Ask Sam Mailbag: 10.06.17
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer readers' questions.
For many of us, the years 1999-2007 were extremely tough. Limited wins and prospects that didn't work out after such domination in the 90s. In your experience, when a team hits the "reset" button, how long should it take for them to become relevant again? I understand this year we will have limited wins and be able to take a look at a lot of prospects however with so much cap space going in to next season is there an opportunity the Bulls throw some cash at a top free agent to speed up the process?
Sam: How long does it take to get lucky in life? Basketball, many say, is life, after all. I’d forget free agents for now, and perhaps for a while; you have to reach a serious level of competitiveness before recruiting a free agent makes much difference. But perhaps this is a good time for some history. I think the Bulls are much better off now because that was three resets. If you’ll recall, the first was the 1999 draft with No. 1 overall pick Elton Brand, which was the right pick among the four choices at the time with Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Lamar Odom. That was the late general manager Jerry Krause. Krause then went all in with the 2000 draft, which was the first of his two fatal mistakes. He used six picks in that 2000 draft, which was one of the weaker ones ever. He got Jamal Crawford, but basically busts with other first rounders Marcus Fizer and Dalibor Bagaric. And then nothing with three high seconds. It actually was the beginning of the end for Krause. He reasoned, correctly, he didn’t have the core to win. So he went all in again with a second reset, trading Brand for the rights to Tyson Chandler and drafting Eddy Curry. The twin kid seven footers were to be the future with his ideal coach for kids, Tim Floyd. It fell apart and Krause was let go, which brought reset No. 3 with the hiring of John Paxson in 2003. That’s three resets in four years, which isn’t happening this time.
Paxson, who remains in charge and will be, committed to the historic strategy of building selectively through the draft with free agents that would fit the new, as we like to call it, culture. He didn’t get lucky early. His first draft pick was Kirk Hinrich after Jay Williams’ career ending motorcycle accident, which was the first of the bad luck. By all accounts, Dwyane Wade was about to be a Bull in that 2003 draft. He wasn’t that highly regarded compared with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony headlining that draft. Pat Riley in Miami always believed you cannot win without a center. He had Magic, but needed Kareem; he went to New York because of Patrick Ewing. The first thing he did in Miami was get Alonzo Mourning. So Riley was set on that draft’s best big man, Chris Kamen. He finally at the last minute was talked into taking Wade by one of his disciples, Randy Pfund. Everyone was shocked by the pick since Miami had told everyone it was Kamen. The Bulls recovered with Hinrich, and were able to build the model of a hard working, committed team with Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon in subsequent drafts. They were able to add a role playing free agent like Andres Nocioni, though not a star. They were good and popular, a near 50-win team. But you stall there without luck. The Bulls finally got it with Derrick Rose in the 2008 draft and they were the league’s winningest team two straight seasons, probably on to a title in 2012 or 2013 before we know what happened.
This time the Bulls have a much better start on it. They’ll have continuity with Paxson running the show and they had a valuable piece in Jimmy Butler. So they could start with a core by trading Butler. Assuming they are fortunate. Assuming Zach LaVine is healthy, he can be a closer and a star. Lauri Markkanen is the first top 10 draft pick they’ve had since Rose in 2008. This season is two-fold, a tryout camp to see who among the roster of role players is worth keeping and a chance to get that first top five pick in a decade. Sure, it will be a painful season, but it will be nothing like the nightmare of 1999-2004. Still, you have to get lucky big time once. For some teams, it never happens. But if it does, the Bulls look like with the talent and a manageable payroll they’ll be in position to take advantage.
David Lee still on the market. Worth a look? Deron Williams. Must pain him Jose Calderon got a job.
Sam: Some retirements are quieter than others. I’m a little surprised with Lee, though he’s had injury problems. I think he had a player option with the Spurs he didn’t exercise last summer and became a free agent. But it wasn’t for much money. Once top teams—not lottery team--have injuries perhaps he gets a call as he’s been a good teammate. Yes, as opposed to Williams, who has been one of the larger pains to deal with in his career. At one time it was tough to make the case that Chris Paul was better from the same draft class, and Williams did have injuries. But he threw so many coaches, teammates, media and staff under buses that there were pileups everywhere he went. He actually finished last regular season with a big scoring game, showing he has some stuff left, maybe. But if he’s done, I doubt many will miss him.
