Ask Sam Mailbag 12.20.19

Mitch Tobin:

These Bulls are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. I just can't figure them out. Full disclosure – I'm not an NBA coach so there are no doubt intricacies to the Bulls' style of play that are beyond me. But what in fact is their system? Sometimes it seems the system is to camp players around the perimeter, drive into the lane and then kick out for three-pointers. But then other times there's a lot more movement and, seemingly, more success with a greater variety of shots. Sometimes it seems that the players are freelancing (and having more success) deviating from what seems to be the coaching game plan. The Bulls rank last in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Isn't it time to adjust and do something different? I have a nagging feeling that lurking within this inconsistent husk of an NBA team is, in fact, a playoff team that fails because of its "system" and sometimes succeeds in spite of it. Overall, the players have showed heart and kept playing hard despite potentially soul-crushing defeats. Also, I'm with you that despite his flaws Zach LaVine is an overall plus for the team. He was cool as a cucumber in sinking the five late free throws against Washington last night. How many NBA players crave that pressure and respond well to it? That's a skill that shouldn't be underestimated.

Sam Smith:

It's always good to go for Winston Churchill when considering the Bulls. That famous quote was about the mysterious intentions of Russia, which is a different debate if also still relevant 80 years later. "If you're going through hell," Churchill also said, "keep going." And so go the Bulls, eh? Though perhaps my favorite other than when speaking politically incorrectly to that lady when he was drunk: "We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing. After they have exhausted all the other possibilities." Ah, but I digress, The Bulls? Yes, it's been an exhausting two months, though I'm always grateful for a mid-week win before I answer questions. Emotions relax. Coaches generally become easy targets in defeat because they are forced to explain the most often, sort of are supposed to be the leaders even if they never play, and we want to like the players more. So I'll mention something I like about the Bulls system which also may be a reason why you sometimes don't see the "system." Plus my general belief is if you have LeBron or Michael or Kobe or Giannis that often becomes a pretty good system.

Zach's not quite at that level, but I believe he's doing a heck of a job of giving the Bulls a chance. Boylen doesn't seem to call as many plays as most coaches, which can make the game look less disciplined at times. I like that because I always lobby for more trust in the players. Part of the issue seems to be perhaps asking more than some are capable. Boylen talked often of this so-called "multi-ballhandler" play which sounds cool, sort of a magnificent five charging forward. It's an appealing vision of play. The problem has been the Bulls just don't have enough good decision-makers for that. So they seem to fall back on elements of what they are supposed to do, the shoot-threes analytics. That produced a lot of the stagnation to start. So it seems they are either starting to go for the shots that are more comfortable or that adjustments are being made to suggest that. Which is another mystery, like Churchill being the leader who won the war and then getting fired as soon as it ended. Fans are tough everywhere.

Marcus Nikokiris:

The Indiana Pacers just snapped the Lakers' road winning streak and I can't help thinking that they are exactly where most of us expected the Bulls to be this season. They are clearly the 2nd best team in our division and they are missing their one all-star caliber player in Oladipo. Brogdon and Sabonis are the new leaders of that team, and before the season started, I would have taken Lavine and Lauri all day over those guys. We have a guy in Lavine who is outscoring Derrick Rose in a Bulls uniform and 3 rookies in 3 consecutive years who are at the head of their respective draft classes; we even have Thaddeus Young, a key member of those Pacers teams, but it all amounts to mediocrity somehow. The Pacers remind me of the Baby Bulls: a team of average players playing above average as a unit. Scott Skiles did an amazing job of architecting that team. That was the kind of coach he was. He never was able to take things to the next level, but he was one of the best at squeezing effort out of ordinary players. I think that in theory, Jim Boylen is of the same camp as Skiles, but he doesn't have the same sort of team to achieve the things that Skiles did. Guys like Kris Dunn, Hutchison, Harrison, and Archie could have been on those Skiles teams, and it's no coincidence those are most of the guys Boylen reaches and motivates most effectively. The Bulls are engineered to be a high octane offensive unit, ie what works best in the modern NBA. Amassing a lineup of Lavine, Lauri, Otto, White, and Carter Jr. was not a mistake. They have the talent to be an offensive juggernaut but have absolutely no chance in becoming a team like the Pacers, the Baby Bulls, or a Thibs team finishing off a season without Derrick Rose. We need a coach who will take Zack to the next level and make Lauri a solid all-star caliber player. That should be the focus of our coach, not making Kris Dunn or Arcidiacano major contributors. We're squandering the talent that we have and that is what is most frustrating about this season.

