Ask Sam Mailbag: 04.26.2019
Sam opens his mailbag and answers your questions about the Bulls and other stories around the NBA
So I'm presuming both muscle gain, bb IQ, and lateral movement improvement over the next 2 years, but could WCJ be someone we solely deploy to deal with Giannis? The Bucks are going to be in our way as we progress. Is Giannis great enough for us to not just being concerned with building a solid roster to contend, but to also build one capable of containing him?
Sam: It's not going to be Wendell. He's not nearly athletic enough to deal with Giannis. The Bulls really don't have anyone, but neither does anyone in the league as far as I've been able to determine. Trends are difficult to discern, especially in the first round of the playoffs. But if the highlight of the first round—Lillard's game winner — emphasized anything abut the game today it was that you need a lot of offense. The Jazz has been a trendy pick the last few years—and I fell for it, also—but what's become clear is you have to have scorers, and a lot of them. The Bulls talk a lot about defense and toughness, but it's good the roster in large part belies that notion with potential 20-point scorers in LaVine and Markkanen, and maybe even Porter. Perhaps Carter to come as it looks like he should develop a reliable Al Horford-like shot.
For all the talk about defense, it's so much tougher to play in this era while the players are so much better offensively that you're not going anywhere building a defensive-oriented core like the Jazz. You may not be able to get past Giannis in the East, and that happens. No one could get past Jordan. But you continue to worry about yourself, build a talented team. And you never know quite what will happen. Or if he decides to take his talents somewhere else. The Bulls don't have anyone on their roster now who projects to be like Giannis. Of course, Giannis never projected to be like Giannis.
Lauri Markkanen could be on a Dirk-like arc for skill and production, but with one concern. Can he get stronger and stay healthy? He's missed 44 games in two seasons. Dirk's first season was an underachieving mess about which he subsequently said he thought even of leaving the NBA. Though it was the errant lockout 50-game season. Dirk was 20 like Markkanen. So Markkanen was a better rookie. But in Dirk's next two seasons he didn't miss a game, missed a total of 29 games in his next 11 and was an All-Star his fourth season. Can Markkanen match that All-Star trajectory? Participation is one of the major requirements. It's also one of the biggest issues the NBA is facing these days, and not just the Bulls. Many of the league's top stars take a lot of time off, are hurt often or what seems like injury, don't care to play through issues, and have embraced "load management." After missing 12 games in his first two seasons—and he had some reason with back surgery after his rookie year—Scottie Pippen missed one game the next four years. Teammates used to make fun of Horace Grant for taking games off. Fans joked about Grant being a malinger. He missed 16 games total in his first six years with the team. Players today would think of him as one of the iron men of the league. I know Jordan missed 64 games combined his first two seasons (0 as a rookie), but then he missed one game in the next five years, and, of course, didn't miss a single game his last three years with the Bulls at ages 33-36. Maybe you noticed Giannis plays. He missed a career high 10 games this season, but missed a combined 10 games his first four seasons. If Kawhi came to you, like in Toronto, and said he'd play 60 games, you'd take him, too. You'd hope he believed more in competing than that. Sure, the Bulls seem to have had a lot of freak and unexpected injuries. But health and determination to compete is also a skill these days.
I was stunned when the Bulls got Otto for then obvious (stats and money) reasons, though I felt Bobby was a Bull forever. But like the Oakley trade which had me just as pissed, it looks like he's a keeper. I think basketball IQ is as important as talent, and hopefully he can have influence on guys like Valentine, and really all of them, how to play smarter. Some of those late season games reminded me of my coaching my kids at the park rec league when you could tell the kids were overwhelmed and just wanted you to call it off. Do we have to finish? They were down that many times this year and I'm not sure what they need to stop that, but hopefully he'll be the man next year and we start to command a little respect. The person I'm looking to see growth from is Boylan. This team is young, athletic and should get nothing but better from this point, no matter what their luck in the draft or free agency. It's up to him and who he chooses to coach with him. Never knew of a championship team that didn't get raided of their coaches, it's a prerequisite of championship teams, great coaching
Sam: As with any franchise trying to make its way back, everyone faces scrutiny. I was never a huge fan of Porter's because of the way he seemed to accept being the third wheel with the Wizards. It's important to be a good teammate, but sometimes you have to remind John Wall there are others playing. Similarly as we've seen with Russell Westbrook, which makes a bit of a lie of assists. You know, the three similarities: Lies, damned lies and statistics. I know I could average a few assists in the NBA standing next to Paul George. He's going to make some 30 footers. It's the assist that matters when it is part of a plan to move the ball, include others and never leave the defense sure who's going to shoot every time you need a score. Those Free Otto Porter rallies seem to have worked, and he looked like a different player much of the time with the Bulls. He moved the ball easily, found spots for shots and scored efficiently. He defended as much as allowed. Can he stay healthy? Can he do so for an entire season? Can he be a leader given an NBA career of mostly saying nice shot John, or nice shot Brad?
