Ask Sam Mailbag: 11.24.17
Sam Smith opens his mailbag to answer readers' questions
Kris Dunn reminds me of Kirk Hinrich in his first year - a turnover machine. Hinrich got better at handling the ball and added occasional scoring punch. Much of his value was as an over-sized combo guard capable of defending the other teams best play-maker. This allowed Ben Gordon to excel as a shorter SG with low defensive skills. Then, once the Bulls drafted D. Rose, Hinrich moved to Shooting Guard allowing D. Rose to be a score-first PG with low defensive skills. Hinrich had a long, successful NBA career. Dunn has similar potential. Is it PG or Bust for Dunn? Or does he have combo guard potential? Also, is Z. Levine locked in at SG once he returns or is he skillful at PG or SF?
Sam: That’s a good observation with Kirk, though Kirk finished up college as more of a shooting guard and came into the NBA with a better shot and better scoring ability. But Kirk had to relearn to be a point guard, which never was fully natural for him. He averaged about three turnovers per game as a rookie and did get better each season, which I expect for Dunn, also. I also believe the turnover attention is misdirected. Sure, the coaches get upset. But it’s about making plays for a lead guard. Magic Johnson averaged four turnovers per game as a rookie and pretty much kept at that level throughout his career. No one will ever compare Dunn with Magic. But the point is at point you cannot make plays without making some mistakes. The greatest basketball cliché is being aggressive. By the way, any quote from a player that includes that word is pretty much meaningless and you should skip to the next sentence. After all, if they’re not being aggressive why are they playing? I think Dunn has been doing great, at least for his level at this time which is maybe close to average at the position. He’s the first guy maybe since Scottie Pippen defending upcourt. Guys don’t like to play against that no matter what they say. It’s hard to do, which is why so few players do it. I never understand why coaches don’t demand it more. Sure, you can be picked off by a screen and then your defense is vulnerable. Which is why it’s hard work. But worthwhile because it also can create offense. Dunn has been able to get inside the defense, but he doesn’t finish strong enough and try to draw contact. I remember Pippen never could do this and it took several years. I recall watching in practice or the locker room (we could see all that then as media) Jordan demonstrating to Pippen how to initiate the contact, take the hit and get to the line. It took years for Pippen to get it. And he was a four-year college guy. So we’ll give Dunn some time. His shot is OK for now, but he’ll be measured on his penetration, his defensive posture and his aggression. Hey, did I just say that?
Good to see Blakeney settling down a bit. At one point in the 4th, I saw him having a few words with Holiday, after which Holiday drove the baseline & scored. I hope the Bulls have control of his contract and he can’t be ‘stolen’, as I think he’ll eventually be a player we can use.
Sam: Blakeney is like that wild stallion that if you could harness, wow, what a beauty he could be. He was the star of training camp workouts, scoring off everyone, and easily. Of course, that wasn’t a big time talent he was playing against. Still, the kid has a rare ability to get off a shot, and a pretty good one, anytime he seems to feel like. And he seems to like to when he has the ball. But he’s like a lot of workers in a lot of companies. As an undrafted guy with a G-league two-way contract, he was just too far behind the boss’s favorites. We’ve all been there in work situations in which you were better than a colleague (or believed so), but he or she made more, or was a personal favorite or they just brought in a new supervisor, and you aren’t the person whom they are most invested in to succeed. So Blakeney didn’t get much playing time once the preseason games started as they had to see Valentine and Holiday and Grant and Dunn and Zipser and then they were bringing in Felder and Nwaba and Blakeney could play in the G-league. So Blakeney, also undrafted. seemed to force everything in the few minutes he was allotted, and that doesn’t work. So off he went to Hoffman Estates in favor of the guys more invested in. But he was too good for that league. Blakeney in that first half against the Lakers showed some of that scoring excitement he can bring, more so than most anyone else on the roster with LaVine still out. But, again, there’s still a pecking order and guys who have to play. Blakeney is starting to nudge his way in, and if he has more halves like that against the Lakers someone will lose their spot. He’s 6-4 and quick and with a good shooting touch. He’s a classic example of, well, he wasn’t drafted, so there must be something wrong. I don’t think the Bulls will be giving up on him too soon. It’s just that they can’t look at his ascension as a negative for perhaps a more expensive signing or draft pick, but as the sort of diamond in the rough to help build the team. After all, who blames the Warriors for their two draft picks ahead of Draymond Green in that draft (Harrison Barnes and Festis Ezeli). That’s right, Warriors personnel all believed those two players were better than Green. It shows what we all know, that the draft is imperfect because it’s filled with people, everyone is wrong more often than they are right, but you only have to be right a few times.
