Ask Sam Mailbag: 05.26.17


By Sam Smith

Let me just say upfront that Michael Jordan was the greatest thing that ever happened to Chicago sports, at least, during my (very long) lifetime and I was convinced of his singular greatness long ago. That said, watching LeBron James, especially the last couple of years, rings the same bells. He dominates a basketball court in the way MJ did. I think debates over the relative greatness of athletes from different generations is pointless, but it's interesting to think about other players who had the kind of impact on a game that MJ and LeBron have--not just scoring, not just defense, but a presence so impactful that the games revolved around them. Kareem, maybe, and Wilt and Bill Russell. Magic and Bird were great players, but I'm not sure they had the same impact on how the game was played. Anyway, it's a treat to be able to watch such a great talent.

Kirk Landers

Sam: Well put. Yes, this debate has become wearying and hanging onto this "my daddy is stronger than your daddy" thing sounds like an elementary school argument. Oh yeah, well, oh yeah. Perhaps no one ever impacted the game like Bill Russell because he was the difference in his team winning 11 championships and eight straight, sort of like Byron Nelson in golf winning 11 straight tournaments. It's so long ago it doesn't resonate anymore. And no one could dominate individual games like Wilt, 50 points per game average, averaging more than 48 minutes per game played, games scoring in the 70s in points almost routinely. I personally always felt Oscar Robertson was the most perfect player I ever saw in able to do everything at such a high level.

Given are memories aren't exactly perfect, it becomes that your favorite never had a bad game or missed a big shot or lost a crucial game because that meant you would have also, in a sense. There's a whole world of psychology out there about why we cling to sports so desperately, and given my professional career I'm glad for whatever the reasons. I remember when LeBron was a rookie I was on a panel and he was saying LeBron would be the best ever. I poohed, of course, but here we have been debating it, though we never debated such things until recently. I also remember the first time Jordan retired Kevin McHale coming into Chicago and saying in five years we'd barely remember him. The point was the present always pushes aside the past. Jordan has, remarkably, sustained, and I'd probably have him No. 1 on my own imaginary list since all of these are personal preferences. But I accept those who favor Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem.

LeBron as well can be considered in that group, and you are right. He's different from Jordan as Jordan was different from Chamberlain Kareem and Russell, but you don't want to turn away and his dominance in the last decade matches the others of all the great eras. I cannot imagine we'll ever see anyone like that again. We've said that before, but anyone who decides to favor LeBron on the top of their greatest list should have plenty of reasonable and excellent evidence. I agree; rather than rooting against LeBron to preserve Jordan's legacy--or the memory of it--we should continue to enjoy a truly amazing player. Who will get the test of his career starting next Thursday. Good stuff.

Rondo out for the Bulls in the first round, Lowry and Nene out for the Raptors and Rockets in the second round, Leonard and Thomas out for the Spurs and Celtics in the conference finals. Not sure if I left anyone off, but has there ever been an NBA playoffs where so many critical and/or best players were lost for their respective series? This all seems kind of nuts.

Terrell Bryant

Sam: So much for the Lords of Rest, the Spurs, swept from the playoffs after a season of sitting their guys out to be ready for the playoffs. How’s that for payback from the TV sponsors. OK, maybe they weren’t rooting for it this time. Sure, the Kawhi Leonard injury certainly was a fluke and had nothing to do with minutes played, which perhaps is the point. Sort of. You shouldn’t play all the time, but resting four guys for the same game isn’t saving anyone. The owners, by the way, seemed to make it clear at their last meeting that’s over with.

Rondo was well rested, sitting out for a week or more at times. Nene hardly played. I’ve always question the alleged “science” behind this stuff, though I was a fairly poor science student and still don’t get how they saw atoms. Better at science, though, than Kyrie Irving, who’s shot has more arc than his imagination. I’m still in on that world is round theory. Seen it out the window of Appllo 13. Sure, overuse causes things to break down. That’s obvious. But you also have to ask whether these coaches and teams preaching all this rest are actually contributing to injuries. After all, one reason you can get hurt is by not being in playing rhythm and jumping into games. Maybe that’s where all these sprained ankles come from; the ones ZaZa doesn’t visit upon you, anyway.

Players always have been hurt, and I do remember a Lakers team in the late 1980s going 11-0 in the first three rounds (five-game first round) and then Magic and Byron Scott being hurt and being swept in the Finals. But I cannot recall the epidemic of injuries that we’ve seen in these playoffs. My general (read: unscientific) belief is players overtrain their bodies and don’t play enough basketball, working out all summer and avoiding playing for fear of being injured, and then it seems you are more primed for injury because you haven’t gotten your body more accustomed to playing. So how about that: Too much rest is causing players to break down! It’s my story now and I’m sticking to it. Have any other theories?