I realize no one has been keeping Joel Embiid a secret, but he sure looks like one of the top 5 players in the NBA right now. He does Big Player stuff, too! Not just a fidgety big with a small inside. The elbow to Allen's face happens, even if it was semi-intentional. Old playground rule: second guy is always the one that gets caught. Chuckling it up post-game might easily have been the response of a young guy who knew what he did and why but just didn't have the experience to say something like, "... he's not giving me an inch and he's not supposed to. I have to battle for that inch and that's what I did. NBA playoff basketball is a No Snowflake Zone.", followed by a silent dead-eye stare at the questioner. I didn't see, hear or read any complaints from Jarrett Allen. He gets his thoughts and feelings which he kept to himself, perhaps demonstrating that he understands. At the same time, Allen's teammates and coaches spoke up. That's what they're supposed to do, too. Embiid's game.
What goes often unnoticed I think is that the creases that open for the Zach LaVines also are there for able 7ft guys, too. It's just that 7ft guys that play big use them differently. Back when Hakeem played, there wasn't the 3pt game there is today, otherwise he'd have averaged 35 and shot probably >60%. Ewing used to get the creases because Anthony Mason had a more versatile game and Starks had a streaky-but-good go to the basket game with all the stuff that set it up. With the Rockets, Horry and Thorpe (later Glide) lived off of Hakeem. These days, deep shooting and Simmons' go to the basket game enable Embiid's post game. Embiid also sets up his post game really well with his 17ft faceup game. It's a lot of fun to watch. 7ft power players haven't at all disappeared. When you have a guy that knows what he's doing, there's definitely a role for a 7ft power player in today's offensive game. Just fire up an Embiid game tape, sit back and enjoy.
Don't get me wrong. Multi-dimensional 7ft players like Kareem or Durant are intriguing. But these days, guys with Embiid's game are a rarer thing and are to be appreciated.
Sam: Oh, well. Another guy for the Bulls to get past. How are they going to deal with someone that size? Shoot and make him guard you. There are ways. But the Bulls have some hills to climb before reaching that mountain. I've been long impressed with Embiid as well. Though missing two years did worry me, too, at the time. You really hope (as an NBA fan more so than a Bulls fan) he stays healthy because he seems to have so much fun in addition to the talent. I had him as my MVP runner-up in my preseason award predictions. Since I had LeBron the winner, maybe not that great an overall prediction, though I did pick Giannis third. Embiid is a special talent, which is another reason I'm really looking forward to the Eastern Conference semifinals. It's probably the first time since the great Eastern Conference playoff battles of the 80s that any of four teams could get to the Finals, and any would deserve it. Since those great 1980s series with the Celtics, 76ers, Hawks, Bucks, Pistons and then Bulls, the Eastern Conference hasn't had this level of competitive balance at the top four in 30 years. You could make a good case for any of the four winning, which has been rare in the NBA, and should be a great fortnight of TV.
After watching an NBA player like Westbrook so blatantly thumb their nose at the media and his fans for years, does the media take delight when that player hits the downside of his career and it ends badly and sooner than he expected? Did Russ notice how it ended for his buddy Carmelo or was he too busy trying to help bury the body?
Sam: Well, it's an old story now with the Thunder out of the playoffs in the first round again. Westbrook will take a beating in the media for the loss, and, yes, some may be in payback for his media attitude as improper as that might be. But people, you know, they're the worst. I actually like to watch Westbrook for the fury he plays with, so I was conflicted in this series because I've always felt Lillard gets overlooked and Terry Stotts long has been a friend. Lillard's not being overlooked again after Game 5. I'm guessing plenty of all-league voters would like to change their votes. But, no, it is a regular season award. Westbrook's bombast and outrages probably help him draw more attention (and votes). I guess triple doubles help, too, even if so many seem stat stuffing fraudulent. And talk about your bad Nets deals, by the way. So you think Garnett/Pierce was bad? They gave up Lillard to not upset Deron Williams.
