Ask Sam Mailbag: 10.14.2016
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to talk Taj Gibson's big preseason, being impressed with Dinwiddie off the bench and more
Dwyane Wade is right, Bulls are far from being any contender for a title. You see the problems not so much the offense(although people wonder how the 3 Alphas will gel this season?), but rather the defense.
Sam: Yes, Wade mentioned last week the Bulls are not exactly playing for a championship, but he didn’t dismiss it. No one does now. Probably not even the 76ers. Hey, maybe we get Ben Simmons back around All-Star and we hang in until then and….Everyone theoretically has a chance now even if we pretty much know like the 80’s with the Lakers and Celtics we’re pretty sure it’s the Warriors and Cavs again in the Finals. They have the talent and essentially the stability. Wade wasn’t saying the Bulls aren’t going to try to win every game and stuff happens. It’s why they play the games and all that. And why those “expert” preseason predictions are generally always wrong. But it’s also a process. It starts with trying to get back into the playoffs after missing them last season. He didn’t say anything unusual other than a summary of it being a process, taking steps to improve, the stuff of preseason for everyone who wasn’t in the Finals last season. For the Bulls with eight new players, it’s also an adjustment period of playing together and learning one another. Plus, it’s not smart to raise expectation early. Always better to have them lowered and then surprise people. I think the Bulls will score better than critics think because of the ability to get to the free throw line, especially Jimmy Butler. But you are right that defense could be an issue. Butler again will guard the best opponent. He gets no break. The focus may be on Wade and Rondo. Both are known for playing the passing lanes and trying to get steals. It looks good when it works; it puts too much pressure on the interior when it doesn’t. It’s another reason why Taj Gibson may be an important starter. I know, need that floor spread, need that shooting threat. But you may need that rebounding and rim protection unless Rondo and Wade play more straight up defense. Rondo has been all-defense first team. So he has, if not recenntly. So can Wade, probably ever at 34 with his intelligence. Lopez provides a big body even if he doesn’t react to the ball as well as Gibson does. The potential is there, but I think it’s defense where this Bulls team has a potential flaw more than the view about its offense.
I noticed with Rondo out, we don't have a true back up point guard. Dinwiddie started, but didn't play the traditional point. Isaiah Canaan played there a good amount too, but he almost seemed like a decoy out there. I remember both of those guys being more scoring guards on their previous teams. Who do you see as Rondo's back-up? I know we have guys who can play point with Wade, Jimmy and I've even heard Valentine. Do you think we need a true PG off the bench, or does Hoiberg's system allow for other positions to handle the ball? I miss Captain Kirk.
Sam: Well, Kirk is still home in the north suburbs. I actually believe there’s enough there to handle the position even if you are correct there is no true backup, though they haven’t always had true backups with the likes of Aaron Brooks and Nate Robinson. Valentine has been out with that sprained ankle, and even though he’s a rookie and that’s the toughest position for a rookie, he’s an unusual rookie with four years in college and a veteran’s feel for the game. I’d feel comfortable with him making decisions, and I think Hoiberg is likely to always have at least one and probably two from among Wade, Rondo and Butler on the floor to balance the playmaking. Plus, you don’t need a true point guard to run offense. The championship Bulls never had a classic point guard and rarely in Bulls history have they. Wade, as we’ve seen, is a remarkable passer in the half court. I like Dinwiddie enough as a guard who can push the ball and Jimmy has shown some playmaking abilities at times. Plus, I believe Rondo will play a lot. And it’s not like your reserves are going against Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. I think there’s enough there without having to make a personnel move.
I was super impressed with Dinwiddie. He's clearly more of a true Point Guard than Grant is. And with his size, I think he could earn solid backup minutes behind Rondo. Then bring in Valentine and McDermott off the bench as wings. With Niko and Portis up front. Defensively they'll be rough, but they should be able to score. And besides, Hoiberg will likely stagger those substitutions so that at least 2 of the Veteran 4 of Rondo, Wade, Butler, and Taj, are on the court at all times. I can visualize a starting lineup in a couple years of Valentine, Butler, McDermott, Taj and Portis eventually. Valentine and Butler can initiate the offense. Butler guards the opponent's best perimeter threat, McDermott and Valentine spread the floor, while Portis can stretch it. Taj and Portis can hold their own on the interior. That's a legit starting 5 in the East, assuming Valentine and Portis develop as expected.