If the Bulls bring back everyone, the 16th pick of the draft will not help them win games, so they might as well take a gamble. That Diallo kid is worth the risk. The last athletic SG the Bulls selected that I can remember was Corey Benjamin. Am I forgetting someone? It would be nice to have Diallo learn from Wade and Rondo.

Victor Devaldivielso

Sam: The next Corey Benjamin? Well, there was JamesOn Curry, who had some drug and urination issues, as I recall. Ron Artest, Roger Mason Jr. Ben Gordon worked out reasonably well. I’d heard this guy’s name connected with the Bulls in internet rumors (always the reliable source). This is the guy who went to Kentucky for one semester in sort of an loophole in the rules, but didn’t play. Like with the Thon Maker situation. And Maker was a high pick. Supposedly high ceiling, but not much yet.

Diallo said he didn’t play in college late last season because he didn’t want to upset team chemistry. Yes, a kid who basically last played in high school. I know he’s athletic and all with impressive stuff at the Combine in the tests. But the Bulls cannot, in my view, be seeking quite that much of a project. I agree at times with the idea of taking a risk, especially on a high ceiling athlete. That’s why I suggested Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell in my mock draft, though he could be taken before No. 16. Diallo shot about 17 percent on threes in high school or prep school or wherever he was. Sure, he could get better and probably will. But I don’t see this Bulls team ready to do that much teaching. Maybe he’s Westbrook in four years and you’d regret passing on him. But he sounded like a possible second round pick to me and a guy destined for the next two years in the D-league. So it probably was one reason why he decided to return to (go to for the first time) Kentucky for his freshman year. Good choice.

- Do you see Jerian Grant with a long-term future with Chicago? I think he's a rather nice combo guard. He can play point or the shooting guard position. He seems more of a shooting guard based on his play. I expect him to back-up Wade if Valentine can't cut it. He and Payne should battle it out for Rondo's back-up spot.

- Do you think Canaan will be back next season? His option will only have $200K guaranteed for next season if he happens to get released this summer. He's only 26, he's not really a veteran presence. Sure, he's a nice bench player too have, but I think the Bulls should get rid of him.

- Do you see Wade retiring a Bull? Sure, he'll be back next season. I don't expect for him to be back in Chicago after his contract runs out, but do you see another team signing him then or could the Bulls bring him back for a bench role?

- What are your thoughts on MCW ? Could he be someone that can still be that 15/6/6 ball player on another team that has different needs at the point?

- Where does Rondo go after next season? I think Rondo signed with the intention of him, Butler, and Wade leading Chicago to a 4-5 seed and a deep run at the NBA playoffs. That didn't happen but I think Rondo will get his option picked up and he'll be back for one more season. At 32, then he'll look to get one final contract and win.

- What kind of ball player can Payne develop into - meaning can he be the point guard of the future for Chicago? He's shown he can shoot with his left hand but can he play defense and can he distribute the ball?

- Do you foresee a breakout season for Denzel Valentine next season? I'm talking 20+ mpg next season, 10 points off the bench and 45%-50% shooting from the field.

Tom Plonowski

Sam: In other words, oh guard! Point predicaments. Nice run down of the backcourt, and that’s the problem. There’s just too much uncertainty. We all feel Wade and Rondo are back for one more season, and if the Bulls cannot make a nice move this season then it’s probably some sort of tear down. They don’t know yet, but there’s not a lot they can do given the uncertainty of some of the free agents and Wade with his opt out at the end of June

Rondo emerged as the team’s most vital non-Butler player, so he’ll likely have that point guard spot and we’ll see how much they can push the ball with him firmly in that role now. Carter-Williams has a relatively small player option, which he figures to exercise to become a free agent. He’s hard to figure as he looked so good as Rookie of the Year and had an impressive playoffs against the Bulls when he was in Milwaukee. The inconsistent rotation seemed to affect him.

Grant and Valentine are under contract and especially Valentine should have a chance to show if he can be that playmaker he came advertised to be. I’m not sure where Grant fits in, but he looks like he can be a scorer in the Dion Waiter mold. He needs a chance, but it was tough for him to get in a flow with the guys he was often on the court with and ended up standing around off the ball a lot. Payne should get another look as he didn’t have much and it seems like he can score. I do like Canaan for that deep reserve role. Seems like a positive guy to have around. Which, unfortunately, still means they’re not sure about backup point guard and starting shooting guard. There’s still the draft, free agency, trades. It’s a long way to 2017-18. I wouldn’t commit to much of a roster quite yet.

Many Bulls fans will disagree: But I see Gar and Paxson as having a better eye for talent than they are credited with. We'll see if Butler and perhaps Rondo are enough to get any top players to want to play in Chicago. I think the Bulls can be better than the Celtics next year - they already gave Boston serious trouble this year.

