Ask Sam Mailbag: 05.5.17


By Sam Smith

Do you think the Bulls would have won that series with Rondo?

Alejandro Yegros

Sam: Yes. The Celtics really were reeling. You could see and hear the shock after that Game 2. They clearly were doubting themselves, and even with the tragedy in the Thomas family, he played great with 33 points in Game 1. The Rondo factor was huge, and, really, specifically to Boston. If it were Toronto or Washington it probably would not have mattered as much. But against Boston not only was Rondo motivated and agitated, but they were intimidated. You could see the guards watching for him all the time and you heard them talking about “playoff Rondo.” They knew the stories, and whether he was that guy anymore, they believed he was. Did you see the difference in the way Boston played Games 1 and 2 against a more talented Washington team? Plus, Rondo emboldened his teammates, especially the young guys. It was like having a big brother at the park. Rondo was stopping to yap at the Celtics’ bench; no one said much to him. The Bulls hoped Wade could be that guy, but he’d lost the passion with the decline in his game. Rondo reveled in it. But sports is a last out, last play endeavor. It was like 2012 when I was convinced--especially the way the Bulls with a tougher team were pushing Miami around in the regular season, unafraid of LeBron or Wade--that the Bulls would have won the title. Then Rose was hurt and they were out in the first round. So they were a team that lost in the first round; just as were this season’s Bulls. That’s all they can be remembered as.

I read your Chicago Bulls season grades and I disagree on you giving Fred Hoiberg grade as “B”? If it were up to me I wouldn’t give him no better than a D- for one main reason: lacking common sense.

This roster with or without the trade of Taj Gibson was still very talented and had we had a coach like a Tom Thibodeau could’ve won up to 50 games. What I mean by common sense is why not go with your strengths instead of trying to play something you’re not as Bulls are not: a 3 pt shooting team. Hoiberg should’ve have had his team pound the ball inside with Lopez, Butler and even Wade at all times which not only would’ve have drawn fouls but better chances to score. Hoiberg by far is the worse coach in the history of the Bulls. You would think Tim Floyd was bad but not this bad. Can’t believe Gar Forman was stupid enough to believe Hoiberg could make this team better.

Tom Choi

Sam: It’s difficult to debate anger and irrationality disguised as opinion, but I’ll try again. So that was a 50-win roster? It is comforting to at least know we found the one person in the world who thought it was. Interesting since the Vegas guys who bet on this as opposed to likely most everyone else had them at 38 wins. The preseason national media consensus was 36-43 wins, sixth through 10th in the standings. Seemed right. No offense to Tom as he did a good job with the Bulls, though his playing minutes basically broke down everyone (Rose, Noah, Gibson surgeries; Deng old before his time and surgery again). But his Timberwolves this season ranked as perhaps the most underachieving team matched with their talent and potential.

I don’t want to get into another Thibodeau comparison because he is a very good coach, one I also lobbied for to come to the Bulls. And whom I believe will do well again. But he would have been gone in any organization based on his players having broken down and been traded and leaving as they did in free agency. And anyone around that last Thibodeau team will tell you it was a team ready for a new voice. Every single one of them. Fred’s never going to get a break here because once people turn on you out of frustration and ignorance instead of fact, you have no chance. Same with Del Negro. You hear someone is a bad coach; you’re not sure what that means. Is it strategy, adjustments, play calling, discipline? Screaming at refs? Yelling at media? Does he run UCLA cuts too infrequently or too many floppy actions? We all can argue strategies, and I advocated things different than were done also. But the fact is the team won more games this season than virtually all predictions despite Wade missing a quarter of the season, a major trade of two of the top six players and a message from management to see more players on a sort of audition basis. Maybe not A, maybe not even B. But hardly worse than average.

Did you see the first two Washington/Boston games? The Bulls defense and strategies against Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics were much better, tougher, smarter and more effective. They attacked Isaiah Thomas’ matchup from the start, which it took Washington until Game 3 to figure out. Scott Brooks will get Coach of the Year votes, and he should. But in the big games, Hoiberg’s team was much better prepared, executed and competed better. Sure, I have my share of differences, but I did with Phil and will with Popovich. That’s the nature, fun and beauty of the game. There are so many ways to play. We can see it right in front of us, unlike football with all those guys holding everywhere and baseball with its 20 minute at bats. There are many ways to potentially succeed. No one questions it when it works. But the Bulls got better as the season went on, finished strong and played well in most of the biggest games. That’s pretty much what you’d hope with your coach. Perhaps you had a reasonable point and some knowledge until you lauded Tim Floyd.

