Ask Sam Mailbag: 04.05.2019
Sam opens his mailbag and answers your questions about the Bulls and other stories around the NBA
Is Zion really that much of a "cant' miss" No. 1 overall pick?
Is it a concern that he couldn't lead his team into the Final 4?
Sam: It would be a good study to compare the NCAA tournament success versus NBA career success. It's hardly an indicator, no offense to Ryan Arcidiacono, who was an NCAA tournament most outstanding players for a title team. Certainly, there were great winners like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor), Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon. And guys who dominated the tournament like Jack Givens, Tony Delk and Mateen Cleeves. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Paul Pierce were out in the second round, Ben Simmons and Paul George never even made the tournament and even though Michael Jordan's shot won a title, his junior year his North Carolina team didn't get to the Final Four. So we won't hold that against Zion.
You mean a can't miss player like Greg Oden, Markelle Fultz or Joe Barry Carroll? There's no such thing as can't miss. Though the large majority of overall NBA No. 1 picks have had good careers, if not always superstar. Which is the "can't miss" question on Williamson. Someone and likely several in the draft will be All-Stars, though team building is about getting that one star. The 76ers have made some really good deals and other drafts, but without Embiid they're still about a .500 team. Since I've been following the draft starting in the early 1960s, I'd say Zion's in the top 10 of most hyped players. I'd probably put him after Kareem, Magic, Olajuwon, Walton and LeBron. And in a group with Oden, Shaq, Patrick Ewing and maybe Elvin Hayes or Tim Duncan. Cazzie Russell is just on the edge. Most, obviously, went onto big careers, and Zion should also. Though Walton's and Oden's were sidelined by injury, and Williamson does put a lot of torque on his body. Ewing never led his team to a title even as a Hall of Famer. It still requires luck after lucking into the No. 1 pick.
More than ever if we get the no 1, I'd trade it. I really don't want Zion. A lot of these kids look awesome against the other kids, they won't against an NBA talent. Maybe he will be as good as this generation gets. But I remember everybody was hot and heavy for Eddy Curry, and I'm wondering, "he can't even beat high School kids for the State Championship, let's get real". I know we need a point, and a shooting /scoring defensive All NBA, Klay Thompson, or a realistic version of him.
Sam: I believe some personnel people have doubts about how Zion will hold up and where he fits at his size. But it would take the boldest and most secure executive in history (Pat Riley? Popovich? Red Auerbach?) to pass on Williamson, especially since the presumed No. 2 pick is a late blooming point guard who we're not sure could bench press a rack of basketballs. Zion has been the media story of college basketball and, at the very least, would be the best merchandise and ticket seller to come along in years. There probably isn't a team business and marketing department that would let him pass if only for the media coverage the team would get for the next six months. ESPN already is interviewing reporters to embed with Zion. I'm guessing, but would not be surprised. That alone should equal the value of his contract. You'd be able to make a great trade if you had Williamson, though no one will. I know I'm getting the No. 1 pick right this year in my mock draft. Probably two and three also, but from there I'm done. And probably many teams as well.
Now that we are down the season stretch. Which of these young players that are getting time that you would like to see stick on with the Bulls to try to and or make this roster going into next season? Lemon, Jr. Jakkar Sampson, Shaq Harrison, Arch, and TLC.
Sam: I'd like to see many of them as they are hard playing, good, tough kids. Perhaps one or two will be there. As I noted the other day after the Wizards game, there basically are about 10 Bulls roster spots taken already without any of those guys: Dunn, LaVine, Porter, Markkanen and Carter, basically next season's starting five (if no Zion), and none are playing now. Then there's a potentially decent bench with Valentine, Hutchison, two draft picks and one or two free agents with about $20 million available. And that doesn't include Cristiano Felicio, still under contract, and Robin Lopez, a free agent who could return. Of course, there could be trades. I've been a fan of Walt Lemon's since watching him all season in the G-league, though I suspect the team for now is most comfortable with Arcidiacono and Harrison. But it's possible there will be just one roster spot available since the Bulls like to carry 14 to keep a spot open in case of a trade opportunity. And some of those guys might find better opportunities for more playing time considering the way they've improved as NBA players. I'd say most deserve to be on NBA rosters next season. Most have done a good job with the Bulls in a tough situation and are the kind of players you'd like for your bench.
