Ask Sam Mailbag: 11.22.2019

Andrew Killion:

When was the last time you saw a lineup like against Detroit where we fielded 4 back-up point guards on the court at the same time? Or had our 5th ranked point guard comprehensively outplay our starting pg?

Sam Smith:

These are strange times for the Bulls. How ‘bout that Shaq Harrison! There seems to be an intriguing dichotomy at work with the Bulls pitting talent against tenacity. Tenacity has been the choice lately as things change when you are not as successful as you'd hoped. The Bulls expected improvement coming into the season was left to the continued development of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, their consensus best talents. Which they still are. But with the slow start and disappointing losses, coach Boylen has grabbed onto the life raft of the hustle players, like Arcidiacono, Dunn and now Gafford and Harrison. Some of their nature makes sense given the way the team is playing defense by often trapping and double teaming the pick and roll to cause steals and transition scoring. It's worked to some extent as the Bulls have been among the best in the league in disrupting offenses with turnovers. Plus those hustle board things like charges and deflections. Arcidiacono seems to spend as much time supine as vertical. Over the last few weeks, both LaVine and Markkanen, the latter with a much discussed shooting slump until Detroit, have seen their playing time cut. Both are averaging barely 30 minutes per game, down from last season despite good health and the belief they'd be bigger factors this season. Boylen has gone with Arcidiacono often to finish games because of his hustle and now Harrison, both undrafted. Those are good stories and a credit to the Bulls for finding and developing them. But if their rise interferes with the production and presence of LaVine and Markkanen, there are big questions to consider. It's a good thing to have players who can make up a disruptive unit like that. Arch and Shaq, the Big Two? I don't believe that's the plan. But when you are stumbling you do have to improvise.

Sunny Shah:

It's too bad the Bulls are not able to rely on a 4th quarter push to win games. The combination of questionable offensive set plays, poor shot selection by Zach and the reality that Lavine and Lauri are better off as Beta and Gamma stars on a good team rather than the Alpha and Beta we have them plugged into, means the Bulls will continue to lose a lot of winnable games late. Boylen and the staff need to figure out a way to produce better offense down the stretch and better ball movement. Thank goodness for the rookies and Dunn.

Sam Smith:

Is it fair to ask Arch and Shaq to carry the team? A few months back one big question was what to do with Kris Dunn and the general answer was cut him. Now Dunn has seemingly settled into a comfortable and vital role on that disruptors unit with the likes of Arcidiacono, and now perhaps Gafford and Harrison and Thad Young. Dunn even has begun to show a little more confidence on the offensive end, at least driving to the basket and scoring, which he can do. Clearly, there's concern and anticipation about LaVine and Markkanen and what they can and will and should do. But there are some positives developing and a style with players like that. I don't believe as much as everyone hoped that anyone truly believed LaVine and Markkanen were in a class with Leonard, Harden, et al. Which doesn't mean it's time to throw them overboard. And also why the Bulls haven't been suggested quite yet as a title contender as opposed to perhaps a playoff contender. As disappointing as it's been at times, with Charlotte Saturday the Bulls could be in eighth by the weekend. I know, the playoffs don't start quite yet, and it is, as we say, just the East. But at least they haven't fallen from view as bad as some of the losses have been. Not every team has a No. 1 pitcher. But you still can have a good season with a strong No. 2 and No. 3 and a good bullpen.

Joe Kraus:

It seems a little early to reserve a spot in front of the United Center for a Daniel Gafford statue, but it was a nice surprise to see him bring the energy he did against the Bucks. It's good to see him providing a kind of post presence that Carter can't, and I can imagine he'll have a role. The question, I think, is how large that role will be. I heard Kendall Gill suggest we might have a new Joakim Noah on our hands. Skeptically, I wonder if we aren't seeing more of a taller Paul Zipser -- different position, but a limited, focused player who fills a need when everyone else around him comes up short. Anyway, that got me wondering, who would you say are the best Bulls second round picks of all time? There's Kukoc, of course, but it seems to drop off pretty quickly after that: Chris Duhon, Rod Higgins, Larry Krystkowiak? Am I missing anyone? In other words, what does Gafford have to do to become the second best second-rounder in franchise history?

