Ask Sam Mailbag 12.6.19

Tom Golden:

I have the Bulls capable of winning 9 games this month, assuming losses to the bucks, heat, raptors and clippers, tossing out a clunker against either the wizards or Orlando. But easily eight games if we're serious. Even then we won't be five hundred, but we'll be in the hunt

Sam Smith:

December can be magical, as Fred Hoiberg also might tell you from the 10-2 domination (he got cheated out of coach of the month) in December 2017. Though as we recall it wasn't a magical finish. But it's true. The Bulls have two wins in a row so far—though we said this last week in San Francisco—and they should get that one Friday against the (We Were) Warriors. No, really. This time for sure. I think. Two factors are pointing toward the Bulls finally regaining some actual footing. The Bucks and the 76ers might not notice, but pieces—and structure—finally seems to be falling in place. The first six weeks were a massive underachievement for this level of talent, disturbed some by the tinkering.

The main starters like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen were being lifted in games too soon and put back in for shorter stints. That seems over. The tryouts for a few positions seem concluded for now, in part because of the injuries to Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison. Kris Dunn seems more settled back starting and the bench appears to have more consistency of personnel and when they are playing. Sure, they've still blown some late leads, but they've also begun to hold onto them. The Bulls don't have any quality wins yet, but some of the best teams have just a few. Starting with Golden State Friday, eight of the subsequent 11 games this month are against teams with losing records. Yes, I know, that's what the others are saying about the Bulls. But the way the Bulls have been playing even in some of the losses, like in Portland, it is an opportunity to regain some credibility and begin again, in a sense. Long season, remember?

Matt Koza:

Do you think having White start would help open the floor for Zach and Lauri? Even with inconsistency, it looks like teams still respect him as a threat. Once Porter returns I think Sato would be great for the bench unit too.

Sam Smith:

No. White's in a very good spot for the way he plays. Sure, he'd like to start, and you are correct that he'd draw more defense than, say, Kris Dunn, though now that Dunn seems to be relaxing more about playing I believe his shooting will improve. The issue with White as a starter is even if the floor opens for LaVine and Markkanen, he's unlikely to see where they are. He's kind of a head-down player now, concentrating on the rim and his spot to get off a shot. That's no great issue because that's the player he's always been, and just because you want him to play like Satoransky doesn't mean he can. He's a viable future point guard type in this era given that players like Damian Lillard are considered point guards. For now, the Bulls are using him the best way as an energy scorer off the bench with a defense-oriented unit. Satoransky really is the only actual point guard on the roster given his combination of size, IQ, passing ability and scoring prowess. For the Bulls purposes, he's a much better starter now than White.

Martin Jones:

Otto Porter Jr.'s injury is somewhat complicated to understand. Can you explain his injury and give us a timeline for typical recovery time? Any updates on Otto's status?

Sam Smith:

Otto, the great palindrome mystery. I’m assuming since medical records are legally private the Bulls and Porter had not elected not to share things. Porter finally spoke with reporters last week and said pretty much nothing. The Bulls Friday released this update: "Otto Porter Jr. underwent a repeat MRI of his left foot on Wednesday, Dec. 4, which revealed continued bone edema. Following a brief period of immobilization, Porter will resume a program of non-impact activities and targeted therapy. In addition, Porter will be evaluated by Dr. Bob Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist in Green Bay, Wisc., and be reassessed in two weeks."

It doesn’t sound very promising given Porter hasn’t even come close to practicing yet. There’d been all sorts of mentions I don’t always understand like, “soft tissue,” “bone bruise,” “sprained foot,” “Oh no!” He’s been out a month already and teams usually don’t bring back players until they’ve been scrimmaging for a week after injuries. When he's ready bring Porter back to be a starter? Probably, though then adjust again? It’s another of those elephants now that Kris Dunn’s has gone out to graze naturally. Porter’s absence probably is not hurting NBA TV ratings as much as the injuries to most every other famous guy. But he was to be important to the Bulls with his shooting, size and veteran savvy. One of the themes of the NBA is your ability varies with your availability. Porter has missed a lot of games since the trade last February, including the last 11 with the Bulls after 10 with the Wizards just before the trade. When he plays, he can be impressive. How much he can will be a concern for the team this season. But if he's being reassessed in two weeks my complete lack of medical knowledge still suggests another month out. Oh my.

Ed Sikora:

Any chance of bringing back "Chet the Jet" to help close out games and toss in a few free throws? When I played in the alleys on the SW side with my buddies in the early 70‘s I always pretended to be Chet. Head fakes and bank shots and all.