LongGiang Le

Sam: Wait, I’m checking to see if Hell froze over. Yes, I got a supportive management email. I know it’s fashionable to condemn any management when its team isn’t having a huge level of success. It’s OK because it comes with the job. How’s that quote go: With great amounts of money comes little responsibility in criticism. Or something like that. The Bulls were lucky with Derrick Rose and then very, very unlucky. So how do you build a team again? You add good veterans to support top talent.

Consider the Bulls finding veterans who were inexpensive like D.J. Augustin, Kyle Korver, Aaron Brooks, Ronnie Brewer, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Richard Hamilton, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Rondo. They long have been regarded among the best reserve groups. They drafted starters like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson well down in the draft. Nobody hits them all or close out of the lottery. They had their share of misses as well. They won out in big free agent contests when Ben Wallace and Pau Gasol were prime targets. They weren’t lucky and lost the big ones.

LeBron preferred his buddy when his buddy was young. Carmelo preferred his money and the ball. So it doesn’t look as good. Maybe Jimmy can attract someone, but, really whom do you want to spend $30 million on this summer? Paul Millsap? Kyle Lowry? Even Gordon Hayward, who is being courted by teams with more money and wins. I really don’t see anyone worth spending big money on this summer. It’s still a crossroads for the Bulls and we’ll see how they do with that eye for talent. They know everyone is eying what they do.

I want the Cavs to crush Durant's dreams of winning a title. He shouldn't have joined the Warriors, but rather joined Harden/the Rockets instead.

Kieron Smith

Sam: Well, he obviously wasn’t going to do that even if he supposedly was closer with Harden than Westbrook. There always has to be a villain, I guess, but this enmity toward Durant—as it was toward LeBron—is misplaced. Unless it’s because of his fake tough guy attitude of the last few years. Suddenly instead of crying at his MVP press conference you feel like crying for liking him so much.

Yes, I know the arguments, that players in previous eras would fight them, not join them; that this is a cheap and illegitimate way of trying to get a championship by signing with a 73-win team. But I’m a little more sympathetic with this issue since I’ve written a book related to it that will be published by Chicago’s Triumph Books in the fall. It’s about the Oscar Robertson suit and the game in the late 1950s into the 1970’s, the greatest forgotten era. Basketball’s Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw told me to go ahead; he was busy. It was that lawsuit that finally enabled the players to determine their fate, no longer tied to one team for their careers, like it or not. Players fought for years to earn the rights of other workers. Yes, I know the money argument, that they aren’t regular workers. But all that plays into the plans of the management. Can’t keep rooting for owners. Yes, the NBA and the players agreed to terms in the newest labor deal with the so called super max to try to persuade players to remain with their teams. But your playing life is relatively short, and if you want to play somewhere with someone you should be able to do so.

Players are essentially committed to their team by the draft, which is collectively bargained, for at least five years. So after that, players should be entitled to select where they want to play and with whom. They earned that right, and all Durant did was exercise a basic right. Good for him. Plus, living in the Bay Area and playing with and unselfish group with an ideal coach. No offense; OK, small offense. Vs Oklahoma City? It’s not all about the last dollar; or should not be. He chose a wonderful lifestyle in a beautiful place with appealing coworkers. Why not? He was young enough to try and talented enough still to be desired. We should be applauding the exercise of those long cherished rights.

Send LBJ to his fifth finals loss.

Mike Metz

Sam: That’s another element that will be so great about these Finals. Two villains. And guarding one another. How sweet will that be? Whoever loses will make many happy. And who isn’t tired of Curry and the revolving mouthguard? And J.R. Smith hasn’t done a single crazy thing yet. We can’t wait.

You are around NBA players all the time. For us mere mortals can you explain the thought process with some of the big money players. If a player has $100 million in the bank, are they overly concerned about the next contract paying them $180 million instead of $217 million? I'm trying to understand if a max contract is as important as we hear it is. Is some of it ego?

Mike Burling

Sam: Another vote for Durant to give up a few bucks for lifestyle. If he’d just give the sneering act a rest. It’s really not about the money; OK, it is a lot about the money, which most people can’t understand. Because it doesn’t make actually make logical sense. You can only drive one car and maybe live in two or three houses. But not 12. I’m not wealthy—at least not player, coach, management or assistant coach wealthy—but I’ve changed jobs frequently for less money because it wasn’t as much fun in the previous job.

Enjoying your life where you want to live and with whom you always wanted to be with always seemed to make more sense. And after all, if you make $5 million annually (below the NBA average salary, by the way), how much more can you need or spend. Yes, short earning span, but $30 million in, say, six years should carry you for a lifetime or two. OK, extended families. Yes, a lot of players come from places where many people took care of them and it’s time to return the favor. They should. But these contracts really are a story everyone can relate to. It’s as much or more about the competition. Say you work in an office and make $100,000, which makes you comfortable. Then you find out the guy in the next office who does half the work makes $200,000. Human nature, which includes greed, jealously and hubris. After all, why do ceos of companies need $44 million buyouts? Same principle.

