Ask Sam Mailbag 1.17.20

Sam opens his mailbag and answers questions on Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr., and more.
Zach LaVine
by Sam Smith

Body

Marcus Nikokiris:

I heard Kendrick Perkins the other day say Zack Lavine is a 2nd best player or sidekick at best and like a lot of things he has said lately, I completely disagree. So many people are sleeping on his ability and potential. The player that he reminds me of is James Harden and most people, including Bulls fans, scoff at this idea. Yes, Zack isn't winning defensive player of the year--which is what was said about Derrick Rose in his heyday, Curry, Harden, Steve Nash, and many others--and the Bulls are a lousy team at the moment. But Zack is 24 years old and showing that he can score like the best of them and more importantly, in the clutch, when we literally have not one other player on our team who can make big shots. (which is one reason why we're terrible) The game against Charlotte will go down as one of the greatest regular season performances in history. It doesn't instantly make him into a superstar, but it shows that he has the ability to play at that next level. I think the comparison to James Harden lies in his ability to score inside and outside. Harden's 3 point shot and step back are miles better than Zack's, but Zack has Jordanesque athleticism taking it to the basket and finishing, that Harden doesn't have. What James Harden is doing now is historic, but what was he up to when he was 24? In 2013-2014 he averaged almost exactly the same numbers as Zack this year, and his trajectory looks very similar when you look at his first few seasons in the NBA. Harden was playing third fiddle on the Thunder and being criticized for his matador defense. Once he found himself on his own team, where he was the centerpiece, behind a GM and coach who made him the primary player, he exploded into a mega star. In my opinion, Zack Lavine can make a similar kind of jump in his career. He's making it as we speak. The Bulls front office needs to build this team completely around Lavine and allow him to become their primary superstar player.

This situation reminds me a little bit of the Vinny Del Negro era, when the Bulls were built more around Luol Deng with a rookie Derrick Rose in tow. They brought in Thibs--who also obsessed over Deng, but acknowledged that Rose was the player who was going to make them into a contender. The results: we went overnight from being a #8 seed to #1 two years in a row. The approach to this year was a balanced offense built around Zack, Lauri, and Otto, and the results have been horrific. If there's any good that can come out of this season, it's the realization that Zack Lavine is our franchise player and that the rebuild should be around him. I loved seeing Dwayne Wade reach out to him and recognize his talent. I only hope that Zack can keep developing the same psychological edge of a D. Wade or an MJ, because the sky's the limit with this kid.

Sam Smith:

Ditto. Though I probably need a more substantive response. To digress briefly, however, the only thing Kendrick Perkins knows about scoring and offense is he couldn't do it and when the team needed it he was asked to leave the court. Based on some things I've heard recently, his knowledge of the game is about as accurate as his free throws, which in 14 years barely was above 50 percent. Seriously, who's listening to that guy? Take that! Has the media become that desperate? OK, I withdraw that one. Though there's no problem with No. 2, as Scottie Pippen probably could attest from the Hall of Fame. As for Zach, I'm sure a lot of this has to do with the losing records in the last few years. Though I've rarely witnessed a more dismissive attitude toward an elite player than I see toward LaVine. Who also happens to be an excellent ambassador for the NBA, cooperative with the media and fans, one of the team's more fan-friendly players, someone who routinely makes himself available to reporters in the best and worst times, someone outgoing with everyone. OK, there are many nicer people who aren't very good at basketball. The comparison with Harden is a good one because observers generally cannot delineate defensive responsibilities. So it becomes that first impression thing, like Toni Kukoc when he came to the Bulls. That Bulls team happened to have elite defenders. But the American xenophobia and prejudice then toward European players was that they couldn't defend. So fans and reporters pointed at their failings.

You don't hear much these days about Luka's defensive weaknesses. Zach, who happens to be a better defender than Harden (and certainly Westbrook), has endured that first impression bias. Zach was criticized a few games ago for an opponent's back door cut late in the game for a score. I watched Thad Young give up several of those as well. No one mentioned it because Thad is regarded as a good defender. There's an argument sometimes about a No. 1 or No. 2. Zach is good enough to be your best player on a winning team because he has so many skills. But there's nothing wrong with being No. 2. It works for Paul George. And has for the likes of Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis. There's no shame. Everyone understands a player lacks the ultimate recognition without team success. The Bulls' challenge is to provide it around LaVine. He's doing his part.