Sam Smith:

I'm hoping one day to see his No. 25 hanging now that Walt Lemon is gone and the Warriors are putting the finishing touches on the Steve Kerr statue. It's looked like that even at 79 this season with all the late meltdowns Chet could have helped. The problem for the Bulls for a few seasons has been the lack of acknowledgment of who that guy is. Dick Motta had a great scorer in Bob Love and fiery competitors in Sloan and Van Lier. But he knew when he needed a late basket to stop a run, it was Chet. The Bulls have experimented with this for a few seasons with the one guy hiding in plain sight, LaVine. He's not quite Chet with the Elgin Baylor-like head and shoulder fakes to draw the fouls. But he's the guy to close, and the results lately seem to indicate the team seems to finally understand. The closer doesn't make them all the time. And doesn't always take the ideal shot or make the perfect play. Like Jordan's famous Nike quote (where else): "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." They are artists and not scientists. There's a freelance function to the equation. Zach's not as good. But the point is to employ the player who has the best chance the most often because of the imaginative plays he potentially can make. The Bulls seem finally to be accepting that it's Zach LaVine.

Ateeq Ahmed:

Denzel with those nice passes! Very impressive. What is the news on his health? He looks confident. I'm loving our bench, too. That unit with Dunn, Valentine and Gafford is going to be good.

Sam Smith:

Healthy and obviously rested. Denzel seems to have finally emerged from solitary. It was disappointing there was so little explanation, though I credit Valentine for always being positive if you also could tell he was deeply disappointed about suddenly being last on a roster with Felicio. I'd watch Valentine on the bench and he never was pouting, and, in fact, was usually engaged, jumping up to anticipate threes going in. Which probably got him in shape for all the attempts this season. I understand to an extent that Boylen opted for the trapping defense on the pick and roll, and Valentine isn't exactly fleet. But he's smart and anticipates well, and the Bulls have backed off that strategy some. Plus for a team shooting so poorly on threes, it didn't make much sense to have him doing jumping jacks on teammates' attempts. It's really not ridiculous given the multiple new additions that there was experimentation to start as difficult as it's been to accept. Denzel finally got the call just before the recent road trip and has had 34 points in 64 minutes played and is eight of 20 on threes, a solid 40 percent since then. The reserves' defense hasn't suffered. He seems to have played well enough to again earn a spot.

John Petersen:

Let's assume 40 wins are necessary for the playoffs in the east. Is it advantageous for the Bulls to miss at 39 and reach the lottery? 39 wins would be a dramatic improvement of 17 wins over last season and first round elimination is a certainty.

Sam Smith:

It's true perhaps in talking about the playoffs—though Boylen did first—that it was somewhat presumptuous given the 22-win season because a 10-win improvement usually is terrific. Though I assume even Boylen factored in basically everyone but Lopez took off the last month last season. I doubt 40 wins is necessary, by the way, and now that Kyrie Irving appears like he could be out an extended time who knows about the Nets. I believe the Bulls have had enough of the lottery manipulation because mainly it never has worked, and with the league continuing to diminish the odds of the near-miss teams, playing for a half a percent chance hardly seems worth a season of play. The disappointment this season has been the Bulls do have more talent than their results. You don't give up on that a quarter of the way into the season. There's nothing wrong with playing for seventh or eighth now since it is moving forward quite a bit from where they have been. And stuff happens. Remember when Rondo almost beat the top-seeded Celtics? I'll take my shot at the Bucks if Giannis sprains his ankle.

Kirk Landers:

As for Chandler Hutchison, let's just get him healthy and find out what he can do. The few games this year looked promising.

Sam Smith:

It doesn't seem he'll be out as long as Porter, but the frequency of the injuries has to be a concern, especially since none are major. It's one reason, I believe, many including me weren't that high on the Lakers this season. We expect Anthony Davis to miss 10 or 15 games at some point like he often does. Obviously playing with LeBron puts less pressure on him and perhaps gives him a chance to avoid the additional exertion that was required of him in New Orleans. When Davis had less of a load with DeMarcus Cousins the team was doing better. And then it was Cousins who was seriously injured. Too bad, actually, for a guy I never much cared for. But this has been unfair. There are difficult decisions all season long for every team. So what if the Bulls get on a run now and Hutchison is ready to return? Start him again? I'd probably try to work him in with the reserve group because that's where he'll be when Porter plays. But as you noted he did show some things defensively and matchup wise that was missing. The Bulls need to determine what he can do. It is the other conundrum with youth and experience: How much development with the youth will offset the effect and impact of the experience?

Kevin Matt:

Why is the 3 or a layup a thing in the NBA? Unless your team is shooting at a high clip, this makes no sense. It leaves some players out of the offense. Some can't always get to the rim, and can't shoot 3s. A midrange jumper option for some guys, for sure, would actually add benefit from spreading the floor, because the midrange would be quite open. And it would fit some guys arsenal. For some teams this might work, but I don't see it for the Bulls. Presently they have almost no inside threat, besides some guys driving; no big man threat, besides WC Jr.. Which means teams can easily guard to the 3 line. This Bulls team needs to find another way and not just copy the NBA trend.