You don’t get to be at the top of the athletic world, which is where NBA players are, without being a great competitor. Some don’t look like it in the NBA, but only because they are competing against others who are even greater competitors. You don’t get to the NBA without being a high level competitor, and salary is another very strong form of competition, measuring yourself and keeping score.

There’s a report the Timberwolves will consider Derrick Rose. Is he going to trade for Deng as well?

Mike Sutera

Sam: Everyone probably had to smile about that one, Thibodeau doing the Blues Brothers redux. He’s putting the band back together! Sweet home, Minneapolis? Tommie the Moocher? And all we figured was Taj Gibson ends up there. It was a surprise to see Rose’s name mentioned with Minnesota given they have about a half dozen point guards. Well, a lot with No. 3 pick Kris Dunn still unable to beat out Rubio. Knowing Thibodeau, you know he’s anxious coming off a season well out of the playoffs. And he likes who he likes. I did see Rose’s name mentioned with the Spurs, which actually made somewhat more sense as Parker could assume that Manu role off the bench now assuming Ginobili retires and they get to sit out a lot of games.

I think the pressure is on Boston now to re-consider trading the No. 1 pick on draft day with the Cavs knocking them out of the playoffs. Boston is the only team in the East right now that could challenge Cleveland given the right players.

Randall Sanders

Sam: I doubt that. Both they being the only challenger to the Cavs and reconsidering the trade. I think it’s even more likely now the Celtics use that pick on point guard Fultz. Though there are reports Lonzo Ball will work out for the Bulls and not the Celtics. That family really is Celtics haters. The Celtics have a training year with Fultz, I’d guess. But I still question whether Boston would want to after next season come up with huge money for Isaiah Thomas at 29. Actually, I don’t think they want to, but now with that hip injury it seems unlikely any team can risk trading for Thomas. Don’t old people need new hips all the time? Yes, Thomas was hurt in the conference finals. But I think what the playoffs also showed despite Boston making the conference finals (we still think they were out in round one if Rondo wasn’t hurt) was they need to be bigger in the backcourt. Coaches can scheme against a smaller player easier in a playoff series.

No, they didn’t have enough shooting and scoring without Thomas, but you can see them saying if they are going to beat Cleveland they’re not doing it made up that way. Maybe a big backcourt with Fultz and Jalen Brown; maybe a scoring wing in trade, another top three or four pick next season from the Nets. And then a strong young sore. What’s the hurry? If they’re going after LeBron and Cleveland, better to do it with a young roster than can sustain and have its own long run than patching and trying to take a shot. Easier said than done, though, after you went to the conference finals. The Celtics probably come back with Thomas, and he is making just $6.2 million in one of the best trades in years. But are they going to commit more than $100 million to him after next season? Though you’d also like to have some of their problems because they and the Bucks probably are in the best positions in the East to make a run at the top in the next few years.

This is so embarassing for the NBA. Who is going to watch the regular season any more? We can all pencil in Warriors vs Cavs round 4 for next year.

Bob Ding

Sam: Baseball always prospered with the Yankees winning. Football seems OK with the Patriots. Dynasties are great for sports. What, you want the Nets in the Finals two straight years again? Things can change quickly in sports. Golden State has been awfully injury-free. And so has LeBron. Of course, I also didn’t get too many complaints when the Bulls were getting to the Finals six times in eight years. The problem with the playoffs hasn’t so much been the Cavs and Warriors winning as much as the lack of closer series. We’ve had these sorts of dominations for years, the Celtics and Lakers in the 60s and again in the 80s. Yes, three straight is unprecedented.

I also don’t see the Cavs as unbeatable in the East. Though Boston didn’t look that close for the top seed. Let me consider that some more. As for the Warriors. Uh oh. With two MVPs in their primes, it is an historic mix. Plus, the West is likely to be less competitive, especially with the Spurs—we’re sure this time—about to slip some with Parker and Ginobili on the way out and no real replacements this time. Miami will be interesting with the Bosh money coming off and the ability to add players.

The Wizards and Celtics have the foundations of competitive groups, the Celtics if they add a bit more shooting and size and the Wizards with more attitude. Milwaukee is coming, Toronto remains intriguing, and with Butler and Rondo, the Bulls aren’t pushovers and have the ability to move into that group with more consistency and a slight move or two. Yes, really. Assuming, of course, they choose that road. It doesn’t appear they’re quite up to the fork in the road yet. Which Yogi long counseled once you get there to take. Always tough to dispute that logic.

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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