Evan Turner

Kevin Franzen:

What do you think of a shake up trading Levine to Atlanta for Evan Turner and a 2020 1st round pick? Atlanta wants to compete soon. I like Levine, yet he is a second tier player on a major competitive team.

Sam Smith:

And I'd just finished his speech for the Hall of Fame. I'd hope the Bulls are mostly done with draft projects, but if you start again with high draft picks you are looking at three or four more years of Groundhog days. OK, I know, it's a 20-some win projection again this season. Though as I noted the other day, still a perfect record for the second half of the season.


Thaddeus Young

Art Alenik:

Thad Young is a lot more help when he posts up and shoots the 3 sparingly, rather than the other way around. Luke Kornet is a little bit of a surprise. Yes, he looks incredibly awkward, but he does some nice things inside. His 3-pt. shot is like a straight line; almost no arc. Don't know how, but they go in. Hey, I'll take it.

Sam Smith:

Young has been an interesting case study this season, and he seems to have finally decided the heck with it, that he's been a reliable and valuable NBA player for more than a decade with an inside, mid-range post-game and if they don't like it, well…And I completely agree. To Young's credit, he has positioned himself outside for spacing and has made several clutch threes. He's a basketball player with a high IQ and understands the game and how to get shots. His interior play is such a valuable tool the Bulls too often have left in the box. He's taken it out, and sometimes you just have to do that. It becomes like the coach yelling, "Nooooo, don't shoot." Until it goes in and then, "Nice shot." Just because you're the boss, as I pretty much always told my editors at The Tribune, doesn't mean you're right. There have been rumors Young could be traded by the Feb. 6 deadline, but he's been very good lately. As for Kornet, I guess now we get to see, He has looked much better lately except when Boston had all those 6-8 athletes running all over the place.


Tomas Satoransky

Ryan Carpel:

It was a meaningless win over Washington. Only thing I liked was how Young and Sato performed. Those 2 should be starting. Dunn only is great at defense. Should bring him in to give starters a break imo. Once he learns how to score that's a different story.

Sam Smith:

Satoransky, of course, does start, but he probably would be effective in handling the ball more. It's an interesting conundrum because Boylen has emphasized defense and the defense has improved tremendously thanks to Dunn's on-ball play. But teams continue to leave him open and his shooting hasn't gotten much better. He's much better in the mid-range, which is eschewed. I'd like to see players who are more comfortable playing there have the freedom. But that's apparently been drilled into them to not establish precedents for others. I suspect depending on some matchups with injuries and Kornet not being the most fleet we'll see more of Markkanen at center playing with Young, a lineup I would like to see more of to determine its effectiveness for an offense which could use a non-LaVine boost.


Chris Paul

Michael Staine:

The Bulls need a true PG and leadership. CP3 would be the perfect mentor to Coby. Send Porter, Sato and a 2nd to OKC for CP3. This Bulls team running with CP3 would be tough.....the D with CP3, Dunn WCJ or Gafford... You have CP3 setting the table for everyone for easy buckets...Add a high draft pick from this draft and the Bulls look much better next year. The Bulls aren't going anywhere as is. CP3 is head and shoulders better than Sato, OP is more injury prone and is making 30 himself. In 2 years CP3's expiring contract will be very valuable. Young players need to learn how to win.

Sam Smith:

I can understand the attraction with Paul, who is having his best and healthiest season in about three or four years. He beat the Bulls in the fourth quarter virtually by himself and has been one of the top fourth-quarter scorers for a facilitator and has the Thunder a surprise team. It's that $120 million for three years still owed him, more than $40 million a season for a player who the last three years was missing about a third to a quarter of the season every year. Has he gotten that much healthier going on 35 in May that you'd mortgage these next few years betting on his health? Not that the Thunder would take that kind of offer. I assume it would take at least one first-round pick and a young player like Gafford given the way Paul has played. Sure, Paul would be a big point guard upgrade, and probably for most teams. But if injured again you'd pretty much sink your next three years. Worth the risk? He better be your final piece?


