Ask Sam Mailbag: 11.08.2019

Stephen Fulton

Bulls took care of business in Atlanta and maintained their lead throughout! Great to see they didn't choke it up, there's going to be some rough periods but enough talent exists for them to win a reasonable amount of games (33 to 43).

Sam Smith

Well, that's a pretty wide gap. But that is enough for the playoffs, which didn't seem unreasonable to start the season, and doesn't after games like that. Of course, it's just that one game thing and all that and the Hawks were shorthanded (overconfident?), yadda, yadda. As I wrote about after that win in Atlanta, the start of the season often produces exaggerated attention because casual fans after a few weeks get back to football until Christmas Day and then back until after the Super Bowl. Which is why with the Bulls early schedule primarily against non-playoff teams, I thought the Bulls had a chance for an unexpected boost, sort of like the Timberwolves. Hey, they're the surprise! Sort of like Miami with hall of famers Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. Then fourth quarters got in the way. But what the Atlanta win, and even the loss to the Lakers showed, is the Bulls have the talent to be who we thought they could be, meaning a playoff contending team. They talk about being young, but the point why that shouldn't be an excuse is what was on display in Atlanta, namely veterans like Tomas Satoransky and Otto Porter Jr. And Zach LaVine is in his sixth year. Sure, the Bulls will work in a teenager like Coby White, but they are not a developing team with Porter, Satoransky and Thaddeus Young. With the start of November, they beat Detroit handily, had the Lakers on the verge of giving up if not for the fluke of being surprised by G-league players off the bench and punished the Hawks. There's a there there.

Mark Kollar

I like Chandler Hutchison in the rotation. We are longer and stronger.

Sam Smith

It's been the plan; certainly the hope. Observers often make the mistake of equating earnings with responsibility. Sure, it would be appropriate if the person who made the most money did the most and had the most responsibility. The world doesn't work like that. Pretty much anywhere from my vantage point. So Otto Porter Jr. is the highest paid Bulls player. He can thank the Nets, who made him a big offer the Wizards matched because teams don't like to lose players for nothing. And then he was traded to the Bulls for two players the Bulls didn't appear to be resigning, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. But because Porter makes that much money doesn't mean he has to score the most or play the most. Part of the reason for the trade, a good one, was he filled a need, small forward/wing at a time the Bulls had enough power forwards. You can see in the games the Bulls have won there's a correction between Otto and success. In the Bulls three wins, he's shooting 58 percent on threes and averaging 13 points in 21 minutes. In the six losses, he's averaging 10 points in 27 minutes and shooting 32 percent on threes. He's had physical issues, so the Bulls want to limit his playing time. Thus Hutchison's presence was considered vital. Then he got hurt the beginning of September. And it became a concern because he was just coming off being hurt. He's the primary backup at that wing position because the Bulls need size on the perimeter for their defense to counter the lack of interior size. I suspect as Hutchison's conditioning increases, the Bulls might give Porter a game off. Or certainly reduce his playing time occasionally to keep him healthy throughout the season. With basically no TV games, it's assumed the NBA will be fine with that. He's a valuable player for the Bulls, though there aren't many occasions on record of little kids crying coming to their one game and not getting to see Otto. The end of the regular season could matter, and Porter's presence would be vital.

Art Alenik

I've felt they would start slow with all the new players. Well, we finally got a look against the Lakers at what the Bulls could be, but only for the first half. That was – by far – the best basketball they've played together this season. I have to give a big shout-out to Wendell, who played a lot bigger than he is. Surrounded by redwoods, he really fought, and did pretty well. Zach had a nice game too, as did Otto and Coby. And Coby showed once again that he's going to mature into someone special.