What is the NBA minimum team salary without any penalty? Where are the Bulls in that view? Is that the reason or a contributing factor for resigning Niko?
Sam: The Bulls are still well below the minimum payroll, though that’s not an issue. It’s a good place to be since there are several teams who need cap space to pursue free agents and others facing big luxury tax bills who once it becomes clear they are not winning the championship this season will look to dump a contract and as an incentive will throw in a draft pick. The Bulls will be waiting. They were on the other side in 2010 when they had to give up a first to get Washington to take Hinrich. It came close to adding LeBron and Wade. Alas, only close. But you have to try. Teams will and the Bulls are in good position. They also were clever with Mirotic. He was going to sign the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent for close to $8 million. Playing out his deal he’d have little trade value if it came to that. The Bulls paid him a little more money on a one-year guarantee, but now with that second year team option, if a team likes him it would be much easier to deal if both sides agree. And if Mirotic produces this season, the Bulls would have a reasonable deal with him moving forward without having to get into another contentious negotiation. It’s a fair deal for both sides: Mirotic makes more money, and the Bulls get more flexibility.
Can you explain how these new two-way contracts work? Blakeny looked good in the first preseason game but it appears he can only spend up to 45 days with the Bulls based on his contract and otherwise must be with the Windy City Bulls. If he's with the NBA team for more than 45 days does his contract become a regular NBA contract? Or is he limited to 45 days a year in the NBA for the remainder of his two-year two-way contract?
Sam: You have it pretty straight. It’s a nice addition for G-league (formerly D-league) players. They get 45 days, which means games, practices with the NBA team. When they are with the NBA team they get paid an NBA minimum, which is higher, obviously, than their G-league deal. It gives teams the option to look at some young players. I believe Blakeney and Ryan Arcidiacono are on those. For now, it makes sense for the team to exhaust the 45 days. If they want to add him after that, they’ll need a roster spot. Blakeney shot poorly against Dallas, but has shown an impressive ability to get shots off and an ability to get to the basket, which has been missing thus far from the Bulls primary point guards. Blakeney is not a point guard, and he’s still raw at an NBA level. But with his athletic and scoring ability he could work himself onto the roster later in the season. Obviously, it’s still a wide open roster.
Well, it’s too early to make any firm observations, except that they will have a better chance to win when they hit 3’s & play defense. So far, they’ve played D for 2, maybe 3, quarters out of 8 – not good enough. It also worries me that they are so dependent on 3-pt. shooting and have so little going on around the hoop. I can see why they started Grant ahead of Dunn, and since they both played better that way, I’d stick to it for now. Grant really did play well in NOLA, probably the best I’ve seen from him. And Dunn looks anything but confident. Maybe he still feels Thibs’ breathing down his neck, because he looks like Doug McNervous out there. Maybe playing off the bench and matching up with subs for a while will help him. You can tell he’s an athlete and an avid defender. Gotta love him picking a fight w/ Cousins!
Sam: I agree it doesn’t appear to look like a finished product, or one that can win 30 games. It’s too soon to say Dunn’s an issue because, as you note, he has some impressive physical abilities and he quickly had enough of Cousins. I bet Alvin Gentry wished he could do that. Dunn is playing cautious, and I think you are exactly right. He tends to look over to the bench all the time. We saw plenty of that on Thibs’ teams. Just play! Put your head down and get to the basket! Get to the free throw line! Somebody, anybody. You can’t have the game Hoiberg talks about spinning the ball around the perimeter and taking long threes. Yes, Mirotic still is well behind that line. Move up; it’s allowed. Grant did play maybe his best game for the Bulls against the Pelicans, and Fred has said it’s competition over reputation and contract; so I assume Grant remains there. He’s played better and has shot better. Actually, Arcidiacono did a nice job running things in his limited time. We knew Dunn would be balky with his shot, but so was Rose. Butler, too. But they made things happen attacking the defense. Dunn looks like he can do it; he looks agile and fast and strong. He appears to be thinking too much, and we know how bad that can be. In sports, too. Point guards have to play with confidence and instinct, and he’s not doing either yet. There’s nothing wrong with having to earn that spot.
How serious are these back spasms with Markkanen? Are the bulls worried?