Sam: I, too, am comfortable with Dinwiddie as well. He’s more a scoring point, but who isn’t these days? Perhaps other than Rondo. Though we’re looking at what this team can do this season, management has to be looking at whether those players can begin to form some sort of core going forward. Despite the additions of the 30-plus veterans, the Bulls do have a lot of young players. And though Mirotic had a tough start, it’s too soon to signal up or down on him as he’s never been a starter for a full season. McDermott hasn’t had a chance to play with a playmaking point guard until now and only has one season in the rotation, and Portis never has been in the regular rotation. And, of course, Valentine is a rookie. Generally you develop your talent leaders from top five picks in the draft. The Bulls have been too consistently good to have those, but the Pistons won a title without drafting those guys and taking a chance on a troubled Rasheed Wallace as a final piece. You fill up most of the positions and then through trade or free agency you can get lucky. It’s worked many times and produced dividends. These next couple of seasons will be a lot about which of those players can develop to become top level NBA players. That’s why the risk is low with Rondo and Wade on short term deals, but also valuable to maintain the competitiveness and be there to teach and mentor those young players about what it takes to win. You surround yourself with young players and keep losing and you only become a loser. While the Bulls are trying to compete, they’ve also put in place winners who can teach the young players how you go about succeeding. All the while being in position to scoop up that special talent along the way.
Taj seems so important - so glad he's still here.
Sam: Perhaps he’ll get some more credit—not that he ever seeks it—as now the senior man on the roster in terms of Bulls history. Pretty soon as amazing as it seems going into his eighth season with the Bulls, Gibson will be moving into the alltime franchise leader lists. He will move into the top 10 in seasons played this season and by the end of the season If healthy will also be in the top 10 alltime in games played as a Bull. He should be on the edge of the top 10 in rebounds and already is fifth alltime in blocks. Pretty impressive for a late first round pick who always seemed sort of year to year, accepted whatever role offered without complaint, supported teammates without exception or hesitation, accepted coming off the bench without any bitterness even after starting 70 games as a rookie in 2009. Two years later he had zero starts and last season after coming off the bench to open the season for a virtual rookie started 55 games because he was called upon. In many ways, though he never was celebrated, he perhaps represented more than anyone the spirit of the community with his hard work, unselfish attitude, perhaps imperfect skills but willingness to do whatever was asked of him without complaint. You don’t easily replace people like that.
Do you think Spencer Dinwiddie will be the first guard off the bench? Can he also benefit the bulls like E'Twuan Moore and Aaron Brooks before?
Sam: Hoiberg said the backup point guard position as well as power forward remains to be seen and don’t necessarily go by who starts opening night against Boston. I personally think a lot of Dinwiddie for the backup spot, but I think it will be a rotating position depending on matchups and who has been playing well. Spencer is about a foot taller than Brooks, though I’ll miss Aaron for the most amazing shots he was able to get off going to the basket. Fun guy to watch. Except in the playoffs. Good for E’Twaun. With the injury already to Anthony Davis, it looks like another lost season in New Orleans. Moore is one of the more humble, professional people you’ll meet in sports and good for him for finally getting some good guarantees in the NBA and a nice contract. I suspect he’ll put the money to good use given his longtime concern for community and friends.
Dwyane Wade knows what happened behind the scenes in the summer of 2010 and I do not. However, I still don't accept some of the way he explained things. The biggest problem I have is that he claims they would have picked the Bulls, or at least it would have been significantly more likely they would have, if the Bulls had completed a trade of Deng to free up the cap space for all three of them to come. This, in my opinion, is a disingenuous though wise thing for Wade to say now that he is on the Bulls roster. After all, the Heat didn't trade away Michael Beasly to free up cap space for all three guys to sign there until after they announced that was their plan. The Bulls very easily could have found a taker for Deng, I believe, if those three informed the Bulls they would sign with Chicago. Also, Wade knows basketball better, and I'm sure at the time knew Rose better, than I ever will. But my recollection of Rose back then was as a reluctant scorer who preferred to run the offense (I'm not saying that was his biggest strength however). Both in his one college season and on the Bulls he was forced into a scoring role because there weren't other scorers around him. So it's hard to accept Wade and James couldn't imagine a fit with Rose. Not to mention the fact that the Bulls roster also had Noah, who was just emerging at the time as a dominant defender and rebounder who didn't need the ball, something the Heat were never able to find during their big three era.
Sam: I actually think Wade’s reflections after practice Thursday sound more true than not, though your point about Rose is well taken. He was thrust more into a scoring role, though I will say once he got there and was so successful at it that he did like it. And sort of decided that’s who he was. What came through accurate to me is the reality that things happen more in sports (plus business and politics) by circumstance and luck than any great planning or conspiracy. I know fans and media love to scream about having a plan and carrying one out and how they would have, but plans almost never work as you wish they would. It’s more serendipity and good fortune. I know LeBron was trying to get players to come to Cleveland to join him, but, you know, Cleveland. And what had he won. Wade did make two visits to the Bulls, one independent of LeBron that summer because there was a point—though we doubted it—that he thought LeBron was staying in Cleveland and Wade needed leverage or a landing spot if Miami did as it did this summer. Their hope was LeBron. If LeBron had lured Bosh to Cleveland, Miami probably wasn’t spending all that for Wade and say Stoudemire.