James Wiseman

Bobby Grbevski:

With the draft lottery changes, I'm hoping that the Bulls would move up and get a top 3 pick this summer. How would you evaluate the talent level and the top 3-5 picks in the 2020 draft compared to let's say last year? I've been watching Ja Morant play a lot and I thought before the draft that he is the best player in last year's draft, and hear criticism that the Bulls should've been this year's Grizzlies, but Ja was 2nd pick. Franchise type of players are hard to be found after the top 2-3 picks, and the Bulls have been picking 7th a few years in a row. What are the chances that the Bulls try to move up in the draft to get a top 3 pick (if we end up with a 7th pick again)?

Sam Smith:

I guess we have to start considering the draft yet again at 15-27. By move up, you likely mean trading LaVine, and that likely doesn't get you into a potential top-three pick. As last year's draft showed—and the Morant pick is a great example—it's sometimes better trying to win than the "tank." Because teams that weren't for the most part, Memphis and New Orleans, got the top two picks in a basically two-player draft. There always are more players who develop and become All-Stars. But everyone wanted one or two, and none of the teams spending the season eying the draft got those picks. Here we go again? If things ended today according to record, the Bulls have the seventh-best odds of the top pick. As we've believed all season, the Bulls are one of the bigger underachievers of the season based on their talent; or at least my view of their talent. So it will be difficult to fall farther in the standings without major injuries to LaVine, Markkanen and/or White and Young. I don't anticipate major trades.

In normal circumstances, the larger point is the teams with the top picks rarely trade because they aren't going anywhere. So a veteran isn't making a difference. The Warriors currently have the best odds for the No. 1 pick and their situation is interesting because like the late 90s Spurs when David Robinson was hurt for one year, they'll have Curry and Thompson back for next season. And without Durant, they could use another veteran. LaVine would be a heck of an addition. Since he gets double and triple-teamed with the Bulls and still averages 25, he might average 40 with all the space he'd get playing with the unselfish Curry and Thompson. I could see them interested. I wouldn't be. I don't watch college basketball much. But in talking to scouts there seems to be a top three of 7-1 James Wiseman, who left Memphis and isn't playing, point guard LaMelo Ball who stopped playing, also, and Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, who at least for now has just been an OK three-point shooter. This Ball is said to have more ball than Lonzo, but the same dad and hardly having played since high school and skinny. There doesn't seem to be enough in this draft worth worrying about this draft.


Russell Hammer:

A glance at the roster and all I see are good players. Bring back Scott Skiles?

Sam Smith:

At least we're done with Thibodeau pleas for awhile.


Wendell Carter Jr.

Alejandro Yegros:

I've heard wendell say often that he's really a PF. Could you play Wendell and Gafford together when Gafford gets more experience? That's a killer defensive frontcourt? (and trade Lauri)

Sam Smith:

You mean the Markkanen who is the only healthy one? Of course, both Carter and Gafford will return. And, yes, Wendell has talked about a comfort level at power forward. His shooting range should improve, but with that rotation, Zach better score 60. You hear disappointment about Markkanen's season, and he's expressed more of it. But I'm hanging onto him given his age, his previous seasons and the fact that only LaVine's shot looks better. Markkanen probably isn't going to be the player the Bulls hoped they had because he doesn't put the ball on the floor and make plays. He's probably not top three in that draft if it were redone like it was believed at times. Someone isn't becoming who you want them to be. Just who they are. Markkanen is a highly skilled player ideal for this era because of his shooting range and reasonable athletic ability. Spahn and Sain and pray for rain didn't work because you need more than two top players. You trade Markkanen and you could be the Hawks or Kings trying to explain passing on Doncic or the Trailblazers explaining that Sam Bowie selection. Lauri's not them. But he's also much better than he's been this season and wouldn't LeBron love passing to him? Don't overreact about 40 games.


Derrick Rose

Andrew Brown:

Why or how did the Bulls not get D Rose? I saw comments of him saying that he has done his time with us but has he? Being a vet would have really helped this young team and his driving would have opened up outside shots for Lauri, Zach, white and Co. coming off the bench to support Dunn would have been great and lead that second unit with Thad young. Chicago definitely did jump on him with his injuries but he left and everyone still loves him. Me included, who was also very frustrated with him for his lack of play. Now it's expected he'll play about 50 games and that is perfect for us right now. So when he does play he has that real energy that we lack so often. I still don't see why we can't make a run at him through trade. The pistons are a mess and they need to reboot.