The top five draft picks in this year's draft are either point guards (Ball, Fultz, Fox) or small forwards (Tatum, Jackson). I can't see Boston (if they get No. 1) pairing a point guard like Fultz with Thomas. Both are scorers I think and would not be a good fit unless you bring one off the bench. I also think it would create some defunct on how effective their game right now is. What would they do with Avery Bradley? Avery Bradley, the starting point guard, pulls down 7rpg and averages only a couple of assists. And he's only a few inches taller than Thomas. You put a tall point guard who scores such as Ball or Fultz, and you immediately can expect a shift in chemistry. Or do the Celtics gamble with a Jonathan Issac or Lauri Markkanen? Possibly trade down to get them.

If I'm the Celtics, I think Ball or Fultz are franchise type players. If Thomas doesn't get you to the NBA Finals, why not look to trade Thomas? An excellent scorer, however at 29 years of age you have to wonder he probably has three years of high-level scoring left at his height, and you'd figure by then the Celtics would look to the future. If I'm Ainge, I too keep the pick and get one of those point guards (or possibly Josh Jackson) and look to deal Thomas if I'm taking Ball or Fultz.

Tom Plonowski

Sam: It’s a scenario I’ve speculated on. It’s also why I don’t believe the Boston pick (from Brooklyn) has been available or likely will be available. The league wide consensus seems to be the Washington point guard as the top pick. Everything you hear is that not only do the Celtics like him—I guess everyone does—but Boston believes to make a serious run they need a high lottery pick. They go back to the death of Len Bias as believing that maybe set them back a decade or more, that gifted a crack at a top pick they cannot turn it down. Especially with optimism about the top of this draft. That’s why it may be impossible to get a top pick from anyone. Boston was brilliant in getting Thomas on a small contract—about $6 million next season—and he has been an unexpected marvel. Maybe until they call palming next season.

In any case, you also are right in that they have a big question. Do you want to pay him based on production after next season when he’ll be going on 30? Well over $100 million for a small guard going into his 30s with a buildup of minutes like he’s getting? And tough minutes the way they count on him in fourth quarters. You get the sense their community is thrilled with the way things have gone and don’t believe they have to make a run at Cleveland now or even next season. Which probably will give them an opportunity to plumb their draft picks for a few years and enjoy Thomas’ antics. I don’t think playing position will matter, and it really doesn’t in this era. Whereas one time you had to have a center and work around that, now, like the Golden State model, you can put guards all over the floor. The Cavs do it as well, though LeBron out plays every position. Positions matter less in basketball than ever. You always wanted to get your five best talents on the floor, but were limited by size matchup issues and the way the game could be controlled inside. Now with the rules changes to enable the perimeter and make interior more difficult, talent is all that matters. You pick the best player and talent will transcend.

No one gives away all stars so I don't know where the Bulls can get one without giving up good players. Realistically, the Bulls aren't going to get anyone in free agency. I look forward to watching Mirotic have a career year and mostly thanks to Rondo. Rondo gets him the ball. The Bulls need good health and for Mirotic and Portis to have career years. Valentine needs more minutes. Jerian Grant and MCW need to go. They don't fit. Teams have to develop their draft picks so they need to improve from within. I hope they trade up for Monk though. Not sure how they could pull that off but if he drops to 8-10...I hope they can somehow get him.

Victor Devaldivielso

Sam: I understand community angst and frustration. It helped elect a president. But a lot of what you hear with the Bulls lately reminds me of a kid whose parents are unemployed, but the kid is demanding a new toy. Be patient; things will turn around. No! I want what I want now! I deserve it! Of course, since it’s just sports, it’s OK. It’s more acceptable with escapism. It’s very difficult to get a star to pair with Butler, and, after all, who’s not trying? But at some point you have to consider if you cannot do that you have to sell the only thing you have of value. You hate to let go of your grandmother’s ring, but if you are starving and that’s all you can sell, you do it. Sometimes you have to sacrifice what you love most for long term survival. I don’t believe the Bulls are there yet given I see this as less than a year since breaking up the team after a six-year run. Unfulfilling, sure. But it was a competitive period. No one deserves a title. All you can do is try.

The Bulls got unlucky, but they spent with anyone, the only team in major free agency discussions in 2010 and 2014 with LeBron and Wade, Carmelo, Pau. They even finally got Wade. No team was more active or successful in free agency in the last decade. Other than Miami, of course. Which was all that mattered. OK, Golden State last summer, but no one else was even in in the discussion. Carmelo said the Bulls were No. 2. LeBron said the Bulls were No. 2. There were only winners those years. There was 1 and a 29-way tie for second. I think the Bulls will get someone in free agency, and then after next season they’ll get more. They’ll also be in position to take on a salary, like the Pelicans did with DeMarcus Cousins. It’s just not time yet with Wade and Rondo. Though with better defined roles—Butler playing with Rondo, Wade playing with the second unit, a tighter rotation and good luck with healthy—this could be an interestingly competitive team as it gets in position. I don’t think it will be a vastly different roster, but if the Bulls could fill some holes like shooting and have the bench guys understand they are bench guys and won’t be starting—even a little—it could be a reasonable step forward.