But I do feel strongly about Westbrook's behavior. Not because players have to talk to the media. It's an NBA rule; not the media rule. There's always someone to talk to, and the vast majority of NBA players are decent people who are respectable, give others respect and maintain good values. My issue with Westbrook (and the NBA and writers, actually) was when someone powerful like Westbrook tries to intimidate someone not as powerful (reporter). I know when "media" as a monolith is mentioned it's much like Congress or politics or a Kardashian. A pox on their houses. But I suppose I'm more disappointed this time the way the NBA has looked away and even the writer's association has remained mostly silent, though they told me they were working behind the scenes, whatever that means. Media isn't always popular, but it is a vital spoke in the wheel that keeps our society moving. It doesn't just mean people writing stories or revealing indiscretions. Especially in this social media era, it's a way to highlight poor behavior and maintain a check on institutions so they don't become too powerful and infringe on rights; yes, the stuff they mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Right, as quaint as that may seem.
I don't think media or reporters root against Westbrook because he is difficult to deal with. Like everyone, I believe we'd just like to see excellence play out to its logical conclusion. Westbrook is a wonderful albeit flawed player (like most), though clearly difficult and frustrating to play with. Everyone around the NBA knows he's the reason Durant left Oklahoma City. And maybe Paul George next. But the Thunder organization had to sell its soul to retain him because, really, what free agents are coming to Oklahoma City? So no one really expects the Thunder to hold him accountable. I don't really know the reporter to whom Westbrook refused to answer and gave his succession of no comments. Though I noticed at the end Westbrook did answer with a mumble instead of a brushoff. I've been there, in a sense, after The Jordan Rules book was published. Michael Jordan could easily have given me the no comment routine, and I doubt I'd have gotten much sympathy. But he also understood it was more than him and I, that it was about being a professional, an appropriate representative for the league and your fellow players, your family and the community. Westbrook certainly doesn't have Jordan's values and character. But the issue also evolves to the powerful being able to intimidate the powerless and everyone else standing by watching. It's produced the worst in our history.
Westbrook is a powerful NBA player supported by a powerful franchise and the reporter is relatively powerless to do much but ask his questions. He can write an angry column, which likely his newspaper would not allow since they were the one that was once cowed into apologizing to Durant for a headline in the newspaper he didn't like. Though this reporter didn't seem all that innocent, either, as he appeared to be using the occasion to enhance his own name by doing numerous interviews about the circumstance. He was violating a basic tenet of trying to also become a part of the story. Still, I wish this occurred in Washington, D.C. When the administration tried to isolate one media member it didn't like, the others wouldn't allow it. Because you don't stand by when the powerless are being abused. No one else should have asked Westbrook a question. And if he then left, fine, there are plenty of good people and players on that team. But when one person can be isolated and intimidated like that, anyone can. And when it's you next time, wouldn't you like to believe others will support your right not to be intimidated by the powerful? It's one of the guiding elements of the unusual revolutionary experiment that made our country. And to ignore it because it seems an insignificant setting is missing the point in what being a citizen of this country is all about.
LeBron averaged 27-8-8 and missed the playoffs. Has there ever been a player in NBA history..to average that and miss the playoffs. I presume there has been but can't think of any.
Sam: Another first for LeBron. Never happened before. Thanks to the Bulls, who contacted Elias Sports for us to look it up: LeBron is the first (this year) to miss the playoffs after posting a line of 27-8-8 (min 50 games played). Below were the times it occurred:
|1988-89||Michael Jordan, CHI||81||32.5||8.0||8.0|
|2016-17||Russell Westbrook, OKC||81||31.6||10.7||10.4|
|2016-17||James Harden, HOU||81||29.1||8.1||11.2|
|2017-18||LeBron James, CLE||82||27.5||8.6||9.1|
|2018-19||LeBron James, LAL||55||27.4||8.5||8.3|
You reported that Pax said/implied they could be more aggressive with trades and even include top picks. You also noted there are rumors of teams swapping the #1 or #2 for an established star. Let's assume the Bulls wanted pick #1 but would be required to include either LaVine or Lauri as part of the deal. Zack has made an incredible recovery and is on the edge of becoming an All Star. Lauri is not as accomplished but has great promise and size. Would you trade either and which one of the two would you trade?
