Ask Sam Mailbag: 11.4.16
Sam Smith answers reader questions after a great start to the Bulls season
Is it just me or does this year's team look similar to Championship Bulls Teams?This Team is built each player similar in abilities and the way they play the game. The Bulls played the game different from the league then and continue again today.Taj earned the start spot at 4 and is a Grant/Rodman hybrid with all-around game. DWade is very similar game to His Airness and Butler looks like his new Pippen. Maybe we just got lucky in this Chemistry experiment or maybe there is a design.
Sam: It’s just you. I’ve always been a you never know person; you play out the season and stuff happens. I know he seems like it, but LeBron is not invincible. If something were to occur I’d take my chances with the rest of that Cavs team. None among the Raptors, Celtics, Pacers, Hawks, etc., suggests they are unbeatable. Or that you’d think they’d be the easy favorite in a playoff series. This Bulls season could turn out a lot more interesting than most speculated. But let’s not mistake who those 90s champions were, some of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA with some of its greatest players, probably the best ever, maybe the best ever individual defender, maybe the best ever tattooed rebounder, possibly the best coach ever, a sixth man who was maybe the best European player ever. The Bulls in that era maybe had three of the top five players in the game on the team at the same time and perhaps another in the top 25. Also the best three-point shooter. I don’t want to diminish this team, but there’s no player on this Bulls team who could start for those Bulls teams. That’s just how good they were.
I could be wrong and will admit it. This clearly disqualifies me from a career in politics for which I am grateful. Watching the Bulls for their first 3 games is like a Twilight Zone episode. Who are these men? It is fun basketball after last years slog. It is most unexpected. I assumed that there would be ball sharing issues between Wade, Rajon and Butler. So far that assumption is plainly wrong. Ball movement is the best I have witnessed in years. 3 point shooting over 40% ? What is going on? Maybe that Holberg is a good fit, maybe Rondo is a genius in the floor, DWade a marksman and Jimmy happy to be here. I know it is only 3 games but really I think I might have been so wrong. And I am happy about it.
Sam: And even with the fourth game, that loss, I wouldn’t change too much. Boston’s supposed to be two or three in the East, and sure they were without Al Horford, but they might have lost with him because Amir Johnson would have been inside and not shooting all those crazy threes. Zeller was playing, so Amir could roam. But what was most impressive is the way Wade gets them to compete. Jimmy Butler talked about the fourth quarter huddle when Wade was on everyone, but you can see beyond the ball movement—and some games you aren’t going to get all those run outs as teams do scout and Boston was watching Monday—the level of commitment and competitiveness, the urgency and willingness to share the ball. Still, a lot will depend on shooters without much experience in McDermott and Mirotic and veterans who have had injury problems like Wade and Rondo, though they seem healthy now. But it’s not like the 80s when teams had All Stars coming off the bench. Everyone in the East perhaps other than Cleveland has similar issues. It’s going to make the Bulls a good watch all season.
I absolutely loved the 2010/2011/2012 Bulls teams that finished number one in the East. Who would have thought that Taj Gibson would be the only remaining player still with the Bulls a short four years later?
Sam: That’s sort of what gets lost in some of the recriminations about the last few teams. It’s not their fault; it’s the natural progression of pro sports. When you have a top team that is expected to compete for titles as the Bulls did in 2011 there’s generally a lifespan of three to five years. If you don’t get there in that time, then everyone goes. You see it all the time, Portland teams with Zach Randolph and Rasheed Wallace, Denver teams with Alex English and Fat Lever, the Suns teams with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, Shaq’s Orlando team. If it doesn’t happen and you don’t win that championship—because when you are that good fans begin to look at anything less than a title as a failure—it’s inevitable that you have to come apart and be broken up. It’s no one’s fault because when you don’t win it’s everyone’s fault. Derrick Rose’s injuries were the big issue, but there were also injuries to Noah, to Gibson, Butler missing at last 15 games for each of three seasons after basically playing every minute of all those playoff games, Luol Deng in and out of hospitals. You have to start over on some level as painful as it can be. I’m personally grateful the Bulls are not doing it with those wholesale lottery pick things. Yes, I know, the Cubs, the Cubs, the Cubs. That basically never works in basketball unless you get in the lottery and LeBron is there. I like transitioning as the Bulls have for now in being competitive while working in young players to see who’ll grab a spot and produce and where there’s a need and money to be spent. So Taj is last man standing. It does make some sense in that he’s the epitome of the useful role player, willing to accept sixth man or starting, never much looking for his shots or statistics, the kind of veteran every team needs, but no team can build around. The guys who you build around generally have too much ego and responsibility not to be blamed for the lack of success, even if they are not directly responsible. So you change and try to see what else might work. And then hope Portland passes on Michael Jordan again.