Sam Smith:

Which is why trade rumors keep coming up regarding Drummond. You hear speculation about Rose and the Lakers because, well, you hear speculation about everyone to the Lakers. Derrick's been having an amazing season. I am somewhat biased having collaborated on his book with him. I believed he wasn't done, which was the league-wide consensus two years ago. You'd have been mocked unmercifully to have suggested he could play at all after his departures in New York and Cleveland. He wasn't treated too well at the end in Chicago. I believe part of the current enthusiasm has been an apology without admitting so, that fans were wrong to accuse him of refusing to play. No one likes to admit they were wrong, so they basically have inserted "MVP, MVP" for "My bad." I also understand.

The Bulls in the position they were in didn't feel they could go through giving a regular 20-25 games off for rest or injury or whatever. Derrick's only missed six games this season, but they've also started to play him a lot more than they've said they would, which is a concern. He's playing at an All-Star level again and maybe plays in the All-Star game in Chicago. There have been rumors he might participate in one of the contests. His former agent is Pistons president and the talk in the organization is the owner and management want him as part of their foundation for the next few years. I doubt he's going anywhere, and Detroit seems a good fit for him. I've seen him a few times this season and he seems more settled than he's been in years. That's what we all should be wishing him after all he went through in Chicago, good and bad.


Ryan Arcidiacono

Andrew Henderson:

I am a big Bulls fan and I am wondering where you think the bulls will and can go from this point. I know they were going for a playoff push but clearly something is not working. Do you think the bulls need to add Valentine, Arch, Harrison for the third quarter? Do you think that this is a paint dominant team or 3 point dominant team assuming everyone is healthy? How do we turn this team around? Is a playoff push reasonably possible at this point?

Sam Smith:

Did I mention they are 1-0 since midway? It's not a great time with Carter and now Gafford out, though it seems Hutchison escaped his fall Wednesday without a major setback. The Bulls do get some sub-.500 teams coming up and through February. Four games out of eighth with Kyrie back trying to sabotage the Nets, there's obviously still a chance. I like where Boylen has Arcidiacono now with the instant energy when needed. I'd like to see more offense on the court with Young and Markkanen at times and White more in the closing role as a spot-up shooter. It's difficult without Carter.


Keith Bogans

Jon Kueper:

Remember when we just needed Keith Bogans to make a couple three-pointers to almost guarantee a win? Now Lavine makes 8 of them (Indiana) and they lose by double digits. This is not fun.

Sam Smith:

I don't have a great response, but I rarely miss the opportunity to publish a question that references Keith Bogans.


Otto Porter Jr.

Gilberto Couto:

Is there any forecast on Porter's return?

Sam Smith:

The coach was asked about that just the other night and he seemed to have no idea. None of us do. I've seen Porter working out some on the court before games on the road, but then he'll be back in that walking boot after the game. Otto doesn't much speak with media, though he appears jovial around teammates. My sense is he returns at some point after the All-Star break, assuming he's recovered, to at least get a feel for the game again before having to start from the beginning next season.


Jim Boylen

Greg Young:

I am rapidly reaching my limit of delusional "we competed" quotes from the coach. Nice that you competed, there really is no other option.

Sam Smith:

Not that Boylen is the only coach who says that, but, yes, what else are they supposed to be doing? I see few teams who don't, actually. The Warriors are competing. Just without their best players. My other least favorite is the proud of you stuff. You can't be proud of everyone for doing just what they are supposed to be doing. I am sure everyone is not getting a trophy at the end of the season. Do your job! Not that I'd like to be around Bill Belichick for more than four minutes anytime in the next year or two, but I am curious if he's ever been proud of anyone


Denzel Valentine

Guy Danilowitz:

Is Denzel Valentine still on the Bulls? He played really well in the handful of games he was given meaningful minutes and helped them win a few (they only have 13). Why has he disappeared? What does Boylen say? As with the famed "Chewbacca defense," it doesn't make any sense!

Sam Smith:

I ask myself this as well. Why would a man named Denzel who could be both an equalizer and a man on fire not be in the game? That doesn't make sense. And does it make sense to have a Valentine and not be in love? Ask yourself. And then if you are almost as tall as a Wookiee, would you accept a role better suited for someone from Endor? That doesn't make sense, either. Especially the way Valentine, as you noted, acquitted himself in, at times, fitting in like a glove. So you ask yourself.

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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