Ask Sam Mailbag: 12.30.17
Sam opens his mailbag and answers reader's questions
I was just thinking about the 2010-2011 bulls. Back than if I told you that 7 years later that Kyle, Taj and James Johnson were the 3 still going and going strong, you would have told me to stop watching basketball.
Sam: They still could activate John Lucas III. But it's a good reason why you also can't plan too far ahead as things change quickly in sports. I know the debate here remains this “tanking,” losing games for a draft pick versus playing it out and seeing what occurs. Yes, a high draft pick can turn around your team, but usually if it's LeBron or Durant or Jordan or Shaq. Again, Embiid is terrific, but the 76ers still aren't a .500 team. Going all in on a 19-year-old suggests you are aiming for three to five years from now. And then five years from now who's left? Maybe everyone; maybe like those 62-win Bulls from 2011 none of the core players. That team, I long have maintained and seriously believed, was set up to win a title with Rose as an MVP, Noah Defensive Player of the Year, Deng and Gibson all-defensive players and perhaps Asik as well. Guys get hurt, guys get better offers and leave. So in some sense it's a heck of a case to not dismantle this Bulls team now in pursuit of a high draft pick. What's wrong if you made a misjudgment and the talent you have is better than you imagined, the trade better, the combatants more mature? Better to stick to the plan? Aren't adjustments as the narrative unfolds a big part of the game? Plus, draft one/two/three doesn't guarantee you anything. The Warriors did it with seven/11. The Cavs have the guy swapped on draft night for O.J. Mayo. Harden was acquired for a bunch of stuff no one can remember. Where would Donovan Mitchell at No. 13 be if the draft were today? Kyle Kuzma?
So the Bulls hire 3 alphas, try and win and are middling. Then they decide to tank, trust the process, whatever nonsense they used. Hire new people, young people, injured people and some who don't like each other. Ironic that the new people want to win, appear to be able to win and will be maybe middling as well. Now what to do? Many cliches come to mind but in the end this is why games are played. I thought this season would be interesting but this has exceeded my expectations (great expectations?). Now what to do? I would still venture that they are a 20-25 win team. A decent lotto chance, but not what they were looking for. What's the old saying? Man plans, God laughs. This will be as interesting as the games have been. Trades are coming, new people are coming and maybe they will keep trying to win. Fascinating but ultimately good for the franchise and more importantly the coaches and players.
Sam: It is what is making this season just so delicious. I was told how boring it would be, just loss after uncompetitive loss and then a standard draft pick; too soon to make an investment in free agency and then another season in 2018-19 like this, and then can you get a free agent? Fast, fast, fast forward. They've got some intriguing talents, evolving chemistry, players worth watching who for the first time in years actually seem to enjoy playing, and playing with one another, players developing and anxious to be coached, supportive of direction. So now what do you do? I'm interested as well. What a gift: An entertaining team and monumental decisions to make. Now that's great spectator sport.
Markkanen is a kid that probably doesn't even yet fully realize where he is and what he's doing. That's part of the magic of being that age. This group isn't making any kind of run at June, but there's lots of stories here all the same. Markkanen's journey from Scandanavia to the NBA has to be a rush. Poor guy! the grocery stores don't have decent fish. You like the fact that he's a responsible kid. When Portis and Mirotic were out, he stepped up like a pro. He's not even done growing yet. He's probably tired just from that. What you hope for with a good-attitude kid is to grow him into a really good player. Hoiberg seems to have survived the Rose train wreck, Noah's decline and Gasol mismatch, overall aging of that group and Butler's moodiness and then Wade's coup de gras. The big deal with a head coach in the NBA is to get good players to buy into your system. At this stage pretty much they all have a system that will work.
