Ask Sam Mailbag: 05.03.19
Sam Smith recalls one of the greatest moments in Bulls history
Believe it or not, the Bulls franchise is approaching the 30th anniversary of a moment that could arguably be counted as the starting point of the Bulls' quest for a championship: simply known as "The Shot." This one moment in Bulls history, propelled them to the Eastern Conference Finals and had everyone thinking bigger. Considering the stakes of that moment, it's hard to think of any other pressure situation in NBA history. Many times we've seen that replay, Jordan pumping his fist while a dejected Cavs team looks on, Doug Collins roaring unto the floor while the late Lacy Banks jumps in jubilation next to you! Please share, what are your lasting memories of that moment and the series as a whole? Have you ever known a single moment in sports to change the history of two franchises, possibly forever?
Sam: Thanks for the memories. Something I've always marveled about in sports is the certainty about events, that if something occurred it was destined to occur and it could only be that way. There are so many instances in sports from game winning shots to ACL injuries that changed the future of people and teams and which we generally come to accept as inevitable. It's the syllogism. The Bulls won. Michael Jordan was the hero. Therefore Michael is a winner. But it looked like Michael—and the Bulls—was a loser, and perhaps a choker since in Game 4 Jordan had a chance to clinch the series for the Bulls. But he missed two pressure free throws and the Cavaliers then regained home court advantage going home for the deciding fifth game. To be honest, my first thought as Jordan hit the shot was after all this now I've got to work and travel another month. We are lectured early in sportswriting not to complain since, well, we're watching games for a living. But it had been a tough season. People forget just because you have a great job doesn't mean your life is always going smoothly, particularly with players. The Tribune that year had hired an unbalanced sports editor, and everyone knows how your job changes when your boss is not only mean spirited but irrational. My biggest run-in that season was when I wrote a story saying Doug Collins could be in trouble despite the Bulls ascendency. The editor killed it and said if that was the depth of my knowledge, not only was he taking me off the beat, but he was going to try to get me fired. Fortunately, he had some sort of melt down later that year and the Tribune pretty much pretended they never heard of him and nobody ever spoke of him again as if he never existed. The Bulls were also in disarray, losing to the Cavs all six times that season, Jordan doing everything and too much to the point coach Doug Collins also made him point guard. Jordan was brilliant, but at that pace might be out of the game in a year. Collins was feuding with his staff, barely speaking with Tex Winter and Phil Jackson, the latter whom he accused of trying to get his job. Maybe he was not that irrational. Doug and I were barely speaking at times and I went weeks at a time without even quoting him. No one noticed as it was all Jordan all the time.
Then came the first round series with the Cavs, whom Magic Johnson labeled the team of the 90s, and the fifth place Central Division Bulls as dysfunctional a mess as one could find. But Mark Price was hurt and missed Game 1, and Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens messed up, putting Ron Harper at point guard and effectively losing his point guard and shooting guard. The Bulls won Game 1 to flip the series, the Cavs being the model of team play to Jordan's one-man game. The Cavs flipped it back in Game 4 and then I was back on a United flight Sunday morning to Cleveland for the clincher. I figured this mad season finally was over. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf happened to be on the flight, I think his last commercial flight ever as I think he bought a plane after that. Bad peanuts, possibly.
Herald writer Mike Imrem and I gave him a ride to the arena which was way out in the cornfields almost an hour from Cleveland. Reinsdorf said he always wanted to be there for the last game of the season his teams played. There wasn't a lot of optimism going around. The Tribune wasn't much interested as I think just columnist Bernie Lincicome and I went to the game. The Cubs were off to a division winning season and the Tribune couldn't wait to be done with Bulls coverage. So the Cavs run this perfect inbounds play for a layup with just under four seconds left. I'm working on my lead, Valiant effort, Jordan heroic, disappointing ending, blah, blah, blah. I'm watching Brad Sellers look for Jordan and I'm sure it's about to be a five-second violation. Figures. Jordan gets it. Hello! No double? Lenny was stubborn and old school and didn't believe in doubling Jordan, though Larry Nance was supposed to help. He couldn't get there. The place went silent as Collins went skipping toward Jordan as you recall, Jordan gesturing into the crowd, Ehlo collapsing just off the edge of the court.
I did the locker room rounds and labored for a long time trying to fit all the drama into the lead with some clever metaphors and analogies until the office said they needed the story sooner as some Cubs reserve got a double or something. I thought the heck with it and just called it “The Shot” so I could make deadline. That's how stuff like that happens. But there went my vacation, and I knew the scattered Knicks weren't beating Jordan with wacky Rick Pitino. And, amazingly, the Pistons almost didn't as the Bulls took a 2-1 lead before the Pistons invented mixed martial arts. It was truly the beginning of the Bulls run because the team might not even have been kept together with a first round loss. Jordan was screaming for veteran help after the way they fell to fifth in the division. The Cavs might even have beaten the Pistons with their varied talent and fabulous point guard/center pick and roll with Brad Daughterty and Price. But soon the Cavs got a questionable report from the FBI that Harper might be involved in the drug trade. It was erroneous, but it spooked the Cavs enough to trade him for Danny Ferry. Though the Cavs made a few more efforts at the Bulls, without Harper and with injuries mounting they never were too serious. The Bulls/Pistons series became the best and most memorable rivalry in the game and steeled Jordan, Pippen and Grant and the rest to turn into among the greatest champions the sport has known. It was 30 years ago next week. It wasn't the most momentous game in franchise history, but it may have been the most important.