I'm a huge fan of team building and unlike most of our fans, actually have patience and see potential in our roster. My biggest fear in free agency this year is acquiring players that may push our young players already on the roster, further down the rotation. There's something to be said for on-job training. Hutch and Valentine specifically. The drop off from the starters to the bench is too dramatic. So I've compromised a list of pieces that I think will fit and compete.
Bulls possible new roster: All UFA
- Pursue Dinwiddie or Dragic as starter
- If Dragic is starter, still attempt to sign Dinwiddie as backup
- Keep Arci as 3rd pg
- Niko or Taj (backup PF)
- Re-sign Robin
- Pursue Hood/Justin Holiday/Glen Robinson III
- Trade Dunn! For picks/cash if necessary
- Maybe waive Blakeney, Felicio, if no one bites in trade talks
- Still have Hutch & Valentine
- Valentine has to show and prove
- Keep Selden? Maybe G-League prospects Lemon & Sampson?
Sam: If I can figure that out, you seem mostly to be looking for the Bulls 2015 roster. Dragic, by the way, has a player option for about $20 million which I assume with his injuries he'll pick up. I would. Been there, done that. I know there's been talk about bringing back many from that ol' gang, like Derrick, Taj, Jo. Dinwiddie recently signed a three-year extension, as I recall. The Bulls still need some veteran guidance in addition to Otto Porter Jr. But when you bring back players you had in more golden times, the tendency is for the community to expect them to be who they were and not who they are. It could change, but I suspect the Bulls will look for younger veteran types like Porter.
Toronto was an enjoyable first Bulls game because of the refreshing team effort and Lemon. You have to like his burst, the way he distributes the ball and his drives to the basket. We don't know if he can shoot beyond eight feet and certainly the league will adjust but for one night he was fun to watch.
Sam: Then he didn't look good, and then Wednesday in Washington he did again. It's difficult to put too much into what goes on these days between teams not playing for anything. But it is something when you can make a winning shot and/or free throws like Lemon did in Washington. It shows more than just about Lemon that there are players—as there are people in all professions—who need a chance, that opportunity often transcends ability. We generally accept that if you have the job or perform, it's because of you and that others would not be able to. It's not necessarily the case, but those who have the positions like to write the narratives. Walt Lemon could have been a rotation regular this season on a dozen or more NBA rosters. He just wasn't because he wasn't before. It's often the flaw of scouting and personnel in many fields. Some people need a chance even though they don't have the appropriate credentials.
The latest collegiate cheating scandal has shined a light on what we all knew, that wealthy and connected people can get their kids into places that assure a foot in the door that others don't have. It's been the great inequity of American society, and many others, undoubtedly. After all, how many of those European queens ever sounded smart? And the kings sounded like absolute idiots. Like so many of these presidents and world leaders with Ivy League credentials. After listening to them, you know they didn't take their SATs.
Guys like Walt Lemon and before him at Windy City, Alfonzo McKinnie, were NBA players. They just didn't have the right resumes, the right college or awards or camps. It's why you so often see scouts travel in packs. If they all make the same mistake, then it's not wrong. That's why so many of these mock drafts you see are consensus. The best way to keep your job is to make sure the other guys see things the way you do. The outlier is the risk taker, and we find so few. Why take a chance on a guy like Walt Lemon if no one else does? Sure, sometimes those guys slip through, and sometimes like with Lemon and McKinnie, they improve with time and experience. Most of us can recognize obvious talent. Guys like Lemon and Sampson aren't All-Star, franchise changers. They actually are like many of us, who could do many of our bosses' jobs better than they do. If only the opportunity. It's the greatest of gifts. Then it's on you. And, really, what more can you ask.
You wrote that the Bulls didn't have anything resembling what it would have taken to move up in last year's draft. I found this opinion to be surprising as I thought they could have bested Dallas' offer, though admittedly I wanted them to take Jackson Jr. at the time, not Doncic. I was worried about Doncic's seemingly so-so athleticism, which as you wrote hasn't held him back so far.