I did like Wade scoffing at the way the three had this planned out for years because as friendly as they are, there are so many layers in between. I recall the Bulls being in Toronto that April for a game Bosh was sitting out to rest for free agency. They knew he was leaving, but they also knew Bosh had no idea and was just hoping to ride someone else somewhere, anywhere, as Wade humorously noted. He has a very wry sense of humor and does see the laughable going on around him all the time. I loved in his comments about LeBron how he snuck in how he waited for the doctor at predraft camp an hour and then high schooler LeBron waltzed right by to see the doctor right away. Wade does seem to have a good feel for the balance of the absurd of the NBA world with the daily realities. Makin’ it real! Hey, how about me relating, too. As much as we can believe anyone these days anywhere (believe me, however. Trust me on that), Wade’s narrative sounded right to me. I’d always heard from the Bulls back then they were closer than anyone thought, and though they’d never say how and why they thought that, Wade’s version seemed to back that up. I think in the end LeBron and Wade just were a bit closer and actually liked the idea of being the Two Alphas, as we like to call them now, and believed it better to have a malleable third like Bosh than strong personalities like Rose and Noah. I believe they were wrong in trying to truly put together the ultimate super team where they did because it would have been greater with Rose and Noah. But LeBron probably had that plan to return to Cleveland all along (without telling Wade). So more likely he was just figuring to get at least one title to get everyone off his back and as he said a few winters in Miami wasn’t a bad tradeoff.
As the team has reinvented itself I was feeling sorry for Taj, the "last man standing" and the "odd man out". Well, it seems he wasn't feeling sorry for himself! Dang he sure looks like the obvious starter. The rest of the depth chart is settling itself as well. Dinwiddie has respectably earned that 12-15 minutes behind Rajon. Canaan will be suitable as a sparkplug scorer when the need arises. Nikola and Doug are both going to have big nights but it's nice not to have to rely on them yet. Snelly Cat will have a role as he is so much more valuable then it seems every media outlet makes him out to be.
The only hole is the final 10-12 minutes of backup big. This is OK too because a little healthy competition between Bobby and Felicio will be positive and not distracting. Should we be warily optimistic? Like playoffs optimistic.
I’d say optimistic at this point would mean top four in the East, which is possible, though generally not according to that media you mention. With just half the injuries they had last season they likely would have been a substantial playoff team even with the dysfunction and issues. So it’s not unreasonable to believe it’s a playoff team. Though it’s generally not a popular pick among most of the preseason sites and publications. That’s because of the lower and mid level Eastern Conference depth. The conference is weak on top as it’s difficult to identity anyone who would be within six or seven games of the Cavs. But then you can find 10 teams who believe they could be in some of the new few spots, like Boston, Toronto, Indiana…well, basically everyone but Philadelphia and Brooklyn. So that’s 13 teams that believe they should or will be in the playoffs and there’s still just eight spots. One of the formulas general managers use to measure team strength is how many top five and top 10 players you have at their position. Butler is certainly top 10 at small forward and maybe top five if you have him ahead of Carmelo Anthony. Wade even at 34 is probably at the edge of the top five at shooting guard, perhaps even after only Klay Thompson and James Harden. DeRozan? The point guard position is the deepest in basketball with most of the game’s top players. But given Rondo led the league in assists and is one of the league’s best rebounding point guards, you can make the case to get him into the top 10 or close. Three top 10 players at their position is generally a sure playoff spot and not at the bottom. Of course, the Bulls have questions of playing together, veterans’ age, bench strength and roles. But there’s plenty of room for optimism.
Are you worried about your League Pass package this season?
Yes. Nobody asked me, but…, as sports writer Jimmy Cannon used to say. So I called my cable provider because I noticed the League Pass channels gone on my guide and they said they had not reached an agreement with the NBA and might not be featuring League Pass this season. Oh no! You mean I may have to watch another Keifer Sutherland end of the world every week program? Really, it basically is all I watch all winter, which is how I knew Rajon Rondo still was alive. I have AT&T, so I checked with the NBA and they said, well, there were a few cable companies that had not completed deals but everyone was working on it. Viewers of L.A. Dodgers games heard that all summer and never got to hear Vince Scully’s last summer. Time to go back to satellite TV? It may be. So check with your cable company and write and call. Yes, the presidential election has been bad. But not like no League Pass. Now I’m really starting to worry about our country.
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