Sam Smith

That's really why despite the horror of the conclusion of the Lakers game there were positives. It was not the time to mention them after the way that game ended because lots of Tim Floyd's Bulls teams in the early 2000s played good halves. Losing teams often do, and the majority of NBA games are decided by a few possessions. But the team was playing like it seemed they were capable with speed and shooting. The coach talking about developing the reserves was the wrong answer at the time because this is not a developmental season. He's a rookie (full season head coach), too. There are players to develop, like always, but the job is to win as much as you can with the talent you have. There's generally not much development during the regular season. That comes more in the summer, as you can see with Antetokounmpo, who suddenly can make threes. There are too many games coming too quickly for the season to be much more than one extended contest and story. The Lakers' result obscured some encouraging developments; but you don't mention the positives until it's time for the Ask Sam column.

Ateeq Ahmed

I would love to see Gafford play. I think his defense could help. But I do understand he's a rookie and he has to earn minutes. Also, I read he was assigned to the Windy City Bulls but I see him on the bench during games. How does that work? Is he currently splitting time?

Sam Smith

He was practicing with the Windy City Bulls, and then back with the Madison Street Bulls until he's going to play some games with Windy City to start their season this weekend. That's what the G-league is for. When there is regular season development, that's more where it is because the result isn't so urgent. I was a little surprised to see Denzel Valentine join him there because veterans don't have to go. The team can assign you during your first three years. But he wasn't playing, so I'd probably do the same. I believe he'll be called on by the varsity at some point. Practice is nothing like games, as we saw again with the start of the season. Boylen has mentioned many times in a kind way about pushing Gafford, which generally means in coach speak that he doesn't trust him yet to put him in a game. With the Bulls having a G-league team so close--except in rush hour—it's ideal to have someone play games with Windy City and then be back with the team to practice. Not often are lower draft pick players ready to help a team that, you know like the Bulls, has playoff aspirations.

Sven Ruppert

Last time I checked in with you, October felt like spring. I was talking seeds and flowers... oh boy, November after Indiana and the Lakers came at Bulls fans fast and hard.

I know, had we hit a couple more threes and our opponents a couple less, we would have a much better record and if I had invented Facebook, I would be a billionaire.

Reality is, it looks as bleak as I can remember as a Bulls fan.

I am afraid this is next for this Bulls team.

Please give me some reason to keep the faith.

Sam Smith

Which is why we love sports. It doesn't feel quite as badly now, and who knows, Harden and Westbrook haven't tried to defend this decade.

Andrew Killion

Dunn is playing great. Getting back to where we have seen him in the past. Love to see him close out the 4th with the starters.

Sam Smith

Dunn's presence and future have faded from being a preseason major issue, but the last two games he's averaged 11 points on 10 of 13 shooting, basically all layups without much thinking about taking an outside shot. He's got eight steals in those two games and is third in the league in steals despite playing about 10 fewer minutes per game than the leaders. He's played exceptionally hard with a good attitude. Will it lead to greater demand and a trade? Will he become more valuable to a Bulls team that is relying more on creating turnovers than physical inside dominance? I doubt he'll be a regular closer with the shooting Boylen wants, but he'll be there in offense/defense switches. What I'm surprised about is two years ago he was shooting well from mid range. He should try that again. Those points also count.

Mitch Tobin

Panic, meet button. I never expected to be this worried so early in the season about the Bulls' playoff chances (after the Lakers and Pacers). This succession of losses to mediocre teams has been brutal. I'm sure this is not what Coach Boylen expected. Imagine his concern rises to the level that he turns to you (yes, I know that's not going to happen, but project this happening in a Bulls multiverse where coaches consult journalists for advice). So in this alternative universe, Boylen says, "What should I do to fix this? How should I fine-tune our system of play? Is the system flawed? Should I change the starting lineup? Should I alter the bench rotation? Should I go full-on Joe Maddon and bring in a magician to do tricks and relax the players?" What would you say?

Sam Smith

I'd say, ‘Jim, I didn't know you knew my name.' Of course, then I'd offer some ideas as I did to Thibs and Skiles without much success. So I continued to write them down. Another of the many reasons we love this game compared to say baseball or football is because there are so many more opportunities to criticize the players and coaches because there are so many more decisions to make in basketball with so many more plays.