I personally doubted Hoiberg was going to survive Butler b/c it's a players league. But, as they say, he might have crashed and burned but as long as he's smarter for it, why get someone new that needs to learn what Hoiberg already knows? So another team can benefit from what Hoiberg learned on Bull's dime with the chaos he inherited? Coming in, Hoiberg struck me as a pretty-boy politician with his eye on the safer front office job looking at coaching as a stepping stone, a chunk of resume that needed writing. As a fan, thanks but no thanks. Give me a guy that wants to coach, that likes to coach, that's really happy being a coach. If that were true, Paxson/Forman at least made him earn it with the last couple of years starting with the worn-out roster of no doubt irritable players that had years of being screamed at a lot by a marginally unbalanced boss who in weird obscure ways was uncomfortably unpredictable. 20/20 hindsight tells us that the expectations of that group were exorbitantly outrageous. A couple of years of that really tested Hoiberg's will to do this, I'm sure. To his credit, he survived. He has to really want to do this. His X's/O's as we see them now? not too bad. Former player, yes. Role players often make good coaches. Excellent people skills, though. Fans can't tell if he's got good organizational sense because we don't see the workplace every day. He's already done a superb job with Dunn, and Markkanen has a lot of formation to do yet. Hoiberg's probably right for that job. LaVine? that depends on a bunch of things, but Hoiberg's already shown a steady sense of purpose these last couple of years. Hoiberg seems to have a nice handle on the Valentines and the Holidays. He also seems to understand the Nwabas and the Portises. If Hoiberg plays out, Bulls wind up with a balanced, coherent, talented group that operates from clear objectives. The players will each have their personalities on and off the court, but as a group they will have a foundation that starts with focus. If it works out like that? pretty good. Right now, Hoiberg starts to get credit for work he's put in by now for years. Good for him. It's a show me world and by now Hoiberg has shown that he understands the business end of a shovel. All good, but these last 10 or 11 games also show that he can get results, too. Hopefully his key guys stay healthy so we can all find out.
Sam: These things change quickly, as we know, since the first of December Hoiberg was on that first-to-fire list and by the end of December could be on that next-to-hire list. A few things with that. One is that it's so difficult to hire the right coach in sports. How is it that Frank Vogel was so smart in Indianapolis and so dumb in Orlando, where you can go outside and where supposedly people think better. Did the NFL Bears John Fox get that dumb from coaching teams to Super Bowls because it's so cold in Chicago? Fred was the right coach at the wrong time. He had all the right credentials, coaching experience from college, NBA playing and management, more the guiding hand since the current ethic for NBA coaches isn't much to threaten your players. Little realized about Thibodeau is he never did. He'd yell and scream and little kids sitting nearby had to wear ear plugs to the game and who knew Jesus Christ had that middle name. But he never faced down players directly. Never yelled at them in film sessions or practice. He's smart enough to understand you can get away with a group condemnation with the individual hugs. Fred just had the misfortune of following a successful coach who was starting to ride down the rocket that had little fuel left. It had been making it on fumes for a few years, and pushing those guys to keep it going was going to lead to the inevitable. Hello, Fred, got any miracles on you? As we've seen in retrospect, there really wasn't much left to Rose and Noah as much as they'd pushed themselves previously and as much as we wanted it to be. Hoiberg's rookie season also included Snell, McDermott, Dunleavy and Brooks. Yes, Butler and Gasol, who weren't exactly compatible. Which became Butler, Wade, Rondo and then tryouts for Lauvergne, Payne and Carter-Williams. The team had something of an obligation to see if they could put something together to support Butler given his excellence. It was worth a try, perhaps required given Butler's status. No one wanted to hear that Hoiberg would eventually get a chance to show what he could do as a coach with a less set-in-their-ways group. You coach what you have, and Hoiberg always agreed with that philosophy. Maybe he never gets to 1,000 NBA wins or develops a mystical geometric offense. But he's never quit on his players like some of his predecessor Bulls coaches have; he's tried to help them improve, been professional and responsible with the media and public and has been loyal to the organization. It seems like you can do a lot worse. And have.
You were on the "don't believe" list and looks like you are changing your mind thank goodness. The first rebuild trade was hard for me I admit but it made the second trade easy to deal with. The first trade defined the new direction and the second trade makes it work - but let's hope we never see Cameron Payne play again. The whole team has handled "The Punch" - no indication of an actual fight - in such a professional manner it sets a new precedent in the business of sports. I would rather see Niko start as earned in preseason but very excited to see Zach Lavine return to the floor. Bulls are strong enough in all positions with the only missing piece a real small forward. Bulls fans please stop talking about losing big for the lottery or any trades for picks when we should focus on what is available at the 3 spot in free agency or first round draft pick. What do you see in the forethreeable future?
