Ask Sam Mailbag: 12.22.17
Sam opens his mailbag and answers reader's questions
What are these Bulls doing? They were primed for a shot at the best odds in the 2018 Draft Lottery, and now they're flirting with landing possibly the #7 or #8 pick with all this senseless winning. I know, guys like Hoiberg, Mirotic and Lopez care more about proving their worth today, rather than 2-3 years down the road when they'll likely be working for different organizations, but winning arbitrary games in an otherwise lost season only hurts the franchise's long-term prospects. Where is this team going to find its star-power, if not in the draft? Historically, free agency isn't a viable option (can we lure Ron Mercer out of retirement?). I've been counting down the months/weeks/days until the May lottery, and now all I see is the Bulls lighting that potential winning ticket on fire. Trade Lopez and Mirotic sooner rather than later. Target cap relief and/or future draft picks.
Sam: This is the question/thought/concern du jour. The Bulls, sadly, are winning too much, though senseless winning has to become a bumper sticker. Talk about your bizarro world. But here’s the thing. First, I think we all can agree you cannot ask a coach to lose given he’ll then be blamed for not being able to motivate/develop/strategize and then, of course, you’ll fire him because he couldn’t motivate, develop and strategize. And you can’t expect players to lose, especially young ones on their first contracts trying either to stay in the league or get their first big contract. C’mon, Jerian, miss that shot so we can get a better player to replace you. Though Zipser has seemed to cooperate some lately. So then you have your so called asset, for the Bulls it being Jimmy Butler, and you try to parlay him in trade to a package of talented players. And then you do, perhaps better than you even imagined. Who’s idea was it to get good players for Jimmy! We want names! And then you say you are going to change the culture, bring in players less concerned with contracts and playing time and who’s the man or the leader and holding into the ball so they can get their points and instead guys who just want to compete, play unselfishly, drop the drama and the controversy and be upbeat in a positive, welcoming, nurturing atmosphere. So you do all those things because your fans were sick of the way things were going. Well, if you do those things why would you not expect to have success? And then the response is to give away a young, talented 6-10 shooter who as 76ers coach Brett Brown said resembles the prototype modern NBA player. Oh, yes, that 76ers method.
Do the 76ers have the right idea on how to properly rebuild? And why can't the Bulls and/or other teams copy this obviously effective strategy that has netted them 2 top tier phenoms?
Sam: I don’t want to get into condemning the 76ers because they have a nice team that plays hard with good management and staff and are stuck in a city where gourmet is considered Cheez Whiz and thin meat on a roll. But, c’mon. This is the fifth year of this. Twenty games into this Bulls start with 10 straight losses the community was going nuts. So you’re saying you’re OK with a start like that every year until 2022? I hope Embiid is OK because he’s special to watch and good for the league, but they still are below .500, and their prize center is out yet again with back problems and with a history of foot problems. Also let’s look at five years of having lottery picks. These were their selections with first round picks: Michael Carter-Williams, Elfrid Payton (traded for Dario Saric), Jahlil Okafor, Furkan Korkmaz, Timothe Luwawu, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz. Simmons is terrific and almost certain Rookie of the Year, I believe Fultz will be very good, but likely will lose most of this season with injury. And you have to still wonder long that this far into his NBA career Embiid still is not playing back to back games and still with that is missing games with physical problems. And after averaging fewer than 20 wins for four years, they still will have trouble making the playoffs in Year 5. That means at that same pace for the Bulls with no guarantees from the lottery since these are 19-year-old kids these days at the top of the draft, you are looking at trying to grab an eighth spot in the playoffs almost all the way through Donald Trump’s second term. You mean that plan?
Do you get the sense that Niko still wants out badly? I mean, the way he's being used is actually good, and it's leading to wins. If being used like this leads to him being a 20+ PER player and wins, why would you dump him?