Sam Smith:

Remember, the Bulls dominated the Lakers. Yeah, yeah, three quarters. I do think there's been some ambivalence Boylen is working out. And he is just 30 games into his first full season as an NBA head coach. I know you shouldn't look like that as a rookie, but Beilein doesn't look so youthful, either. Boylen talks a lot about toughness and physical and did he mention toughness again, which is a part of the NBA and all sports. I hear golfers mention it and I did see Phil actually not run away from a garter snake once. You get the feeling Boylen would like a starting unit of five Harrisons and Arcidiaconos with the talent of Harden and Anthony Davis. So would we. So I believe he's still adjusting to Zach and Lauri. They probably disappoint one another from time to time, which is the moving target we miss in making these predictions. There's enough talent to be an NBA team, and Boylen knows enough about the NBA to know what a playoff team looks and plays like, but sometimes their roads are parallel. Maybe in the second half of the season, they begin to find a crossroads.

Kirk Landers:

I keep expecting to see Coby White's name in these roundups of best rookies, but I don't. I keep being reminded, this is the era when sports writers are more data-bound than CPAs and the picks are based on number rather than on-court performance. For my money, I think Mr. White has the makings of someone special. Even in his "bad" games, the guy moves around the court like a veteran. He's not just fast, he's fearless, and he doesn't just shoot, he hustles on defense and pursues loose balls like a pit bull. I understand that he's just 19 and right about now his body is probably as stiff and sore as it's ever been, but he not only has the athletic gifts of a star, he also has the instincts of one. If he stays relatively healthy, he may be one of the two or three top performers from his draft class in a couple years.

Sam Smith:

Coby is stuck being a more traditional rookie, which means not getting as many opportunities. It makes sense that the Bulls envision him as the point guard of the future even as Kris Dunn finally begins to find a unique and positive role. So they've begun the process when he plays of asking him to think like a point guard. Which is setting him back because he really never has been. He's, as I've mentioned before, a point like Damian Lillard or Russell Westbrook, which makes John Stockton break out in hives. If you want White to be the point guard, he needs to control the ball and look to score. The Bulls don't want him to quite do that yet, so he's trying. But it's seemed to take away from his natural aggression, which we'd seen previously. So he's not going to be on those lists, but it would be nice if he gets into that rookie/sophomore All-Star weekend game. I'm assuming the league gives the Bulls that if Zach comes up short in the voting. Though I think Zach's leading the league in something like points in the last five minutes of close games, which is something. Vote Zach! Iowa caucus, too. I think Zach draws more than some of those Democrats, if only for the common man embrace of making $20 million a year and still having rips in his jeans. Really! That's fashion?

Tapani Kivini:

By looking several last games they nearly all seems to have a common problem. The Bulls trust too much on Zach and he takes that responsibility. Games are nearly never won by single players. It is a team game. Also by playing with other strategies it gives more space to Zach and other shooters. It looks that Jim does not train the team for team offence. It is just a group individuals. It make it pretty easy to defend. They should at first look, can they shoot, then can they pass and if not then do something else.

Sam Smith:

So there's progress, eh? LaVine was questioned in a recent last shot sequence for missing Daniel Gafford on a roll. There was another situation around the same time when Wendell Carter Jr. could have rolled and didn't, and Zach was stuck. So in the win over the Wizards Wednesday, Zach made the winning play to Carter when he could have shot. Development? A step forward? He lost the ball and Carter caught it? To be continued. Remember, growth plates.

