Ask Sam Mailbag: 10.18.2019

Sven Ruppert

It feels like spring in October with these Bulls. Finally a team that makes you look forward to the season. I can see the seeds becoming a lovely flower. Math seems to be no longer stacked against us, we shoot the ball where it either counts three points or were we have the highest chance to score two. Our starting five can compete with any starting unit in the NBA. We found a goto scorer in Zach. Heck, we can throw out a unit (KD, Sato, Otto, Thad and WCJ) that can get us a stop when we need one.

And Coby seems to be gifted in many ways. His speed reminds me of DRose, his confidence of Ben Gordon and in all honestly he already stole best hair from Joakim.

What former Bull does he remind you of most?

Sam Smith:

If White is a combination of Rose, Gordon and Noah, I may have to change my Rookie of the Year prediction. With the Zion news, we all may have to, anyway. By the way, thanks for the Bulls metaphor as they grow in their hoops Garden of Eden. Probably could have signed Adam Morrison and Everette "Eve" Stephens. Ah, but I digress. We're all working on figuring out the apt comparison for Coby since he is all of 19. He's been projecting as a fearless, high scoring guard, which is a nice addition. He earned his way into the rotation. Not just because he was a high draft pick. He's somewhat like Quintin Dailey, faster but not as physical. Though players back then stayed in college four years. His profile is a bit like Reggie Theus, but Reggie was taller and a better passer. I also see some of Ricky Sobers, a big scoring guard though Ricky was more physical. If his play proves like a hybrid of those three the Bulls will have landed a winner. Not going the North Carolina legacy way.

Dan Toll

With the preseason concluded, and acknowledging that all (or most) NBA fan bases are perennially optimistic about their teams' respective fortunes for the upcoming season at this juncture, it does seem that Bulls fans have a lot to be excited about. The rookie and veteran additions to this year's roster look as good or better than advertised. On offense, the Bulls have looked positively Warrior-like for long stretches of the preseason. On defense, they have played with an intensity reflective of effort, communication and athleticism. The depth is evident and meaningful, with roles seemingly defined and accepted. And Hutch and Shaq have yet to be available.

My question is this: what will you be watching with particular interest come next Wednesday? Any particular issues yet to be resolved, or challenges that this coaching staff and roster may have trouble surmounting at the present time, other than the opposition just simply having more talent at more positions?

Sam Smith:

I guess for starters an actual game. I agree they've played well the last few exhibition games, though we have the "just preseason" qualifier and the larger concern that with so many teams resting players, including the Bulls in Indiana, there basically hasn't been a single moment in the preseason when the team had to execute something in a crucial time to make a play or stop one. That's mitigated, I agree, by elements we've heard them talk about for a few years but didn't have the talent or desire to execute. And now they are. Like the ball and player movement, pace and acceleration and shooting ability. The biggest issue that's been obscured is the literal one. They're small up front and not that physical. It was apparent in the first game when the Bucks three seven footers constantly went inside. And then to start the closing game, the Hawks led going to Alex Len inside until that defensive group with Dunn changed the game. And that's Alex Len. The Bulls have some very good defensive players, but most of them play on the second unit. The starters are primarily an offensive group and will have to outscore opponents. Coach Jim Boylen will mix that up as they go along, so there's also the challenge to break up the units and see how they fit and work together in times when they'll need a defensive play or a scoring spurt and will they have the right mix for that? Which is all a heck of a lot better than the prospects of recent seasons.

Mike Burling

I love the look of a more up tempo offence and to get an early look at what will be some terrific free agent signings. I fear that there is so much hope from the fan base that some may be a little short sighted. This season should be fun, we will see some huge wins and frustrating losses, common for a team at this stage of a rebuild. But..... a playoff team we are not, not yet anyway. I see about 36 wins from this team and that in itself is progress.