Sam Smith:

I liken him now more to Michael Ruffin, a defense-oriented second rounder with one foot range, though Gafford seems somewhat more athletic than both he and Zipser. Zipser was more a perimeter player and another of the line of poor finishers. Not poor Finnishers. Kukoc, of course, was the all-time No. 2 prize whom I expect will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame before too long. Among the international players, his omission is a huge oversight. They eventually get around to correcting those. Second round obviously changes with the number of teams and today Kukoc at No. 29 would be a first. Willis Reed was a second round pick in 1964 that was No. 8 at a time of territorial picks (close to home) which came first as automatics. There were many famous second rounders, like Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, Alex English, Tony Archibald, Maurice Cheeks, Gilbert Arenas, Doc Rovers, Michael Redd, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, Eddie Johnson and Calvin Murphy. There were Bulls second rounders who were selected by someone else for the Bulls after a trade, like Omer Asik (Lauri Markkanen is not listed officially as a Bulls pick because of a trade). Similarly, Mickey Johnson was a fourth rounder for the Bulls selected by Portland. Erwin Mueller, their expansion team starting center, was a second rounder and Norm Van Lier was an original Bulls third rounder traded and traded back to the Bulls. Howard Porter was a prize second rounder until he actually played and of course there were Mike Smrek, Jake Voskuhl and the infamous Jordan Bell, now not playing for Minnesota.

Jay Hearfield:

Why did coach Boylen play Lauri down the stretch against the Bucks? I thought he said "we'll play the guys in the 4th who are helping us win"? Why was Lauri guarding Giannis instead of Gafford when they were both on the court? Put Lauri on Ilyasova.

Sam Smith:

I'm somewhat sympathetic to Boylen because that was one of those occasions when you can only be wrong if you lose. The conventional wisdom is you bring back your best players. No one will say Gafford is better than Markkanen. But, yes, he was against the Bucks. And, yes, Boylen (and all coaches) always say they play the players down the stretch who give them the best chance to win. But Boylen also had to balance that against a slumping Markkanen and giving him an opportunity to break out since they obviously need him more. Even a loss in Game 14 is worth that for the long run, right? But then does your message to everyone else lose credibility? Actually, Giannis had some foul trouble and sat out part of the close until about four minutes left. Boylen really waited way longer than usual to bring back Markkanen and LaVine in the fourth, and admitted he was close to not doing so. It will be something to watch now. Perhaps he didn't want to address the decision? Depress Markkanen?

I didn't have an issue with Markkanen on Giannis since I can't say I agree with the decision last week to play Arcidiacono on Giannis. Going with Carter and three guards, who else would Markkanen guard with Lopez playing? Though the Bulls did fail to go at Giannis once he got in foul trouble, which has been a flaw of their so called multi-ballhandler thing with questionable decision making. The Bucks were switching and the team too often missed Markkanen being taken by smaller defenders. You could see Markkanen has been listening to all the concern and criticism and seemed to be overreacting against the Bucks by trying to dunk most of his drives, which is not his game. Arcidiacono has been impressive chasing loose balls and all the hustle things Boylen talks about. I'll admit I've never expected him to be the closing point guard he's been, but he has made plays and is the team's leading three-point shooter now that he's finally looking for his shot more.

Alejandro Yegros:

Lauri's shooting % is career worst, as is his rebounding %. His turnover rate has skyrocketed without too many more assists. Zach's shooting, rebounding and turnover totals are also the worst since his rookie season. As long as this goes on, I'd imagine the Bulls are going to have a really hard time unless Coby hits seven threes every game. Got any wise words for us Bulls fans? I'm really hoping this is like Donovan Mitchell last year... he was not good for a while just because he was in his head, and then turned it around at some point.

Sam Smith:

That works for me. He doesn't seem to be giving up or giving in, and he's heard all the concern. He's seemed at times flummoxed with his offensive use and the lack of playing through him more in the half court. And there does seem to be some disconnect given the dual goals of competing now and a new system with a new coaching staff (Boylen's first full season and new offensive and defensive lead assistants). And with that the lack of significant contributions from the veterans who have come in during the last year. I don't see players not trying hard, which seems to me bodes well. But the shifting roles, rotations and personnel has led to uncertainty. That's often just enough to cost you a game. Markkanen showed some progress in the win against the Pistons Wednesday and I agree with him, try the Karjalanpiirakka and this too will pass.

