Ask Sam Mailbag: 10.27.17
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer readers' questions
I think there’s good news with Markkanen. His shooting will improve (classic form, almost Bird-like). But the ‘news’ is that he can drive (even has a few moves) and get boards. Maybe the “next Dirk”… or maybe even better. Let’s hope he has a high ceiling. I’m guessing he does. And of course, it’s good news that Dunn will be back soon. I wouldn’t care so much if not for the game he was having when he went down. That was the first time I saw him playing with confidence – hopefully a sneak-preview of what’s to come. Imagine if Dunn, Lavine & Markkanen all work out as we’ve hope! What will the trolls do with themselves if Gar/Pax made a great trade?
Sam: Oh, my goodness what a nightmare, to paraphrase Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinny. We can’t have that, can we? This always becomes either Jimmy is bad or the trade was bad. Can’t we all just get along and have a win/win. It was an ideal trade for the Timberwolves because Jimmy is not a No. 1 option. I know this is supposed to be some sort of heresy or accusation, but it’s OK. Say I’m in the office and writing about the Bulls and I know a lot about them and then—OK, this is a few years ago—David Halberstam walks in and they say they want him to do the Bulls story. Sure, I step aside, nothing personal. He’s better. It doesn’t diminish me because someone is better. Someone is always better. I can still be good.
Jimmy isn’t the sort of explosive athletic scorer like they have in Towns and Wiggins. But he is the kind of veteran they needed. The Bulls weren’t in position to add free agent talent to support Butler and be serious contenders. It’s potentially a heck of a trade the Bulls made if LaVine is healthy and Dunn can at least just push the ball with speed and defend. We can see Markkanen is going to be an excellent player, a kid with a pure stroke who fits into the NBA game at 20. What’s he going to be five years from now? It’s no offense to Jimmy; he really was a vital part of that last Bulls group. But it was the last group; not the next group. He deserved a chance to make a run with a team now. But with a few top draft picks in the next two years and a free agent who doesn’t have to be LeBron, could it be the core the Bulls appear to be putting in place is the right one? And afterwards people may have to say the Bulls may have been right. Yes, what a nightmare!
I’m the first to say I was in the depths of depression after looking at our roster for this season. However, you did say the season is long and they would be fun to watch and guess what, we are fun to watch! Love this Markkanen kid. Beautiful stroke, not afraid to mix it up in the paint and seems to take everything in his stride. Lavine & Markkanen, I get it now.
Sam: The Bulls can only hope.
For about seven years the Bulls had an incredible run of draft success: an MVP, three more All-Stars (Noah, Deng, Butler), a Sixth Man winner (Gordon), plus two starter-caliber players (Hinrich and Gibson, and even Johnson after a while). The past six or so years the Bulls have not drafted a single starting quality player (perhaps until Markaneen this year); the best player from the past six years is not as good as the worst player from the previous seven. Can you point to a difference in management's approach that might lead to this?
Sam: Most of that is pretty easy to identify. Most of the players you mention were top 10 draft picks, Rose, Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Noah, essentially the core of those teams that led the league in wins two straight seasons. After that there were no top 10 picks and mostly non lottery picks other than trading up a few spots to get McDermott and then Valentine at the bottom of the lottery, where a good drafting team like Oklahoma City selected Cameron Payne. You’re mostly guessing and hoping there. Also, because the Bulls were so good in that early 2010s era, they weren’t only drafting low, but they were drafting for skill to fit in with what they had. They weren’t looking for scorers then but guys who could fit in, like Jimmy Butler, who seemed like a bench defender. That Jimmy elevated himself to an All-Star was an exception.