Now that I've ordered my tickets for the NBA finals, it's time to clear up the last two burning questions about the Bulls. Why does everyone refer to Rajon Rondo only by his last name? Everyone else on the team is referred to by their first name or a nickname much of the time, but not Mr. Rondo. 2. In your opinion, why did the Bulls opt for Michael Carter-Williams over Spencer Dinwiddie? It seemed to me that Dinwiddie was a capable defender--maybe not in MCW's class, but good--with a good jump shot and a willingness to keep the ball moving on offense.
Sam: Well, Lopez calls him Raj, but Lopez also wrestles with mascots. So I’ll be watching for that. It seemed just more that Carter-Williams could do with his size and defensive abilities. I got the sense they didn’t dislike Dinwiddie; just didn’t love him. I think they believe he can be an NBA player, but just didn’t do enough of something, one thing, to make the team better like Carter-Williams. You know, like that Billy Crystal movie: One thing. You need it.
I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised how good the Bulls have looked considering the new faces they have. Maybe they are one veteran guy off the bench short to really contend for top 4 spot in East, then again maybe they are fine as is? What I like is the depth! McDermott and Mirotic are the key guys off the bench, very young group which concerns me a little bit. MCW is really a good pick up, his defense on point guards has been impressive, really only saw him play when he played the Bulls. From the short sample I have seen I don't understand why Milw wanted him gone? He will score for the Bulls in a more efficient manner mainly because his points will be a bonus and not necessary. Portis will have to step up his play to get on the court it seems, not a lot of minutes available for the 5th big guy. Very good start to the season; very hopeful the ball movement continues, we just need to work on improving defense, especially against the three, though they are likely giving up garbage 3's because they have been ahead in most games so far.
Sam: This obviously was written before Carter-Williams’ injury, which is a blow because as you note he had stepped right in with excellent defense. That Isaiah Thomas got off like he did and he and Marcus Smart made big drives at the end Wednesday could be traced perhaps to Carter-Williams’ absence. He will be missed for a guy they didn’t plan on having. I understand the use of Isaiah Canaan with his shooting ability, but you miss that size on defense and ability to move the ball. McDermott’s absence hurts, too, though being realistic Boston was without two starters, Al Horford all game and Jae Crowder for the second half. So the Bulls can’t point to injuries. But we have to be realistic; they’ve shown they’ll be a team that will compete and work hard together, which means a lot. But they still do have nine new guys and several guys who haven’t played much previously, like Portis. So coach Fred Hoiberg still has to experiment with lineups and rotations. He doesn’t if no one is hurt; but forget that already. The Carter-Williams deal was a great one. He will be back, but you fall behind when you are out, and we’re seeing that now with Denzel Valentine, who missed all of training camp. Coaches talk about teaching, but they have to win each game and are judged for the moves they make that don’t end up in winning each game. So in many respects the idea of development is a farce. You develop yourself in the offseason; the season is for winning. There have been way more positives for the Bulls in their 3-1 start, a style of play that can make you gasp at times with appreciation. But it’s not a roster yet that can take many hits.
Is Taj Gibson right now a better offense player for the Bulls than Grant was?
