Ask Sam Mailbag: 12.8.17
Sam opens his mailbag and answers reader's questions
May be time to sit Lauri. He looks tired and has no legs.
Sam: Just in time for Mirotic's return? How'd they time that so perfectly? I agree, though not as a demotion. And not quite yet as Mirotic maybe will just play his first game Friday in Charlotte after the preseason fight with Bobby Portis. He's listed as questionable. Markkkanen has proven to be one of the better rookies this season, still averaging 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for the season, ranking in the top five among rookies in those prime categories. But no rookie really went through the last eight months that he did with the end of his freshman season, the draft, back to Finland for the national team for tournament play and then right back to the Bulls and thrust into the starting job with the Portis/Mirotic contretemps and then the team's best player in the opening weeks and thus more relied upon. And even still with Mirotic and Zach LaVine out, there was Markkanen Wednesday in Indianapolis trying to save the game with a last shot. Defenses have recognized him more, so more opponent pressure. In the last nine games, Markkanen is averaging 12.3 points and 7.8 rebounds, which is commendable. But not so much for a great shooter. He is shooting 31.2 percent overall and 27 percent on threes. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he'd remain as the starter with Mirotic in recovery and Portis back coming off the bench. And maybe just reducing his minutes to accommodate time for Mirotic would be enough. But there would be nothing wrong with bringing Markkanen off the bench for awhile to play with an up and down second unit. Give Mirotic a starting job as some sign of good will, also. After all, he was in line to start before those facial fractures suffered two days before the season opener. I don't see it as an issue watching and hearing Mirotic since he's been back, but then Portis and Mirotic wouldn't be playing on the same unit. Portis was on the court for Lopez down the stretch against Indiana Wednesday and made a nice defensive play on an Oladipo drive before Oladipo's winner. It looks like the Bulls already are preparing for Mirotic since Felicio hasn't played in three of the last six games. Portis looks like he'll play some center with Mirotic returning. So perhaps keep Markkanen and Portis together on a unit with Mirotic, a shooter, with Lopez. It's no real demotion for Markkanen as he'll probably still Finnish games. That never gets old.
It must be very hard for you to be a Bulls beat writer these days.
Sam: Really, not so much. Remember, too, being paid to watch games, no matter how erratic, is pretty darned nice, Anyway, I know fans are invested in wins and losses, and we do keep score for a reason. And all that you are your record stuff. But I'm enjoying this team much more than the early 2000s rebuild when the coach basically hated the young players. No one gets credit for the sort of record they have, but I like the way the players and Hoiberg are handling it, upbeat, optimistic if disappointed, leaving the losses behind and starting each day fresh. I believe they will start to win some games once LaVine and Mirotic start playing; after all, that's 40 percent of the starting lineup that would have started the season if healthy. Makes it a lot easier if players like Holiday, Valentine and even Markkanen aren't expected to do quite so much so quickly and so often. It's not excusing them, but examining what they can do and when and how they might fit. It makes every game intriguing in that sense of seeing who will begin to make the plays against all odds. After all, how many games are these Bulls favored to win? There's always interest in the unexpected or unanticipated.
Because of the Bulls' announced rebuild and record there is high interest in the 2018 draft. In most disciplines there are weak performers, those average and some that are more talented and lucky. Those more successful than average probably have a organizational evaluation system or a top talent evaluator like a Jerry West or a Jerry Krause. An argument can be made that one of the current top evaluators or systems is that of Boston with Danny Ainge. Which teams would you rank as above average in talent analysis and longer term drafting success?
