Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on December 8, 2017 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ask Sam Mailbag: 12.15.17

Sam opens his mailbag and answers reader's questions

There's no way you trade Mirotic unless someone blows us out of the water. It crazy how now that all the ball dominant people are out of the picture he looks comfortable and is able to play his game. I am really liking the rebuild. If only Bobby could of had some self control. I think when Lavine gets back its going to get very interesting at the trade deadline.
Rocky Rosado

Sam: How things change in a week, eh? Which isn't a good way of looking at a long term rebuild. I'm not sure if you were among those advocating the trade of Mirotic for the last year (week?) or so, but you probably were since everyone was. And now he's untouchable? It's why we love the NBA. And why running it from your basement and Twitter account is much easier. This neo-Niko has been a revelation to us all; likely to his family as well. And you do make a reasonable point about the three ball holders stopping everyone else from playing the game. You can see that in Oklahoma City these days. It's not easy to succeed trying to accommodate a famous guy who likes to score a lot of points. So is this the real Mirotic? Remember, he was coming fast that rookie season until another famous slow down guy, Thibodeau, put the breaks on him and essentially benched him for those playoffs. Then he got lost in the competition against the beloved Taj, and it was tough to gain traction against the guy everyone, fans and team, recognized as their kind of guy, hard working, blue collar—though we are an urban, economic giant (but the fiction makes a better story)—and who epitomized the ethic most embraced. And then being victim to the punch by the popular Portis. Blaming the victim is not unusual in our society. And now here comes this buoyant, jocular, outgoing, team first, positive guy with amazing three-point range, size to defend the switching the Bulls love to play, the prototype of the modern NBA power forward. And the Bulls have him with a low first round draft pick. Brilliant, eh? Which would make it the third All-Star or near this management drafted with a non lottery pick. Impressive eh? Again, it suddenly gets interesting again. Who said rebuilding would be boring?

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls dunks against the Utah Jazz on December 13, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Looks like the Bulls will be a playoff team. They are better than a lot teams out there. Rebuild half baked? Niko killing management and fans plans?
William Blanco

Sam: See, that's also Niko's fault. Is this great, or what? OK, not so much for the people making those tough decisions, but good, fun debate. So, yes, this season was supposed to be about starting again, which means offloading your best talent and taking small steps with players not yet ready or good enough. The paradox is that popular change-of-culture bromide. OK, you bring in those hard working players who are serious and team oriented and selfless. Well, you can get some wins because, well, they are hard working, serious, team oriented…The 76ers thwarted the process because once they identified those players who might help them they got rid of them to enhance their losing. Yes, their famed process was merely throwing games. Everyone probably should have been arrested. It's why the NBA finally took action with the lottery change odds. I know sometimes morality is a rare commodity in business and government, and sports as well. Win at all costs and all that. But shouldn't there be some respect for the sanctity of the game and competition. Do we teach whatever ends justify the means? Philadelphia fans seem not so upset with that given Embiid and Simmons, though Embiid wasn't the product of throwing the games. And I'm never one to expect much in the way of principle from Philadelphia sports fans, anyway. If you attempt to build a "culture" or serious commitment and character you have to expect some success. The Bulls have had some lately, and so now they're 29th, but just a half game or so out of 25th. And so with lottery chances a top 1 or 2 pick could be 6 or 7. Hey, Utah's Donovan Mitchell was 13th and Markkanen seventh. Curry was 7, Thompson, 11, Giannis 18. You can add a premier player, but we know there's a better chance at the top. LeBrons don't fall to seven. Trade players to lose games? But if they are playing well why do you want to trade them? Maybe they can be part of your future. After all, one of the 76ers better players is Covington, the undrafted guy from Proviso West. Are you sure some 18-year-old now will be better than your 24-year-old who has gotten the experience.? Is it worth the five losing years to assure three or four top picks? No one said this is easy or that there was a manual to know how it really works.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls blocks a shot by Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics on December 11, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

So... Niko. It's not just that he's putting up great numbers, but he's playing differently this year. He's much more decisive than I've seen him since his rookie year. He seems much more mature. Did that punch help Niko?
Alejandro Yegros

Sam: I'm not about to recommend that as a training tool; the Bobby Portis School of Hard Knocks? I haven't discussed it with Niko, but my belief remains that having a concussion, your face broken in several places and eating steak through a straw for a month isn't his first choice for getting ready for the season. Mirotic has been victimized, though it's a life is not fair thing also, by the mix and mess of personnel at times. It was the Rose show and then Noah and then Jimmy and Wade vs Rondo. I know Hoiberg always was trying to work Mirotic in for that court stretching shooting, but I think with the second season appendicitis and the OK corral of Jimmy and Dwyane versus Rondo, Mirotic just kept getting lost. He was a bit fragile, too, trying to please when others preferred the tough love method. It may just have been he went into a contract year, didn't get his desired contract, so he just got ready and said the heck with you guys. He put on weight and maybe it was a what-do-I -have-to-lose moment and just went out and played. Remember, small sample with four games, and there were some opponent miscues at the end and some teammates big plays to save games as well. This is not quite Jordan carrying the team. But Mirotic has done the things he seemed capable of, using his size to advantage, certain in his shooting. My favorite is Hoiberg repeatedly praising his defense. Nobody really understands defense because it is more a team thing other than truly unique players like Scottie Pippen. Defensive excellence often becomes more reputation than reality, at times. And first impressions last. You are considered a bad defender, so then they blame you. If you are considered good, they blame someone else. No matter what happens. And who's watching defensive schemes so carefully? All those analytics charts don't do a good job measuring defense. But I will go on record as standing by my belief and life philosophy that being punched in the face never helps anyone.

Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves at American Airlines Center on November 17, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.

Is Thibs one of the most overrated coaches?
Mike Sutera

Sam: I wouldn't go quite that far. Thibs is a very good coach and I'd recommend him for most jobs, but it also has to be the right team. He'd be a problem with a team like the Bulls now have, and he probably suspected that in trading LaVine and Dunn. And Markkanen, too, when you realize it. The pick he obtained from the Bulls isn't around. Just look at Kris Dunn. In a year under Thibs, he regressed. Look how far he's come in a month under Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg is the ideal coach for what the Bulls are doing now and this kind of team and philosophy, positive, supportive, upbeat, not likely to blame the players, putting each bad day behind and starting again. No screaming about letting go of the rope and not skipping steps and doing your job and all that. I know fans love that kicking, screaming, cursing sideline stuff. Like it's coaching instead of yelling. I'm probably less impressed by the four-game win streak than the way the Bulls came out of those multiple blowout losses by playing each game like the previous one didn't happen. Thibodeau is built more for immediacy and veterans. His scorecard is to win every possession. That's great for a veteran team, for the playoffs, and the Timberwolves could be better in the playoffs than the regular season because of Thibodeau. Like a lot of excellent coaches, Larry Brown, Scott Skiles, for example, he's not built for the long term. He wears out and wears down players and needs to move on. Like all but maybe three NBA coaches. Not to say who is to blame, but look now at that Bulls then relatively young core of Rose, Hinrich, Deng and Noah. Even Scalabrine is out of basketball. And his legs were well rested. Remember, Thibodeau with those Bulls had three all-league defenders in the starting lineup and one in Butler coming off the bench. Now he doesn't have that level of defensive player; so the Timberwolves are 25th in defensive efficiency and the league's worst team in opponent field goal percentage, meaning they are the easiest team to shoot against. They will get better under his system with the daily demands and the attention to detail because he is good. The Bulls have the right guy now.

David Nwaba #11 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Indiana Pacers on December 6, 2017 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Nwaba. Who knew the Bulls had their own process. Always fun to see hard work pay off and he looks like a reliable end of rotation or better player. Good for him.
I have always been perplexed by the free throw congratulations/hand slapping ritual. Seriously, they are not supposed to be that hard. I couldn't figure out when it started and I would love to see it end.
Greg Young

Sam: I've joked about that second round draft pick obsession, but there are a lot of seconds and Nwabas around. Good for the Bulls for finding him and better for him for persevering. I understand the concept of encouragement. It seems like that stuff began around the early 2000s. You know, when all the kids began to get trophies so no one would be depressed. It often seems like that with the players now. Of course, we come off in this discussion like the get-off-my-lawn types who have a closet filled with balls we kept. But I did like the time better when Horace would miss a free throw and Michael would tell him he's not getting dinner after the game. And if anyone tries to give him lunch money he's taking it. Plus, this apparently is not working for the Bulls who have suddenly become one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league without having their Drummond or Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan. The Bulls are 25th and lately averaging close to 10 misses per game. They beat the Knicks by two points missing 10 free throws to none for the Knicks. The only justification and plan I see with it is it's their way to appeal to LeBron as a free agent, that the way the Bulls shoot free throws he won't be embarrassed to play with them the way he shoots free throws at the end of games. Hey, it could be.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of Spain handles the ball against Argentina on Day 10 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

So, should the offense have been run through Niko the last few years? It's amazing what a veteran can manage on a squad when there are no expectations other than "play hard". I watched Mirotic when he was in Europe, his game was played more in the post than outside the arc- we are seeing some of this action over the last few games.
Mike Burling

Sam: I think that's what Jimmy was always saying.

Lauri Markkanen #24 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the New York Knicks on December 9, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Here we go again, too many power forwards and no small forward of note. Once, we hoped that Niko could move over to the Three... No. Foolish thought. Um, any chance that Lauri could show enough mobility and defense to play that position? Ah, gone are the days when you could count on a Glue-All guy as the Bulls small forward! In any case, who IS in line for the Three? I'm not sure about Denzel.
Peter Toluzzi

Sam: Too many good players? We feared that could be a problem this season. Obviously you don't break up a run, and the Bulls first quarter starts have been impressive in this streak. So no need to change now, though everything looks a lot better in games that are won. This comes down in most respects to the return of LaVine. Sure, we have all the injury disclaimers, if he is healthy…, and the coming playing time limitations and uncertainty of the return. But if you looked at the trade of Butler, the best talent coming to the Bulls appeared to be LaVine. He's a multiple dunk champion, excellent three-point shooter, one of the most athletic players in the game, intelligent. No way Minnesota gives him up healthy. So he walks into the starting lineup and you assume he and Dunn in the backcourt. Justin Holiday has been good, Valentine just had one of his better games, and Nwaba was starting before his ankle injury and has probably been the team's best plus/minus guy since his return. There appear to be plenty of choices.