For the Bulls, I'd go back to pecking order. All the great teams have them. There are exceptions, like the Celtics in the 60s and Knicks in the 70s with a relatively diverse group of similar talents. Though with the Knicks, for example, while Bradley and DeBusschere might make big shots, Reed or Frazier were taking that last shot. OK, say we move up 50 years to the rest of my audience. Klay Thompson might save a game here and there, but Durant had the ball when they needed to make a late shot. That Curry guy, too.

The Bulls have had issues in the fourth quarter, though it's early and we still get to say that for another few weeks. One reason is there hasn't been enough of a delineation and identification of whose turn that is. I'd say LaVine. Whatever the criticisms, he can make a play inside and outside on his own, something no one else on the team really can do with regularity. I'd get him more shots so that when the time comes everyone's more accustomed. I know in theory it sounds great and is more confusing for the defense if they have to defend four or five players. But just because you might get open at that time, not everyone is as comfortable at that time. Critics say that makes you more predictable and the defense can anticipate it. I say it puts the ball in the possession of the person who is most accomplished at those times. And the more LaVine is in that position, the more officials will notice and he'll start to get those foul calls. Unfortunately, I blocked Boylen on this site because he's been giving me hair grooming advice.

Kieron Smith

Anthony Davis is interested in Chicago? Is this a dream? Or is this for real? LaVine, Markkanen, Young, White & Davis, all on the same team next season? The Bulls are definitely are seeing playoffs.

Sam Smith

That does sound good. Yes, Davis stirred up a little internet stuff as things happen these days when the Lakers were here and he did a community appearance and raved about Chicago. He did create some interesting debate on the NBA satellite radio station about which city produced the greatest players. They always mention New York as the basketball mecca, something of a holy site. Though that's more in reference to Madison Square Garden, which is known for its theater type lighting to keep the players from seeing the expressions of their horrified fans watching the team. Actually, New York is not so dominant with great players despite the population disparity. Kareem is from there, sure, but you quickly get to the likes of Kenny Anderson and Mark Jackson. OK, Billy Cunningham, Roger Brown, Lenny Wilkins, Chris Mullin, Bernard King and Connie Hawkins, too. But I might take Chicago, certainly per capita, with Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Mark Aguirre, George Mikan and Dan Issel. Or how about Philadelphia with Wilt, Earl Monroe and Kobe Bryant? Actually, given NBA lore, the meccas because of success probably are Boston and Los Angeles. Did I digress again? Anything is possible, and I probably should have included Davis on the all-Chicago list, which is for retired players for now. If he wants to play in his home town I'm sure the Bulls would try to accommodate him. OK, they would. But for now I wouldn't count on it as he seems to be enjoying himself playing with LeBron in Los Angeles. Though if global warming advances and Las Vegas becomes beachfront, there might be a chance.

Alejandro Yegros

I've read about Lauri and the consensus was been words like "disappointing," "indifferent," "concerning," and worse. At the same time, 14pts on 9 shots, and 5reb, 4 ast, and 2 steals in 25 minutes against Detroit is really not bad. It's not all-NBA, but it's pretty good. And then the 17 in Atlanta. I understand he was sat at the end of two games, but people are even disappointed about the minutes he actually played. When you compare his stats to, say, Tatum and Porzingis (a touted guy from his draft and a guy who resembles his style of play) they're pretty comparable, but the other guys don't face that level of media and fan angst after a decent game. And I know about Tatum because I live in Boston! Rick Mahorn recently said in a pod that it's particularly tough to play in Chicago because everybody is comparing you to the Jordan years. Do you agree with this? I certainly do when I see the expectations that people have of Lauri.