Sam: No one much has the secret to this. After all, there's no degree or test, like a lawyer or accountant. How do you train to be a sports executive? Watch games? Then why can't the guy in the sports bar do it? I know; that's what he says, also. True, Boston had done well lately, but with a pair of top three picks. It's difficult not to. Everyone knows where the talent is, which is why the Bulls finally are doing what they are this season, going back into the talent heap. The Bulls have done reasonably well in the draft, getting Jimmy Butler, an all-league player, with the 30th pick. That's big time stuff. With Rose, Noah, Gibson and Deng and then Butler being added and coming in reserve from a clever draft pick, the Bulls, I believe, would have won a title. That would have justified everything they did. They had bad luck. More so Rose, but it affects everyone. They tried a few years behind Jimmy, but he may have enabled them to get three starters for the future. If that results, it's an excellent transition. Golden State did amazingly with Curry at No. 7 and Thompson at No. 11 in the draft. And Draymond Green, of course, was a second rounder, but their third pick in that draft, the other two gone from the team. West had a great reputation for this, but then he went to Memphis and drafted Drew Gooden with the fourth pick ahead of lottery picks Stoudemire, Nene and Caron Butler. West's strength was admitting a mistake and moving on quickly, which he did by trading Gooden that season. All the great ones make great mistakes. The thing is you only have to hit big once, like the Bulls falling into Rose. Then you can fill around him as the Bulls did well. Remember, LeBron was a No. 1 pick; Durant was No. 2 when Seattle/Oklahoma City would have taken Oden first. Oklahoma City made a nice pick with Westbrook, but he was top five. So was Harden. Sure, the Bucks made a great choice with Antetokounmpo. Right before him with No 1 picks, all lottery, they took Larry Sanders, Brandon Jennings, Joe Alexander and Yi Jianlian. If you get five shots at it, you should hit a big one, and that's usually all you need. Same with the 76ers. Without Embiid, they'd still be in the lottery six years later. Look at all the top 10 to 15 scoring guys: Porzingis, Davis, Cousins, Irving, Oladipo, Griffin, Wall, Beal. Basically all top five or close lottery picks. That's where the Bulls are headed now. Then they'll again be smart executives.
Luol Deng is owed $32 million from the Lakers and he's been exiled to the bench. His team is working on a buy-out. Why not bring him in as a small forward for this 3-20 team? If Lakers will pay 90 percent of what he's owed its a no brainier in my opinion- we are lacking a veteran voice in locker room. Seriously, unless we are looking to go 10-72 why not. This would make a decent team.
Sam: I'm still sticking to my preseason 18-win prediction. Lu's always been one of my favorite guys, a classy person and stabilizing force in the locker room. But this is a youth movement. I had to laugh at the Kings “youth” movement with Vince Carter and Zach Randolph. I know it's tempting when you are losing so much to go for a quick, temporary fix, but you have to stay disciplined. It's why the Bulls must remain cautious with LaVine even as he looks ready. I doubt we'll see him for a month. Which also belies the conventional wisdom about Rose, that he didn't want to come back. LaVine will return in 11 months after surgery. Eleven months after surgery for Rose that year was after the season was over that April. Not in February and March as so many urged Rose to return that season. And condemned him for not doing so. Apologies should be addressed to the Cleveland Cavaliers post office box.
It now seems pretty clear that the Bulls are tanking, and everyone is in on it. Last night, they totally dominated the Pacers until it was time to lose the game. Same thing in the Kings game. (Maybe Denver too, but the altitude is always a factor there.) And strangely, Hoiberg always runs out of TO's in those close endings. Hard to prove, but it does look a little suspicious. If they are doing this, it's actually OK with me, as long as they're playing as hard & as well as they can until they are in danger of winning at the end. Nwaba is one I really like. He's less talented than Dunn, but has that same “NBA player look”. Love his energy, and how he plays bigger than he is at both ends. I'll always find room on the bench for a guy like him, and every team can use one. Blakeney disappointed me. He had flashes of that great scoring ability, but mostly seemed overwhelmed by the NBA. Hoping he'll come back and have a better run, since we can sure use that instant offense.