Denzel Valentine #45 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Indiana Pacers on December 6, 2017 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Re Denzel – don't count him out yet. He shouldn't start, but could still be a valuable player in spite of his slowness, sort of like Andre Miller. Not sure if we'll have a spot for him going forward, but somebody should.
Art Alenik

Sam: I agree he does some things well, especially passing, always valuable for a wing player. But that's also what this season is about, to see who fits and who has value to someone else.

Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 9, 2017 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

How upset is Melo he didn't end up in Houston?
Bob Ding

Sam: Of course, how relieved is D'Antoni? I never quite understood the Houston interest in Anthony, especially because Anthony was the one who got D'Antoni fired (right, not just Phil and Jeremy Lin). But the Houston general manager loves big names and making moves, and probably was saved from himself by the Knicks not wanting to take on any of his bloated contacts. The Knicks did well with Kanter and McDermott, so it made sense for them. It's difficult to imagine the Rockets being anywhere near where they are now with Anthony's declining game and unwillingness to move the ball much. Oklahoma City got that win in Indiana the other night to hold off the growing chorus of questions of when will they trade Paul George, Anthony, Westbrook, and the Mickey Mantle statue downtown. There's still time to recover, but they have become everyone's favorite to speculate about their demise this season. Funny how often it is with Anthony on the team.

Joakim Noah #13 of the Westchester Knicks plays defense during an NBA G-League game against the Maine Red Claws on November 29, 2017 at Westcester County Center in White Plains, New York.

Regarding Noah: Homesick perhaps? After all, he was in the playoffs under Tom Thibodeau/the Bulls for a spell before running towards NY. Perhaps if he were able to return to Chicago, ( unfortunately untradeable), In my opinion though, it would be nice if the Knicks let go of Joakim.
Kieron Smith

Sam: Seems like there are several former Bulls in this interesting position of making too much money to complain but with nothing much to do but see their careers coming to a disappointing, plodding end. Noah and Luol Deng have had great runs, Noah one of the elite players and figures in the NBA a few years ago now not even able to get in uniform for the Knicks. They certainly want to move him out, but, like with Deng, the assumption around the NBA is they'll be bought out at some point and you can get them for nothing. So why give up anything? No one is, or taking on those large contracts for guys who have aged, worn down or been injured. Or all of the above. I know they feel badly having talked to them, but you can't always get everything you want, the money and the fame. Sometimes you have to choose.

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 14, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

What a slow news day...Pippen trying to say Lebron has surpassed Jordan. Ha. I wouldn't take Lebron in my top 5 if I was to choose 5 players to start an All NBA Team.
Lebron gets a close 2nd to Bird at the Forward position - his athleticism is special but he just isn't reliable enough in big games and in the 4th quarter, including from the free throw line.
Don't know if you noticed by there's a YouTube video out there highlighting Lebron's decisions on defense in last year's finals showing that he still doesn't know certain fundamentals of how to play a certain situation .
Poor coaching yes, but a greater player would have sought out help to improve in all areas of his game by now.

Top 5 Players to build a team with:
1. Wilt (For scoring & defense) - 4 or 5 Position
2. Kareem (Lots of scoring - still can defend too. 4 or 5 position
3. Larry Bird - very clutch shooter, all around playmaker, leader. One of the highest basketball IQs to make the right decision on the court when his team needed.
4. Magic - Can play all five positions. Might still be more clutch than say Lebron.
5. Jordan. Very versatile

Second team:
1. Jerry West or Stockton
2. Oscar Robertson or Kobe
3. Elgin Baylor
4. Bill Russell or Tim Duncan
5. Hakeem, Shaq or Moses Malone

LongGiang Le

Sam: Apparently based on my Thursday mail Scottie was on TV again promoting LeBron. I liked this quote I once heard: Jealousy contains more of self love than love. But I won't demean LeBron because he really is great, the defining player of this era. And Pippen isn't alone. I've heard others lately favor LeBron over Jordan. LeBron's flawed as they all are since no one is making all their shots without ever committing a turnover. The mark of such superior excellence is the way just that player being on your team turns you into a success. LeBron has passed that test. Forget the who won how many Finals games as tiebreaker. It's always a favorite social media and radio and TV exercise when there aren't any games on to make up your greatest team. My backcourt always includes Oscar Robertson. You won't go wrong with most of your picks, though I never have Stockton anywhere near that special. Isiah Thomas, for one, was much better and more impactful. So was Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Wes Unseld. The best part of the debate is it remains infinite. It's often defined best by era and position, though that is not as much fun.List away.

I'm so sick of this disrespect. How many games do the Bulls have to win before people understand that they are a serious title contender now that Niko is back?
Joe Guest

Sam: Five?

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