Ask Sam Mailbag: 04.19.19
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer readers' questions.
What can I look forward to trade wise and free agent wise in the offseason and is Derrick coming home?
Sam: It all depends. Oh, right, on May 14. Though John Paxson last week accurately said wishing and hoping isn’t a plan, much can change if the Bulls move up in the draft lottery drawing and have the rights to the first or second selections in this draft. Despite what some scouts suggest, there seem to be several good players who’ll do well in the NBA after the top two. Inevitably, someone always rises up to surprise after all the teams are sure he’s not there. But this year it’s pretty fixed that Zion Williamson and Temetrius “Ja” Morant are the primarily two team fixes for most teams, especially the Bulls. I’m personally not fully convinced of Zion’s impact without much shooting and at that size, but his marketing possibilities are enormous. And it as, as we often are told, a business. And he should be a very good player. Great, franchising changing? To be determined.
Morant for the Bulls would also be very good because he answers the biggest starting lineup question. There are, of course, smaller ones at every other position, but there are players there the Bulls believe will make the team a better team. They’re still not fully sure at point guard, though Kris Dunn’s journey hasn’t been a straight one thus far. So maybe there’s more there. If the Bulls fall outside the top two, they’ve indicated they’ll try to become more creative and daring than usual regarding exploring trading the pick along with perhaps even one of their core players and even throwing in future No. 1s, which they generally don’t do. And then as far as some $20 million can take you in the summer free agency bidding, which isn’t a top star, but a very good player or two. So there could be substantial change, which really cannot be known or planned for until that lottery drawing. For a lot of teams, actually, since I have heard a few already talking about trading Zion for an established star if they get him.
As for Rose, I expect there will be discussions and some interest from both sides.
I was reading in playoff previews how part of what is good about the Bucks is their clear pecking order. It made me think back to those Bulls teams after Rose came back from injury. I always wondered if part of their problem was they had The Guy Who Used to be The Man (Rose), The Guy Who Thought He Should be The Man (Butler), and The Guy Who Became The Man (Noah). I’m an outsider, but I always thought that made for an interesting dynamic, that there was the possibility of competing centers of power. Any validity to that thought?
Sam: There is validity, though Noah never was quite “the Man,” as the definition goes for his lack of scoring. But more so at the time his deteriorating body. They did scratch out 42 wins then, which doesn’t look too bad in retrospect. That is one thing about rebuilding. It may be time, but it can be very long and painful and cost a lot of jobs as you try to get back where you were. I understand the concept; it’s not unlike financial investment. You want to do much, much better. But there’s risk, which means it may not work. Still, this is the rhythm of sports. Most everyone seems to accept the notion that being around .500 is the worst spot to be and you have to DO SOMETHING! Though sometimes being patient long enough to get lucky works. Though that, too, is really not a plan. And people want a plan! And now!
Oh, yeah, your question. Actually, this is a subject that was brought up a lot at Bulls media day before this season when everyone looked like they would play. The Bulls didn’t seem to have any great, but a lot of good. So what happens? Who’s “the Man?” There is something to that in having a primary scorer and player identified, which we saw was necessary when LeBron went to Miami and Wade eventually had to back off some for the good of the team. And it worked. It’s generally an organic process in which someone emerges. For now, it seems it’s Zach LaVine with the Bulls because he’s the only one who can produce a big shot at a big time. I believe the Bulls would like Markkanen to be that, but he has physical issues against pressure, which we saw after his good February when teams began attacking him. He needs a better go to move and more strength. Dunn was working toward that for awhile in the 2017-18 season, but hasn’t been able to regain much with all the injuries and changes to his role.
But, yes, at the time Derrick’s physical decline and Jimmy’s physical incline brought them to similar planes, where they butted heads over their roles, and as a rookie NBA coach Fred Hoiberg wasn’t able to mediate well enough. Noah couldn’t because he got hurt, and the Bulls at that point had to change directions. Though it looks bad in retrospect, what they did made sense, at least in theory, in trying to be patient afterward around Butler and accommodate him. They did want to give him a chance to be the guy and move forward with him. But Wade and Rondo—and Jimmy was the one who lobbied and pleaded for Wade—were the two wrong guys with the right idea, sort of the Curry/Chandler version of the 2001 rebuilding project. Wade still believed he was a star without the ability to be one and was that lit fuse in the middle of a fireworks factory. I believe you need some sort of talent hierarchy, and the Bulls still are working on that.
