Ask Sam Mailbag 4.3.20

Sam opens his mailbag and answers questions on the '90's Bulls, Jim Boylen, and more.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Joe Tanner:

If the 95-96 bulls were playing in the modern NBA, would Kerr and Kukoc be starting in place of Harper and Rodman? Harper would have been a great 3 and D guy off the bench and Kerr's shooting would be sorely needed to space the floor. Maybe move Rodman to the 5 and keep him in for defense and rebounding?

Sam Smith:

You mean like how the 96-98 champion Bulls played? It's often overlooked because of the success of the Warriors and how some suggested they'd reinvented the game. I suspect Steve Kerr understood. Steve long was Phil Jackson's recommendation when people asked Phil about hiring a coach. Steve was closer than many believe to joining Phil in New York. And if he had, Phil likely would have had much more success. Steve somewhat less than he has. But Steve also was there in the second three-peat when Phil began the so-called positionless basketball/death lineup thing a decade or two before the Warriors. Like those championship Bulls of the late 90s, the Warriors always started a big man. Phil's philosophy was to open the game penetrating to the post, which was why Longley (previously Cartwright) would score in two of the first three or four possessions and then not again. Phil had been tinkering with that idea during the first threepeat as Cartwright's body began to betray him.

Phil first talked about perhaps someone like Scott Williams at center, though the Bulls lacked the perimeter shooting in that era when the three-point shot wasn't as welcomed. And big men (Shaq, Ewing, Robinson, Hakeem, Dikembe) still ruled the paint. Many could still dominate offensively. With Rodman because of his unusual individual defensive ability among his other peculiarities, the Bulls could use the playbook that had been talked about even back into the 80s in the NBA, five players of relatively equal size being able to switch effectively. It was a concept percolating for years and why, as I recall, Atlanta even passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft. They took Marvin Williams, who has had a long career. Their belief was they could put together that kind of team because they had a lineup of 6-8 type guys like Joe Johnson, Al Harrington, and Josh Smith. You still need size with players like Embiid, Drummond, Gobert, Jokic. But we've seen with the Golden State model and the likes of Adebayo or Ibaka there are alternatives. For those Bulls, Kukoc was the X-factor, underappreciated difference maker because at 6-11 he could match up with a big body, if not physical, and also make plays on the perimeter. He'd be an elite star of this era the way he could shoot and handle the ball. Steve still would be a reserve fit because of his lack of size for the defensive component. It's why in those fantasy matchups I always liked the 72-win Bulls over the 73-win Warriors. Because the Bulls also could play their game; the Warriors couldn't also play the Bulls game.


Wilt Chamberlain

John Leichenko:

How about David Robinson? Where does he rank with the all-time centers? How bout Ewing? Top 10? ABA Artis Gilmore vs Ewing?

Sam Smith:

There's actually a great GOAT—as the kids say it—debate here as well, like the endless Michael/LeBron, Michael/Kobe, Michael/Magic, Michael/Babe Ruth who's best. Kareem or Wilt? They're one/two at center. The old guys generally prefer Wilt. The almost-as-old ones Kareem. Sorry, Shaq. Wilt was the most dominant player in NBA history, at times scoring so easily over real big men despite what the unconventional wisdom may be (Thurmond, Bellamy and eventually Kareem) that he started shooting fadeaway bank shots to keep himself interested. He may also have been the game's best athlete, too, an Olympic-level track star. And living with actress Kim Novak (Farragut's most famous graduate before Garnett). Not always the best teammate. And like Ewing, Malone, and Barkley coming along in the wrong decade against the greatest dynasty and coach/executive of all time. So Wilt didn't get as many titles. Kareem wasn't always the most engaged on the boards, but his scoring and impact overwhelmed the league. His longevity made him the quantity scorer of all time and he was the most graceful for his size. Russell is third because he was the best teammate ever. Perhaps not always off the court, but he fit like the ultimate gear, giving the Celtics just what they always needed and being the truly indispensable man. It gets difficult from there. And a good debate.