Anyway, I thought the Bulls could have offered the #7 pick (Dallas offered #5) and next year's first round pick (same as what Dallas gave up, both are young/bad teams so you'd assume one's 2019 first wouldn't be much more highly valued than the other's). But what I thought could've put the Bulls offer over the top was including the #22 pick used for Hutchison. I suppose Atlanta specifically wanted Young and feared losing him to Dallas if they moved all the way back to #7, but at least that Bulls offer would have been very close to what Dallas offered, right?
Anyway, I hope Carter turns out to be a good one. He is who I wanted them to take if they couldn't move up and hasn't disappointed me so far. Not sure I saw any star potential this year before he got hurt but I didn't expect to.
Sam: I actually think it's possible the Bulls would have been with you and taken Jackson, who also looks like he'll be really good. After all, let's not judge all the drafts after six months. Remember, three months ago Young was a bust. But it's moot because I knew they were trying to move up and couldn't. They hope Hutchison becomes a contributing player, but No. 22 never is quite enough to get you much. They could not beat Atlanta's offer without giving up Markkanen. LaVine coming off knee surgery recovery and as a free agent didn't have as much value even if he could have been traded. We haven't talked about Carter much because he's been gone so long. BO, as it were, Before Otto. And before Lopez' Leap.
But when next season begins—assuming the Bulls don't get the No. 1 pick and Zion says he's a center—Carter will be back starting at center. There are concerns and questions, though there should not be that many as he'll have just turned 20. He really had an impressive (half) season considering he was deferring offensively at the time trying to fit in and going through two coaches in his first season with half the starters out. He had some huge scoring games, several double/doubles, and played with unusual poise. He probably cannot work on his height in the offseason, which has been the main concern as he was overwhelmed at times by the bigger centers. He's said he considers himself more of a power forward. But he is unusually physical for someone his age and has the potential to do so many more things offensively inside and outside. His injury was perhaps the freakiest of the freaky. He probably could trip over someone like that 100 times and reach down to regain his balance and never do that again. It's a setback after playing just a half season and most under a different coach. He'll be the Bulls starting center next season. We're all anxious to see how good he can be. At his age, there's plenty of room for excellence.
What do you think of Zach Lavine's development as a playmaker in the latter half of this season? In this era of position less basketball it seems like we need a primary playmaker and ballhandler rather than necessarily a point guard, so Zach filling that role well could potentially open up our options in the draft.
Sam: I guess it's not so position less if the Bulls need all that. This talk about position-less basketball is mostly a term for playing zones on defense (switching) and players having multiple skills, you know, like they had in the 1960s. The game hasn't changed that much other than the demand for a while to specialize—some dribblers, some shooters and some rebounders—to where now it seems like an innovation to have players who can do multiple things. Players once were supposed to do that because, you know, that was basketball. Sure, most people can do one thing better than other things, but players were once taught to do more things. There were various reasons for specialization, some insidious so you wouldn't have to pay certain players more money since they were, say, just rebounders and not scoring. Clearly, Robin Lopez isn't going to be your facilitator on the fast break. Players do have certain special skills. Zach is a very talented guy, which means he can dribble, he can pass and he can shoot. Imagine that. That's why he has the chance to be a great player. But he does some things better than others. I'd rather see him, at least for now, specialize more as a scorer since he's got an uncanny ability to shoot and get to the basket. So far he's tended to defer when he's had to run the team. But perhaps the biggest issue with a player like Zach now is how long he's been associated with losing. It's the biggest problem with these rebuilding situations. It sounds great to get those lottery picks and build when you've had a run of finishing in the middle. But there's also a line when you expose a player to losing too long. Zach began in a Minnesota rebuilding, got hurt, and came to Chicago in the ground zero of its rebuild. He does seem like a player who cares about winning since he seemed really depressed as the losses mounted into December and January and seemed to recover after the Porter trade and some success. It's a positive that he has multiple talents, but the Bulls still have some needs to address.
Do you think today's NBA players are the laziest defenders you have ever seen ? You only need to look at the steals and blocks per game leaders over the last 45 years to see that the last 3 seasons leaders rank near last in both statistics. You could only imagine MJ's numbers playing against today's NBA defenses.