Lets say OKC continues to stumble and after the all star break looking at an 8th seed. Would u shop PG to Cavs for Nets pick and say Tristan Thompson?
Sam: I’m not sure I wouldn’t do that today. I don’t really see George and Anthony sticking around Oklahoma City. Perhaps they make a great run and that changes. After all, they are coming off an impressive win over the Warriors. But I think the larger plan was to show they are serious so Russell Westbrook would extend. Mission accomplished. Though I’ve figured the Thunder for top four in the West and still don’t see why they can’t be there, I don’t think much of the mix, especially the way Anthony and George have come to spend a lot of time holding the ball and Westbrook seemingly unsure of what they should do. The coach always seems overwhelmed by the talent. But now that they have Westbrook, if I could get a top lottery pick to go with him I’d probably take a chance on that future. Of course, why wouldn’t the Cavs with the rumor LeBron could also leave after this summer like Anthony and/or George. Though you ask people close to LeBron these days and with the uncertainty of so many rosters, they’ll tell you they think LeBron might go for one more one-year deal with the Cavs. There doesn’t seem enough to attract him with the Lakers or Clippers; 76ers? Nah, Ben Simmons does the LeBron game. Celtics? Yes, Kyrie’s nightmare. Let’s get those Finals over with so we can start the free agency rumors.
I watched the 1st half of the Bulls game vs. the L.A. Lakers. The 6'6" point guard they drafted out of UCLA looks like a keeper. A horrendous shooting game, but how about 13 rebounds and 5-6 assists? Certainly a reason why he went number 2 overall.. I like him a lot based on what I've seen out of his game thus far. What are your thoughts?
Sam: I’m pleased there is one person in the U.S. who doesn’t know Lonzo’s name. Yes, Lonzo Ball, son of a someone. Actually, Lonzo seems to have handled the amazingly unique situation extremely well and, I agree, I believe he will be a very good player. The Lakers aren’t very good, but two triple doubles this early in his career with a poor shot is impressive. What it shows despite all the media distractions and incredible buildup with a major market and playing for Magic Johnson, who was lauding him in advance, is the kid can handle the pressure and perform, that he’ll make plays and the NBA game isn’t too big or fast for him. The word around the Lakers’ locker room is he’s exceptionally quiet, the opposite of his bombastic parent. That the media frenzy seems not to influence him is impressive. What NBA types worry about more than he or the Lakers is how many parents this is going to give the idea to act like an obnoxious idiot to get the attention of a dimwitted American media and turn yourself into a Kardashian, a rich person with no identifiable talent or ability to contribute to society in any productive way. You can just imagine millions of people thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me.” That’s right, never mentioned the parent’s name. That’s also my message to American media. Yes, good luck with that.
I think even when Mirotic comes back Mark should still see around 30-32 mpg. I think the bulls have to play Mirotic because his value is zero on the trade market. Bobby has definitely increased his trade value. His defense leaves much to be desired. I think the bulls may have a solid rotational guard in Antonio Blakeney. I like Denzel Valentine at the SF position. I think when Lavine comes back I'd much prefer Holiday come off the bench. I believe denzel is much more versatile and brings more efficiency. He's like a second point guard. Lopez, Mark, Valentine, Lavine, Dunn starting with Portis, Mirotic, Holiday, Blakeney, Grant coming off the bench the bulls seem to have some surprise depth to them.