Sam: Well, free agency, according to that vague plan we believed, was to be in the summer of 2019; two top 10 draft picks combined with the three guys from the Butler trade and then add a free agent. So is that accelerated a year? The problem—other than the poor me Chicago thing of we never get one, which isn't true other than the one you want—is free agency doesn't do much most of the time unless it's LeBron or Durant, that being healthy former MVPs. It's not fair to judge Gordon Hayward yet, but it is a judgment that you could lose a guy to injury. But look at the big free agents from the last few years other than former Bulls like Noah and Deng, who don't even play. Other than the stars who resigned like Curry, last summer there was Hayward, Paul Millsap, George Hill, Jeff Teague, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Redick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who, by the way, cost the Lakers David Nwaba because they had to clear space as the Celtics did in letting go Avery Bradley), Taj Gibson, Tim Hardway, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph. And we're talking about $15 million to $25 million annual deals. The top unrestricted free agents for 2018: LeBron, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, Bradley, Brook Lopez, Caldwell-Pope, Derrick Favors, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel, Greg Monroe, Trevor Ariza. Lou Williams, Redick. Certainly some nice players, but without getting LeBron or George it's basically role players. Good to have, but don't overestimate free agency. The point is having a good core first, and with the likes of Dunn, Markkanen and LaVine the Bulls might be able to claim that now.
In a best case scenario for player development, the Bulls draft 10-14. Probably realistic with Zach Levine coming back. In wild scenario, battle for 8th seed. So, getting franchise player through draft becomes out of the question. Ok, I've taken that in and will look at the positives which are huge.
1. Can you now attract a franchise player or close to it in free agency in 2018. Nice young supporting cast in place now....
2. Do you see management Lopez and/or Mirotic/Portis getting moved at trade deadline to push the Bulls back down. They've won 9 of 11 (that's a decent sample) and have their best player coming back. Situations change. Goal is to get a franchise player. Not saying I would want trade, but if an opportunity came where a franchise player become available, I'd be flexible enough to entertain it. Kevin Garnet, Kareem, Barkley all got traded.
Sam: It always feels with sports teams when they are winning they can't lose and when they are losing they can't win. The Bulls have experienced both this season within a week. So while the winning isn't a small sample, neither is the losing. Trades remain possible; this may be as healthy as I remember any Bulls team since Rose's injury. I'm not writing off a top 10 draft pick quite yet. I don't know when LaVine will return, but remember he'll have been out a year, playing likely reduced minutes and then someone moving out of the starting lineup and we'll see about the chemistry. He's a quality person, but you never know how these things work out, especially with so many players trying to make their way and their careers with this Bulls team. It hasn't been mentioned much, but the Bulls are in strong position with future draft picks and salary cap room. They are in position to perhaps add a player—Harden becoming available was a shock and built a franchise whose plan had been to build around Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik—through trade or absorbing salary. So, yes, there are options well beyond just a college freshman.
The Bulls should offer David Nwaba a multi-year contract: 2 years 8 - 11 million a year + player option 3rd season. More upfront, but well worth it. The only missing element from Nwaba's game is a 3-ball. Nwaba is a smart guy and he'll get there soon enough. Doing this basically allows the Bulls to get him for cheap by his 3rd year (when few people will be under contract). If the Bulls wait and Nwaba gets everything figured out. They'll have pay at least 16 million at that point. Since he'll be a younger Andre Iguodala type of player.
Sam: I usually don't accept emails from agents. Nwaba's ascension has been a terrific story, and he makes an impact with his spirit and aggression. He's sort of a guard version of Noah: Little offensive game, his skill being running the court and running when everyone else wants to walk. It made Noah a $100 million player (in total). Even with that shot. I often use Nwaba as my give-up-the-Jordan Bell-obsession stuff, a guy whom the Bulls could go after without having the roster filled and taking a chance. After all, it's not like many teams were. The Lakers liked him a lot, but that's also the price of free agency. You have to clear cap space, which usually means dumping a player or two. Remember, the Bulls had to give away Kirk Hinrich just to have room to make an offer to LeBron in 2010. By picking up Nwaba on waivers, the Bulls have his rights for a match for next season. The Bulls like him; he appreciates the chance. I assume if things are fair they'll work something out. But you can't in the Bulls position go closing up your cap room when you still may have a chance for an impact player through trade or free agency.