Sam Smith:

I'm for the best shot, though being on Social Security appears to have diminished my voice. Other than potentially at McDonald's in the morning. It's about math. Simply three is more than two and the highest percentage of successful shots, reasonably, come closest to the basket. It fails to include preference and emotion, but math people generally don't have those understandings, sensitivities or inclinations. As the crowd heads in one direction, the biggest threat to job security is to go in another. Because you better be really right if everyone else is doing the other thing. The theory is the more you shoot threes the better you will get, so then the three-point shot will get you more points. Of course, some don't improve, which then means get someone else.

One objection I have is that two points still counts as offensive as it may be. I've always found that scoring begets scoring, that once players begin to have success they gain confidence about success and seem to have more. Conversely, once you accept shooting below 40 percent is good enough since no teams shoot more than 40 percent overall on threes (though some are getting close) then you accept missing many more than half your shots. I believe that way of thinking leads to accepting failure too easily. There's obviously a blend needed because awarding 50 percent more points for another foot or so obviously unlevels the playing field. But you need to fuse that with the talent you have.

Richard Meagher:

Who could the Bulls trade, or combination of players, to get an additional Number one pick? I love Anthony Edwards of Georgia so if the Bulls finish in the top spot in the lottery. I hope they take him. Getting an additional first round pick would also help in their rebuild.

Sam Smith:

Hey, they're rolling now, two in a row. No tanking! The hope with the additions of Satoransky and Young and last season Porter was that there were enough young players and a mix of veterans would help them. Though neither looks like the next LeBron, it seems like the last two No. 1s, Carter and White, are very good additions and strong pros to move forward with. Of course, the Bulls like any other team would love to have more talent no matter the age. But the Bulls do keep pointing out the young average age of the roster, which needs to stop being an excuse. More young players would only seem to exacerbate that. Sure, if you can add a potential star, like Doncic is becoming. The way the season has gone, another lottery obviously remains a possibility. I'm hoping not as I miss the at least late April games. So give me some time to watch college ball. As bad as it is, it's too early for that. By the way, Zach, Lauri, White or Carter should get you a No. 1, though likely not top five because those picks generally are overvalued because you maybe get fired—or at least ridiculed—if you passed on the next Luka. I'm not interested.

Kurt Payne:

How about a mini tournament for the non playoff teams to WIN the first pick? 14 lottery teams, 1-12 play best 2 of 3 series, 13, 14 getting a bye. That gets you down to 8 teams so you go three more rounds until there's one winning team for the first pick. There's no incentive to tank and get in the top 3. No more ping pong balls or complicated formulas or accusations of a fix. Owners get to host at least one more home game; can put those games on TV during the afternoons, maybe have $5 kids tickets.

Sam Smith:

I get the sentiment and it's laudable, though $5 tickets probably already has caused some executive suite heart attacks. This is how your plan would go since the reward is a better draft pick so a player on your roster will be replaced: Everyone tries to miss (which maybe produces a better percentage) to lose that first game and go home since the league is hardly about to pay the players extra for a lottery tournament.

Art Alenik:

Have you noticed that, while the Bulls have played with pace these past 2 games, it's not quite the frenetic pace they've exhibited most of this season?To wit, they took only 75 shots against the Kings and only 77 against the Grizz, while taking 85-95 shots in most prior games. They're also running some Pick-n-Roll and some 2-man stuff, and shooting midrange shots when they're open. Maybe they're figuring out how to win, but... the substitutions and PT allotment seems to have changed too. Starters are finally getting 30+ minutes and I didn't notice as many "innovative" line-ups as usual. Of course, Boylen says that they're just getting better at playing fast & shooting 3's. And it's true that they're shooting almost as many 3's as before. (Helps that Lauri is making some.) But they don't seem as frantic to get a shot off as before. It'll be interesting to see if they keep playing this way... and if they keep winning.

Sam Smith:

It's a valid observation, and I think you're correct. The players have been lobbying for more of the pick and roll and two-man action to offset the frenzy, and Markkanen after the Sacramento game even said he and Zach discussed it prior to the game. It's a high character group of people, and when you have that there are many positives. Another thing is they want to please and follow instructions. Sometimes in a game like basketball which also requires improvisation, you have to take the shot or make the play that fits you or the game and not just the script. Call an audible. To me it's been an issue in all of sports, this overmanagement/micromanagement with baseball executives calling pitches and just about everything else while the manager poses as a scarecrow, football coaches scripting every play and calling them in by a receiver in the helmet (think about that, Johnny U) and basketball coaches designing a system of shot locations.

I appreciate the people who study and scheme, though I more trust the people with the instinctive judgments for the game. Not everyone has the temperament or organizational skills to be a coach, which is a difficult and all-encompassing job. But the job often overlooks the reasons many become coaches; because they didn't see the game as well as players. There are great coaches who transcend that and are better than most players. There are role players who see the game better and can transmit the message. And there are coaches who studied to be just that. It strikes me there needs to be a better mix. Perhaps 40 years ago, it was too player-instinct oriented. Like all pendulums whether in business, government or sports, it's swung too far the way of the bookkeeper today in sports. Players need to make more decisions. They can in basketball given the extemporaneous possibilities. The Bulls seem to be doing so more lately for the better.