Sam: Probably both would not get you No. 1 in this draft now even if they might be better. You could get No. 2, but then you'd be looking for Zach or Lauri. The problem this year is how do you explain to your fan base, "We just gave up the No. 1 pick in the draft who could be the next LeBron James in impact for the top two players on the team that finished 13th?" Bad for job security. Will Zion be a generational player? No one knows, but the conventional wisdom is he could be. One issue the Bulls have is their business isn't as valuable these days because it is losing. I agree with you about the potential of LaVine and Markkanen, but when you are part of a team that just came off 27 and 22-win seasons, even if both project as stars, your value for now is diminished. It's a now world in sports. It's perhaps also why you look to those teams to make a deal because their players are devalued. The consensus until we actually see Zion play a game is he's the next big thing. Other than a first team all-NBA player, like Anthony Davis, who has been the rumor if there is a trade of the top pick, you wouldn't be able to trade up to No. 1.
Zach, Lauri, Wendell, Otto, or Arci. Which ones of these Bulls first goes to the All-Star game, and when?
Sam: Arch thanks you. Of course, the All-Star game is back in Chicago next season for the first time since 1988. We'd love to see someone from the Bulls, and Wendell (if not hurt again) will get into the Rising Stars game with perhaps another rookie. Zach might give the dunk or three-point contest and maybe Lauri in the three-point as the league always tries to include someone from the home team. I'm rooting for former mayor Emanuel in the celebrity game. He's traveled, but he knows how to rebound.
I have been reading your views on the draft, and I understand that Zion Williamson is seen as the only real choice at #1. But I believe if the bulls win the draft lottery they should take Ja Morant. I think it makes more sense than drafting Zion for a lot of reasons. With the least of them being, we have drafted power forward/center in the first round three out of the last four drafts. First, Morant would solve the biggest hole in our roster. Point Guard. He is the best true point guard since Chris Paul in my opinion. And to pass on him would be like passing on Derrick Rose for Michael Beasley in 2008. Although I fully believe Zion will be all-star level talent, unlike Beasley. But Morant is Rose with more of a natural ability to pass and shoot the ball. Another argument I hear is about the "value" Zion instantly adds to any franchise's business side. If I'm not mistaken, basketball is a winning business? Morant would contribute to win for the bulls from day one, which in my opinion, is more valuable. Lastly, Zion is thought of can't miss player, but history shows that an undersized power forwards don't fare well in the NBA. Although I fully believe Zion could be the exception, like Charles Barkley was an offensive first option, but there's no guarantee that this will be the case. And plenty of recent history that shows athletic point guards are unusually able to adjust to the style of play in the new NBA. With that being said, do you believe Morant have more value than Zion for the Bulls?
Sam: It would be the debate if the Bulls landed No. 1. Some No. 2 picks have worked out much better than No. 1s that year, like with Kevin Durant, Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton. It might be an overlap with the Bulls compared with a position considered greater need. But the Bulls historically have gone for the best player available, who is thought to be Williamson. As good as Morant looked in those few NCAA games, he weighs about 175 pounds and we're not sure if he's 6-3. There are risks associated with Zion given his size, lack of shooting and injuries given the torque he puts on his legs. But he certainly looks like someone who's going to average 20 points in NBA games pretty quickly. All-pro? Who knows. I don't expect any team to pass him if they have the No. 1 selection. Perhaps more interesting—and the Bulls would love to have that kind of problem—is where would he play given they have Markkanen, Carter and Porter. Lauri at center? Not with that frame no matter what it looks like coming back. I don't see Porter with his team high salary off the bench. Zion off the bench? Hey, maybe bump up Windy City attendance. Maybe Zach at point and Porter at 2. That appeals to me on some level. After all, Boylen talked about multiple ball handlers. Porter can pass and run screen roll. Zion at three? I'm guessing if the Bulls get No. 1 they'll find a way to get him into the starting lineup. I certainly would.
Given what you have said that outside the top 3, and maybe it's just the top 2 now, that it's all a genuine lottery from there and GM's shouldn't act like sheep to avoid taking risk what do you think of Bol Bol? Just watching this highlights package and hearing his numbers including 52% on 3's from 3 attempts per game, great handling, leading shot blocker all at 7'3" he sounds and looks like a taller version of Durant, not that I am saying as talented but at least in the mold. Maybe Porzingis is another comparison but he seems to be more coordinated and less gangly with a better handle than him. Why wouldn't the Bulls take a chance on him with a pick outside the top 2 or 3? I understand his sample size was only 9 games and foot surgery for a 7-footer is never good news but didn't Durant have similar issues and came through the other side to be a top 15 player all-time?