John Petersen:

Carter's development is one of the nicer stories of the season to date. Long term what is his position, 4 or 5? He repeated has said he is a power forward but he does not (yet) shoot the 3 which apparently is a requirement. He is a smart player beyond his years and durable and a good pick at #7 but what is his position in the longer term? He is not getting taller.

Sam Smith:

Aren't we doing position less basketball. Carter has been so reliable and consistent we hardly even talk about him much. Which is a good thing. Al Horford, his most frequent comparison, has made a nice career out of being a small five/limited shooting four. Maybe the Bulls get a big center someday. Carter's stubborn play doesn't make it a major priority for now.

Riaz Khan:

I remember Wilt Chamberlain used to minimize Michael Jordan's accomplishments when Jordan started setting records. Jealousy, wanting to stay relevant, refusal to admit next generation might be better than you, who knows? I remember Jordan being very gracious about it. So it took me by surprise when Jordan said Stephen Curry was not a Hall of Famer yet. I'm not a big Curry fan, and he's out again for months, but even I think he is a Hall of Famer. Is Jordan now going through what Wilt went through?

Sam Smith:

Hey, I was quoted out of context! That's always a go-to explanation, and though Jordan was on tape for that, I don't think his personality was explained. We know Jordan's competitive nature, which extends to conversation, and the way to often win a conversation or debate (see politics) is with a quip or good line. Got-cha! Jordan is great with the last word, and it got him in an uncomfortable debate thanks to me. Though I'll be direct first and say, no, he isn't jealous of Curry or refusing to accept he's past his prime. Though I'm sure Michael would play him. Even at golf. It was with the famous "Republicans buy sneakers, too" comment I used in one of my books about Jordan.

Jordan back then loved the give and take with media in which he could test and expand his knowledge and beliefs. So I was bringing up North Carolina politics and the racist Jesse Helms and back then the players were asked to refrain from political discussions. Even Kareem in the 80s was similarly quiet, though Barkley would occasionally say he was running for governor as as a Republican. It was part gag as he'd say his mother would tell him the Republicans are for the rich and Barkley would grandly say he told his mother he's rich. Anyway, Jordan dug up a one liner to close it as Republicans buy sneakers, too, as a win the argument last word. It worked and we went on to why he couldn't shoot threes. Anyway, it became a political philosophy, which was unfair and inaccurate, though it fit the agenda of many in this era when political commentary from sports figures is much more acceptable. So no one much cared about the fact as much as the ability to use Jordan for a stereotype and tone deaf.

As for Curry, well, he isn't in the Hall of Fame. Because, you know, Curry is not retired. But sometimes Michael can be a bit too subtle. I'm fairly sure even he believes his legacy is secure.

Art Alenik:

A New York Times article reminded me that Jamal Crawford is still unsigned. He feels he has plenty left (40 yrs. old) and wants to play, says he's surprised at no calls. He'd probably cost $2MM. Do we have a roster spot we could open for him (maybe Strus, Mokoka or Shaq?). Might help to have a dead-eye 3-pt. shooter on a team that shoots as many as possible and can't seem to make them in the 4th qtr. Jamal scored 51 on 30 shots in his last game. We don't need that kind of production from him, but he might save us a few W's in those 4th qtr. droughts. a team that likes to shoot lots of 3's and doesn't hit nearly enough might find a place for Jamal.

Sam Smith:

I've been surprised Jamal hasn't found a team, and given how much he plays and his condition at his age I expect he will. I'd love to see him back with the Bulls, where he started his career. He's one of the true class acts, a great teammate and gentlemen of the NBA. I assume the response always is about his defense, which has been a casual afterthought. Which makes him about average in the NBA. I'd love to see someone like Jamal come off the bench firing, though now that's Coby White for the Bulls. And it seems the priority with the emphasis toward the reserves for now is the activity, grit guys, of which Jamal is not.

Mathieu Ramseyer:

I read Bol Bol is playing with the Windy City Bulls…. What is the rule in this case? Would it be possible for the Chicago Bulls to pick him for a game or two? Or is he under contract with the Nuggets?

Sam Smith:

I've had a lot of inquiries about that. The Nuggets are one of the few teams without a G-league affiliate, so they send their players to another team's. When the Bulls didn't have a G-league affiliate of their own, they were sharing the Des Moines team with several teams. Bol Bol is on a two-way contract and, in effect, a member of the Nuggets.