Do you think the GMs are as surprised as anybody at how well this team is playing?
Sam: Yes. Perhaps the better question would be, Who isn't?
The Timberwolves are hovering around the 3-5 spot in the Western Conference. Do they have a shot at the championship or do you see that team falling apart similarly how the KG-Spree-Sam experiment fell apart with Olowakandi and Trenton Hassell as the other core pieces. Butler appears to be playing well again at 20/6/6 and his regular shooting percentages. Their center Karl-Anthony Towns hasn't been the dominant force which he was last season in terms of numbers but I think that's because you insert scorers such as Butler & Teague to the lineup and you see numbers drop. I think that team is a bomb waiting to explode.
Sam: We have a lot of interest in the Timberwolves for obvious reasons with Thibodeau, Butler, Taj, Jamal Crawford. Taj and Jamal are two of the better people who ever have been with the Bulls franchise. You root for them as much as anyone. Their visit to Chicago Feb. 9 is probably the highlight game of the season, an actual Bulls national TV game and I expect a big time ovation for Butler. I also think they're one of the more intriguing teams with a lot of talent; perhaps as much as anyone. Towns is an elite center, at least on potential, and the same with Wiggins' potential. They have top role players, Sixth Man of the Year guys in Taj and Jamal. They could be really good. It's been interesting to watch them. Early in the season, Jimmy was deferring a lot for Towns and Wiggins. But then when they began to lose a few games, Jimmy took the scoring load. He's produced and they've won more, but it's also meant a lesser role for Wiggins and Towns at times. Can Thibodeau work that out? That's his challenge. They continue to remain one of the poorer defensive teams, which they have been Thibodeau's entire time there. Not that he's a bad defensive coach; it just was overlooked how good his defensive players were with the Bulls. The challenge will be to get Butler, Wiggins and Towns working in tandem. If they do, it wouldn't be surprising to see them make a deep playoff run. They appear to have as much or more talent than anyone but the Warriors.
I'm slowly making peace with the fact we're not going to have a top 5 pick. I realize there are examples of players being found at any point in the draft, but it's always easier to cheer for pedigree than another worker bee Jimmy Butler type developing after a few years with the team. I also begrudgingly admit that the best way for the team to really turn the corner is to develop that winning attitude. So for this group to really rally together and win some games as a team, only for management to panic and trade everybody, that would really send a bad message to the players (both on the team and considering to join) and might really set us back. So here's my solution, talk the fan base/media into the upside play and trade Niko and some expiring contracts to LA for Brandon Ingram and Luol Deng's contract albatross. 2 more horrible years of Deng but he's a respected veteran Bull, lead the players and maybe be a bit of team ambassador as he cashes his checks. Then we're looking at a future starting 5 of Dunn-LaVine-Ingram-Lauri- and maybe sign Ja Okafor in the off season and bring him home and hope that does something?! Or some other athletic center. Maybe Bobby Portis turns into a strong man modern center? Just seems like there is a lot more high end potential with this group.
Sam: I know a lot of teams who would like to have Ingram, especially the Lakers. After moving D'Angelo Russell, it seems clear Ingram is part of their future core. You're right; he's good. But the point you make is relevant. There is something to creating a winning, dare I say, culture? I always felt that's one thing that held the 76ers back, creating a losing atmosphere that they probably had to keep turning over rosters, to some extent. The Spurs were the ideal, which is also what happens when you can get Tim Duncan and already have David Robinson. You maybe want to do that for a season. One month in the Bulls case? But there are no Duncans in the draft. He was a four-year player, remember. I don't know if the Bulls have any trade plans at this point. And I certainly understand if you can add another first round draft pick, especially if you identify a player you won't be moving forward with long term. After all, you can't pay everyone. But success does matter, and it's not like this Eastern Conference has Michael Jordan's Bulls. The Bulls remain without the guy regarded as their best talent and have been playing the East pretty competitively as is.
Considering we are 9-2 in the last 11, and with LaVine coming back, isn't it feasible for us to go 29-18 or 30-17 - Roughly 60% win rate - and make the playoffs at 41-41 or 42-40?
Sam: I'm not sure I should make many more predictions since I had the Bulls for 18 wins. Even though I thought three weeks ago I might have been generous.
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