Sam: It soon will be time to start throwing out draft names, though better to wait for the lottery and the chance to know. I suspect the top three remains in place with Duke's Barrett despite some concerns probably a good enough natural scorer to be too good to pass. With the uncertainty regarding Lopez and the height questions regarding Carter, I assume the Bulls will look for a big man at some point. I'd stay away from Bol because he reminds me of Thon Maker. I heard in Milwaukee all these things about what a force he might be and then a good coach came in and he was gone. There's an historic foot and leg injury factor with players who are too tall, though with some exceptions. But mostly those players don't prove physical enough for the NBA and they end up drifting to the perimeter. Some become good shooters, but it's not exactly where you want your 7-2 guy. Those big guys from China drifted away, Yao was injured a lot, we'll see with Porzingis, a risk after his injury, and that basically none of the supersized players ever had had that much impact. Durant is seven feet, sure, and an amazing exception. But exception for now. I haven't seen any of the huge guys move like him.
You have given an opportunity to give some information back, so I will try. You said that the success of the Bucks were hard for you to explain, so let me give it a try. It is really the magic of the three's, not the Warriors Splash three's, but how you combine a team. You need 3 scorers in your starting lineup. The Bucks has Giannis, Middleton and Lopez as their general option. There are greater scorers in the league, but as well as being scorers, they are really big, and doing it from both the inside and the outside they are matchup nightmares, and teams clearly are not equiped to handle their size, paze and 3 point shooting (at least no one else than Toronto in the east). The second three's are Bucks defence, Bledsoe, Giannis and Connaughton has done really well guarding multiple positions, averaging 26 rebounds, and with energy both stopping the opponents and creating on offence. Their field goal percentage is off the charts. The third three's are the bench, Hill, Brown and Ilyasova, defending, creating, scoring at a really high level. Those are your magic three's, you can transpond them to any successful team you like, they all have those kind of combinations. What is maybe the strength of Bucks is that only Giannis feature in more than one category. What will be the downfall of the Bucks is their lack of debts at the 4-5 and 9-10 position. They will not make it far without better contribution from Mirotic, Snell, and they would have needed Gasol and Brogdon. Who are the Bulls magic threes for next season, on offence I have Markannen, Porter and Lavine, on defence I have no one who's not going to be in foul trouble for their effort, and off the bench I have Valentine (I miss Portis so much).
Who are your magic three's and will they match up with Bucks, Celtics, Raptors?
Sam: It's an interesting observation, but mostly done from the way media, fans (and often team executives) examine things. They see what worked and decide to do that. So your plan would have been going in to build the winningest team in the league with pivotal players being Pat Connaugton and Sterling Brown, the latter who I wasn't even sure was in the league until someone told me he was from Proviso East. And Bledsoe, who last season I heard everywhere was a bust. Oh, I forgot, the great Ilyasova, working on his eighth team and with the Bucks twice?
The Bulls have many of the same pieces, and many as talented or more so. They don't have The guy, Antetokounmpo. The Bucks didn't, either, and then he became that. Perhaps Markkanen will; maybe LaVine. Giannis was for them. He once was a skinny nobody frustrated and flummoxed by Mike Dunleavy Jr. into a playoff minus. But that's what rebuilding and the draft are all about, growing stars from your many seeds you cultivate. Sometimes they sprout; sometimes there's a frost. Plus, the Bucks have that B to C coach, the Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr type. We still don't know the Bulls coach because he's been coaching primarily G-league players and this is his first NBA head job and not even one full season yet. Budenholzer took a .500 talent level Atlanta team and won 60 games. He appears to have a belief system, a plan and a way with players. Plus, he had management that supplied him with the kinds of players he needed to do what he wanted. They have an MVP (when the Bulls did they were a title contender without another true All-Star), an elite experienced coach, a defined pecking order and support players willing to do what is asked and who mostly are on second contracts not chasing money or statistics and who have been in playoff games before. If the Bulls had Connaugton and Brown last season, they probably would have been a 22-win team. The Bulls appear to have at least equal talent in the three categories. Now how do you get that Giannis guy?
I just heard John Havlicek died One of my all-time favorites. My first thought; Let's name the 6th man award after him.
Sam: Good idea.
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.