Ricardo Martinez:

I recently heard Coach Boylen interviewed discussing how Gafford's transition to the Bulls NBA roster would be eased because the G League Bulls use the same schemes, same playcalls, etc. With the Windy City Bulls apparently accepting players from competitive teams (like Bol Bol of the Nuggets), is there potentially a conflict of interest? Could Bol Bol share schemes and play calling intelligence with the Nuggets when he inevitably is promoted to the Nuggets NBA roster? I'm probably overthinking this.

Sam Smith:

It's a reasonable question, though this isn't the NFL. As if there are some great secrets there. There really aren't any great secrets in the NBA because, you know, it's a screen. Every team regularly scouts every other team. At every game there are advance scouts from the teams you'll be playing for the next week or two. Those scouts monitor every coach's call and by the end of the game know what the players will do on every call. The Bulls have dispensed with a lot of play calls, which can be a good thing in that respect, and are using a lot of so called read and react, which was the theory of the triangle offense. What the Bulls are doing is less complex, and not unlike what many teams do now, run a middle pick and roll and station players along the three-point arc for shots. It's why talent is so important because it transcends strategy. I'd say watch Windy City to enjoy what Bol may be doing without fear he's also a spy. Plus, the Nuggets are in the other conference and unlikely to face the Bulls in a serious game until the Finals.

Marcus Nikokiris:

I said this before the season started and I'm sticking to it now. The Bulls are not a playoff team unless Zach is at 25ppg plus and Lauri is at 20ppg. We have a few very good complementary players that contribute to our success, but without Zach and Laurie being all star caliber players, we are bottom feeders. Zach should be making up for Lauri's lack of production like he did out of the gate last year. Do you think Zach can still pick things up and be an all star this year or is he being told not to try to do too much by the coach? (in which case, get ready for another #7 pick)

Sam Smith:

While those averages were hoped for and would be welcomed, the slow start seems to have changed the philosophy some. It's seems a bit more short term now, but that's also a reality of the game. They count the wins and you are thus judged. So Boylen has hewed more of late to the style he's more comfortable with, which is the hard nosed overachievers. There's something to be said for everyone playing like Arcidiacono or Harrison, but the reality is most don't. You know, like LeBron, Lillard, Beal, some pretty good players. Not to say those others don't try like the undrafted guys. But their skills are different. Perhaps Zach won't take a charge like Arcidiacono, but Arcidiacono can't make a pull up three in traffic like Zach. Boylen seems to be trying to find the balance lately, and you can see him hesitating to bring LaVine and Markkanen back into games late at times. Also, the offense has changed to fewer play calls and more free lancing, which often leaves fewer specific opportunities for LaVine or Markkanen. Neither has complained or been an problem, and both have been good teammates trying to do what is asked of them. LaVine's still averaging about 20 points and Markkanen will get up there before too long, I expect. The question this also becomes the identity. With the starters the Bulls were relying upon and high minutes reserves like Kornet, I'd have said—and did—it's an offensive team and they need to concentrate on outscoring opponents. But now with the injection of Arcidiacono, Gafford and Harrison playing much more with Dunn, it's looking more like a defensive team that should play a slower game. The All-Star possibilities, meanwhile, are fading because so much is based on the early season expectations and commentary, and there hasn't been a lot of it good for the Bulls. I'm still optimistic (really) because everyone seems still engaged and enthusiastic, and the team has been playing hard, if underachieving, which leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Eric Cohen:

I kept a close eye on Lauri Friday night (v. Brooklyn). I liked what I saw. He moved well on defense, he was stronger with the ball and was more of a threat to score (even if he never established a rhythm offensively). Alas, I will maintain optimism.

Sam Smith:

I believe it's a good plan. I don't believe he's far from breaking out of his funk, which seems to have upset more people than him. Not that he doesn't care, but I think he's thinking if he's averaging 14.8 and 7.6 being this bad, the good isn't far away. I believe he's heard it all and sometimes he isn't, as we fall back into slice mode, letting the game come to him.