Sam: No, but the way he’s played this season he’s close. Which is awfully good. Fans forget just how good Horace was, a guy who made himself into a power forward after coming to the Bulls weighing about 195. He was a bit taller than Taj, so he had the size advantage inside. Plus basically after backing up Charles Oakley as a rookie, Horace averaged 12 to 15 points every season without the ball. He never had a play called for him, which, true Taj basically doesn’t, either, and averaged fewer than 10 shots per game as a Bull, many on put backs and tips. But Horace had a nice mid range game almost from the start. The big irony about Horace was the reputation he had, amazingly, for being a guy who took games off. In seven seasons with the Bulls, Horace averaged 78 games played, well more than anyone on the Bulls roster for the last decade. He’d be the team’s iron man in this decade. Old school, yes. Horace should have his number retired for his contributions to those first three championship teams and a terrific era that began with his and Scottie Pippen’s drafting in 1987.
If Rose is on a better team, why are they losing. You should ask the TV commentators.
Sam: That’s one problem with preseason predictions, especially for teams with so many new players. You have no idea until you see them play, but the point isn’t so much to be right as to have a debate. So a week in, even ignoring the records, we can say the Bulls are better than the Knicks. Actually, the preseason consensus was the two teams were about equal, around 40 wins, which basically meant no one had any real idea and they’d take a look. Even with Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics, the Bulls look like the surprise team of the NBA season so far, doubted by most but with an appealing chemistry and commitment. But let’s not fool ourselves. That great superstar type player who can take over in tough times isn’t quite there. Butler is terrific, but isn’t that sort of scorer. Wade isn’t any longer, though both are capable of being All Stars. Pretty good. You also see the slight margin for error that without McDermott for one game suddenly they were deep, deep in the bench to where Grant and Portis were in the game. Though the Knicks seems to have larger issues with way too many isolation type players and this unrelenting scrutiny unlike anywhere else where the last thing anyone saw means everything and the only thing. Perspective in New York is what happened at shootaround. At 2-2 the Knicks would have been enjoying a honeymoon; going 1-3 means now crisis mode and major changes. You need an awful lot of energy for that sort of unforgiving environment with so much lack of perspective. Of course, that’s also why they may have the last vestige of a newspaper industry. Did You Hear What Happened!
One thing stands out about the Bulls team so far. No Pau Gasol! I was getting tired of watching him get beat to the rim. Robin Lopez is an upgrade.
Sam: Sometimes these views of the team seem like the presidential campaign. It’s not enough to like your team; you have to decry the previous group. I loved something I once read about the Grover Cleveland/Benjamin Harrison campaign. I know: You want to party with guy like that! Someone said each side would have been glad to defeat the other if it could do so without electing its own candidate. Sound like any campaign we know? See, the nation survived. But I digress. Pau was a terrific addition for the Bulls. He wasn’t perfect, though that’s often how it’s judged and we saw and heard enough of that with Rose. Can’t lead the team to a title? Well, you must suck. Pau did some great things, was an excellent scorer and passer, a good rim protector if not active defender always. I can’t imagine Gregg Popovich and the innovative Spurs picking him up if he were lacking so much. The Bulls collectively failed over the last few years; Robin Lopez is different. He’s not about to score very much or pass as astutely. Which also is no reason to say he’s no Pau Gasol. Pau at his age came for some instant gratification. That it no longer was likely left him looking elsewhere. That’s why he asked for the opt out. The Bulls didn’t. Lopez fits this group well with his defensive attitude, though Pau was a terrific addition for the Bulls. It just didn’t happen as he and they hoped. Which is the story for most teams.
It's early and the Bulls look crisp, fast, free flowing and everyone is playing well.(Fingers crossed) Well, almost everyone. What's going on with Portis? I actually haven't seen him enough to give an assessment on his play. Is he in the dog house? Is he practicing well? The Bulls have won handedly in last two games and seemingly, there should've been more minutes for him than what he got in those blow outs. Especially the Nets one where we controlled the game start to finish. I'm not the coach of course but this is a contradiction to what Gar proudly proclaimed in the pre game show of the opener that "we are still high on Portis!" Did I miss something?
