Ask Sam Mailbag 3.20.20

Mitch Tobin:

To say that reading your Ask Sam column was a breath of fresh air amidst the gloom and doom is an understatement. The silver lining (yes, perhaps this is a stretch) is that the absence of games will let you do a deep dive regarding subjects that you might not otherwise have time to address. So let's start with this: It's a difficult task to project how a player of one era would perform in another. I don't think anyone would dispute that Michael Jordan would still be great in today's game (I personally still believe he's the best player of all time, although in general I prefer talking about the best players generally, rather than a handful in particular – it's so hard to compare with different positions, eras, etc.). Could you assess Michael's strengths and weaknesses in today's game and how you think he might have adapted and fared?

Sam Smith:

I'm trying to do my very small part, so I'll continue a few times a week if there's enough interest. I guess we could do those Jordan anniversaries of his greatest games pretty much every day, and I believe bulls.com will be adding some features so you can watch those games. Some also will be on NBCSports. You've stumbled upon the correct historic balance since it probably is unfair and unrealistic—despite our demand to know who's best right now!—that it's too difficult to cross over eras for comparison. Could Michael have done that when Wilt and then Kareem were dominating? Coaches then demanded you throw the ball into the post first, and it was pretty crowded in there. Heck, what would have happened if the Bulls had Kareem when Michael was drafted? Getting that many shots? Oscar Robertson got all those shots because his center as Wayne Embry. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were playing with LeRoy Ellis and then Darrell Imhoff. Baylor started to decline seriously from knee injuries when Wilt came. I wrote an oral history/narrative book a few years back called There is No Next. I was pleased Phil Jackson distributed it as his travel book to Knicks players if they wanted to understand Jordan. Though Carmelo may have burned it. The point of the title was less that no one could ever play as well, but that Jordan in addition to his fabulous abilities changed society as well as basketball. There was the shoes, the look, the shaved head, the oxymoron long shorts, the earrings. Things that may have been revolutionary became accepted and commonplace because of Jordan's endorsement. No athlete ever has had that effect. His basketball abilities and success became that American success story we always like to celebrate, kid from humble beginnings to excellence through his hard work, skills and knowledge. Jordan would succeed in any era. Would he have exceeded Wilt at the time? Probably not because of the insistence then on post play, which by the way many believe has been ignored much too much in the current rush to play based on spread sheets rather than individual abilities. No, I'm not a fan of the way many teams play these days. Though perhaps it could have been Jordan if Jordan back then had the smartest general manager, Red Auerbach, who built the team of all time without a dominant post center but with a game that was timeless, featuring speed, great defense and good shooting. Well, OK shooting. It wasn't invented with the Warriors in 2015 as much as the Celtics in 1956. Anyway, what separated Jordan, and really does the few who stand above the rest, is the intangibles, the skill, and the will. I always believed Chris Webber was more skilled than Jordan, that Webber could take the ball off the backboard with his size, dribble full court and finish and had a pretty good outside shot ability. He just didn't compete that seriously. Of course, anyone needs the basic skills. But what truly elevated Jordan was that relentless will not to be defeated, to take every challenge personally and to play at a feverish level from practice to the last moments. And rue the losses more than reveling in the wins. If Jordan were playing today, he would have improved his three-point shot to the 40 percent level.

Though even as the game in the late 1990s was adapting more to the three-point shot, Jordan showed the impact the mid-range game could have with forceful defense and patterned play in the triangle as the Bulls led the league in scoring in 1996 and 1997 without much of a three-point game. I believe Jordan today would find a way to change the thinking that playing through the post, like through him, forcing contact, getting to the line and pushing the ball still would produce effective offense without the excess of three-point shots. If the rules erasing perimeter contact remained the way they are, he would get 15 free throws a game. Or if applied in his era, Bill Laimbeer would have been in prison. There were always players who could shoot better, jump higher, pass better or run faster than Jordan. He wasn't even the best defender on his team. But Jordan in his prime would be the best player in today's game because he combined all those skills with a determination never to let time on the clock go by without trying harder than the other guy. That's also what makes you the best.