How do you think Jay Williams career would have turned out based on his progression during first year and talent?
Sam: Not as good as he did. I’ll admit I was leery about Yao, in part because I’ve never seen bodies that size hold up very long in the NBA, and I was glad the Bulls got Williams. Yao did better than I expected. And while he was an All-Star and cultural game changer, he wasn’t a serious impact player. He was hurt a lot and I think only played out of the first round once. I believed as I still do in the power of the point, or playmaker, in the NBA. It’s even more pronounced now. Williams looked like he might be that guy. He scored in college, shot well and seemed strong and was winning. It’s terrible he wasn’t able to realize a career with a stupid stunt that most everyone would walk away from with a scratch. Williams did have a high scoring triple double early that season playing against Jason Kidd. But he mostly was overwhelmed by more athletic players. He still was a kid, so he might have developed. But I never was around a player still so caught up in his college experience. Everything was always Duke did this and Coach K did that and it always seemed he wished every day he was back at Duke. It was a horribly, dysfunctional team, which didn’t help, and numerous players competing for the same position who didn’t like one another. He was really about six foot and not that explosive. I believe he would have had a good NBA career as a reserve or spot starter. But it was one of the worst drafts ever with Amar’e Stoudemire the rare exception at No. 9 and second rounder Carlos Boozer the next best player. Jay—formerly Jason, which was an unpopular Williams name then because of the Nets’ Jayson—seemed lost in Chicago and I still feel badly for his accident.
Any chance we keep Robin Lopez? Every time I have a favorite player he gets traded or signs somewhere else, am I cursed? lol Brand, Mercer, Gordon, Rose, Noah, Niko n now RoLo.
Sam: Ron Mercer? I suggest you get a Markkanen jersey. I believe he’ll be here quite awhile.
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.
-Pursue Dinwiddie or Dragic as starter
-If Dragic is starter, still attempt 2 sign Dinwiddie as backup
-Keep Arci as 3rd pg
-Niko or Taj (backup PF)
-Pursue Hood/Justin Holiday/Glen Robinson III
-Trade Dunn. For picks/cash if necessary (if not, waive)
-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: Well, it’s a plan, I guess. Dinwiddie did sign earlier this season and Dragic is 33 next month, been hurt a lot and never much more than an individual scorer. Good player; not the future. Though your point makes the point that it’s not easy and requires your best players to get a lot better. The Bulls bench is a major issue and weakness, and yes it might get some help with the return of injured players like Valentine and Hutchison, the latter though still young and inexperienced. The larger issue is the starters being better, being more reliable and being supported and joined by real veteran players.
Thanks for mentioning Walt Lemon Jr. and Jakarr Sampson in your recap. Also, the diminished use of Antonio Blakeney. Management and the coaches miss dynamic players even when it is in front of their face. There is a ying and yang in basketball. When you have a distributing ball handling shooting guard like Denzel Valentine, he should be paired with a scoring point guard
Same is true at small forward. If you have a long range shooting power forward like Lauri Markkanan, you need a crafty banging small forward. Jordan Bell was misidentified as a "big" two years ago. He stand 6 foot 8 inches. I would have moved him to small forward and called an old Notre Dame alumni Adrian Dantley in to coach Mr. Jordan Bell how to be a prolific small forward near the basket. This is what visionaries do. They see talent and utilize it in creative ways.
I love the Bulls. They are to structured and tight on how they evaluate players. Get outside the box and stay outside the box. If I would have coached Shaquille O'Neal on shooting free throws...I would have had him hit the box on the backboard and bank it in. He couldn't have done worse and a guy with no shooting touch needs to focus on something different...even if no one has ever banked free throws. Ask Sam Sneed in golf putting about putting croquet style before it was outlawed and then putted sidesaddle. Just be creative and put each individual talent in a winning situation.
Sam: I like that sort of thinking even if I don’t agree with all the points. I do often see a universal sort of thought in sports, to see what works and then try to duplicate instead of seeing what you have and taking a chance trying it another way. That’s often how Don Nelson thought, though he often was criticized for never winning a title. He became viewed as doing something different for the attention rather than the effect, which was part jealousy and always some truth to it. What I see from too many teams is the way they fall in and out of love with players based on how they do where they are. Maybe the Bulls don’t need a point guard. Jordan was basically their point guard when they were coming along with Paxson (and a host of potential replacements) off the ball and then Pippen while Paxson the point guard was basically the spot up shooter. Of course, having the talent of Jordan and Pippen helped.