Big congrats go out to referees for their no-call and standing firm to attempts at intimidation. Harden jumps into people. GSW defense studied and on top of things. Harden is a better player than to whine like a female dog. If he wants to get to the line, go to the basket and take yer lumps.
Sam: Sometimes there's payback in real life and not just in the movies. The story of the playoffs, sadly, for the second round was the Rockets' and James Harden's incredibly hypocrisy in complaining about foul calls at a time Harden feloniously has benefited more than anyone in the NBA from his gamesmanship with the officials. You almost had to stand and cheer when they finally stopped sending Harden to the free throw line for throwing his arms into a defender and then bringing them up or leaping forward to the side. I was sure he punched himself in the eye in Game 2. It's not totally his fault since the Rockets are not a basketball team as much as a math experiment. They have geared their play—I don't fault Mike D'Antoni for this since he never coached this way until he got there and actually made Jeremy Lin interesting to watch—to shooting three pointers, free throws or layups. It's the modern analytical theory about scoring in basketball. It's not a game; it's a spread sheet/ No one generally roots for a dynasty—other than one with Michael Jordan—but you have to root for the Warriors after what the Rockets have been up to. And then giving their stupid unsent memo to ESPN to complain about foul calls a year ago. All this even makes Mark Cuban look fair minded. It's helping make the Rockets and Harden enemies of the game like the 76ers were when they were shaving points and throwing games for draft choices and Bill Laimbeer most days of the week. It's not so much that these tactics haven't been employed before. Reggie Miller often kicked out his legs for fouls and Bruce Bowen was notorious for stepping under shooters. When ZaZa Pachulia did it to take out Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs the league had enough. No one has benefited more from trickeration than the Rockets, and so much so they'd make Don King look like an honest man. There's a reason for a foul: When a defender interferes with a player trying to make a legitimate basketball play. I checked back on Harden's great scoring run during the season and using analytics from an unsent memo the Rockets were hiding in the Watergate hotel that I was able to obtain I discovered if Harden weren't cheating he would have finished the season averaging 11 points. Heck, this version of the Rockets is doing so much damage to basketball, they might need Vernon Maxwell to talk some sense into them.
The 2 minute report is causing recency bias, people are pretending championship teams/Superstars are all of a sudden getting more calls. That's always been the case in every sport and always will be. Dynasties earn the whistle. People forget Lebron James fouled Kevin Durant in the finals in Game 1 and wasn't called, not only did that cost OKC the game but that missed call/benefit of doubt might have changed the trajectory of both careers. Lebron was coming off a 2011 finals flop. KD and OKC were on the cusp of a dynasty. NBA needed Lebron to cement his status. Jordan got calls. Kobe. Bird. Magic.
The Rockets spend the entire game trying to deceive the referee and make it virtually impossible for anyone to know if they were actually fouled or not, the style of play shows up the referee all game. Nobody lands 3 feet forward or sideways on a natural jump shot. I don't blame the refs, it's impossible to be accurate with that much acting. Furthermore, as a human being it's natural refs would become irritated with them at a certain point.
Sam: That two-minute report also is something that ought to be dropped. I'm always for more information and transparency, and so were the officials. The end game report actually was an initiative of the officials. They figured the league could show all those calls and that maybe 90-95 percent were correct and the referees would get some of the heat taken off them. Instead, of course—and who didn't think of this then—people only look for the mistakes. The refs do get the vast majority correct, and no one in the game is examined as closely as game officials for calls they should have or should not have made. If players were graded on good and bad shots, few of them would likely be eligible to work in the Finals as the good referees are. It's a small part of the game and there are errors when, of course, everyone I know never makes a mistake at their job. After all, if they did they'd never complain about officials making a mistake because they'd have some compassion about trying to do a difficult job. But we know Americans rarely ever make a mistake.
Will he stay or will he go? - I really wonder about Durant. Rather than being an ‘outsider' on this team, he's been the #1 star, and almost carrying them at times. Does that heal all wounds?
Can he and Draymond get along? (Or will Draymond be gone instead of KD?) I, of course, would like him to leave and make it at least possible for somebody else to win a title. Spread that talent around a little. Somewhere, there's a team (or about 29 of them) that really needs Durant… while GS could still win – or at least contend - without him.
