are serious and difficult questions to answer. I’ll admit. I don’t have a good answer, either.

Are the TNTBULLS a real thing? How would you compare them to the Jordan era?

Gorav Raheja

Sam: Those Bulls would sweep them every season. Hello, LeBron?

So if GarPax was offered a 1st rounder for Niko, would they still take it?

Guy Danilowitz

Sam: Heard they just turned down Westbrook for him on the three-point shooting. Analytics guys around the league all sending Niko valentines, and not Denzels.

I loved watching Joakim Noah. The energy, desire, fun, skill, love, and rare passion he brought to the Bulls. Very few leaders like that. Joakim was one of the few athletes that seemed to understand the moment and appreciated it. His love of winning and joy I think kept him in a college an extra year. So while he got I assume a lucky big last payday, I really feel for him.

How difficult it must be to be so significant to your team, growing and getting better as a player only to see such a health-related decline by your eight year. Then your career to your NBA team come to an end.

Pro athletes with heart like Jokim must have such a tough time adjusting to how fast things transpire. They know their livelihood can be lost quickly at any time, it much be such a blow to someone like Noah. I was saddened to hear this week's suspension of 20 games. His is a case where if he did try to get better faster, I could see why.

What do you think his mindset is now not playing and being on a somewhat dysfunctional team? I don't see him hanging on being an insignificant part of a championship team. Do you see him coaching or broadcasting post NBA?

Jeff Lichtenstein

Sam: Well, the Bulls got that one right, sadly. I guess that’s the old line about Father Time being undefeated. And maybe Noah was the best case for what I always rail against, saving yourself and your body to extend your career. Though if Noah rested and paced himself like many stars do these days, he never would have had his career. After all, he’s the exceptionally rare example of the skill of hustle and leadership. He couldn’t shoot, he really wasn’t a great rebounder. He dribbled well, but only for a center. Same with passing. He may have been the winningest no tool player of all time. Carried his team to a pair of NCAA titles; was an integral piece when the Bulls were about to go beyond the conference finals until you know what happened in 2012. And then he held it together for three years almost by himself. It probably contributed to his physical demise.

Actually, if he had rested he never would have been paid because he never would have been the player he became and was. That’s another flaw about this rest debate. Most players cannot afford to do so because then they don’t have the impact they might have had. I think Jo got a raw deal on the suspension. I think from the new collective bargaining agreement what he took won’t even be illegal next season. If Joakim Noah was trying to build his body with supplements, he’s done a bad job. Shockingly bad. Most guys after saying they want to spend more time with their families—no offense here—often find they don’t and their families aren’t that interested, either. That’s usually political speak for I got fired or no one wants me anymore. Everyone’s time comes. Most guys want to come back in some way because—and most American workers are that way, also—because that’s who they were, what they were best at and what they enjoyed the most. It’s difficult when no one needs you anymore. Though with his unique and expansive view of life, Jo is one guy who I don’t believe we’ll ever see much around the NBA after he leaves. He’s got a lot of livin’ to do.

Enough already. Apparently the Bulls have the talent to be competitive with the top teams in the league. The bottom 5, not so much. The losing to the Sixers and then beating the Bucks, a variation that has happened all year, is difficult to comprehend. I don’t believe the Bulls have the talent to compete nightly as currently constructed. But what I would like to know is what magic potions are used against the top teams? Pride? You would think that losing to the Sixers would not be tolerated. Everybody gets up against the best, but the bottom dwellers or tankers as they are now called require pride as well.

I think this represents an organizational issue. Who knew this was this complicated?

Greg Young

Sam: Yes, organizations don’t make the playoffs, also. It’s less the pattern of an underachieving team than an average team. Nobody loses all their games; Brooklyn wins some good ones. Occasionally, Brook Lopez makes five threes. Stuff happens. The Bulls have .500 type talent now, pretty good, but not exceptional, perhaps for Butler. Which reflects their record, their expectations and what was reasonable considering they broke up their 60-win team just last June. It had been coming apart for four years, but the new beginning began just a few months ago. It began with a pause, the short term signings of Rondo and Wade, which sounded competitive, but no longer was.

Their names were famous, but not so much their games, and worse those games clashed, giving Hoiberg a truly unsolvable puzzle for the season: Ball holding players for an open offensive plan, guys too ingrained to change their habits, but talent. So when the talent makes some shots, they can play with anyone. Because they were good enough to be a playoff team. I thought before the season they would be and they still can be. I don’t think anyone—even the most devoted fans—saw them as a top four team. It’s not like we’re talking the tanking 76ers. They have high character people who want to compete. Just not enough overall talent with a transition that includes working in some of the less experienced guys. If they didn’t win some of those tough games and then didn’t lose some of those gimme games, actually that would be the surprise.

Ricky Rubio is on a tear in the 2nd half of the season. Bet Stan regrets not dealing reggie for him when he had the chance.

Mike Sutera

Sam: And Phil, too, though I never heard if that was a real deal for Rose or who backed out, assuming someone did. Thibodeau is going to be interesting to watch this summer. Missed the playoffs with arguably an all-NBA center. Got a bunch of pretty good, young point guards hanging around, and his veteran has kicked all their butts and they can’t get on the court. Post all-star he’s been one of the best point guards in the league, averaging 15.8 points and 10.6 assists and shooting 40 percent on threes. And that was before 30 and 10 Thursday with four of five threes. They said if he ever could shoot he’d be a star, and so what do you do now?