Sam: I actually never believed Mirotic wanted out. After all, he wanted to sign a three-year deal with the Bulls this summer. The Bulls did offer three years, so they apparently felt some commitment and interest as well. There were just different views of value, which is not all that unusual. Happens to me all the time in line at Social Security. So with no league wide option after three up and down seasons—see, no other team saw this coming, either—he signed for two years with a second year team option. It looked like the kind of deal where you would have an edge on trading since if a team liked him they’d get that second season; if they didn’t there was no risk for an extra year. But remember Mirotic never once going through this said he wanted to be traded or wanted out nor was any agent of his quoted that way. Was he upset? Sure, who wouldn’t be. Whether he provoked anything or not, he was assaulted and not at fault. He was eating steak through a straw. Doesn’t make for great days. But never once have I heard him say he wanted out or didn’t want to play with this group. As for the future, that’s what the Bulls are thinking about now. And when a small sample ends.
As I've watched this young team evolve, I keep recalling the arrogant and belittling remarks various national and local sportswriters have been heaping on Gar and Pax for their "mismanagement" of the team, and for "how little" they got for Jimmy Butler. I don't know how it will finally shake out, but December has given us a good look at the potential Gar and Pax saw in Kris Dunn, and it's pretty awesome. Similarly, we've seen star potential in Lauri Markkanen, and Zach LaVine is yet to come. I don't see how they could have done any better, and they just may have struck gold. The same bunch of sportswriters castigated Gar/Pax for selling a second round draft choice to the Warriors rather than adding another rookie to a roster dominated by first and second-year players. That criticism was stupid in its own right, but all the more so when you realize they picked up David Nwaba instead of another rookie -- and when you see what Nwaba does for the team, Gar and Pax start to look like geniuses. Their late-first-round draft picks have been looking pretty good, too, eh? It makes me glad the hometown team is being managed by basketball professionals, and not by journalists who have given up reporting for fantasy sports and advanced statistics.
Sam: Paxson and Forman couldn’t have said it better themselves. No, they understand how it works even if they don’t always like it. No one in the public arena enjoys the daily analysis of their job. Like I always tell colleagues on press row, his would you like it with fans screaming over your shoulder, “Verb, you moron,” and then having you work analyzed without spell check. Here are some quotes for you:
“As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
“The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.”
This was the view of Thomas Jefferson, more so when he was president and under scrutiny than when he was presiding over the seminal free speech document of the ages that led to free speech and freedom of the press. Some people take a bit too seriously the notion that they are a critic. It doesn’t necessarily mean to criticize all the time, though many see it that way. It’s why if you take that job you have to expect you’ll be judged on the actions of others; meaning, as the great Johnny Kerr used to say about coaching his inaugural Bulls team: “There’s five guys running around with my paycheck.” Judging human talent of 19 or 20 year olds is basically impossible. So you have good reasons for what you do, do your work and then try to make the best of the fit. It doesn’t always work for everyone. When it does, you hope they’ll have some diffidence about being called a genius. I was surprised last June about the negative view of the Butler trade. Not because Butler isn’t a terrific player; he’s very good. But where were they going that way and how were they going to improve? They really lucked into it because Thibodeau was in a desperate situation with a losing franchise and LaVine was hurt and Dunn beaten down as a rookie. Minnesota did well and looks like a good playoff team, but the Bulls did amazing on their own to get three legitimate potential starters with All-Star potential. All three won’t get there, but any could. Which makes it potentially one of the great deals in franchise history unless Howard Porter still can get in shape and Larry Kenon learns what assist means. Give the journalists a break. I know some. View it more as creating conversation. As long as you have good reasons for what you do and it makes sense at the time, you should stand by your actions. Media in all fields has the benefit of judging based on what happened and not what will happen. As a public figure, you need to understand that. They’re occasionally right because they don’t predict until they know the result.