Though management and Thibodeau had their differences, there was agreement around draft time regarding the sort of players who might fit, like a McDermott-type shooter. It’s not unlike what the championship Bulls were doing in the 90s, just trying to find spot role players. I know, this recent Bulls group didn’t win anything, but they believed they would. Their MVP was hurt; the 90’s Bulls’ guy wasn’t. But look at those low first round draft picks in the championship years: Byron Houston, Corie Blount, Dickey Simpkins, Jason Caffey, Travis Knight, Keith Booth, Corey Benjamin. That’s from a two-time Executive of the Year. But the point, like recently, was they were trying to support the nucleus they had and not build a core. The Bulls of 2009 to 2015, like the 90s group, was trying to add players they felt could support the core they had. They believed they had the stars to make a title run, and they could have if not for Rose’s injury. Best record for two years is not a fluke. They are past that. You can see them now trying for players like Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, who are more athletic, and Markkanan, who has a chance to be a premier player.
Mate I am lost...seriously what is with the Bulls, banging on about Zach Lavine being the person we are building around and talking extensions and yet this kid hasn’t played one game for the Bulls yet! Seriously why say this to the media now or even think this now. Next thing we’ll know we’ll sign him up for a max deal and then the kid will get injured again. Umm think we’ve been down this path before with the unfortunate events of Rose. Let’s see if the guy gets through the season before talking extension. Then when saying ‘build around’ and then something goes pear shaped and we turn out back on them it causes more harm to the face of the franchise.
Sam: Obviously, he didn’t get the extension, and I figure it was mostly because he didn’t want it yet and knows he should get the full boat next summer. Look, when you trade for a guy like LaVine as the centerpiece of the Butler deal you’re going to keep him and pay him. It’s why the 76ers paid Embiid despite him rarely playing the last three years, and I agree they had to. LaVine will recover, and even if he’s hurt again, he can have another surgery and return, like I assume Jabari Parker will. I don’t know what’s gone on between LaVine and Bulls management, though you get the sense the way he said he was going to be in black and red for a long time that he’s confident about a deal, and I expect the Bulls do one. The only way you’d have done it now is if he took less to guarantee money in case he is injured. But LaVine probably understands he has the edge in negotiations here and there’s not much reason for the team to walk away from him. Plus, everything I hear around the Bulls is how much everyone loves the kid and can’t wait to see him.
What about expansion abroad? Back when David Stern was around there was all this talk about Paris and London. Later, it was state side in Las Vegas, as an example. What about now - are there any rumors of expansion teams both state side and out of the country?
Sam: The issue is generally less the cities than whether the expansion fee makes up for sharing TV revenue. My guess is the league isn’t going overseas for a team; perhaps an NBA extension league overseas, but even that doesn’t make sense with all the whining about travel between Philadelphia and Cleveland. Yes, they started the season early and, of course, there are just as many injuries, or more, than ever. Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, of course, yes, Derrick Rose, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward. There’s no correlation between the rest and health, but the players insist. So if they’re traveling to Europe for the schedule, which has to be balanced, they’re going to need a lot more time off. So I wouldn’t expect it to occur. With hockey going to Las Vegas and the NBA pretty much buying in on gambling, adding Las Vegas and Seattle, the latter which still needs an arena, makes the most sense. In the next five years?
Would the Bulls be opposed to bringing back Doug McDermott? I don't think he got a fair shake. I think he would be great with how the Bulls are currently constructed.
Sam: Not many teams do that. I also felt perhaps they pulled the plug on Doug early. But I can also understand as you will have difficulty playing the way they wanted to without guys who can defend enough and without enough athletes. Doug will be fine in a situation like with Kyle Korver surrounded by more athletic players and defenders. But the Bulls at that time before the Butler trade were facing a future with the not-so-athletic Mirotic and Lopez. And Jimmy, though athletic and a defender more of a standstill, was an iso guy. So Doug’s fit was uncertain, and without knowing they could get Dunn they took a swing for a point guard. I hope Doug does well; though he needs to relax and play and you got the sense he wasn’t going to do that in Chicago. I think he eventually will succeed, but he has to find the right team. The Bulls probably weren’t.