Xotovio Bell:

Due to more important things going on, I decided to check out the Jordan Rules. Still an excellent read, as well as a reminder of the moments when the era of print and 3 network television dominated the scene. The book has been dissected numerous times, but what's fascinating to me, are the moments that seem minor, but eventually became huge stories. Jordan's initial reluctance to be a part of the Dream Team. Especially if a meant playing with Isiah. Jordan saying he didn't want to go to the White House if the Bulls won the title. On more than one occasion, Jordan mentions the idea of retirement despite being one of the best 3 point shooters and highly respected amongst players and coaches, Craig Hodges is traded twice by conservative franchises over his activism and outspokenness on social issues. Scottie Pippen says that although they wouldn't be as dominant without Jordan, he feels that they could at least be a team that could make the 2nd round of the playoffs. At the start of the Gulf War Phil Jackson warns his team about the repercussions of war. Following the sweep of Detroit, Pippen says that he thinks Rodman has issues that have nothing to do with basketball.

Sam Smith:

Since so many book clubs have been canceled in the wake of the virus, how about the Sam Smith reading hour? I'm not usually one to promote myself or pat myself on the back, though I am reasonably flexible for my age. But that was an unusually interesting group of people beyond being an excellent basketball team. I'd forgotten a lot of those things since they were in the moment. Fans often will post stories I'd completely forgotten were by me, which is like the players when I'll ask them about games we media and fans remember vividly from decades ago and they have zero recollection. Because it was just their work of the day as special as we may have seen them. Similarly with writing about so many games. And especially for a newspaper. And more especially with those night games and anxious editors back in the office. You're often sitting there rooting for a particular outcome because you have a lead to the story that fits the scenario best. The lead is the toughest part. Once you have that, then you can just make a pile of the events. And then you go onto the next story the next day just as the players go onto the next game and they all run together coming so quickly.

The Jordan Rules in many respects was a fluke because none of us, including them, expected the Bulls would win that season. And certainly not as spectacularly by sweeping the Pistons and taking out the Lakers and Magic in five, Jordan with that famous switch hands layup, the champion Pistons melting down, Michael acceding to the throne so many were building for him. The book was merely to be a season-long diary as a lark in the spirit of David Halberstam's classic Breaks of the Game diary of the 1979 Portland Trailblazers (his was better written, but without injured Bill Walton and a first-round and out team. I had a champion team and the game's greatest figure and thus more sales if being less literary). It was something of a test case for me. You know, that guy wrote a book and he's not so bright. Maybe I can, also. There was a somewhat hostile reaction at the time, especially from Jordan, who I think was most concerned that his popularity would suffer because of "revelations" that he always wasn't the perfect teammate. He's done reasonably well since as I read recently he's one of the world's richest people with a net worth close to $2 billion, an NBA team—great irony as he's now the owner's lead on the labor committee—and he now has built his own private golf club with limited upper six-figure membership costs and a long waiting list, basically the new Augusta National. Me? I'm waiting to see if we pick up with Bulls/Magic.

John Petersen:

The players need a place to hopefully work on their games or perhaps get non-virus treatment/monitoring. The Bulls facility is huge and can be well monitored and cleaned. Is it open now to the players and being used or are they at their homes or on their own everywhere?

Sam Smith:

The Bulls like most (or all, I think) closed their practice facilities and players went to their homes like the rest of us. Some went back to their offseason residences, I believe. I suppose they might be running in place. But it's going to be difficult for all sports getting back on its feet as it's difficult to believe many players will be in game shape. So there'll have to be all sorts of spring training/training camps that are apparently so much in the distance it's not the time to even consider that now.

Kieron Smith:

According to Sports Illustrated, the playoffs should begin in May.