Lonzo Ball reportedly to skip NBA Draft Combine, giving scouts one less chance to find warts. And the family just get worse by the day. My Lord. 500 dollars for his sneakers?

Mike Sutera

Sam: The irony in this whole drama is the kid appears to be an ideal type team player, sort of a Jason Kidd guy with a little better shot and a lot less speed, team oriented. But you’d be scared to death as a team to pick him. The dad seems way over the edge, and the problem, especially in a big city, is that the media will be all over him. He obviously loves seeing his name or hearing his name and you know one day he could be ripping the coach or his kid’s teammates or making a scene in the arena, sort of the ugly soccer dad whom everyone is turning away from. Except in pro sports it becomes a story and damage control for the team. Hey coach, the dad of your rookie just said you are a moron. Hey coach, the dad of your rookie just said your best player is selfish and out for himself. Hey coach, the dad of your rookie just said your management better get some better players. Most of the mock drafts I’ve seen have Ball second or third. You can’t pass on talent, but be scared, be very scared.

It was worth the shot and too bad Rondo went down. But time to rip this team apart. Butler needs to be traded. He would be too old by the time the Bulls got better and Wade is starting the steep decline. Hopefully Wade won't come back but impossible to turn down that type of money. Won't make a difference, just kind of a sad George Gervin 1984 season for him coming back.

So rooting for bad teams and lots of lottery picks I guess. Time to pull out those lucky charms and hope the lottery balls don't give us the next Marcus Fizer. Free up the cap space. Been there before. Maybe better this time.

Jeff Lichtenstein

Sam: You just made a heck of a convincing case for not doing that. Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Marcus Fizer. The Orlando Magic hired a bright young GM from Oklahoma City, schooled under the respected Sam Presti. They made some reasonable picks. Traded a pick for Serge Ibaka. Hezonja wasn’t good in 2015, but next was Cauley-Stein, Mudiay, Johnson, Kaminsky, Winslow. No starters; 2014 Aaron Gordon at No. 4, who is OK, just ahead of Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Stauskas, Vonleh and then they got Payton right before McDermott; 2013 was the Anthony Bennett No. 1 draft. They did well with Oladipo No. 2 ahead of Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len, Noel, Ben McLemore. The point is you can tank for five years and not end up with anyone special. Often you don’t get a special one. They are the exceptions. Philly has done it for several years and has a special guy in Embiid, who can’t get through two months. Unless it’s a great draft and you have the top pick, you better be really sure. Paxson was exactly right. Easy to say, but it’s much more difficult in practice.

This past season was certainly more enjoyable than 2015/16 when at times the team appeared to be without an offense. It was an amazing transformation of a roster. The play the kids period was useful but what is the conclusion? It appears there are only four that may have potential to be decent players, not stars. Zipser, Valentine, Portis and Cam Payne (only because of uncertainty with such limited experience). How would he not be “in shape”? What is more important in his life? Do we have another Tyrus Thomas with all kinds of physical skill and a space cadet above the shoulders? Grant, MCW, Niko, Lauvergne and probably Felicio are limited to a use of completing a roster and should be available without hesitation to fill out any trade.

John Petersen

Sam: Paxson and Forman indicated that at the media conference this week, and, obviously, they wouldn’t get into specifics. You don’t name names. You could be blacklisted at Hop Sings. This should be a big summer for all those guys. To me, no one is guaranteed a spot. Some obviously are under contract, and, yes you hear about Butler trade rumors and that no one can be safe when a team is .500. But Butler should be safer than anyone else because he is better than everyone else. He obviously would be more valuable to other teams, but the Bulls made a point they have to narrow the rotation. And it will be in the interest of production. No one among everyone you mentioned impressed enough to say the team cannot do without them. So, to me, all their jobs are in danger. You work and come back better like Butler did. As Paxson pointed out, he was a 30th pick who played 359 minutes as a rookie without being hurt. He nagged Thibodeau constantly to play him. Thibodeau constantly said he wasn’t good enough, didn’t have the offensive component and had to get a lot better. Butler did. There was no more expectation for him than most of the guys you mentioned. Payne is intriguing to me even though he came in and looked like he never played team ball before. He is quick and had a unique ability to get his shot off. He looked like a poor man’s Brandon Jennings when he came, which is D-league level. But he also looks like a guy who if he works might be something. The Thunder liked him and, like with the Spurs, you like their guys because they have a good organizational eye for talent. It’s probably the way it should be. Guys will have to earn their way into the regular rotation. There were too many tryouts this season because it was their turn. I think that’s over.