When the Bulls talked about this season, they mentioned the importance of supplementing their young players with quality veterans. Since Luol Deng has fallen out of the Lakers' rotation, could the Bulls get him? There are few people of higher quality in the NBA than Luol. Granted, that impacts the team's cap situation, but seriously, for all practical purposes the Bulls are going to rely on the draft to rebuild. Luol's contract will be off the books before the Bulls are far enough out of "rebuilding" enough to attract the kind of free agent who will take them to an elite level. Why not have someone on the team who can show them what being a professional is all about?
Sam: We’re putting the band back together? I don’t think so. Deng starting, yes, 13 years ago, was a wonderful player and citizen for the Bulls. But he’s owed $18 million a year for the next two seasons after this, and no matter the notion of not seriously competing now you cannot tie up your cap money. That’s one of the more valuable so called assets, the ability to exchange cap money for a player and a team gives you a draft pick. The Lakers are going to be desperate soon with a losing team not appealing to free agents. You’re not coming back with their roster now. And if they are going to add top free agents, they’re going to need to get some of that money like Deng’s off their cap. The problem is they already gave up their No. 1 pick this season. So the next one is 2020 and who wants to wait and maybe they do become good by then. Or better. Or just not so horrible. The Bulls need to go with youth and athleticism now, and Luol offers neither. The Bulls, I agree, could absorb that money. But you’d have to get a lot. If the Lakers threw in Ingram, I suspect someone would listen. But they don’t seem inclined to do that. I’m anxious to see what Magic Johnson does with free agency coming and little cap room available. Perhaps then you can extract someone worthwhile. For now if I’m the Bulls I wait and just let teams know I’ve got plenty of cap room, but, as Jerry Krause used to say, what’s the vig?
Before Mirotic got re-signed, Portis probably figured it was his time to shine as a starter, not realizing that once the veteran Mirotic was to get re-signed, he'll have to settle for coming off the bench. This probably frustrated Portis more, and he was so determined to start (by any means necessary), that it led to the altercation (I could be wrong, but you just never know these days). So what happens once Mirotic is cleared to play again?
Sam: It doesn’t look like with Mirotic not even having surgery yet it will be an issue for a while. That’s one of those on the one hand, on the other hand things. You’d say the way it happened and with Mirotic set to start and Markkanen a rookie you would put Mirotic back in the starting lineup to at least give him a chance, especially in light of the circumstances. Portis likely will have played plenty by then as he’s due back Nov. 7 from suspension. But there’s a third hand: Do you then demote him? You figure Markkanen as a 20-year-old rookie would have no issue with coming off the bench, especially since he’d still get maybe 25 minutes. But of course the way Markkanen has played in this small sample suggests he’s played better than either Portis or Mirotic. So then why bench him? He’s the best player on the team now even as a rookie. It’s not going to be an easy decision whenever it occurs, which seems like maybe a few months away, anyway.
My understanding is that either Niko or Bobby must go because of the on-court fight. To me, that seems an easy decision. Regardless of who started the physicality, it appears that Bobby is the only one who broke the law and crossed the (admittedly ill-defined) NBA line by punching and severely injuring a teammate. Niko, therefore is the victim. Also, Niko beat the slow-to-mature Bobby out for the starting 4 position. Finally, the Bulls owe Bobby only about $1.5 million if they cut him while Niko is owed about $12 million.
Sam: Again, no easy answers and no urgency. There were reports this week Mirotic would agree to be traded. To be clear, he does not have a no trade clause, but a player signed to a one-year deal (that was the length of the guarantee) cannot be traded without his permission. But because Mirotic signed that deal just before the season, by rule he cannot be traded until mid-January. Because the Bulls were heading toward a possible rebuild last season, many players were on the market, including Mirotic. I don’t believe there was much interest since he had been benched back then. I can’t imagine not so much coming off the fight, but coming off not having played—until what December? January?—there can be much interest. And with just a one-year deal, there’s no reason for the Bulls to take on a bad contract just to get rid of Mirotic. Look, I also don’t see that you have to trade someone.