I probably go with Hakeem fourth, Moses Malone fifth and Shaq sixth. Shaq will be mad about that since he's likely a regular bulls.com reader. If Shaq extended himself like Kareem or Hakeem, he'd have been Wilt. It's really the genesis of the feud with Kobe. Kobe never could understand—and accept—Shaq using the regular season as warm-up for the playoffs. Which is why Shaq won every Finals MVP over Kobe, who treated all 82 like the Finals. Hakeem's footwork, speed, and elusiveness was a model for the modern NBA. From there I get eclectic. I have to go with a few asterisks first. If not for injury, Bill Walton would be a top-five. And Wes Unseld probably a top 10. Wes slowed halfway through his career with knee problems, and, of course, Walton had more than 30 surgeries. But if you'd have seen him before then there probably never was a more complete big man, and with the relentless nature, Kareem lacked. Perhaps Dave Cowens, too, if not for slowing down after a few championships. I still make Walton No. 10. So I go with George Mikan for his almost unprecedented impact on the game at No. 7. It was a different time, but he was the league then. There was the famous New York marquee: George Mikan vs Knicks. And Mikan won the championships. They widened the lane to limit him and even played a game with a higher basket, Mikan. That's being a force. Then probably to round it out David Robinson and Nate Thurmond, the latter an incredible defensive and rebounding force who probably was Chamberlain's toughest opponent. So Artis doesn't make the cut with less impact in the NBA and not much size to play against in the ABA and Ewing because he didn't become Bill Russell. Ewing, like Robinson, looked in college like he was going to be a seven-foot Russell. Ewing was the fiercest defensive force in the game and then fell a bit too much in love with the jump shot. Robinson couldn't be the defensive guy because they had so little with the Spurs at the time. So he had to be the scorer, which wasn't as natural. It's a great history. There's always a place for a great center.


Jim Boylen

Bill Hausmann:

I agree with many of the things that Jim Boylen is doing – emphasizing team play, intensity, defense, and teaching a "system". As a fellow experienced (read: aged) fan, I also agree with many involving analytics. It has already ruined baseball and is well on the way to ruining the NBA. I believe that statistics have always been used to measure performance and, hopefully, give players and teams insight into how to do things more effectively. Analytics seems to be the overuse and misuse of statistics to come up with simple and often inaccurate conclusions on one-way-only to play the game. It is a subjective opinion that analytics does not provide the best, only way to play, but it seems clear that it gives the game less dimension and is more boring. The Bulls have a number of talented young players whose game includes "the art of the midrange jumper". Do you think that Jim Boylen will ever adjust his system to allow that portion of the game, and indeed will the Bulls analytics group even allow him to do so?

Sam Smith:

I know there has been a conspiracy contemplating a Bulls analytics deep state sending in demands for every play. There's no such thing. Sure, the Bulls have the same statistical department every team has to provide the coaches with the breakdowns of all the same stuff everyone puts on Twitter or ESPN notes about the last player to score so many points on a cloudy Wednesday wearing blue underwear. Then the coach decides what he wants to do no matter what the evidence suggests. The media has baited Boylen about it a lot this season, and Boylen has been the one who time and again says he's about the math. He and him especially. I'm not always fully sure why since I always saw him more like you (old and old school). So perhaps good for him given he's been willing to adapt. But I agree the adaption hasn't always been the best one for all these players. It's looking like Boylen still won't get that first full season as head coach with the shutdown. He adjusted quite a bit from last season, so I see no reason why he couldn't again.


Michael Jordan

Jim Kiel:

Do you think today's nba style has now reached 80% of the euro-ball style from the 1990's era? The league back in the 90's was still slug it out ball (beat up jordan ... let's see if they can still beat us after that - mentality). If so perhaps boylen needs to be replaced with a euro-style coach. Would Toni Kukoc be an excellent coach for the Bulls?

Sam Smith:

It is ironic how the NBA once demeaned European style play as unmanly, despite how physical it was, and now has adopted so much of its style with big men shooting outside. If not for the five practices a week with two games. Toni is very opinionated and really does have an excellent basketball mind and feel for the game. It was much ignored and underrated when he played for the Bulls because they had Jordan and Pippen. Oh, yeah that Rodman guy. So Toni adjusted. Few with his skills could have or wanted to, which was why so many top European players returned and didn't stay in the NBA. Toni sacrificed more than most, which was his natural instinct as a facilitator. Even playing power forward. The Suns cut short Igor Kokoskov and the Spurs Ettore Messina never got a chance and returned this season to coach in Italy. And though David Platt is American, his experience was in Europe and he didn't get much of a chance, either, despite winning 75 percent of his games with the Cavs. The NBA has adapted and welcomed European players with Luka and Giannis likely to be the top MVP candidates if LeBron ever retires. But if Tom Bradly can play football until he's 45…Still, it doesn't seem like the NBA is quite ready for the European coaches. I believe that changes when someone succeeds big. Without LeBron James.