Sam Smith:

I think your prediction probably is closer to a community consensus, though perhaps on the low side given the quality of the East talent. Given your spelling of "offense," I also sense you're not that close to this community. Given the setbacks of the last few years and the hopes of the years before that, I believe most fans are reserving judgment for now. More that they'd wait and see. There have been a lot of positives. Even more than the signings in that there seems to be developing a style of play (primarily offensive) and perhaps even more significantly an Eastern Conference that may be at its weakest in league history. After the 76ers and Bucks, I believe you can make a case for any of 10 teams to finish as high as third and as low as 12th. The Bulls, I believe, are in that group. Home court here they come? Well, maybe I'll wait and see, also. But there's a lot more to watch for, at least.

Greg Young

My observation is, while many other Bulls were mentioned in your column on Zach, Markkanen was not. This is similar to parts of the actual game where the Bulls seem to forget about him. In one preseason game, he didn't touch the ball for the first 3 1/2 minutes. Is this an issue? Is Markkanen not aggressive enough? Are people not looking for him? Is Markkanen allergic to paint?

I agree that LaVine should lead the Bulls in scoring most nights. He is just too good and too natural not to. However, Zach needs some help and Markkanen seems the best option.

Sam Smith:

Markkanen does get overlooked at times, and we've seen it from his first days with the Bulls. For a time, we thought it was personal, that teammates were avoiding him for whatever usual biased reasons: High draft pick, xenophobia, management favorite, eats reindeer meat. None of it proved accurate. He's actually quite popular, but his nature is to be deferential. That's not exactly the mamba nature. It's why Markkanen is another big piece of this evolving puzzle. He's got incredible shooting skills and very good athletic ability and quickness for a big guy. He can be one of the more difficult matchups. But he doesn't assert himself enough sometimes. And yet he still averages almost 20 and 10. I'm sure the Bulls keep asking themselves what would be if he did. Jack Sikma often heard that and now he's in the Hall of Fame. Maybe that's just Markkanen. His shooting ability at his size is going to be a big asset no matter what. With injuries last season, this season will be a good one to judge the player he's likely to become.

Felipe Spengler

I watched the game vs Raptors and liked what I saw from the starters, even considering Raptors was playing their bench/second unit. But the 4th quarter, commanded by our second-unit, was terrible, 13-30, which worries me. Looked like our bench is trying to play like the starters, with super fast pace and scoring (which doesn't work much if you are on limited minutes), instead of having solid plays and focus on defense / stops. What do you think the Bulls need to improve the bench? Do you see them making any moves?

Sam Smith:

That fourth quarter was, I believe, an aberration given that most of those players are headed for the G-league for now. It seems the issue could be the differences between the units, though there's always mixing and matching and coalescing once the game gets going. The starting five appears to be a high level offensive group with excellent shooting, though not that high level defensively. They appear like they'll be capable of outscoring teams. Their ball movement has been better than we've seen from the Bulls in years. The second unit with the likes of Dunn, Young, White, Kornet and Arcidiacono, at least for now, appears much stronger defensively but offensively challenged. Probably depending on White's shooting. It will be interesting to see how those rotations develop.

Tom Golden

I pray by saying this it doesn't happen, but I'm seeing Zion doing things that physics normally doesn't let go on for too long. The kid is incredible and he's hopefully going to be a huge part of probably the best season in NBA history, If he could just turn down the torque a millimeter he might last, but like most freakish athletes and Maserati's they are high maintenance and unfortunately don't know where the brake is and breakdown often. I hope he's an exception because he is worthy of the hype and awesome for basketball.

Sam Smith:

That's been the whispered question about Zion all last season, whether the torque he's putting on his joints at that size with his incredible movement is just too much for the human body. And as I was writing this Friday morning, word came that he might be out awhile with what was initially called knee soreness. You know the Pelicans are going to be extra cautious now, and that could mean a 30-game season. Rookie of the Year is wide open! It seems in many sports like baseball with the arm speed and basketball with the strength building that the human body is being pushed to its limits. We've been hoping Zion is the exception. After all, we never envisioned someone like LeBron James at his height and weight playing like he does. Zion seems to be a quick learner and has been perhaps just as impressive in his attitude, maturity, cooperation and decency. I was so excited at the prospects for Greg Oden a decade ago; maybe a bigger and stronger version of Bill Russell. And it never happened because of injury. Zion went out early in summer league and is going out early again. That's a worrisome sign for such a young person. It would be a great loss to the basketball world if we cannot see this kid have a career.