Sure, it was an unpleasant incident, but people work with people they hate all the time. I recall the Bronx Zoo New York Yankees of the 1970s with Reggie Jackson (I’m the straw that stirs) and Thurman Munson ripping one another all the time, fights in the clubhouse; the same with the Oakland A’s. Oh, right, Jackson was there, too. As I recall Kobe and Shaq didn’t even speak and were winning titles. So why exactly can’t you have two guys around who got into a practice fight and one isn’t likely to be in the regular rotation or playing big minutes? Perhaps both would object, but it’s clear to anyone watching that Markkanen has outperformed both and has to remain the starter. I could see Mirotic being disappointed by that, but sports is about opportunity, also, much more than loyalty. Markkanen has taken advantage of his. But even if Mirotic were traded, it would be difficult to see where he could become a starter, anyway, especially with not having played perhaps half the season.
Things that don't seem possible can become so once they occur. I don't see why both Mirotic and Portis can't get chances again with the Bulls. NBA players are sophisticated. They're not going to be unable to perform if two guys who don't care for one another are around. and it's not like the Bulls cannot use some help. They'd still like to win some games. You never have to do what everyone says you have to do. It’s just a sad and unfortunate situation that will haunt both players for the rest of their lives. By the way, the money is guaranteed so both get paid their full salaries for the season whether they are with the team or not.
I know I'm in no position to comment without having any of the details. But that has never stopped fans before, and so why let it stop me now: wouldn't a seemingly fair punishment for "The Punch" be to suspend (or bench, to avoid making it about paychecks if there is a loss of pay) Portis until the such time that Mirotic returns to the court? While I like him as a player and the media seems to portray him as a good person, frankly I was surprised they did not release Portis. But I know there are two sides to every pancake and so I'm sure the Bulls did what they thought was fair based on the facts.
Sam: I do feel the Bulls handled it as fairly as they could. I don’t believe you can under the collective bargaining rules suspend a player opened ended like that. Anyway, the NBA as a policy never allows open ended suspensions. The players even in the famed Pacers/Pistons Palace brawl were suspended a specific number of games except for Artest, who got the rest of the season. Of course, Artest should have been in prison, instead. I agree it would be appropriate to match the length of time out, but then you’d also get caught up in what if you injure a guy and his career ends; so you then retire? Mirotic apparently goaded Portis, but Portis went over the line in a response, which is unacceptable. Now that’s another point as the Bulls could decide not to play Portis until Mirotic returns. Though Markkanen’s play might take care of that.
Okay Sam, back in the day I played a ton of pick-up ball throughout Chicago. You cannot start the fight, get beat up, then ask to switch teams because you don't get along with the cat who you were in the scrum with. I say Mirotic has no leg to stand on with this trade demand. I also think he should be fined or suspended as well for the fight with Portis. It sounds like a pride/ego move to me. Which brings me to my questions for you:
What kind of leverage does Mirotic have in this situation? Do the Bulls blink? If so, what can he get us in return? Is this brought on by the initial scrum or the fact that the rookie is playing so well?
Sam: Perhaps Mirotic sees what is occurring and, like the rest of us, knows when he’s seen something better. Still, it’s hard to take because you will always feel you would have done better if you had the chance, and Mirotic didn’t. No one likes to admit to defeat, even if you know it’s coming. Especially pro athletes. We judge them daily, by play. But don’t fool yourself. None get where they are without being great competitors with a strong sense of pride. Just others come along who have a greater sense. Mirotic really has no leverage with a one-year deal. He’ll get paid and it’s a Bulls team option for next season.