Goodbye top draft, welcome top free agents 2018. We are all surprised with the change in the game of the bulls, but what I like most is to see they are already dominating the offensive system that wants to play Fred, I think this young team still have a higher ceiling and with the right player to be hired in free agency we could be a title contender faster than we thought.
Sam: Young team with scoring, defense and size. Big city with marketing opportunities and a chance to directly take on the legacy of the guy you are chasing in history. A team that just needs a bit of experience and leadership. Looks like LeBron has a really good, potential destination for his talents.
So...what would I do? That’s a very tough question. It’s easy to become enamored with draft prospects that everyone “oohs & aahs” about, and think they are the future “franchise players” you cannot do without. But some of them turn out to be Greg Oden or Beasley or Darko. In the meantime, Niko is (finally!) looking like the player we expected him to be... or maybe better, and the team is starting to gel & gaining confidence.
I understand that everybody thinks Ayton, Bagley & maybe Porter are monumental talents. But I’m still not sure it’s smart to build a losing culture to get one of them. Just like winning, losing can become habitual. What good is it if you have a rising young star surrounded by guys with no hope? I’m not sure what I’d do. But the one thing I would not do is trade Niko ASAP for virtually nothing. If he keeps playing like this, he’s a valuable asset. So either you keep him or you make sure that you get something juicy back. If it’s a pick, it better be a sweet one, because most of those prospects are never going to be as good as Niko is right now.
Sam: I’ve been engaging in this exercise with a lot of readers lately. We know I usually have many of the answers, but this is a tougher one than usual. Maybe I should have made this edition: Ask Them. I’m really not sure what to do, but I do know the history of the draft is little guarantee, a big hit and miss based on a lot of luck (Rose or Beasley?). I’m not sure I’d try to offload a lot of talent for nothing, either. I know the “tank” sounds appealing—as long as you don’t have to watch the games and can start talking baseball trades already and it’s not Sherman—but as I noted with the 76ers this could be a five or six-year process if you begin offloading players to lose. Look at the many teams that have kept losing for picks and gotten nowhere because they were unlucky, like the Timberwolves and a decade out of the playoffs. Between 2006 and 2011, they had seven picks in the top 7 and for the most part made the consensus best picks, except the David Kahn year of Rubio and Flynn ahead of Curry, who four other teams passed on before Minnesota, so Thibodeau appropriately finally said enough and made the big trade with the Bulls, and that was with having two No. 1 overall picks and still winning 30 games. The Bulls made a potentially great trade and added talent, they had talent in reserve that is maturing. That leads to at least some success. They have committed coaching. And as Mirotic cannot be traded even if they are trying to for maybe a month, and teams usually don’t like to trade until February to see if they can get a better deal, the Bulls just may be too far away from the bottom of the league by then no matter what they try to do. Not only with the seven straight wins, but playing Cleveland to the end and with a stretch starting soon of eight of 11 at home before they can make a major trade, where will the team be? And then can you get the players and coaches and especially with LaVine returning about then to begin to play worse? I’m sort of talking myself into suggesting perhaps we underestimated what they have and how they could work together and maybe just add a veteran free agent and you’ve got potential young All-Star talent at several positions. Sure, I’d love to have one of the top two or three picks in the draft, but it’s hard to see now unless there are several major injuries how the Bulls could fall back that far the way they are playing and competing. Plans change and they are in a great salary cap situation for free agents. Why wouldn’t a player think he has a better chance to win with who the Bulls have than say the Lakers?
Why does Mirotic's game looks so much better these days than in the past? I know he's had stretches of good play, but it seems like his skills are expanding. What do you think? Temporary? Permanent? Who knows? I'm guessing part of the reason is that his role with the team has changed.