Andrew Grossmann

I was watching the Lakers, Warriors preseason game when the Lakers dominated the first quarter and it made me try to think a SF, PF duo as good as Lebron and Anthony Davis are (on paper). I came up with Bird and McHale. Does this Lakers team remind you at all of the 86 Celtics with Bird, McHale, DJ, Parish and Walton?

Sam Smith:

No. You mean the team that was 40-1 at home, basically started four hall of famers and Danny Ainge an All-Star level player who played two professional sports and brought off the bench a hall of famer who had a one-year renaissance who was regarded as maybe the best skilled big man ever? You mean those '86 Celtics? There seems to be a consensus the Lakers have a good chance to be top two in the West and into the Finals. I guess it's possible, but there seem too many ways everything has to go right, especially with Davis getting through a season. He's averaged missing 15 games a season in his career and has topped out at 75 gamees. I believe LeBron will be an MVP candidate again, but he's going to have to play a lot because the rest of the roster is better in name than reality. The Pelicans strip mined their roster pretty much with that Davis deal. The West could come down to you lose the last two games and go from third to eighth.

William Blanco

I agree with coach Boylen about the mid-range shot. It should be the last resort. Take it if there is nothing left, otherwise concentrate on three point shots or go to the basket. But somehow I agree too with Zach Lavine. For certain players, mid-range could become a very good weapon. For instance, I think that Coby White or Arcidiacono can produce more using the mid-range shot. Players like Coby and Arch with low vertical leap struggle against taller players. But they have nice jumpers.

Sam Smith:

Boylen basically has merely been repeating an analytics mantra that has become NBA dogma over the last five or six years. Shoot layups, free throws and threes, don't take early mid range shots. Right, so much for Mike D'Antoni's seven seconds or less shot philosophy that only got a few 60-win seasons. Here's what Boylen said at practice this week: "We don't want to take contested twos mid-clock. I'd like to not take early-clock, non-rim twos. If they happen, they happen. Late-clock, we have to get the best possible look we can get. That might be a contested two, late clock. But we believe in the math and we coach to the math, we organize our practices to the math, but we understand there's moments when you have to just play. A free-throw line jumper at 14 contested is not what we want. That's not really a new thing. Twenty years ago when I was in the league, that's not what we wanted. If we have a guy that's elite at making twos, I've coached elite two guys. If we have one of those or if we see a guy developing that, then we will adjust accordingly. But we're going to play the way I want to play." So it's nothing new, though given my age handicap I don't so much subscribe to this math which, by the way, about 28 teams now use. This philosophy generally has been ascribed to the Warriors, who last season were eighth in three pointers attempted. Atlanta, Dallas and Detroit shot more. The point is about talent. Kevin Durant is a great mid range shooter, so he attempted a lot of those. I'm still comfortable with Red Auerbach's strategy from 1960 of getting up the court quickly, moving the ball and taking the first best shot. You know, when they averaged 124 points per game without a three-point line. What a revolutionary time.

Art Alenik

Playing Coby at 2-guard actually works for the Bulls, since it relieves the logjam at PG. And if he doesn't play alongside Zach, he'll be subbing in for him. That's a lot of speed and no rest for the wicked (defense). But I doubt he'll settle in at #2 and stop working on PG skills. With his size, speed & handle, I could see him becoming an excellent combo guard, if not a full on PG, in a few years.

Sam Smith:

True, Damian Lillard never seems to worry much about passing the ball. And Russell Westbrook didn't know it was a thing until about two years ago. They've done reasonably well.