Sam: I think Hoiberg pretty much has assured that Markkanen is his starting power forward for the rest of the season. But you can see Markkanen already wearing down some. We wondered about this with his heavy summer of playing international ball and then being rushed into camp and then suddenly into the starting lineup and then even more surprisingly often being relied on to be the main scorer. This for a kid who even the Bulls were saying would take some time to adapt and be a regular even in the rotation. I recall this summer hearing the Bulls saying they hoped Markkanen could be an 18 to 20-minute player this season. The Bulls, understandably, are being sensitive to Mirotic’s situation. No one seems to be pushing him in the least to do anything beyond his speed and desire. But at some point he is going to have to come back and play without any prejudice about who else is on the team. After all, the Bulls are paying him $12 million. Who knows if there is a market, but the Bulls could use shooting. They’re still a comfortable last in the league; Mirotic was supposed to help. And he should. He’s not talking with Portis anymore. Fine. I probably wouldn’t, either. But when he’s healthy he needs to play or he is going to end his NBA career. If he won’t play for the Bulls, no one’s going to trust him to play for them. And he’s not the GM.
Looking at the records so far this early season, there are several teams (Including the Bulls) that have the potential to lose enough games to have a shot at the # 1 Pick in the 2018 Draft. With the continued improvement of players like Valentine, Markennen, Dunn & Portis (Along with Levine returning soon) , Bulls may not be the worst team in the League. Then again, having a pick between 3-7 may work in their favor. Would be difficult to have to draft the best player available that may happen to play the same position as Markennen?
Sam: It’s still a lottery, so there’s no guarantee with the poorest record. The new lottery odds don’t begin until the 2019 draft. I also wouldn’t worry too much about the Bulls getting that much better. I hate seeing a team play for losses, and the Bulls clearly aren’t. You can see with the coaching staff, and with a lot of players trying to create NBA careers for themselves, sometimes too much so. I have always heard basically every team say you take the best player. There are always reasons why someone who looks better than someone else might be skipped, like personal issues, injury concerns. Position matters much less in the NBA today than ever before. There’s so much switching on defense and less point guard, shooting guard, than wing, forward. Even the All-Star ballot changed to eliminate the center position. Yes, Markkanen looks like he’ll be very good, but I hardly see the Bulls as a team that can skip over anyone because they are too deep.
Assuming LeBron is no longer the best player in the world in the Eastern Conference circa 2020/21, which may be premature, do you foresee the Celtics as the team to beat, followed by Washington/Detroit? Is Philly in the conversation? I hope not, as I hate to see tanking rewarded.
And does Justin Holiday have any idea how big of a George Costanza Chucker he is right now?
Sam: Things happen, and we hardly know where LeBron will be in eight months. I know the impression is the 76ers “tanking” would be rewarded, but all the immoral maneuvering they did had nothing to do with the talent they have, which means Embiid. They finally got lucky, and will have to stay so, which means Embiid’s health. Look, half their rotation is castaway free agents like Redick, low picks like Covington and McConnell. Boston, obviously, looks like the team assuming Hayward returns healthy in a year. It seemed they were playing for 2018-19, either post LeBron or aging Lebron, but their young guys have come fast. We see a much more mature, settled version of Kyrie with them and a defensive posture with the athletic, long armed defenders they selected in the draft and the clever addition of Al Horford. They seem in place for a good five-year run, but as we saw with Derrick Rose, stuff happens. As for Holiday, yes he is shooting too much. My sense is he feels obligated on some level in trying to help. With LaVine and Dunn out to start the season and then Mirotic and Portis, I think he looked around and suddenly saw himself as a savior or sorts, that if he didn’t who would. Look, this was a guy they wouldn’t even let shoot in college. But he’s been a decent shooter in the NBA, though not so much defended. Now scouting reports identified him as one of the primary threats. So he’s ended up taking a lot of forced shots instead of those open corner threes he’d often got before in his stint with the Bulls or his time with the Knicks. I suspect with Dunn emerging and when LaVine returns his shot attempts will decline and shooting will improve. You can’t expect someone to be better just because you need him to be.