Sam Smith:

That was last week. Obviously this changes day-to-day. Commissioner Silver was on ESPN this week outlining mostly just the thinking about things. No one knows where the medical part is going. Silver mentioned a possible fundraiser game that sounded somewhat like the charity game the players union had during the 1998-99 lockout, though this one would be league-sponsored. Still, given an All-Star typesetting, it's difficult to see players putting out very much in that sort of game. Silver on ESPN merely talked about preliminary conditions like whether the league can have a game with fans, have games without fans. Things change quickly with this virus, so I wouldn't count on any long term predictions. One possibility that hasn't been discussed much might be with the NCAA tournament canceled and the cancellation of America's pastime of playing a basketball pool, perhaps some sort of bracket playoffs either with the eight playoff teams from each conference or all 15 teams with 15 against 14, 14 against 13 and so on for a few days until getting to eight in each conference. It would be sort of a test run for Silver's mid season tournament. And the way Silver alluded to possible future schedule changes, maybe it's the opening for his tournament which was met skeptically. Then this spring or summer a playoff bracket with best of three early rounds until only the best of seven in the Finals. Because all the NBA executive people are at home, also, you can bet—and they're anxious to do that as well—they are discussing a hundred scenarios every day if only to avoid watching day time TV.

John Leichenko:

I'm glad to see joakim is back in the league, one of my favorite bulls. When he was healthy, he was a force on both ends. Besides the 3, can you compare denver's Jokic at point center to Joakim's point center? Was noah the first point center?Noah was a really good passer, and eventually, for a time, could hit that weird outside shot. Point center noah is underrated!

Sam Smith:

Well, I guess this all gives Jo more chance to get in shape. Like Jo probably says, Hey, you'll never guess what happened when I finally agreed to play again. Lesser known, really, is the Bulls basically had the first-ever point forward, Mickey Johnson, the Chicago native who attended Lindblom high and Aurora College who works with the team now and was one of the more underrated players in team history. Though Don Nelson truly was an innovator, he didn't create the position in Milwaukee with Paul Pressey as many believe. Though we loved Jo's hustle, demeanor and desire, I wouldn't classify him as a point center because he was no scoring threat. Jokic is much more skilled because you can play through him and he also can draw the defense with his scoring ability. The NBA, unbelievably, still was wary of European players controlling the ball when Jokic was a second-round pick in 2014. With Doncic that's forever over. If Jokic ever really got in shape, he might be LeBron. Well, not that fast, but he's remarkable with the ball.

Though you'd have to say in some respects that Wilt also was a point center since he led the league in assists one season. The Bulls have had some of the best point centers ever in Johny Kerr and Tim Boerwinkle, which basically were what we called high post centers since they didn't play inside like the scoring centers like Kareem, Nate Thurmond or Artis Gilmore. Also because they couldn't score like them. There have been some great passing centers, like Phoenix's Alvan Adams and Kansas City's Sam Lacey. Arvydas Sabonis, we were told, but he was slowed with knee problems by the time he came to the NBA. The best I ever saw was Bill Walton, who virtually directed the entire offense from wherever he was and could do about everything. Also was one of the greatest competitors ever in a class with guys like Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird and Kobe. Had literally dozens of surgeries. Bill was someone healthy who would have rivaled anyone who ever played for his versatile game and competitive nature. I know Bill well. He once led his college team to 88 straight wins. I can never get him to talk about any of the wins, but he remembers every detail of the losses. That's a trait I see in the truly elite. They remember the losses much more because they don't expect ever to lose. They don't remember the wins so much because they assumed they'd win.

Chris Feldman:

Have you heard anything more about Charles Barkley's status? He announced last Thursday he was self-quarantining and that he'd had a coronavirus test, but I've not been able to find any follow-up of if the test was positive or if he's just recovering from a different virus. I respect his privacy, but I was just concerned. Any info you know? Thanks.

Sam Smith:

I have not. But knowing Charles we'll eventually know. He's not much for deception or discretion. Now that's a voice you miss on TV. Heck, often they're more fun talking about the game than the game. Assuming he's OK, maybe TNT eventually can start showing remotes with each in his home. Charles lives in Phoenix, where the outbreak seems to be lesser at this point. So hoping he's doing well. There isn't another.