Not with a million guesses could I have predicted this season for the Bulls. And yet, the final record was right where just about everyone thought it would be.

Shades of 2012? Pretty much, except this time it was the Bulls failing to beat the number one seed instead of caving to the number eight seed. But, nonetheless, it was a repeat of the Bulls losing the guy they depended on to put them into position to win with an injury in the second game of the series. Next years' starting lineup. Any ideas? I'll go with Rondo, Wade, Butler, Portis, and Lopez, with Mirotic getting traded in the off season.

William Kochneff

Sam: I don’t exactly think Rose’s ACL and Noah’s ankle that had him out two months was caving in. But, yes, the Bulls have had a lot of playoff bad luck since they never had any in the 1990s. Which in the long run you’d probably take even if you are upset now. After all, what would have happened then if Jordan tore his ACL in 1991? Well, I’d have a book that didn’t sell as well, but that’s probably not the big issue. Remember, basically no one vital ever got hurt. Yes, Longley did get knocked out by that rogue wave in 1996 and a piqued Pippen did put off his surgery for three months so he could vacation through the start of the 1997-98 season. But never anything to match what happened to Rose. Or even Noah. The Bulls this season didn’t get there the most direct route, sort of like using one of those direction apps. But you get there. It looked like a .500 team or thereabouts and whether you sweep Cleveland and get swept by the Knicks, talent reaches it’s appropriate level over the long term. The Bulls predictably did. None of us know who will be on the roster five months from now. But one thing is perfectly clear from last season. Rondo has to play with Butler and without Wade. Paxson basically said it in that press conference. Butler is best when he runs the court; Rondo is best when he looks ahead to find runners; Wade is best when he can control the action with his own group. They can fit; just not together.

Last week's Bears Draft Day trade reminded me of a similar deal the Bulls once made back in the 2006 NBA Draft, in which the Bulls traded down from the #2 overall pick (LaMarcus Aldridge) to the #4 pick (Tyrus Thomas). The only incentive for the Bulls in that deal was the inclusion of Viktor Khryapa (a below-replacement level guy who averaged 3PPG for Chicago over two years). Setting aside the fact that Tyrus Thomas became a bust in the NBA while Aldridge has enjoyed an All-Star career, what was the Bulls' true incentive in making that deal and why couldn't they have extracted more from the Blazers, in the same fashion the 49'ers manipulated the Bears? I recall Chad Ford had Tyrus ranked #1 overall among prospects pre-draft. Why not just draft Tyrus at #2 in the first place? Was it really worth all the trouble for Khryapa? Do you recall what your opinion was at the time of this trade?

Mike Burgher

Sam: I understand it’s much more fun to be angry. Hey, that doesn’t make sense. I saw no issue with what the Bears did; the reaction seemed to stem from having bad jobs and your kids were a pain. Of course, it all depends on if the guy works out, like with Tyrus. I actually applaud going for the guy. I never understand all these gms who say they have to have value. I believe as long as you get what you want, who cares what the other guy gets. But I find most gms spend half their time worrying about what others think. It’s why guys like Red Auerbach and Jerry West were the best. If you criticized them they thought you were an idiot. If the Bears got a great quarterback, who cares if they gave up eight linemen and two receivers. It’s their greatest need and the game’s only important position. I still don’t know the name of any NFL player not a quarterback.

Have any ever been mentioned on ESPN? I liked the Tyrus deal at the time. If you recall, the Bulls were being beaten up—yes, again—because they weren’t athletic enough. They had these hard workers, character guys, Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Nocioni, but you needed an athlete star for the next level. Thomas looked the part. Crazy athletic ability, skilled, a 6-7 guy who could outjump centers and outrun guards. They were going to take him No. 2, but there was Aldridge. He didn’t look great in college. Put up good numbers, but scouts said he played soft, shot a lot of jump shots; you couldn’t go anywhere with him. Which proved accurate despite his personal success. Khryapa looked like a version of Andrei Kirilenko, who was the in thing at the time. Everyone was enamored of the 5x5 guy, like Kirilenko, who could get at least five in each of the stat categories plus at 6-8 guard with the ability to switch.

It seemed perfect. Until Tyrus showed up as bad a guy as you’d run into in the NBA, arrogant, condescending, lazy, indifferent. But SEC freshman of the year, regional NCAA MVP as a freshman taking the team to the Final Four even playing on a bad ankle. He practically beat Duke by himself with his defense. Dominated against No. 2 seed Texas. But that’s the problem with the draft these days. He was 19 and still a baby, immature, a small town kid overwhelmed by it all. It should have worked; he should have been the perfect fit with Khryapa. Most everyone around the NBA believed it would work. It didn’t. Then most everyone said they never would have done that.

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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