Just read your article about Lavine's progress with contact drills. I will be one of those fans worried for 2 reasons when he comes back: Will he get hurt again and will this give the Bulls too many wins considering draft position? I am still a huge D Rose fan so I hate thinking about that happening again with Lavine but I guess there's no point worrying about that. Regarding the wins, do you think adding Lavine by December instead of February/March gives the Bulls a few more wins, 5 or 6 more wins, or closer to 10 more wins with him playing? I know you think the wins are good for a team but I think they need to stay in the bottom 2 for the draft!
Sam: It is difficult being a fan of a team in this situation like with the Bulls. Because you want the players to show improvement, but if they do you win more. Look, that takes care of itself unless you are morally bankrupt and personally corrupt like the people who ran the 76ers. If you stand for nothing but what might be best for you, eventually things will go against you. And I don’t even believe in karma. Anyway, as for LaVine, players play. You can’t keep something in bubble wrap and admire it. What fun or utility is anything if it’s not used? Sure, he could be hurt again like Rose or Jabari Parker. Or maybe get better like Russell Westbrook did after three knee procedures. When someone is ready to play, they play. And I hope without those minutes restrictions and forced days off. If you can’t play regularly, then you aren’t ready. If you are, you play. Injuries are part of everyone’s life. Everyone just hopes to be fortunate and not be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have to live your life without fear. For an athlete, that means playing full speed.
LaVine is still a guy coming back from an ACL. You hope for the best and watch the expectations. If this were a team with a bunch of guys that were playing for the conference finals, the turnover fest aspect would be pretty awful. But with this bunch for now I mind less. Right now, they're establishing an attitude and the other stuff is details for the time being. Hope they watch lots and lots of film on the plane. If Payne comes ready to play, he'll help in the half-court offense and might surprise on defense if he keeps low with his eyes up/ears open and uses his hands only at opportunity. Lefties are a tough check off the dribble, they're just weird to figure.
Sam: Oh, him. Yes, suddenly—and perhaps it’s just absence—but the idea of Payne isn’t sounding so bad. It didn’t look great for him coming over from Oklahoma City last season, but when you look back at it, him being forced into the lineup, what chance did he have with Butler, Wade and Rondo all saying it was their ball. Payne is tricky as a left hander, and like Blakeney has that special ability to find and get shots off. Sometimes you wished they didn’t, but this Bulls group could use some scoring. And Payne does attack the rim. Hey, he should have fresh legs. Hoiberg says he’ll get a big exam next week. He was out of his walking boot on this trip. And what do the Bulls have to lose by giving him a look? Remember, he was a lottery pick of the talent guru in Oklahoma City.
Any idea why nba teams switched this year to wearing colors/dark at Home and white away?
Sam: It primarily was because of the corporate switch to Nike gear. The interesting element is that the home team decides if it wants to wear the dark or light. The Bulls have changed at home to wearing the previously road red. See Red, after all. And a lot of the Bulls biggest championship moments were in red, on the road winning titles in 1991, 1993 and the closer in 1998, Jordan’s flu game, and so on. So the other night in Los Angeles the Lakers wore their gold, so the Bulls wore their white, which always was the home jersey. They were able to blow the big lead in white this time.
What's Lauri like? I like him a lot as a player, and I just saw him interviewed after the game yesterday in one of the Bulls videos. After watching him answer some of the softballs, Lauri came across as probably too intelligent for them and with little patience for the "how did it feel when you...?" type of questions.
Sam: I get that sense sometimes, too, seeing him in interviews. He’s always polite, cooperative and accessible. I’ve never seen him rude or not having time for anyone. He can appear somewhat shy, though it certainly would be understandable for a 20-year-old in a foreign country and new city. And now go-to guy. But I also have observed that subtle and barely distinguishable arch of the eyebrow with some questions. I love the look he gives sometimes. It’s not mean or insulting. It’s more like, “I heard all about America and its exceptionalism. That’s what they’re asking me?”
Just read that Ben Gordon was arrested for the 3rd time in 5 months. I always liked Ben. He was a fierce competitor who overcame his small (for NBA) stature to become the go to scorer for a few Bulls playoffs teams. Some blasphemous fans even took to calling him Ben Jordan when he would hit big shots. While I suspected the Bulls were wise not to overpay him, I didn’t expect him to fade so quickly, basically unable to earn minutes on bad teams and out of the league in a few years. Also, contrary to what recent headlines might suggest, he always struck me as extremely professional off the court with a good head on his shoulders.