The Bell debate was askew because they weren’t taking him even if they kept the pick. What I see mostly with teams is they are afraid of innovation because it’s then too easy to be criticized and questioned. You have to be very strong and very committed to your philosophy, and if it doesn’t work right away, you may lose your job because it was so out of the box. It’s that business thing, and investment and results often don’t live comfortably with patience. Maybe if I’m the Bulls LaVine is the point guard and I have a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Doug McDermott, Nik Stauskas, Eric Gordon or Jodie Meeks type shooter with him? Antonio Blakeney, as you suggest? Fit and talent are a delicate marriage and not always easy to manage, especially if the guy who is paid more and is more talented perhaps isn’t the best fit. I remember talking to Phoenix Suns scouts when Mike D’Antoni was coach. They said they had to recommend drafting lesser talented players at times because they fit with the way D’Antoni was coaching. That management/coaching connection is more essential than often understood. I do believe the Bulls are adding the kind of players with versatile talents. But are they the right ones? And then is it better to subtract someone of more talent for someone who fits better? Those are the things that make up a team, an often elusive concept.
What do you think about the Embiid Flagrant foul? Not sure if I’d call that a 1 or 2, but I do not think it was an ‘accident’. Shaq argued that he didn’t haul off and elbow him. But looking at the replay, his elbow is higher & pointed out further from his body than is natural. In a spin move, you want to keep your arms and the ball inside the span of your shoulders. Outside of your shoulders, you have less strength and the ball is vulnerable to being snatched or tipped away. They showed several clips of Shaq doing spin moves to -ahem – illustrate that it’s normal. Yeah, it was normal for Shaq to clock guys like that… on purpose.
And how about them Clippers? That really was a shock… probably even more so for Steve Kerr. I was recoding the game, but flipped to another channel when they were down 30.
When I looked back, there were only a few minutes… but the lead was down to 3. So I backed it up to watch the 2nd half to see how the Clips came back, but I still expected Curry to hit a 3 or something to squeak out the W. Either this will focus the Warriors, or it’s a portent of doom in later rounds. IMHO, they thought it was over and stopped playing about 20 minutes too early. It may be just the kick in the pants they need to take the playoffs seriously. I’m still picking GS to win.
Sam: Yes, playoff talk. People sometimes forget they are series and not NCAA elimination games. It’s OK to lose some games. It’s part of the test. First, I’m glad they didn’t eject Embiid. It seemed intentional, but enough with throwing guys out of playoff games. After all, the NBA’s foul out rule probably is obsolete as well. Pretty much no sport regularly ejects players for routine rules violations during a game. I think the officials dealt with it the right way: No harm, no ejection. If Allen were forced to leave the game as a result, then I’m OK with the reciprocal ejection. Basketball is a physical game, the playoffs are physical, and that’s why you want to get there. Because your players have no idea until they play in that environment. It does matter as carry over to the regular season because they don’t have that gene to finish games, which you get from the playoffs. I did see Embiid and Simmons laughing about Embiid’s alleged apology after the game, which struck me more about the insincerity of the apology. It’s an unusual group of 76ers players with attitude. It’s mostly a good trait, though it’s unclear if you have too many. They have a lot. As for the Clippers, this kind of season is what’s making them an appealing team for free agency. They have tough minded players and so don’t look that far away. It’s the benefit of having a .500 season and getting to the playoffs. I don’t expect them to win, either, but it’s not difficult to project a next step for them. Which is more bad news for LeBron and the Lakers. That should make a lot of people happy.
Who do you see coming out of the east??
Sam: Thanks for giving me the extra week, and I still don’t know. I’ve had the 76ers all along with the additions of Butler and Harris, and I’ve still had problems figuring out why the Bucks have done so well. I know, Giannis is great, but I really don’t see another All-Star despite what the last All-Star game suggested. If Khris Middletion were on the Bulls he’d be the third or maybe fourth best player. That Bucks coach is a good one. There’s obviously some internal issues with the 76ers that you heard about even before they started texting on the bench. It’s perhaps inevitable when a coach goes through what Brett Brown did and then you bring in this group of incredibly strong willed people with Embiid, Simmons and Butler. Toronto seems still haunted by their fragility and Boston by their personal competitions. Which makes for a good first round and likely a very appealing second round to come.
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