Sam: I hadn't noticed that comparison and I'm not sure if that's an actual defensive measure, though they are lower in both categories. I think a lot has to do, especially with blocks, that there are so many more threes shot and when players go to the basket they'll often pass up a layup attempt to try to assist on a three. Everyone over 40 winces. But the defenses, I will agree, are not always as aggressive individually because the teams play so much switching and zone-like systems, which lead to lazy defensive principles.
Of course, the irony is that in the years you are referring to in the 70s, especially, the NBA was known as a league in which the players didn't play defense. The NBA players can defend better than you think because they are so much more athletic now. But the systems of play, perimeter shooting and load management make it look worse than it is. I plan to try to work "load management" into as many columns as I can since among all the stupid things said in sports, it might be the absolute stupidest. We used to use the term, but it referred more to working with Michael Sweetney.
NCAA: From what I've read, there are absolutely zero one-and-done prospects in the Final Four. I love that. It would be nice if GMs figured out that most college freshmen are not ready to help you win in the NBA. But I'm afraid it's going the other way. We'll soon have 18 year old's coming straight out of high school, which will hurt both the NBA and NCAA. My call would be to go the other way – require 2 years of college or 21 yrs. old. That sets up college as the (slightly) faster route to the NBA, and hopefully would encourage kids to go to school. Or here's another idea: base the rookie contract scale on number of yrs. in school, so that staying in school helps you earn more during your first contract. There's also the idea of paying college players. I'm not opposed, but I wonder if schools can pay them enough to keep them away from the NBA for an extra year or two.
Sam: I've never fully understood why the players' association has been so adamant about helping teenagers leave or avoid school and come into the NBA. I know this lame argument about everyone has a right to earn a living and tennis players can play at 16 and whatever. It's not in the Constitution. I also know you can't be a lawyer at 16. I have some lawyer jokes to use there, but they are lame as well.
The collegiate example this season is an aberration since Duke could have been there and Kentucky has been with a roster filled with NBA-to-bes. Though the point is salient that you can beat those teams more now with experience and savvy. It's why the NBA has taken a step back in quality because so many unprepared teenagers and 20-year-olds have to be on NBA rosters. It's like the old, ridiculous bonus baby baseball rule when a high paid young player had to start on a major league roster. It usually ruined his career, though he didn't have to play. Good luck benching your lottery pick. I don't much care about the NCAA and college since so many of the major universities are a sewer of corruption with either the parents buying their way in or the administrators forcing the kid through easy courses to assure eligibility for sports or even as I've heard from some NBA players keeping kids from taking more sophisticated courses because it takes away from sports training.
The NBA, like any business, should have a right to protect itself from hiring unprepared employees. Sure, some players are ready, but between so many young players breaking down physically because their bodies aren't ready and teams having to go back to so many basics with unprepared players, the game suffers. I'm for extending the waiting period, which obviously is about to go the other way because it seems even the NBA has given in. I know the argument about kids in unfortunate and hardship financial situations and the need to make money, and I'm pleased to see what the NBA is doing regarding the G-league and increasing salaries. If only those kids like in baseball could play there for a few years and learn to play. And perhaps make Hoffman Estates a destination for other than the Poplar Creek Buffalo Wild Wings.
As we all seem to be focusing on the upcoming draft and this is assuming the lottery falls in standing order with the bulls picking number four.
My thought is that Jarrett Culver from Texas Tech would be a good fit with the rebuilding core, if... LaVine is pushed back over to point. Everyone is looking for a scoring point guard who can distribute as well, surely he fits the bill and Culver would be a very good 3 and d slashing guard alongside him.
Sam: Ooops, I just dropped Zach above from point guard responsibilities. Trying not to contradict myself, Jim Boylen has employed some sequences with different players handling the ball into the scoring area. Many teams do so. You don't have to have an exclusive point guard. Steph Curry is Golden State's point guard, but Green and Durant do plenty of playmaking. OK, Green. I believe Culver still is playing, so we can both scout him. I remember last year the 3-D guy to get was Mikal Bridges. It seems like it's been an adjustment for him. Though I'm not sure Booker will let him have the ball. It seems the first three picks in the draft will be in order Zion, Morant and Barrett, the latter because it seems he'll just figure a way to score. From there it seems, at least for now, that someone will like someone at 5 who someone else will see at 12. But that's the way Donovan Mitchell gets to 13. You have to pick right and be fortunate. The Bulls clearly need three-point shooting perhaps as much or more than any team in the NBA. So he could work.