Sam: Actually, I'm not sure how well the Warriors would do without Durant. Though he gets condemned for going there after they'd won and leaving Oklahoma City on the verge (though having seen enough of Westbrook now it's pretty easy to see why), I doubt the Warriors would have more than one title without Durant. After all, he was the Finals MVP the last two years and the best player on the team, the best offensive player and as good as Green is defensively given his size and rebounding abilities. Durant's likely the best player in the NBA today, so it's difficult to see even as good as Curry and Thompson are the Warriors winning without Durant. The reports now have suddenly turned also about how happy Durant is and enjoying himself and you can only feel good about that in the belief that perhaps he's not going to the Knicks.
I'd be glad for the Knicks if they could rebuild their team getting a top pick like Zion or Ja Morant, then KD and Kyrie Irving plus Melo ... You know it'd be great for the NBA if they were contenders. The Knicks have been bad for so long. I hope they get back on that map.
Sam: I recognize the name, so I know it's not an alter ego for Spike Lee. I have to admit I don't get this sentiment much, anyone feeling sorry for anything New York, though I pity the fools that have to live there, A-list or not. The most frequent free agency speculation you hear these days is if the Knicks get 1 or 2 in the lottery they'll flip it along with Kevin Knox and a future 1 for Anthony Davis and then sign Durant and Irving. No, not ‘Melo! Though I assume if they did Durant would ask for a trade. I grew up in New York and went to college there, worked there a few years there after college, and then weary of the vomit in the subways and garbage in the streets masquerading as fine art finally moved on. I doubt there's an actual connection, but the Knicks haven't won a championship since. We all expect Durant to come to his senses before too long.
Looking at the point guard draft prospects many are very thin and could use helpful additional strength and bulk for the pros. For years, the refrain has been that they will add needed strength and bulk in the first off season like Lauri last summer. Why don't the leading draftees start the process after their last college game? Even now there are four month before training camp to further develop skills and add significant strength. Yes, there are pre-draft team visits and a short summer league but I doubt for example, that Zion plans to meet with Golden State. Is there an injury worry or just waiting for the draft? Certainly the drafting team has similar strength objectives. It's an annual puzzlement as they say. Why wait?
Sam: The point you are missing here is the problem with building through the draft. See many rookies or second year players playing now? Actually, hardly any. Sure, all the players come through the draft, but because most now spend one year in college and come into the NBA at 19 they're three or four years away from looking like a basketball player. You know, like Michael Jordan who spent three years in college. Sure, there are more prodigies now because there are so many untrained, fundamentally unsound, not-yet-strong-enough players in the NBA. But it's not because the players aren't working out. They do so more than any generation of players given weight rooms and lifting weights, which one time was recommended against for basketball players. But bodies at 19 aren't ready to take on that bulk compared with bodies that were coming into the NBA generally at 21 or 22. It's why when you have so many young players who were high lottery picks both they and your team often remain behind for a frustratingly long time. They're trying. The team is pushing them. They're just not ready.
If the Draft Lottery goes as “Chalk” as some have predicted and the Bulls remain at #4, who do you think would be a better choice right now? Darius Garland or Coby White? Both are point guards which the Bulls are looking to upgrade. Now, I've been reading that Coby White's stock is rising. He's 6-5 and can shoot. He's taller than Garland and you don't have the ACL concerns. What are you hearing about the two players?
Sam: I know fans have become obsessed about point guards, but remember about adding another 19 or 20-year-old and then asking him to be a decision maker. Point guards and centers tend to take the longest to develop. I'll get back to you after May 14.
I'm curious as to what priorities you think the Bulls management has for the draft and the free agent market. As I look at their roster, the biggest needs seem to be at point guard and power forward, and they'll need a backup center, especially if Robin Lopez moves on to a contending franchise. It doesn't look like this draft is particularly rich in point guards or power forwards. In fact, after the first two names, it's mostly a wing draft, if the mock drafters are to be believed, and the Bulls have a wealth of candidates at the 2 and 3.
What are some of the free agents the Bulls will be interested in? Is there any potential for trading their first round pick to a wing-hungry team for a young 1 or 4?
Sam: I'm curious also. They haven't hidden their concern about point guard, which the fans seem to have picked up on. Power forward seems good if Markkanen can stay healthy, which he hasn't, with Wendell Carter Jr. an able replacement. Which would leave a need for a big man, though I suspect they can find one in free agency at least as a role player. The free agency point guard market looks weak given Kyrie Irving has given no indication he'd want to explore another Midwestern winter. I've mentioned the Knicks scenario if they get No. 1 or No. 2. Would the Bulls try that, packaging up the pick, a future 1 and taking a shot that Davis the Chicago native would stay? Then bring back Derrick Rose to play with him and be able to keep most of the core? Maybe take a one-year shot and perhaps LeBron as a teammate now doesn't look as appealing in 2020-21 and maybe Davis likes being in the All-Star game as a Bull and back home as a star doesn't look so bad playing with perhaps Markkanen, Porter or LaVine or some combination. I'm not confident, either, of that scenario, though what I'm suggesting is if the Bulls do not get No. 1—and maybe even if they do—it could be a summer of unexpected and curious activities.
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