Jay Carlson:

So far this year, the Bulls have achieved a record of 4 wins and 9 losses after Brooklyn Saturday. They have accomplished this feat with a healthy Zach Lavine, a bulked up and more experienced Wendell Carter, a beefy Lauri Markanen who will no doubt explode into stardom, experienced veterans Tomacz Satoransky, Otto Porter Jr and Thaddeus Young who will provide the leadership that will guide the team into the promised land of the playoffs. There is also "the little engine that could" named Ryan Arcidiacono, a greatly improved Kris Dunn and a rookie who is expected to be nothing less than a great player in the league for years to come, Coby White. Last year, at this same time, the Bulls record was um, let's see, oh look at that, 4 wins and 9 losses. The Bulls in 2018-19 had starting lineups that included Ryan Arcidiacono, Justin Holiday and Bobby Portis. Of course they could always bring players like Cameron Payne and the super motivated Jabari Parker in off the bench.

Sam Smith:

Well, they did lose 11 of 12 after that 4-9. That's obviously what's been so upsetting to start, the improved health (though Porter has been out), a much better roster and bigger, manageable goals. Which is why, I suspect, the team went into that urgency mode to try to scrape out some wins with the cardiac crew. I don't believe that's a long term plan, but they're mostly in stop the bleeding mode now. It's too soon for depression.

Thomas Deneen:

This year's edition of your Chicago Bulls is showing promise but I predict will continue to frustrate every other night.. Consistency is the best indicator of talent, and Lavine and Markannen have both been exposed. Wendell Carter, Kris Dunn and Tomas Satoransky have been consistent. Add Coby if no more shooting slumps. Why not try closing some fourth quarters with those four plus Gafford or Hutchinson? Can't do any worse or miss many more critical moment shots.

Sam Smith:

You can see that Boylen has been trending that way, especially the way he was hesitating well into the fourth against Milwaukee Monday. The big lead against Detroit Wednesday eliminated any real analysis or innovation. There's not much scoring among those guys you mention, especially as White is predictably inconsistent as a rookie. Like you note, it's about consistency, and the fact is Zach has been the most consistent scorer followed by Lauri. Can you abandon them for a quick or temporary fix? And what would that mean?

Anthony Moulesong:

This allergic reaction to anything other than threes or layups is killing the game. Any shot that's open and is one the player can make is a good shot, right? It's painful to watch sometimes, the guys throwing the ball around without really having any idea what they're trying to do. Shouldn't the Bulls have some set plays they can run when their threes aren't falling and the lane isn't open?

Sam Smith:

I wasn't a fan of the new math when they brought that to school when I was in probably the eighth grade. Change is difficult for everyone. I tend to believe the best shot is the best one you have wherever it's from, which, I know, contrasts with the latest conventional wisdom. I believe in the seeing the ball go in thing, and I think it's hurt Markkanen some because with threes you see many fewer going in even when you're shooting well. And the Bulls with sort of an equal opportunity theme have spread the shooting out. It's all hardly a revolutionary scheme since most teams are firing multiple threes constantly. Sure, you say it's good to have players who are good at the threes, though I see a lot of guys shooting them who maybe I'm not sure should be. I accept the reality of the game now. We all better. It is what it is, which I wish I'll never hear again, however. I assume the Bulls would prefer some sort of blend, so I'm still willing to accept the still early part of that. For now we're still all going with the averages that it will even out and the better shooters will be better makers. The interesting element to watch is whom the coach trusts most to do so.

Jim Kiel:

I wanted to comment that no one mentions what it took for the glory-years-Bull-championships to manifest. The need for instant results these days reflects on the mindset of current fans.

This years Bulls team has some great players, with great skillsets. Now we need time to marinate and find the way to play together to win. The proverbial well-oiled machine.

Do you think PaxGar can wait long enough, or will it be another round of 3 years & reshuffle?

Sam Smith:

May I call you Job? This is not an era of particular patience, which is exacerbated by social media and the array of voices demanding results, and now! It's perhaps the greatest challenge for organizations, government, business. There are more voices, and it's difficult to separate the wheat from the chafing complaint. Being year three of a rebuild/reset isn't that excessive, but while a fan base likes the idea of change and a rebuild, they also like for it to occur immediately. A good start, even if it cannot be sustained, gives the organization some space to examine its prospects. A disappointing start, which the Bulls have experienced, exacerbates the urgency. I'm as interested as anyone to see how the organization manages the situation.