Sam: Obviously Portis played considerably after you wrote in the Boston loss, and I got a bunch of mail then asking why he played so much and where was Taj. No coach wins after a loss. I understood not playing Portis with Gibson and Mirotic at power forward and Felicio more suitable as backup center. Boston played small and when Gibson missed those covers on Amir Johnson making those threes, Hoiberg did what many coaches do and tried something different, also to send a message to get out there. Of course, that was something Hoiberg was criticized for not doing enough last season, sitting someone down when they missed defensive assignments. Now he did and, well, yes second guessing is all about the result, not what you do. But, really, I’d let Amir Johnson shoot threes. C’mon, you lose that way it’s a fluke. The guy averaged five made threes a year in his career, made about four his first six years and then hits four straight, the fourth not even looking at the basket? I’d gotten off him again. Go ahead shoot it. Teams used to do that with Rasheed Wallace, an amazing inside player who’d fall in love with the three. So they’d open games way off him hoping to lure him into shooting threes. They’d hope he’d make his first and then he’d stay out there and fire instead of inside where no one could match up with him. But for Johnson they went in this time. The scouting report I’m sure said play off him for the drive. If it didn’t what the heck kind of scouting report would it be? Sometimes, as it’s said, you have to shake their hand. I know about the take a hat off thing, but Rondo’s the only one I’ve seen wear a hat. Pretty stylish dresser, by the way. The other issue was riding Portis the rest of the way in the fourth quarter. Perhaps Hoiberg was trying to make a point, and he was on the court when they came back and Mirotic did miss a pair of free throws that would have put them ahead with 90 seconds, which Taj couldn’t have wished in any better. I think Portis is the odd man out for awhile just because of the way the front line is comprised. It’s OK; he’s 21. He’ll be a fine player because he plays so hard and cares so much. He doesn’t have to be yet.
I'm hearing so much of "the bulls should do what the cubs did with rebuilding" scenario. I don't think that works in basketball- stars are typically born not built like baseball. Dwade is the real leader the bulls have been needing. Savy, smart and selfless- he seems to be the coach on the court. Weird how this team came together but it may actually work well. The East is still not very good except the top 3 teams.
Sam: Top one. It’s great for the Cubs, but simply you cannot buy pitchers in basketball. It was an interesting method the Cubs executed building the roster and then buying up and acquiring pitchers, who basically determine the ultimate success or failure of your team. Why were the Cubs not out of it down 3-1? Three of the league’s top five pitchers coming up with the best reliever or second best. First of all it’s cap space in the NBA, which means if you build your roster with talent, you don’t have money left to buy more. If you can buy enough, and there generally are one or two players a year who may make a difference, you generally don’t have much there. If you have five to seven years to see if it works, you can try it that way, like the way teams like Minnesota and Utah have done it, Minnesota out of the playoffs for a decade, Utah with one playoff series win in the last eight years. And I’m not even mentioning the 76ers’ debacle. They’ve had nothing but top five picks and more picks to use. They haven’t had a winning season in 11 years. I’m not sure how far the Bulls can go with Wade, but it will be fun and worthwhile watching.
You wrote that Taj Gibson said, "You see how Jimmy is running around smiling. He’s not mad right now. It’s been great and I’m loving it."That caught my attention.Is it a problem, or perhaps a sign of problems to come, that Gibson finds it noteworthy to point out that Butler isn't mad, as if he usually is and it's an issue?