It actually was a pretty smart idea to give him that second year team option because that would presumably make him more attractive in a trade if a team were interested because then they could have that second year guaranteed with Bird rights. So without anyone saying it, it sounded like the contract was structured to trade him all along with his agreement. Now with this injury and perhaps surgery still to come, that all changes. I personally don’t see any return, but things happen in the NBA. It can be an expiring contract, and he is a 6-10 three-point shooter. But the Bulls cannot afford to take on a long term contract, which makes such a deal complicated. Mirotic can obviously see what a fan favorite Markkanen has become; actually, Mirotic was advertised that way and looked like he would be, a big guy who can make shots and do things with the ball. He hasn’t been able to with consistency and having been given several chances. Markkanen already seems to. But you had the sense when this camp began before the fight that with no contract agreement last summer and then just both sides agreeing to a one-year guarantee, Mirotic was going to have to make the All-Star team to have much future with the Bulls.
I was just hoping to get your thoughts on the Bulls rookie development. We've had a few good picks late in the first round over the last decade (Taj and Jimmy), but I've also noticed a few of our rookie picks struggling, and not really developing much. Guys like; Doug McDermott, Marquis Teague, Eric Murphy and Cameron Barstow. I know these were never going to be great players (especially the latter two), but there was very minimal improvement during their time with the Bulls. Then you look at guys like Tony Snell and James Johnson who struggled with the Bulls, but have gone onto decent roles with other teams. Looking at our current crop, I've struggled to see too much development with guys like Portis and Valentine.
I'm wondering if there is something missing in the Bulls player development? It just seems to be a matter of 'getting lucky' with picking players, rather than coaching and developing them.
Sam: I feel like so called player development is much overrated; players develop because they get better. Teams generally don't make players better. The NBA is a results league. Sure, you have talented assistants to work with and practice, but the practice is about preparation for the games. It’s always been said players improve between seasons. The best ones come back with something new to their game, stronger, quicker, a better shooter. There are no such secrets; players basically develop based on their talent level. All teams really can do is give a guy a chance to play; the more play the more chance to develop. Schemes can help make teams better and enhance a player, say, who gets more isolation, like Jimmy Butler did, or more shots or playing time. All teams do basically the same in development and their coaches generally jump around from team to team. You are right; it's the luck of finding the talent. And the most talented and committed players work to improve. The Bulls selecting in the middle of the draft basically were taking modest talents. There are some better players you can get out of the lottery, but if you check the All-Star and all-league teams you won’t find many players drafted outside the top 10.
What do you think of trading Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant or Kay Felder for Eric Bledsoe?
Sam: What do you intend to do with Kris Dunn? I’m ready to see Dunn and aren’t quite ready to move on from him after zero games. It will be interesting to see what Phoenix gets after pretty much zeroing out his value with this sort of suspension. Let’s also remember Bledsoe is a relatively poor three-point shooter as a slasher and has had multiple surgeries and has missed about a quarter of the games in his career he was eligible for, is going on 28 in December and the Suns are asking for quite a bit, at least for now. There are teams he makes sense for because he is a scorer; not teams that are rebuilding with young players.
Okafor continues to get crapped on by the Sixers. I would pull a Bledsoe if I were him.
Sam: If you could get him inexpensively… I haven’t heard that you can, which I think is why nothing has been happening around the league. With a high lottery pick like him, teams usually would rather hang onto a guy in case there is an injury—after all, Embiid hasn’t been a season finisher—rather than not take very much and then perhaps really look bad if their guy is hurt and the guy they traded breaks out. It seems like for now unless you are going to put up something equal, which means a lottery pick, it seems like Okafor is collecting checks, practicing and eating pretzels and cheese steaks.
For a guy in Pondexter who hasn’t played in 2 years he has looked decent. Smart player.
Sam: Now that’s a feel good story, which the Bulls so have a lot of. Of course, you get feel good stories with players who aren’t likely to ever be stars. The G-league is filled with them. But Pondexter did have a nice line against the Hawks in 17 minutes with a couple of blocks, four rebounds, seven points; the guy is out there trying hard. What I most love about watching and listening to him is the way it comes through how grateful he is for this second, third, fourth, fifth chance and how excited he is to play and is soaking in every second of the experience. Perhaps it takes what he went through, and likely he never reaches the level he believed he might before his injuries. But you root for guys like that.