Tyus Jones also is a good point guard prospect. Zach LaVine will be back and plays some point. Can you dare trade Rubio now? That should be interesting. The guys who have taken over the dual roles running and coaching a team haven’t done very well with the personnel side, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy. They are both Thibodeau mentors. It’s not an advisable situation because of the obvious of coaches wanting to win now and managers trying to build for long term. Popovich had to basically give up the personnel part, though he likely has a significant role. Same with Riley. You sign someone to a big deal because they are playing well and you need to keep your relationship with them and then, like Reggie Jackson, it comes apart and now you have to bench him and that can be pretty uncomfortable day to day.

There’s often a natural antipathy to management—what lunch were you at where everyone was praising their bosses?—and there you are in their face every day. Thibodeau is next for some major decisions. Should be fun to watch.

I was watching something the other day that was talking about an analytics website predicting the chances of each team winning the NBA championship at this point. They had the Cavaliers at 2% and about 6 other teams ahead of them! Two percent! This kind of prediction machine makes these statistic guys sound nuts and is why so many old school people hate it. I mean, why would the show I was watching even put up this prediction, what a joke! It's just silly to put a stat like that right now, just like it was silly when they had the Bulls chances to make the playoffs earlier in the year at like 90%, boy are these predictions just a waste.

Jon Kueper

Sam: Yes, those prediction stats are the silliest as they change with every game. I love the ones (love meaning hate) that give you the odds of winning as the game is going on, which of course changes when the other team makes a run. There’s value in statistics, and if you like sports you love to play with the stats. I recall as a kid when we didn’t have calculators I used to write down the standings every day and add them up to make sure the percentages were correct. Yes, I spent a lot of time by myself. We had analytics then; we just didn’t call it that.

We knew where guys scored best from, where to push them for lower percentage shots, where our easiest shots came from. And given that all baskets were equal, we could shoot layups if we had a lane to the basket. In this era, we do get carried away with some stats because we also have the ability to acquire so many more. That does, however, make many have less meaning because there seem to be so many. Sort of like trying to watch political shows on cable these days. But this Westbrook season is pretty impressive.

Bulls are fighting now for the final spot in the East. Do you think the Bulls will get in? With all the reports & stories out that the Bulls have no direction, didn’t Pax say he was building “with” Jimmy Butler? Is that the same is saying we are Building around Jimmy? Or does the term (with) mean the Bulls will either build with him on the team or will use him as a chip to build if the right deal comes along.

Randall Sanders

Sam: No one knows, and I doubt they know for sure because any deal depends on what you can get. Plus, this also often depends on how you finish. I’ve seen reports again of decisions made. Absolutely untrue. Look, you miss consecutive playoffs in the East, if it comes to that, no one is that essential. Though you’re also assuring yourself of stepping back for now if you lose your best talents. It’s a tough decision for all teams that don’t reach their expectations or beliefs. We’ll hear two months of rumors that likely are just speculation. Also, these situations about the playoffs can change dramatically when it is so close.

Playing “lesser” opponents like the Bulls are the last week with Brooklyn twice and the 76ers means little, as we already have seen being blown out by the 76ers at home. Plus, you often are better off having the top teams on your schedule at the end because many have their seeding set, so they basically play no one because they are locked in. Others rest their best players. No one needs rest with Brooklyn or Philadelphia because they are playing for their careers and contracts. Those teams tend to be tougher down the stretch, so it makes it harder for the Bulls. But like they say about winning that last game to knock someone out in a series, it’s tough as you’ll get their best. Some teams get a game or two from clinching and just can’t close. Shots get aimed, guys try too hard. The Bulls obviously have a chance controlling some tiebreakers, and Indiana has played poorly. At least it’s something to look forward to these last two weeks. And, hopefully, a bit more.

Had the Pacers as the #2 in the East prior to the season. Boy was I wrong.

Teague was a horrible fit and I feel bad for whoever pays him next. Young has been disappointing as well. Al Jefferson can no longer score enough to distract you from the horrible D and no rebounding. Ellis well his best days ended a few years ago.

Bob Ding

Sam: Yes, a lot of good plans don’t work. I know how things work in the world. Critics judge based on what occurred. Of course, that is the nature of criticism, but it’s also somewhat intellectually dishonest if you would do the same thing and it doesn’t work to blame them for not doing something different. Saying it’s their job to know is suggesting a divine knowledge no one is supposed to possess. Though blame is much easier than responsibility. I had the Pacers a top four team as well, figuring they needed a point guard and Teague was good and going home, Jefferson off the bench for punch, Young fitting in for their new style of running and pushing the ball.

A problem has been Paul George, who hasn’t been what we thought he would be. Or was. He’s settled in more as a jump shooter now compared with the attacking big man he was before his heinous broken leg. Just because he looks OK doesn’t mean he is. To be fair, I went back to take a look at my preseason predictions. I did a viewer’s guide and here was my five hot teams to watch: Houston, Boston, Minnesota, Phoenix and New York. OK, got maybe three of five. Still a D in school.

Here was my five teams to fade: Toronto, San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte. Looked good on Miami when they were 11-30. Maybe another D, three of five, perhaps. Though I’ve always considered hitting three of five in preseason predictions pretty good. LeBron was my MVP. OK, he’s still top five. Mike D’Antoni was my coach of the year. I think I get that one. Zach Randolph, Sixth Man. Got a chance. Kawhi, Defensive Player. Easy, but I think it will be Draymond. Embiid Rookie of the Year. We all had that for 31 games. Here were my picks by conference:

East playoffs:
New York

West playoffs:
Golden State
San Antonio
Oklahoma City

Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

I’m still sticking with that Finals. Yeah, I was rooting for Rose, Noah and Phil.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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