Sam: No, they're not trying to lose even if management were asking them to do so, which it isn't. All you had to do was look at and listen to Hoiberg after the Indiana game, the players. Everyone knew they were going to lose a lot of games this season; the team was set up to do so with the Butler trade. Everyone agreed, right? Fans, media. The right thing to do? Time to do it. Everyone in on it. So then when it happens you cannot be surprised or disappointed. I hope they break the losing streak because you don't want the media and national attention for historic negative streaks. That the coach and players were that upset was positive in the sense that they really wanted it and are trying and feel that let down. That's really what we asked for this season, to compete, care and not give up. They are checking those boxes and guys are developing, notably Markkanen even with his little slump lately and the vast improvement of Dunn. Here were two guys who last summer were considered maybe busts or mistakes who look like sure NBA starters. And we haven't even seen LaVine. Nwaba is nice to have and a good pickup for the energy he provides; it is contagious. But there are flaws with such players, diminishing returns. You can't play them too much, but he should at least minimize all that whining about the second rounder given up to the Warriors. He fills the roster spot. Blakeney is clearly a G-league hall of famer. He's enticing because of that. He looked like he was just trying too hard with the Bulls. He's still worth the trouble. As for the time outs, it's also epidemic. The NBA changed the rules this season to reduce the number of timeouts in the game and, especially, for the last three minutes, now down from three to two. Coaches are adjusting and just about every team has been without those late timeouts. Games are shorter. Baseball could learn something. And there's never any spit on the court in the NBA.
I find myself thoroughly enjoying Kris Dunn's personality on the court. He plays with a looseness that I admire - like a Joakim Noah without the primal screams. I often see him interacting with fans courtside, and even with the opposing team's bench. Not in a disrespectful, showboating, or antagonizing manner. More like he'll be joking around with them, asking them questions and stuff. A few games ago, he was called for a foul in front of Miami's bench. He didn't complain to the ref or anything. Instead he walked by the Miami Heat bench and literally asked them if they though it was a foul or not. Waiters and a couple other players actually had a little friendly-back-n-forth with him. It was pretty cool to see. His attitude is refreshing. Last night he got blocked and fouled by Oladipo and fell pretty hard. Instead of mean-mugging Oladipo, he looked up at him and smiled, to which Oladipo smiled back. I'm predicting Dunn, Lavine, and Lauri are going to be big-time fan favorites here in Chicago. The new Noahs.
Sam: I think the Bulls are happy about everything but the looseness, particularly with the ball. But as I've written, as long as it's with aggression to the basket, no problem. LeBron, I've noticed, makes lots of turnovers, also. Though the Bulls had another disappointing denouement Wednesday, I thought Dunn progressed by trying again to make those plays. Better than being conservative and not risking a mistake. I do like his demeanor, classy and professional. Despite the losing—after all, he's been with nothing but winning teams—he's a standup guy after games, willing to accept fault, never making excuses or blaming anyone, supporting his teammates and the staff. Sure, the NBA puts up with some of the drama and histrionics and it's popular in this era, but I still like the guys who when they do something well act more like they expected and have done it before than it was worthy of a celebration.
I found the silver-lining with this Bulls team and specifically tonight‘s game! My 14 year old daughter, Jade, is playing basketball for the first time with a local prep team. So we sat down and watched the fourth quarter of the Indiana game so she could learn some pointers. She learned how not to get trapped with the ball in the corner, how you should be attacking the basket, how you should play in control, how you should try to rebound, why you don't chuck the ball up from long-distances, how not to waste your time outs, etc. So many good lessons. I do like the talent of Dunn and love Markkanen. Excited to add Zach and see if Portis or Valentine emerges. Add 2018 pick and Bulls might have a quicker turnaround than most think. That Butler trade was absolutely the correct move.
Sam: Sounds like you defined learning experience not only for the team but the entire community. This could get the Bulls a mayoral public service award.
It is heart breaking to see Derrick this way. I think he should be back home, he doesn't deserve to become a journeyman. He still can help the team and he wouldn't cause any problems at this point in his career since the days of him being in the spotlight are gone and he could just be a normal veteran. It's a win-win, he gets to play in his hometown and the bulls get him on a cheap contract. He still means a lot to the city and it seems the city and the Bulls still mean a lot to him. Could it happen?
Sam: Of course not with the Bulls same as with Deng, Noah and Hinrich. Ben Gordon, as well. Probably not Chet Walker or Mickey Johnson, either. Though I see Lindblom's Mickey at most home games and he looks like he still can make that midrange baseline shot. Derrick has had plenty to work through given his injury history, and I have heard that ankle injury is more than a sprain. It's extremely frustrating, I'm sure, for him and has to make you consider your professional mortality. But things change quickly and the way the Cavs are playing he could just find himself in the NBA Finals, which would be a nice and welcome reward. He's where he needs to be.