Sam: No, no, no. Taj was just joking. Perhaps I should have written that more clearly. Remember how moody Jimmy was last season? Lots of guys were, really. Jimmy even talked openly about being a moody person all his life, prone to ups and downs. We haven’t seen any of that this season. The conventional wisdom was no more Rose and Noah, and probably some of that, though more the frustration of each—including Jimmy, which he won’t deny, and Pau as well—basically looking out for themselves. When things come apart it’s easy to just go your own way. Not sabotage others, but withdraw. I think they all did a bit of that. But Wade and, surprise, surprise, Rondo have been so welcoming it’s tough to ignore, from Rondo’s team dinner to Wade’s coaching on the floor. Jimmy last season found himself thrust, ready or not, into a faux leadership role with his new contracts and Rose, Noah and Gasol facing the end of their deals. Only Jimmy was committed to long term; so he felt he was the natural leader. Understandable. The others with their own issues and futures in doubt were in no position to go along. Leadership is more like that Supreme Court justice comment on pornography: You know it when you see it. If you have to tell someone, you don’t have it. No one last season had it. You don’t have to ask this season. So Jimmy grew somewhat despondent. Taj likes to joke with him about that, the essence of the locker room being when you can make light of flaws like that. I wouldn’t worry about Jimmy this season. I think he’s enjoying the game more than any season of his NBA career.
As we discussed over the last couple months, the key is the relationships they have formed, that were missing the last few years. Indiana free throw: Wade and coach talking and Wade was laughing with him. Much more chatter and smiles on the court. McDermott loving going to team dinners and going over to players homes Kind of similar to the Warrior’s footprint?
Sam: Hold off on the Warriors comparisons for a bit; I’ve seen the 76ers players doing many of those things. Even last season when they won 10 games; sure, it’s easier to enjoy when you are having success, but you need the talent first. The Bulls do have some outstanding talent which, importantly, seems to fit well together and enjoys plays off one another. As Wade has noted, we’ll see better if they lose five in a row. There are often comparisons between last season and this, which are unfair and inaccurate since that team was in the process of being disassembled: New coach, free agents looking elsewhere, young players with no role. It’s a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel argument to compare anyone with a previously awkward relationship. Does every date have to be compared with the last one? I agree about the fun thing, which you see with good teams, though also a chicken and egg, which comes first, the fun or winning? Does the winning produce the fun? Of course it does. The Bulls had no idea they’d bond like this and neither did any of us since it wasn’t the plan. Who really believed Wade wanted to be here after 13 years in Miami? And they’d let him? Or that Rondo was the guy for glue? C’mon, raise your hands. But it’s a credit to them that they didn’t listen or believe what others said about them or what they should be doing or who they are. That’s also what makes sport fun, like life. You never know that’s next or what they’ll really be like until you invest some time and compassion. It’s encouraging the players have bonded so quickly and portends positive results. But as Butler counted down in Boston, 78 to go; we may not remember much about this in three months.
Did Hinrich and Wade have a lot of dislike for one another? Could they have played together if Hinrich's body had held up and if they were both younger?
Sam: Yes, of course. Wade’s playing happily with Rondo and their battles were much more epic. What outsiders sometimes also don’t understand is it’s a job, too. As great as Rondo has been with the team and bonding, it’s not like he’s going to be patrolling Rush Street with them. These guys have their own lives; they’re a team at work much like you are with the people you work with. Office camaraderie doesn’t mean you have to vacation together, and differing political views don’t mean you can’t work together. These are professionals in all senses. It’s a credit to guys like Kirk and Wade they are such great competitors that it looks like enmity when it really is merely encounters. But never mistake that friendly, comforting demeanor with Wade. He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve seen. He masks it in some sense with a welcoming smile and a particularly gracious manner, accessible to media and fans. That he has achieved so much as a pro despite limited projections early in life shows you a little. But as I watched him over the years in fierce individual battles, he’s as brutal a competitor as you’ll see. One small one stands out to me, an All Star game when Kobe was doing his flashy fan moves and showed up Wade early in the game. Wade didn’t mean to, but he came back at Kobe so hard that Kobe got a broken nose. Wade’s point was clear: Don’t try to show me up like that in a game like this. You want to compete like a regular game? OK, I’m ready. It was really cool stuff. Kobe stayed away from him after that. Wade lacks those incredible physical gifts now, and he’s matured intellectually as a player as good as anyone you’ll see. But he has this amazing fire inside him that few have. Kirk is like that. I think they would have loved playing together.
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