Tom Golden:

Just read Artis Gimore's "Most memorable game" piece from the 1976 season on the website. Wow, it gave me goosebumps. He spoke of the season and how they started off 2-14, with a thirteen game losing streak, but eventually clawed into the playoffs with a 20-4 stretch run. I not only remember the season, I was at that Portland playoff game ( SRO third row) that coined the phrase "Feel the noise". But that season was so memorable and incredible because they came from last place to scare the hell out of the eventual champions in the first round. As you say, we have quality people, and God knows they can't play any worse. But really, They played well against all the elite teams, (blown out by Raptors once) and certainly showed they can kick just about anybody's butt for three quarters, but it isn't for lack of talent. If I could make an analogy that will date me, but back in 1976, you could take a car that was sputtering and powerless, and turn it into a smooth running engine just by adjusting your timing. Litterly, a piece of junk to a purring machine with a ¼ turn of a screw. I won't bore you, but we have the sputtering piece of junk, but there is no way there isn't an adjustment that can't turn this into a purring machine. Its there, we need to tinker, not dismember. We can get back into contention with a five game streak. I never realized how much we would miss Otto. I'm doubling down, this can be fixed.

Sam Smith:

What a great game to witness, one of the best in team history. I've gotten to know Bill Walton well after working with him on some magazine pieces and a book. He always says that series with the Bulls, the 2-1 first-round win with Game 3 in overtime, was their toughest on Portland's way to the championship. The 70s was the Bulls almost decade. That also was when the old Stadium became the Madhouse on Madison. That team had special talent in Hall of Famer Artis, the last run for Norm Van Lier and a very underrated Mickey Johnson, a matchup nightmare for the era and now a Bulls ambassador. But not overwhelming talent. It became a team built around a dominant center, which still was the formula for the era. That's been the frustration with this Bulls team. There is a lot of talent there. But sometimes there's a subtle difference between finding that screw and screwing it up.

Bruce Roberts:

This confusing season has some highs, a lot of lows with a cloud of intense press criticism of management. I like our group of players. They appear to be decent people with good basketball IQ, potential to grow and have remained enthusiastic despite some tough and ugly losses. The part I do not understand is the impact the continuous negative press has on the players. I am not aware of any player criticism of Boylen. It appears the players ignore Boylen more than dislike him but I could be wrong.

Sam Smith:

It has been an angry community season at times, and it's not that the players are unaware. They are disappointed, and I thought that it was slowing them some a few weeks back because they do care and seem to want to please, which accounted for shooting all those long shots they were asked to do. So it's not like they were ignoring demands. They seem to have freelanced some lately for the better, which Boylen, to an extent, has entrusted to them with the limited number of play calls. Sometimes it has led to stagnation as the players seem to be trying to figure out just what to do. The hope is it makes them eventually more likely to respond naturally to circumstances. Though not exceptional, they've been on a .500 trend the last few weeks with better performances, which seems to have enlivened their mood some.

Peter Toluzzi:

Second biggest choke in NBA history! No, not last night, ten years ago, to Sacramento by 35... by then it was near the end for Vinny Del Negro. Against OKC was only 26...but after beating the Clippers and the explosion in the first half, it seems almost as bad. This team is clearly full of talent that is maddeningly inconsistent and incomplete. I'll grant you the loss of veteran presence in a starter with OPJ injured, but Thad could be taking his place for that end of game smarts. Boylan is so good with players who would run through a wall for him. It's the supposed franchise players who need to play better, or have a system that fits their talents better... It's not too late to write this season off completely, but this poopy stuff has got to stop somehow.