I am sure we will add a quality player as long as we stay in the top 5.
Lots of draft experts seem to be down on RJ Barrett. I have not seen him play a lot at Duke, but he seems to have decent physical tools, comes from a strong basketball background, is competitive and has been winning at all levels. To me this feels like a case of everyone expecting him to be the best player in his class, which he was not and now everybody is extra negative about him. What is your take?
Sam: Barrett is the tough call for me, and as I said above I expect he'll be taken third. I haven't been that impressed watching him because he's not super explosive, but we all said that about that Doncic guy. He seemed to figure out a way to score. And he seems to know how to make plays. The league likes explosive players for their star potential. But then you can get someone like James Harden, who just knows how to score. Barrett looks like he'll figure a way.
The television program I was watching this morning while exercising asked the question, "Is Zion the best Duke player ever?" ......huh? he doesn't have a midrange jumper. He brain-fades on defense and it hurts his team. BTW, nothing personal aimed at Williamson, who seems to be an okay kid. Also on the LeBron Channel, saw an interesting graphic. Did you realize that Jordan never missed a post-season as a Bull? Comparison to LBJ might not be fair (different types of players in different eras), but he asks for these when he declares himself the best of all time, which he has. Come to think of it, I don't remember Magic or Bird or the Doc ever missing a post-season. West? Wilt? Oscar? Kareem missed one season, but he played until he was in his early 40's plus the year he missed he was league MVP - I'd say that's a competitive guy. Not buying the idea that LBJ walked into a lousy Cavs team as an 18 year old. For one thing, no one made him skip Ohio State. For another, the Bulls team Jordan joined had big time problems which Jordan will acknowledge if you ask him. Jordan didn't take days off. He busted his butt dragging some serious bozos into the post-season. I'd add here that he didn't have roster input, otherwise Walter Davis and Johnny Dawkins would have been Bulls. Jordan took the lemons and made lemonade. That's what great players do. Players today often mind their personal corporations, frequently reverting to their AAU roots as they seek to play with their buddies. Jordan wasn't allowed to play with his buddies and built Jumpman/Air Jordan anyway.
None of this makes LBJ any less a player. LBJ is the best player of his generation. Hall of Fame penthouse with Kareem/Jordan/Wilt/EJ/Bird/Oscar/Russell? he takes pre-season pretty indifferently, takes personal days off in-season and then there's this. Plus he walked into a turn-key situation NBA-wise. I think that Kobe has missed the playoffs, too. These guys get their own tier with Hakeem, Ewing, Iverson, Karl Malone and Barkley, which isn't bad company. Of this lot, LBJ might be top dog though Kobe has more rings, Malone's stats are in important areas somewhat better, and Hakeem produced head-and-shoulders the very best basketball of any of 'em when he had all of his game working.
Sam: It is what LeBron brings on himself with some of those pronouncements. I guess part is getting swept up in that, but one thing with Jordan was he never declared himself better than greats. I remember when Julius Erving came to Chicago Stadium for the last time in what the media was calling a passing of the torch. Jordan was gracious in suggesting no one would do the things Dr. J did. It's somewhat inaccurate, of course, to compare the eras since Jordan the season he was hurt made the playoffs with a 30-win team (and then scored 63 in the playoffs and was swept). I'm sure the Lakers would have made the playoffs if LeBron didn't miss a month hurt and then sabotage the rest of the season with the Anthony Davis gambit, which he likely wouldn't have if he didn't get hurt and desperate. This is one debate that is never ending. But will anyone ever believe in 20 years either was better than Zion?
So let me start by saying that Kobe is a great player. Having said that, I truly don't understand how anybody can look at his career numbers and put him in the same conversation as MJ and Lebron, just like I wouldn't put Iverson in the same conversation as Kobe. But even beyond that: the guy was an incredibly difficult teammate. How the heck is it that he's become sort of an elder statesman now quoted all over the place? If people want quotes from a 5-time champ on being a leader or whatever, you could ask Tim Duncan.
Media narratives are nuts.
Sam: Perhaps it's more a lesson in modern media, though media narratives are wacky. Just wait out the bad days until they move onto something else, and then you can be whoever you say you are.
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