I was born on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. As you and everyone else in the world should know Hurricane Marìa sliced our island in half as a category 5 monster. Needless to say it was one of the most terrifying things I have ever gone through. And I've walked to work through some of the most harsh Chicago blizzards through some of the most dangerous parts of south and mid Chicago and the famous steel Puerto Rican flags floating across Division at Humbolt Park would stick to my cold hands when I'd stumble passed them stomping through 3ft of snow. The woosh sound of huricane Irma was like a bird chirping on a sunny day compared to the mad giantess Maria kicking our doors and windows in, turnning them into fountains of dread and destruction that drowned our pridefulness into humility.
Most of us are quite grateful for the technology in our pockets that allowed us to communicate with loved ones four agonizing days after the event. As soon I would get home from work (which had a diesel generator that charges my phone) I'd take the steps to the roof of our 7 story condo and see if I can catch a glimpse of my Chicago Bulls.
The Chicago Bulls are Puerto Ricos favorite team of course thanks to Jordan. I remember I moved back to the island from Chicago around 2009, I went to the west side of the island to hang out with some friends at the University of PR in Mayaguez and upon arriving to our version of "Wrigleyville" to "bar hop", I felt I was back in Chicago again in playoff season of the Jordan era. Every man or woman with a hat on their heads was wearing a Bulls cap. I couldn't count how many.
In these days with no light and a daily search for warm food and some desperately needed entertainment to distract us from these hard times. The NBA is my safe haven. Most of our courts here are outdoors and some have amazing views of the oceans and mountains. But some have been destroyed in this catastrophe. I wonder what the Bulls can do to help with hundreds of thousands of fans here on the island having so much trouble? I dont think the NBA has ever had an exhibition game here in PR. Now would be a good time to give back. JJ. Barea with help from the Mavs have helped tons but most of us need a lot more help.
Besides all that, Lauri Markennen is an awesome player and I believe he's much more mature in his game than most give him credit for. I think he's stronger than people believe also. He's a better passer than some of the gaurds and I think since the team is already in this situation they should keep him out there and let him loose. Why would they sit him out when he's hot? We could have beat the Cavs again even if just in the regular season. I felt like Lauri was also gaurding Lebron quite well. Do you think Lauris respect and admiration for Lebron could detain him from swatting away the ball and making him look foolish? Cause one thing that made Jordan and some cases Lebron who they are is their utter disregard for who had the ball - they push and pull and swat and block and Dunk over whoever.
I can tell Holiday is loving his new role and that's what I love about what the Bulls have done. There is something in this young team and in the style of basketball that will make them all better.
Can't wait to have the whole team on the court. See what they can do. Anyway Que Viva Puerto Rico!
Sam: Thanks for the heart warming email. We sometimes forget as we feel badly for a disaster and the effects and then quickly move on in the aftermath that a basketball team wherever you may be is a source of interest, relaxation and escape during perilous times. I’d love for the Bulls to play a relief game in Puerto Rico to help the island, though the NBA schedules those things. I have visited Puerto Rico many times, often with USA Basketball, and always had a wonderful time. The scenery is magnificent and the people so accommodating and friendly. So I’m glad Lauri could provide you some distraction, comfort and reassurance. He’s, as he frequently reminds us, an unusually confident kid. His biggest issue with LeBron was strength rather than intimidation. He’s been surprisingly impressive so soon, especially for a rookie whom most believed was not in the top 10 in this class. He’s ranked in this first 10 days of the season in the top two in scoring, rebounding and three-point shooting, which is shocking, really. He’s a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate and really playing just about as well as any in this potentially great class. I’m glad the Bulls can be a diversion for you at this time, even if it’s not so much success as much as competition. Of course, you know a lot more than the Bulls about loss. Good luck.
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