Sam Smith:

That bad eh? I think Vinny was closer than many realize to being gone after that game. Could the players have listened to Del Harris's lectures for the next 50 games? I think that's why they began to win some after that. We always think the excrement will be left behind, and then.…Thad, by the way, is an interesting topic. There were reports he was uncomfortable with his somewhat limited role and expected more. That's fair given his history. Yet, he also said repeatedly earlier in the season his primary role was to help make All-Stars of LaVine and Markkanen. Which would suggest not playing instead of them. The Bulls could use Porter, but they have had one of their healthier seasons in years with most of the core players in all the games. No Bulls load management. Yay; good for them. And LeBron. Though if Porter can return along with Chandler Hutchison, I wonder what that means for Young and the rotation since Boylen seems to have had difficulties disappointing players. And he does like his hustle guys. He seems to have something of a consistent rotation lately, but it has been a merry go ‘round. Not always so merry, though it's always interesting to see who gets to sit on the elephant.

John Leichenko:

I already miss Neil Funk. Any idea who we get next?

Sam Smith:

No offense, of course, to any of the fill-ins, I'm sure. They all seem to have done well, actually, though there's been some extra angst calling for fouls to make sure they were rooting for the home team. I know that's often a staple of the home team broadcasters—Tommy Heinsohn has never seen a Celtics player commit a foul—but Neil and Stacey together have had a nice balance of home team support with the elements of the game. I believe it's a series of combined tryouts and helping out (the Sox guy is very good and I'm sure he likes this current job) and the team probably is going to make a decision after the season. Neil's doing home games and some road games until then, and I would not be surprised to see him helping out next season since he's perfected golf and might need another hobby by then.

Brodie Larsh:

Think the Bulls have any interest in trading for Jrue Holiday? I saw reports they're open to trading him. What do you think it would take? If they could get Jrue for Lauri, Coby, Thad and a 1st.. Should the Bulls take it?

Sam Smith:

Sure, who doesn't? Break up the Bulls? But they're rolling again. I'm sure a lot of teams would love to have that Holiday, though I probably wouldn't trade him if I were the Pelicans. I know fans and media always assume when a team is doing poorly they're breaking it up. But this isn't the last season in history for the Pelicans. Plus, Zion hasn't even played yet. There's often things we don't know about, a trade request, finances. With all the youngsters they have and not much at shooting guard, I'd want to move forward with Holiday, who is 29. That would be too much to give up from the Bulls side, and though Holiday has been playing off the ball more, he's the sort of two-way guard you'd love to have also as a leader.

Andrew Killion:

Sato is 3Y for $30M while Rose went for 2Y for $15M elsewhere. I think the Bulls were maybe spooked either by their mistake with Wade or figured the public were still split on Rose or were determined to find someone who could play starter minutes. He carried the Pistons past the Rockets the other night on his shoulders. Imagine him mentoring all our young guards at practice, would be amazing.

Sam Smith:

It probably was time to move on even if Derrick would have been exceedingly popular in his renaissance. The Bulls see him again Saturday in Detroit and have done their best this season against the Pistons. Reunions rarely work out as expected. It's never like it was with your former high school sweetheart 30 years later. Though LeBron did OK. I suspect the Bulls also feared Derrick's presence would dominate the public and media attention and deflect from the presence of Dunn and White. Rose has been terrific and a legitimate All-Star candidate even coming off the bench. But there likely always would have been comparisons to 2011, and that time was long gone.

Silas Marques:

Do you really think that a team can aspire to participate deep in a playoff series without at least two all-stars and first class players? Do you think that the Bulls' best players will ever reach the quality caliber needed? In my opinion, all of this 4th quarter dive is only due to one factor: lack of quality players in relation to the opposing team. In short, we are not as good as the other team, period.

Sam Smith:

Well, that's a downer. I don't agree as, for example, I saw more talent with the Bulls than the Thunder. Which I guess made it worse. But another reason why I was sure they were a playoff contender. They've been criticized for saying it preseason, but to me, it would have been disingenuous to pretend they weren't good enough. They are; they still could be. They haven't, which is, unfortunately, more significant. Have we overestimated their talent? That's your belief. If they don't pull out of this, perhaps you're correct and management will have to respond. They're not talking deep in the playoffs, though. Just more like getting their hand stamped again.