Sam: I’ve offered my theory in my game coverage during Miracle Mirotic’s run and return. It maybe sounds like an excuse, so he’s been reluctant to use it, though he did allude to coming from overseas with expectations. It’s not a compliment for a professional athlete, and not something Mirotic might embrace, but I found him a particularly sensitive guy and a bit insecure about his position when he came to the NBA, which shouldn’t be surprising given that Thibodeau’s demands to “get back” and “ice” don’t translate literally in Montenegrin. We Americans often don’t have much patience for merging into a new situation or society what with our easy grasp of languages. Quit your whinin’ and play! My Mirotic moment was last spring when he got back in the lineup after Wade had appealed to Hoiberg about giving Mirotic more opportunities. Mirotic was ebullient. He so craved Wade’s acceptance, future Hall of Famer, champion, media star. He was absolutely beaming afterward, saying if he only knew earlier. And then had something like three games of 28 points in four. Just consider the circumstances he walked into: Thibodeau on his last season in full battle gear with management, a team splitting over his playing demands, stars like Rose, Noah and Butler battling for their careers and space. Then Butler emerging with a new coach and challenging the coach and then the Rose trade and Noah gone, a star like Mirotic’s idol Pau Gasol in his place. And then the Rondo/Wade stuff. It’s a lot to deal with. It’s why I think Mirotic’s play can be legitimate, if not 20 points per game. He’s looked around and there’s no one left to place on a pedestal. Plus, I’ve seen him do stuff he’s never done; not once. Postup moves with strength, quick, balanced shots without the histrionics, embracing a role. Since it’s fewer than 10 games, we can’t be sure. But he’s 6-10, can shoot, space the floor, run and rebound. Those all are useful things.
I'm having a bit of a Bulls related existential crisis...
Is Niko really this good? If he keeps this up, at what point does management decide to scrap the trade idea and just keep him? I can't believe I'm saying this, but he's looking more like a building block than a trade chip. Who would've thought the Bulls would win 7 straight with Niko leading the team! Still, while this has been frustratingly fun, I'd like to see them lose the next 50 games and secure the best lottery odds.
Sam: Why can’t a guy get better? It seems Mirotic has, and maybe it’s not so ridiculous to think someone who barely could speak English who had to buy out his contract to come to the NBA who has been yo-yoed around in the rotation for three years and had surgery in the middle of one season and barely avoided it another could begin to mature in just his his fourth season. I don’t personally see how or why Dunn and Markkanen would get worse. And I don’t see many benches around the NBA with as many first round picks as Grant, Portis and Mirotic with Holiday or Valentine to presumably join when LaVine returns. We wondered how this team would win many games; now it seems we are trying to figure how they will lose so much. It doesn’t seem likely.
The 7 game win streak is not a curse. The Bulls will come back to earth and still finish with between 25-32 wins and a good lottery pick. This roster needs to know what it’s like to win and how to close games, that’s part of rebuilding, you don’t want 60 blowout losses, it creates no structure or hope. Trade Lopez for a second rounder and hope to steal another perimeter player like David Nwaba. Besides that, many fans forget this is a team that already has a ton of first round picks on the roster:
Payne (ok he doesn’t count)
There is a talented core of very good role players on this roster. If the Bulls somehow get lucky enough to draft Michael Porter they would somehow have managed to field a young, modern and exciting team moving forward. Even with a top 10 pick, if the Bulls get a SF, you are looking at a rotation of your top 8 players all being high first round picks(except Niko). I am stunned that the Bulls actually might be fun to watch in the eastern conference by the time Lebron joins Houston or somewhere else.
Sam: Two things there. Maybe that small forward is a free agent who maybe is playing somewhere in the Western Conference now in perhaps a somewhat underachieving place, and, yes, maybe LeBron does leave the East as there is so much speculation. We presume if he does it’s to build a team somewhere with his own free agents like Wade and Bosh in Miami. The East then doesn’t look quite so formidable and unattainable.
Admittedly, I've never been a fan of tanking. (I'm still traumatized by the Tim Floyd years.) However, I do like the young big fella at Duke. That said, with Portis & Mirotic (aka Punch & Judy) playing well, why can't we stand pat, work with what we have, and let the chips fall where they may instead of trying to make a trade to get worse? Also, if everyone is 100% healthy, what's the Bulls' best starting lineup? I'm rolling with Lopez, Portis, Mirotic, Lavine and Dunn with the rookie and Holiday first off the bench.