Roger Farley

The Bulls have always been innovative when it comes to training techniques. I remember reading about Phil Jackson mentioning that when he got to the Lakers, they were way behind what the Bulls had been doing for a decade. In the article about Wendell Carter, https://www.nba.com/bulls/news/carter-jr-ready-bounce-back-injury-and-get-his-game-rolling, there is a photo of Carter working out with an ingenious stretch cord setup. Is this something the Bulls training staff rigged together, or is it a product that is commercially available? While athletes like Tom Brady get lots of publicity for their use of stretch bands, it seems the Bulls staff has once again gone a step beyond what we've seen with many teams. Clearly the players are buying in as I've often seen them at least one player on the court before the game using this contraption.

Sam Smith:

Chip Schaefer, who was Phil's trainer all those years in Chicago and LA, is now the Bulls director of sports performance. I agree the Bulls have been innovative in those areas and one shouldn't confuse all the freak injuries for the level of training, which is excellent. Here's Chip's response: "The device that I am using with Wendell in the picture is called a Core-X and was developed by my friend and former colleague with the Lakers, Alex McKechnie who is now with the Raptors. It facilitates true training of the deep core musculature." I've personally always admired Chip for his knowledge and willingness to use the word musculature in mixed settings.

John Jenkins

Do you think that the Bulls will retire Luol Deng's number? I would say that he's deserving.

Sam Smith:

Ah, number retirements. It's long been an interesting talking point. I could make the case for Deng, though he'd have to get toward the back of my line. On one level, you can support the Bulls because they haven't attenuated the honor of having your jersey number retired. Many have questioned some recent additions to halls of fame, suggesting the credentials aren't exactly historic. Yet, I believe fans like to celebrate history. Overall, I'd rather miss on the side of too many rather than too few. It's generally an arbitrary honor, anyway, and historic inductees indicate it's not only about longevity. I'm OK with greatness in five-year increments. The Bulls have other than a coach and an executive retired the numbers of four players, among the fewest for a franchise in the NBA for more than 50 years. It's Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. I don't believe that's enough because retiring a number is about honoring the person and the era. I'd include Norm Van Lier and Chet Walker from the great teams of the early 1970s, Artis Gilmore to represent the late 70s/80s (Walker and Gilmore are in the Naismith Hall of Fame) and Horace Grant from the first three-peat as a part of what we then considered the Bulls Big Three when it was just becoming a thing. I believe Derrick Rose eventually should join that group given his five-year run which was better than anyone in team history other than Jordan. Lu comes after that group, but is also worthy. After all, there are plenty of numbers to go around now that players have gone above 55. It used to be an NBA thing you couldn't have a number an official couldn't signal with two hands. Oh, Rodman. Nah. Let's make it five-year team playing minimums.

John Petersen

As I recall you have written that point is the most important position and all top teams have a strong point. Satoransky seems to be an improvement but perhaps at best only a solid average point. Do you feel the point void continues into the future?

Sam Smith:

Is Avery Bradley the Lakers' point guard? Quinn Cook? Satoransky is a very good point guard who won't be an All-Star, but only a few have them. Not because of any deficiencies with Satoransky, but it seems clear Boylen wants to employ a LeBron-like point guard corps with others handling the ball, notably LaVine. True, passing has been perhaps LaVine's biggest flaw. But in what Boylen calls multi-ballhander he's making a case for not relying on one player or one style of play. You shouldn't need to be limited by your lack of ingenuity.

Jermaine Brackett

Do you think that Zach can keep up this defensive effort throughout the regular season? And would that make the team a threat to not only make the playoffs, but (I may be thinking a bit outlandishly here) actually advance a round?