NBA 2k18 recently created “All Time” teams for each franchise. They have some glaring omissions on their “All Time Bulls” team, like Norm and Chet, but I might be so bold as to say that Ben deserves considerations for a spot on that team as well.
What’s your take on Ben’s career, his place in Bulls history, and who makes your “All Time Bulls” team?
Sam: First about Ben. There’s that cautionary tale of chasing the last dollar. Maybe it changes with Derrick’s injury, but Ben was in the ideal situation for him and was becoming a star as a result. He was offended the Bulls offered Luol Deng more money (though not much) given he was the leading scorer. He went away mad and basically potentially lost millions of dollars because he didn’t fit where he went for more, first with Detroit and then as a sudden journeyman. But even if he hadn’t declined so swiftly, you can’t buy the fun of a great career. It’s a sad circumstance for Ben now, though I know of no details. I always liked him personally. He was pleasant to be around, not particularly outgoing, but always cooperative win or lose, not moody or unapproachable. I even took fashion tips from him as he liked to wear long sleeve t-shirts and sweat shirts under golf shirts in the winter and I never could figure how to wear all my golf shirts in the winter. I now call the look, ‘the Ben.” It hasn’t much caught on, however. I’m sorry he’s had so many personal problems and hope he can resolve them as he always was a decent person to the media and teammates. As for top 10 Bulls all time, nah. The lists, even here, are unofficial. I favor a combination of personal excellence, longevity--right, no Rodman or Gasol. Ben Wallace? No Elton, either and he was a favorite, and sadly no Nate Robinson--and team success. The first six or seven are pretty easy. But then you can make a case for another six or seven. Ben had an excellent five-year run and was an iron man type, rarely missing a game. He makes the second 10 conversation. He was the best clutch shot shooter since Jordan as a rookie (thus the Ben Jordan thing) and had a couple of 20-plus scoring seasons. He was Sixth Man winner as a rookie and could have been Rookie of the Year as well. But he never made an All-Star team.
The Bulls top 10 All-time? Subject to change, of course.
1. Michael Jordan. No explanation.
2. Scottie Pippen. Not much explanation.
3. Derrick Rose. It’s a Sandy Koufax, Bill Walton pick. When he was great, few were ever better. League MVP, starting All-Star, playoff records as a rookie, 60-win season next to Keith Bogans.
4. Chet Walker. Hall of Famer who pretty much evenly split his career between the Bulls and 76ers. One of premier closers of his era who still has second highest scoring game to all Jordan’s top scoring games in team history.
5. Artis Gilmore. Another Basketball Hall of Famer. Probably more from his ABA days, but a regular All-Star in six Bulls seasons and one of most feared big men of his time.
6. Jerry Sloan. The original Mr. Bull. Not as distinguished with honors, but epitomizes the franchise as much as anyone with his hard playing style and unselfish team commitment.
7. Bob Love. One of the premier two-way players of his era, a top defender and perennial 20-plus scorer.
8. Horace Grant. Made an All-Star team and a few all-defensive teams. But it was his combination with Jordan and Pippen that symbolized those climbing and break through championship Bulls with defense, athleticism and panache.
9. Norm Van Lier. Yes, there were fewer teams then; so easier to make all-league teams. But he was one of the most ferocious guard defenders ever, a six-time all-defensive player in his Bulls years, multiple All-Star and a throwback to an era when it wasn’t quite that unusual to chase an opponent with a chair. And not to help him sit down.
10. Jimmy Butler. He didn’t stick around quite long enough to make all-time franchise lists, and it was mostly a three-year run. But he was dominant in that stretch being considered among the top two-way players in the game.
I won’t argue definitely over the last few spots. I can make cases for guys like Toni Kukoc, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Reggie Theus, Kirk Hinrich, Charles Oakley, Mickey Johnson, John Paxson for big shots and yes, Ben.
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