Richard Meagher:

Is Laurie Markkanen out of postion at PF? shouldn't he be in the middle and Wendell Carter be at the 4? Markkanen is 7'0" and 230 lbs. is he not in the middle because he does not have the strength or physical build to play center?

Sam Smith:

Well, Carter doesn't shoot that well and Markkanen gets bodied around quite a bit. I'd say the Bulls have that right.

Stian Nordvik:

The way Markannen plays, on offense spotting up for the 3, driving to the basket from the 3 with the ball on occasion, he`s really playing the small forward spot. Why not play him with a real power forward like Young and Carter Jr at centre? Then you will have rim protection and rebounding at both ends while letting Lauri take his 3`s. Sato and Lavine at the guards. A second unit with Dunn, White, Hutchison, Valentine and Gafford on occasion would not have been too bad.

Sam Smith:

Lauri at the point? Small forward is a worse suggestion since the last place you'd want the slower Markkanen is on the perimeter chasing the great athletes. As "bad" as he's been, he's still averaging about 15 and 7. It's below last season, but about equal to the best Young ever has done in his career. And then what about Otto?

Ray Markovich:

The Bulls are constantly getting hosed by the refs. Almost every game is a huge disparity in free throws. Against the Warriors it was 22-5. Heat 44-27. Raptors 26-14. Thunder 28-13. I don't see Boylen protesting much. Skiles and Thibs would be all over them. Zach gets mugged numerous times during the course of a game while going to the basket and there is no call. We've seen in the last few weeks others such as Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green get calls if anyone just touches them. Is this because Zach and Lauri are nice guys and don't get in the face of the refs or is it due to a lack of respect by the refs towards Boylen

Sam Smith:

The community has mostly been too angry with the team, management, and Boylen this season to notice the officials. But I received a lot of "they're screwing us" mail after the confusing OKC close. The NBA confirmed several calls that went against the Bulls, but five free throws in the last five seconds to save the game in Washington Wednesday has to make up for something. As well as Wendell shaking the ball of the basket one time with pretty much no one noticing. It's never the refs in my view unless they miss the last call on the last shot in the last second.

Kevin Matt:

What do you make of Jim's usage of his players? Is he just searching for right combinations still, going with his gut a lot, or just not have a good feel for who he should play? He's playing 10 guys a lot of minutes, and except for Lavine, he's playing guys pretty equally. One thing related to this I don't get is how he can rest guys about 8 minutes or more around quarter breaks and expect them to keep or get in any kind of rhythm. It seems to me he needs to play Dunn, Sato, Lavine, and Lauri into the 30 minute range at least. Coby should be getting 25 plus minutes. The big guys can more earn their minutes. I suppose some of this is rookie coaching error, but it seems Pax should give some input on this to work and work some of the guys. They are young and load management, imo, should not really be an issue at all for these guys.

Sam Smith:

That, too, could be changing. Even though it became an overtime game Wednesday, Boylen had all the starters in a 30-minute range for basically the first time this season. Some is the kind of players he likes versus the kinds of players he has, and also not wanting to disappoint some players, like playing Young a season-high minutes after he complained. It's another of those things they mean about moving that six inches over to the head coaching seat. It's easy to sympathize with everyone as an assistant until you have to make the decisions with a roster that's reasonably deep with quality, if not All-Star, players through 11 or 12.

Michael Stains:

The Bulls would be a great landing spot for Lamello Ball. His vision, scoring, height and bball IQ would look great with the Bulls youth. The Bulls need to move Lauri if needed to aquire Ball. Lauri just is not the impact player he has been made out to be. The Bulls need to force feed him and get his numbers up and create sets that showcase his strengths to build his value. If the Bulls can get 2 picks in the top 6 in this draft ( with present assumptions of who actually enters draft staying in place) they could really have a special team. Time to be bold

Sam Smith:

Ball is supposed to be the most on the ball in that family. I think he's hurt now, but the reports are he could be that kind of special point guard. I believe the Bulls are satisfied White will be that guy, if not quite the distributor. Because so many teams "tank" for draft picks in this era, the value of the high lottery picks has increased and even someone as talented as Markkanen doesn't get you a top five or six pick. I still prefer to ride with Markkanen. Though if this season turns down, anything can happen.