Sam: I don’t see Markkanen coming off the bench as the guy is just over a year into the United States, a surprise starter after playing all summer and having some amazing games for a rookie, one of the best rookies in the league in a strong class, making game winning plays. Would the Bulls have been better off if the Butler trade was as many critics said last June, a failure with Dunn a bust, Markkanen a softie European shooter and LaVine too hurt to recover his abilities? We haven’t seen LaVine yet, but teammates are marveling about him in practice. And Dunn and Markkanen have been two of the more impressive young players in the conference. The Bulls reserves Thursday had among their poorer games in weeks from the group of Portis, Grant and Nwaba and still had a chance to win down the stretch in Cleveland in the second of a back to back after a long previous night of travel problems.
Is it too early too panic regarding the Bulls tank? This streak should better stop sooner than later... its scary, they are maybe 2 wins out to catch up to a lot of teams. You can criticize this front office as much as you want, but if they don't manage to get a top 5 pick in this draft, it's over. Their duty now is to trade the right players out of Mirotic/Portis/Lopez which can have some value. give some more playing time to Felicio/Blakeney ... don't forget that they will be better once LaVine comes back. The Bulls will for sure miss out on Luka Doncic which is crazy ... that kid is special, for his NBA career he will be a top 20 player at some point in my book.
Sam: Everyone has a favorite in this draft, and it’s obvious the Bulls believed they were on the path. I’ll admit I agreed. I had this team for 18 wins. I didn’t see where they could score. Sure, Mirotic could revert to his uncertain play, but in eight games I have yet to see evidence of the way he played the previous three years. One big issue with trades is it’s tough to make them, matching a salary like Lopez’ at $14 million for two years, and how much impact toward losing would that have, anyway? Robin’s been great for the team and I wouldn’t mind seeing him stay around through his deal. Plus hulking centers—well, he’s not fat, but let’s say doesn’t move with the grace of a jaguar—are hardly a big market these days. Could you get a low second? Maybe, but then you’d probably have to take back someone’s three-year contract. The Bulls got rid of their top four starters from last season to prepare for the lottery. Gave up McDermott for a guy who’s been injured, dumped the hyphen guy they got for Snell. What else could they have done? All I heard last summer was what a mess the Bulls made of the roster and how bad things were because they were on the way to one of the worst seasons ever. And now it’s their fault because the team isn’t losing enough?
Dunn's ability to make the right play is impressive. He has a slick playmaking ability that we haven't seen from a Bulls guard. Rose was an amazing scorer, but he never had a knack for setting up his teammates like Dunn. I'm not a huge fan of Hoiberg's less than stoic disposition, but he has done a nice job of instilling confidence in Dunn. Also, the team is playing unselfish basketball and believe in each other. This is what basketball is supposed to be and it's the polar opposite of last year.
Sam: Yes, there’s that. When the season started, friends were frequently commiserating, saying how difficult it would be to watch the Bulls this season. Oh, and the hair and the clothes and, I digress. I recall such sentiment in previous Ask Sam sessions. I always said I enjoyed every season for what it was, that there always were stories, dramas an perhaps someone cut, fired or resigning on Christmas Eve. And for this season I was interested to see what players who were doubted like Dunn and Markkanen could become. And if Felicio intended to take a shot. So the Bulls and Hoiberg deserve plenty of credit for this, having put Dunn in position to be a lot better to the point Hoiberg even is using him as a closer, getting through this potential season breaker of the Portis face breaker, young players all seemingly getting better. How’s that happen? And in LaVine supposedly the best talent of them all. In this NBA, the point guard is probably the most important position no matter where you play it from, like with LeBron. The Bulls may just have one, which is huge.