Sam: I don’t believe they are too worried, though it’s not their back. They’re holding him out Friday in the preseason home opener, so maybe he plays Sunday against the Pelicans. Though with Cousins and Davis, who were running over the Bulls forwards early until Cousins decided to work on his three-point shooting contest game, maybe wait until Cleveland Tuesday. Kevin Love doesn’t sound like he’s playing anywhere near the basket. It will be something to watch, and there’s not much NBA teams can do or say about it because the league office gets very mad, but I don’t think it’s going to help Markkanen having not only played all summe,r but having had such a vital role for his national team. He came through basically healthy, which is good, but you heard Mirotic say recently how tired he was coming off those national team summers. And he was a role player for Spain. Markkanen was a savior and closer for Finland, and he played great. Maybe it’s a confidence builder and has a positive effect. Many NBA players have played in the Olympics or World Championships and come back to have MVP-type seasons. But it can take something out of you. My sense is the Bulls are aware of that and want to give Markkanen some time to rest and recover from the summer. It’s not a bad idea.
What are your thoughts on Dunn changing his shot form? You could tell in the first half he was trying to shoot with his new form but later in the second half, he kinda went back to his old form where he kinda arches back as he rises up. That's gotta be tough to change something like that before a season where you're fighting for a starting job/playing time.
Sam: That’s probably some of what is going on, so we’re probably best not to analyze his entire career and future after two games. I think that’s part of the overthinking thing. He’s probably gotten advice from everyone on how to shoot and, of course, he’s been working with Hoiberg all summer. But it’s more about confidence. Until he has it, he’s going to try to think the ball through the net. Rarely works. That’s why, try to get to the basket, get to the line and see the ball go through (hopefully) and then keep shooting no matter what they are yelling about elbow placement from the bench. Wade couldn’t shoot, either, as I recall. But you better not have told him that.
The Bulls appear to be doing a mini Philadelphia 76 rebuild that you did not support. Last year's Bulls team bored me except for the surprising 2-0 lead against Boston. For the first time in years I did not go to a game. This year's team interests me. How many of these young players can develop into NBA rotation players? Who if any can be a star? Can Robin Lopez be traded for a mid to late first round draft pick? I understand that we are in for a tough number of years. However, I look forward to being at a game this year to see how the young guys are doing. The Bulls appear to be mimicking the 76ers. Are you OK with what they are doing?
Sam: Now, wait a minute here! What the Bulls are doing is in line with the appropriate history of what every team has done. What the 76ers did was a criminal activity that should have been prosecuted. Going after colleges coaches who pay kids. Shocked, I tell you; we’re shocked. Imagine, kids being paid surreptitiously. Shocked! Of course, they should have been paid for years since they are professional athletes working for what is clearly for-profit agencies. Yes, where is a contract less meaningful than in America’s universities? No, not with the professors. With the hypocrites and phony coaches who leave for every better offer while the rules only apply to the kids. Got to love a good rant about the American “educational” system.
Anyway, back to the felonious 76ers. The NBA already overreacted to that with its new draft reform. Look, this is the fifth year of that disaster and they’re still trying to make the playoffs in a conference so weak no one even wants to watch its All-Stars. The lottery was working. A 25 percent chance for No. 1 meant 75 percent no chance. The 76ers did it once. They still don’t have an All-Star. Sure, they’ve had some bad injury luck with Embiid, but what they did was heinous. The Bulls and most everyone else who does this tries to compete, is serious with their fans, tries to identify a core immediately and build from there. Every time the 76ers got a player who they felt could make them better they got rid of him to try the lottery wheel again. It made a mockery of the idea of competition. The Bulls will be bad, but they will try, like the Pacers and Hawks and Magic and Kings and Nets. Only the 76ers were making a mockery of the game. I guess some will say its worth your dignity and values to pursue your idea of success at any cost. And, look, many do. But it’s wrong, in my view. We give so much voice to behaving the right way and then support a sports team that does this is the name of a chance for success? Isn’t there an unwritten rule somewhere to cover this?
There seems to be a consensus forming among national sportswriters (some of whom know more about basketball than the fact the ball is round) that the Bulls will be the worst team in the NBA this year. I can see the basis for their reasoning, but I'm more afraid of mediocrity.
Sam: I wouldn’t worry too much.
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.