Kieron Smith:

Miami Heat get: Thaddeus Young Chicago Bulls get: James Johnson/2020 1st Round Pick(Lottery Protected) That's something Thad might want to do.

Sam Smith:

Whatever happened to James Johnson? He seemed to finally find a place for his tough, physical game in Miami, like Jimmy Butler. He had hernia surgery in the offseason and played just a few games. He hasn't played in the last month and has been sick and then out for personal reasons. Hanging out with Dion Waiters? Who knows. Thad given the circumstances lately will be a guy about whom the Bulls figure to at least listen. It would depend a lot on who they have to take back. If Thad were to move, I assume the Bulls would accommodate him and get him to a contending team now that players have been freed from team changes to make almost everyone in the league eligible to be traded. When you're 11-19 you don't have that many untouchables.

Joe Guest:

Kris Dunn needs to keep balling and remember the lesson every good coach tells any kid he coaches from grade school on. If you can play defense and work harder on that end than everyone else, you will play.

Sam Smith:

Last summer, the message was there was no market for Dunn heading to restricted free agency. Now there's a campaign for all-defense and the Patrick Beverley most annoying award. Does that change his market? Does it change the Bulls view? Another story to watch.

Omar DeJesus:

Would Denver deal MPJ? If Yes Bulls have players Denver might need for playoff push? Dunn, Young, other?

Sam Smith:

The rumors have been he's an untouchable, though he rarely plays now a year and a half after being drafted. He sat out last season after back surgery. If he is untouchable, as the reports indicated, it suggests the Nuggets see him as the No. 1 star they don't have. But if they do, he'd be playing. It would cost a team at least a lottery draft pick. I'm not anxious for another lottery pick. I'd rather take the risk on another player if there's a good market for the draft pick.

Lucas Muñoz:

Excuse me if this has been asked before, but has the team considered giving Denzel a more primary role in playmaking duties? I love Kris, but Denzel is definitely more comfortable creating off the bounce, and can even pull up from three quite easily after a screen. I believe the team would benefit if he was leading and creating for the second unit, or even starting as the team PG.

Sam Smith:

I've heard a good comp for Denzel from a reader of Andre Miller, who was a very unathletic, very, very clever point guard. Denzel didn't play as much against Washington and Boylen went back to the starters for big minutes, which I liked. Like Pippen did in the championship years, you can have a point guard and have someone else drive the offense.

Nicholas Zoccali:

I think bulls fans are much too critical of Zach Lavine, he's a guy that can catch fire at any given time and a guy that is relied upon late in shot clocks and late in games to make plays. His one on one defence is good (yes we know he can fall asleep on defence at times. People seem to think he's regressed but he's doing exactly what Boylen wants, he's taking and making more threes, as well as playing more off ball than last year. I think his inconsistencies most of the time rely on the coaching staff not getting him involved early in games, for example against Charlotte his first shot came with 6:30 left in the first... With averages of about 23/4.5/4/1.5 the bulls on a couple of games out of the playoffs at the moment and the All Star game being hosted in Chicago, does Zach have enough fans to get him to the ASG?

Sam Smith:

Probably not a starter with the fan/player/media vote with the team's poor record. But I reiterate that Zach is worthy even more than Alice Cooper and even though the game is not in Milwaukee.

Art Alenik:

Pax said in his interviews the fans will honor the Bulls as long as they put in a good effort. I think they're past that, and it'll take some W's.

Sam Smith:

Which I guess would have saved me a lot of time if I'd just answered this one first. Wins, eh? Yeah, that's the ticket.