Jalen Rose

Parker Lerdal:

Why didn't Jalen Rose work out for the Bulls in 2002-03 and then was traded to Toronto with Donnell Marshall and Lonny Baxter for Antonio Davis Chris Jeffries and Jerome Williams right?

Sam Smith:

I'm still standing by that trade. It just was the wrong time. Some may recall I used to have an active imagination for proposed trades, and one I was lobbying for that did occur was for Rose from Indiana. Though the Pacers had a spurt after the deal—and I didn't wish them ill as Donnie Walsh was a good friend—they experienced what I feared was coming with Ron Artest. Though not quite that! The Bulls then were being built around the continued experiment to have the Eddy Curry/Tyson Chandler inside/outside seven-footers. It really did make sense; it just was the wrong guys, high schoolers who weren't ready. But if the Bulls were going to continue the project, and they had hired center Bill Cartwright as coach to bring along the baby seven-footers, then they couldn't keep Brad Miller. And better not keep Artest. So it made sense to me. Acquire a veteran perimeter high scorer to take the pressure off Curry and Chandler and thus also spread the court. Jalen was really good, a 6-8 playmaker and shooter who'd be elite in this era. He'd had big playoffs and Finals games. I lobbied regularly for the trade.

Imagine my surprise when the Bulls actually did it after having ignored hundreds of my suggestions. But on paper doesn't always translate to on the court or in the locker room. Jalen coming from the Finals and having played with the very professional Pacers with Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, Derrick McKey, and Sam Perkins didn't find the mentor role appealing. Especially for a losing team. There was internal feuding with the guards after the Jay Williams draft, Eddie Robinson and his demons. And John Paxson replacing Jerry Krause and changing the direction to a team more in his gritty image. Jalen never was gritty. But the Bulls were getting better with Jalen. They had a nine-game improvement Jalen's first and only full season with the Bulls, which they began with a win in Boston as Jalen had 21 points and 12 assists. Plus, Jalen was an iron man who played all 82 games. Just before the trade to Toronto, he got benched for the first time as a Bull and came off the bench for 34 points. Perhaps he needed a little more tough love. Jalen also had 34 his first game as a Bull in leading a four-game winning streak for a 21-win team. He had 44 in a game later that season in a win in Houston. Defense? Not so much. In any case, Paxson knew what he wanted and had to fire his friend and teammate, Cartwright, and traded Jalen for the rugged Davis, who fit with Scott Skiles. Nocioni and the appealing group became playoff regulars. Jalen always talked a lot—often a better game than he had, which at times was really good as he still has some Bulls franchise scoring marks—so we figured he'd end up where he did.


Rajon Rondo

Art Alenik:

Rondo? Without Wade, he could have become the mentor and taught those young guys a ton. He was even better than Pax at reading a defense (and picking it apart). BTW, though he was very reluctant, I think he had the team's best 3-pt. % that year. I'd hire him as an Asst. Coach in half a heartbeat. If he can control his emotions, he might even make a good HC.

Sam Smith:

I often say you never know anyone until you live with them. I'll stop there to retain my marriage at this difficult time. Our view of Rondo was of this divisive, egotistical, headstrong, dirty player who beat up poor Brad Miller (Ok, cheap shotted) and Kirk (also, sneaky). And then he came to the Bulls and was the Pied Piper of Player development, Jimmy and Wade often separating themselves in that difficult season and the kids gravitating to Rondo for advice and comfort, if not shooting tips. Rondo's social media comeback against Wade was one of the classic all-time gotchas. And then Rondo's intimidation of the entire Celtics team those first two playoff games was as close to Jordan as I've seen. Especially for a guy who couldn't shoot. No offense to Jimmy and Wade, but you couldn't win one game without Rondo? Heck, Fred could have been Brad Stevens if Rondo didn't get hurt in those 2017 playoffs. It seems inevitable Rondo will be an NBA coach. I've rarely seen a player study film as much as he did with such a willingness to help teammates. He's not exactly the most outgoing guy, so those between quarter TV interviews may not go that well. But it didn't seem to hurt Popovich.

Got a question for Sam?

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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.

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