Have you caught any Knicks games? What a rag tag bunch of guys on their last chance with a few core guys. I'm enjoying watching them play. I can't help feel bad for Phil Jackson- I'm assuming this was his vision if he was to get rid of Melo. Love seeing Doug prosper too
Sam: We'll get a look Saturday and later this month, and they are a misleading .500 team, if there is such a thing. They've had the most home games in the league and tied with the Bulls and Hornets for the fewest road wins. The Bulls, by the way, are tied for the fewest home games, so it's not a level playing field quite yet. Yes, the Knicks will be better than the Bulls this season, and, yes, Phil was more right than anyone else there that Anthony was the problem and they had to get rid of him. And we do hope McDermott can prosper. But it's difficult to see where the path is for the Knicks. They've got some modestly talented guys with Kanter, Hardaway and Courtney Lee. But everything rests on Porzingis and, to an extent, rookie Ntilikina. Can Porzingis stay healthy? He missed 26 games his first two seasons and four lately, though he is back now. Can you build around a giant like that who plays mostly on the perimeter? Their run was built around Anthony, and they made the playoffs three times in seven years. They probably don't have any significant salary cap room for a free agent until the summer of 2021. LeBron, though, could be ready for his retirement tour then. We know how those free agents love to flock to New York.
Okay, it's officially hard to watch our young Bulls, especially when they play a veteran team because that's when their mistakes are most visible, not to mention painful. Really painful. But when I watch some of the other teams around the league, I can't help thinking, it could be worse. For the sake of the Oklahoma City faithful, I hope the Thunder's investment in three Alphas pays off as the season goes on, but right now, that franchise has a fortune invested in mediocrity. And if the team doesn't gel, they're going to have a hard time getting good value for divesting any or all of those stars. Paul George can leave on his own; Anthony would have to come with a sizeable dowry if the OKC experiment fails (like the NYC experiment failed); and even Westbrook, brilliant athlete and entertainer that he is, would have limited appeal to franchises that want to compete for championships. I think there are several other middle-of-the-pack franchises that are in similar shape--stuck in mediocrity and needing a huge stroke of luck to land a game-changing talent in the middle of the draft. So, if we Bulls fans can survive the bleeding side of the learning curve, we at least have prospects of picking in the top four or five in the spring draft. Of course, as I say that, I realize that our pick will almost certainly be a teenager, and really, what parent-aged adult in their right mind ever thought something good would come of adding another teen to the household?
Sam: Yes, there's always a catch. The Oklahoma City thing is interesting—and we always have to frame these things as not a criticism of Jimmy Butler, whom I am always proud of for the way he's made himself a star player—but that model of fishing for a subsidiary star with a flawed star is risky. Again, no offense to Butler, but Westbrook is better. After all, he was league MVP. But if you can't produce around him, can you with adding parts not quite as good as Jimmy? Yes, get better players than him. OK, send me the directions. The season isn't over yet, so no writing off the Thunder (psst, Carmelo is the biggest problem). But has the problem there been Billy Donovan or Westbrook? After all, Oladipo looks awfully good and so does Sabonis with the Pacers. So does Enes Kanter now and they also had Taj Gibson. They were hardly the one-man team most everyone said they were. Coach's fault? That's usually the easiest call because, after all, he didn't average a triple double. But you get the sense there that Westbrook has as much control of that organization as LeBron does in Cleveland without the level of talent or maturity. It's understandable the risky moves they made for Paul George and Anthony; it got them Westbrook extended, which probably is worth losing George after this season and stuck with a declining Anthony another season. But you get the feeling that Westbrook is pretty much ordering everyone around and dictating things so much that really being a true contender isn't likely for them. But they still are compelling, and that at least gets you through the regular season. They are one of those auto accident teams. You have to slow down and take a look even if nothing really is going on.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.