Sam Smith

That Jordan sentiment may have been so at one time, but I think that's past since hardly anyone in college today saw Jordan play. Though I do think there have been generic expectations. Lauri was a major figure in the Jimmy Butler trade, and though Jimmy is an All-Star player, he's with his third team since the Bulls and there's no reason to think he would have been different here than he was elsewhere. He didn't seem ready to settle. But Jimmy is one of the better players in the NBA. LaVine and Dunn were part of that trade, and it still was the right thing to do no matter how they do. It was time. Sometimes it doesn't work. Lauri, as you note, still is a highly productive player. But when trades like that are made and the team declares a reset, everyone looks for the next star. Lauri has had moments to suggest it could be him with games like he's had against young stars like Porzingis and Trae Young. But you can't be what others want you to be because they need that. I see LaVine more the closer for the Bulls than Markkanen, which is OK. Scottie did OK without being the closer. Markkanen's going to put up numbers just because with mismatches he's going to be open so much. The Bulls had been more play oriented before, and now they seem to be playing a more free form game. It hasn't resulted in as many opportunities for Markkanen, though in the last few games I saw individual players trying to get him more involved. It's not his nature to be some sort of LeBron or Harden banging his way to the basket. He has the talent to be an exceptional individual player, but his nature is to want to be part of a larger group. One thing I've noticed over the years about the truly elite players, like Jordan or Kobe is that edge which can turn to malevolence at times. That's not Lauri. I believe he's adjusting at his speed to the change in philosophy more than he's regressed as a player.

Jason Eldridge

I've read that a staggeringly high number of NBA players (60+%) go broke within just a few years after their playing careers are over. This is crazy given how much money these guys make. Part of the problem I think is so many of the players are in the same boat as lottery winners, who come into sudden unbelievable wealth but don't have the financial discipline after becoming rich to make their money last the rest of their lives. There's no reason any NBA player should go bankrupt. Has the league ever considered – similar to what the lottery does – offering either an annuity or a lump sum option to players? So instead of making $20 MM / year for x years a player is paid a lessor amount but for the rest of his life. I'm sure many players would still want the money upfront but having such an option may benefit some players and help keep some out of financial troubles later in life.

Sam Smith

Of course, players can be paid like that. Any employee can be. Dennis Rodman was sometimes paid like that, and amazingly—and gratefully—he's lived to collect when many doubted back in 1997 that he would. I don't know about those estimates, and the players association works with players on financial management. What is unusual among players is the backgrounds. It's not so much about being from a poor upbringing. Many people are. But what I've found more often is the generosity and responsibility of NBA players compared to the general population. Many NBA players grow up in extended families that protected and nurtured them through incredibly difficult circumstances. So then many feel an obligation to pay back those people. Not to say some CEOs of major corporations or lottery winners don't. Maybe I just don't hear their stories enough. But I see it often with NBA players who immediately are buying houses and cars for family members who had little, but spent all they had helping raise them. It often takes a village, and a village can be expensive to rebuild.

John Petersen

I'll wait another ten games but Wednesday night was encouraging. Amazing that Carter could foul out in 13 minutes when Collins was not playing with substance suspension. You wrote that you don't follow that substance stuff but this is the second and I still find it astounding that it can happen with supervised star players.

Sam Smith

It's actually three with Wilson Chandler, though no one much expected him to help, anyway (I didn't recall either. Brooklyn). It is surprising and it does make you wonder if more is going on. Which is the worst part, the suspicion. Because that's what was going on in baseball in the mid-90s and we pretty much dismissed it. Though it's not my sport of choice anymore, I was among those who believed Sosa and McGwire were, well, just working out more. Sure, Sammy was much larger than when the White Sox had him, but you get a big head being around the North Side of Chicago. I always believed in the notion that baseball was timing more than strength. After all, you had to hit the spinning, 90-mile-per-hour ball. Like Ted Willams said in declaring it the hardest thing to do in sport, a round ball and round bat and you had to hit it squarely. Of course, I always preferred Sam Snead's retort regarding golf where he said he had to play his foul balls. Anyway, when significant young players like Collins and Ayton are suspended, it can bring suspicion elsewhere. For now we have to believe they are isolated incidents. I do. But if Ryan Arcidiacono ever brings down a backboard with a dunk, I'm revisiting this.

Mark Schweihs

On the bright side, the Bulls are just one game out of the eighth playoff seed with 72 games to go...

Sam Smith

The playoff push begins...Now! I'm working on the magic number. Will get back to you on that.