Thunder shopping PG 13 yet?
Sam: Hmmmm. He’d sure be an interesting free agent to have if you had a young team that needed a veteran leader. Everything we’ve all heard is he is intent on returning home to Los Angeles. Lakers? Clippers? I don’t see how they could get much for George given those circumstances, so I suspect the Thunder will ride it out, perhaps add a buyout player, maybe a trade, maybe a Miami Heat finish like last season. The West is not as deep as previously believed. I always felt the Thunder made that mistake before with Harden. OK, I accept if your owner doesn’t want to pay him and you have to move him. But ride it out, get in the playoffs and maybe someone gets hurt or you get hot and steal a game and stuff happens. Where were the Bulls last season if Rondo wasn’t hurt after Game 2? Of course then would they have traded Butler? Interesting question.
Since the 2010-2011 Bulls, I love this group especially with Nwaba on the court. If Nwaba had a jumper, he would be a top 25 player in this league.
Sam: It was plain to see against the Cavs Thursday with Nwaba, of course guarding LeBron early and doing reasonably well. But he missed a pair of corner threes that I’ve seen him making in pregame shooting practice, and then he didn’t want to shoot and things are messed up on offense when you won’t and Hoiberg had to take him out. But this is becoming a fun group to watch. That’s supposed to be what it’s about.
Do you think Portis can be a full-time center for the Bulls? It seems lots of your readers want draft picks instead of good players. I don't see how trading Mirotic helps the Bulls. I do think there's not enough minutes for Mirotic and Markkanen at the 4 spot. Depth isn't a bad thing though, right? Imagine if they still had the Hall of Famer, Jordan Bell?
Sam: Portis has been playing a lot of center in two-man, high-low with Mirotic. It’s not his favorite thing, but it’s playing time and a backstop if there is something going on with Lopez. Plus, they insist they’ll get Felicio back in there and going again. He has regressed this season, but it’s that Catch-22 if he doesn’t get the minutes. But he doesn’t get the minutes because he hasn’t played well. So play better? But I need the minutes. You can’t have them until you play better. Hoiberg has a nice, tight rotation now and we assume for a few more weeks until LaVine returns, the speculation remains sometime in January. Portis probably is not a center a few years ago, but look at Cleveland with no center; the Warriors play Pachulia and were winning with JaVale McGee. No one throws the ball to centers these days if they have a mismatch. The Bulls perhaps do more than most with Lopez, not a scorer but scoring the best he ever has. As for Bell, I noticed since his explosive 7-6-6 game against the Bulls last month that, of course with a triple single you are going to talk trash, he’s averaging 5.6 points with five of his last eight games four points or fewer with one game a zero points in 20 minutes. Maybe he becomes a good player, but where was he playing for the Bulls? Ahead of whom? Heck, Blakeney was averaging more points and they told him to play in Hoffman Estates for awhile.
The Mirotic-Portis altercation was the best thing that could have happened to them, and for one reason – they both learned from it. From my admittedly distant vantage point, it appears to me that it took Mirotic almost the entire two months to stop stewing & fuming and about it, that finally someone got through to him or he simply got through to himself and realized that, you know, life happens, suck it up and be a man and stop being the victim. And it also appears to me that Portis is an otherwise decent human being who, while tangled up in one of the highest levels of physical competition on the planet, let his emotions get the better of him but who took a good look at himself in the mirror afterwards and said, You’re better than that, man, so start acting like it. It also seems to me that both of these guys forgave themselves as well as each other, but enough of that. More to the point - Wouldn’t it just be great if Paxson and Forman got the last laugh on all the ESPN pundits who have been absolutely trashing them, and end up getting the better of the Butler trade? Damn, it’s fun being a Bulls fan again.
Sam: I don’t know how or what those two did or said to get trough the ordeal. But isn’t it fun to watch the games again and believe your team has a chance? Each game. Seems sort of like the plan.
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