Sam Smith:

I wrote about that this week: https://www.nba.com/bulls/features/lavine-wants-take-it-next-level-offense-and-defense to make a point about this emphasis on Zach's defense, which is overstated. Not that defense should be ignored, but Zach's flaws are hardly fatal. If you check back in recent NBA history, most of the league MVPs were exceptionally poor defenders, including two-timers Steve Nash and Steven Curry. James Harden's turnstile, matador defense became a national joke. If Zach continues to score like he has, he'll have done his job and given the Bulls a chance to be a playoff team.

Chris Dellecese

Here's a solution to the tanking problem that I haven't seen anywhere: abolish the draft. Everyone is a free agent. And no I don't think the best players would all just sign with the Warriors and Lakers. There are still only so many minutes and shots and dollars available on those established teams. Would you rather be the fifth option and play 20 minutes a night on a good team for small dollars, or make the max and be the man in Memphis or Minnesota? Plus here's the added benefit: instead of teams getting as bad as possible, they would now have to work much harder to be as GOOD as possible, if only to make their situation attractive to kids coming out of school. It's no different than regular businesses who have to attract the best college graduates.

Sam Smith:

You're clearly a big time Milton Friedman free marketer. That notion has been aired at times, including by the players back in the 60s during the path to free agency. Hey, let us make our own deals, the draft is illegal. And at its core it is as a violation of the antitrust laws. Which is why it has been collectively bargained to be allowed because especially the owners claimed the sport would die without regulation like the draft. In other words, we need some Keynesian influence (heck with all this economics maybe I should have gotten into politics). Anyway, why it won't happen is everyone has come to prefer security, the players with the long term guarantees which the football players revere and the owners who prefer some cost certainty to operate their organizations. Plus, tanking is not really that big a concern, especially after all the losing teams last season didn't get the top draft picks and teams trying like the Pelicans got the big prize. There's always going to be losing teams, and losing teams will quit at the end of seasons. You can't change their talent level. It's a natural process and nothing is perfect. Plus the NBA has become aware and there are big fines now for going into the proverbial dunk tank. And not many drafts have Zion.

Erik Fenton

Is Mokoka baby Jimmy?

Sam Smith:

Who's Mokoka?

Mark Kollar

I remember my cousin got tickets to the only Bulls home game that Michael Jordan had to sit out because of a suspension. It cost him a lot of money and he never had the chance to see Michael live. I just watched 2 pre-season games where one team or the other didn't play the first string even a minute. I know , pre-season yada yada... Yet, somebody paid top dollar to see Zach Levine or Marc Gasol and that may have been the only chance they ever get. I think you propose to the league that each team designate two stars and if either these two players have a planned absence for load management the home team offers 1/2 price rebate to ticket holders and a commercial free half for TV viewers. This of course doesn't apply for injuries or events outside the teams control. This also applies not only for planned absence by the home team but also the visiting team.

Sam Smith:

I've heard some of these suggestions and probably all the discount stuff and half price antics would cost more to do and make it a bookkeeping nightmare for teams. There is a certain risk when you go to a live performance. It could rain (baseball) or the star could be out and you see the understudy (theater). But I agree with you that this has gone much too far in the NBA, and much worse in football as we saw this preseason. especially in Chicago. Your two stars (or best players as half the teams lack a star) idea is a good one. But this notion of planned rest/load management has become absurd, especially in the preseason. The league has done what it can. There were eight or nine preseason games until the last few years. Now there's four or five, effectively cutting it in half. There used to be two-a-day practices for two weeks in camp. Now there are zero two-a-days by collective bargaining with a shorter camp. What are they resting from? Seriously, you need rest from that schedule? Then Kawhi Leonard sitting out 20 games because he felt like it and Toronto was afraid to tell him otherwise because he was a free agent and then winning the title was perhaps the worst thing to happen to the NBA in years. I'd like to see the league or teams do something. But this time it does come down to the players. And instead of saying they want to be like Mike, act like Mike. Play. And even if the team says to take off, you say you're playing because you love to compete and you don't come to basketball games to watch. You come to play because you're a competitor. Not one of the cool kids who gets to sit around and act special.