Ask Sam Mailbag 5.22.20

Graham Robertson:

It's the question everyone is asking - would they have won a 7th Championship?

As much as the docu-series has thrown some great limelight and shade on that 90s Bulls team, the one question that remains is could/would they have won a 7th? MJ blames Reinsdorf, Phil blames Krause, Pippen blames his grossly underpaid 7 year stint, Rodman blames cheap booze & cheap women. Also why is there no blame for MJ? Don't get me wrong I love the guy but had he returned would he be willing to part with his $30m a year contract for a lesser contract so players like Pippen, Rodman, Kerr et al could get paid? Or is it simply another competition for his ego that he needs to be paid the most? I now hear I'm on the 'grudge list' and he's flying over to beat me 1v1. PS - I think they would have won but that may be an ever-so slightly biased opinion.

Sam Smith:

I think you know this email could motivate him to return again. Never say never with MJ. But let me try to finally deal with this canard. Of course, if I have as much success as my 30 years of trying to explain there is not one, two or three sources for a 90,000-word book... But I digress. It's no one's fault, but Jordan's closing declaration in Episode 10 that he wished he'd had a chance is, I'll charitably not say a lie, but a nicely dramatic conclusion to a docudrama that began with Jerry Krause declaring even if Phil is 82-0. Everyone will always believe what they prefer, and the answer is not whether they would have won or not. You never know until you get there.

And despite our general view that anyone who wins is destined to win, it's a lot less certain until you know the final score. I wrote before the documentary began on bulls.com that I believed both Phil and Michael understood better than everyone else this was the end given Scottie's estrangement and Dennis's strangeness, that what a wonderful opportunity it was for bonding and motivation to get through another long, strange season by playing the victims. You can say the Bulls should have paid long term contracts to Pippen, Longley, Kerr, Buechler like they received elsewhere. They could have, in theory. As unproductive as that would have been. It's more likely they, especially Pippen as even Jordan acknowledges, would have opted to be elsewhere. Look, they all were part of multiple title teams. Which no one said they were responsible for. And we've seen enough and Michael acknowledged he wasn't always that much fun to be around. So why would most of those guys, especially Longley who Jordan especially detested, want to stay around instead of going to teams welcoming them as champions? No one asks to see your ring if you're playing with Michael Jordan. And all then on one-year deals. But the way, which Jordan was assured all would be offered if he opted for another year. In Chicago as opposed to wintering in Phoenix and San Antonio? Jordan did make it clear he wanted just a one-year contract. So why would the Bulls mortgage their future to give six years to Pippen coming off a second back surgery, six years to Longley, five to Kerr, three to Buechler. Heck, Jason Caffey got seven years. Mike did get guys paid.

The rebuilding obviously didn't work out for the Bulls from 1999-2004. But it could have. With that salary capped out and a core of Pippen, Longley, Kerr and Buechler you know it couldn't have. Remember Pippen coming back at the end of his deal in 2004 and basically being unable to walk? Phil? Yes, he was done, and also because Shaq was calling. The Lakers had gone through several coaches and Shaq already was lobbying Phil. Phil would have been misguided, let's say, to ignore that to opt for a Bulls rebuild or one more year. He likely recognized this was his one chance for that sabbatical he long coveted. And the main part of the staff was there, anyway, Tex and Frank Hamblein. They were the triangle.

But the biggest reason it wasn't possible was Jordan said enough. Not now in episode 10. But then. He seemed pretty open about it in those scenes with Ahmad Rashad talking about how much strain it was, how he wanted to move on. There actually was a group there to compete led by Kukoc and Harper. And free agent possibilities for support with Rodman, for one, more than willing to take the one-year offer at any price. Who's telling Michael Jordan no if he wants to stay? The truth is he was urged to be patient, that it was a lockout, there was time and who knows who'd change their mind by December or January. No, Jordan was adamant. The playing load had grown too large to carry any more. It was time and nobody was telling Michael Jordan what to do. But it is nice to know even Michael Jordan has crazy dreams and fantasies all these years later.

Tom Plonowski:

Rumor has it Jordan cut his finger to the point where he wouldn't be able to play for most of if not all of the shortened regular season. How much of this is fact and how much of the regular season do you think he would've missed had he played?

Sam Smith:

It's not exactly a rumor since it happened. It's the second act of why Jordan was looking back nostalgically and not accurately or honestly at that 1998 ending. It was a lockout starting July 1, so the Bulls were not even able to make any commitments to players. They weren't going to give the long contacts (which mostly worked out badly for their teams) to several of the role players. But that hadn't been officially decided because no teams could talk or make deals with any players. During this time, Jordan suffered a severe injury to a finger on his right hand from a cigar cutter. He couldn't grip the ball and would have had trouble shooting if he didn't have surgery. If he did, he'd miss the season. So what seventh championship did they give up? Pick me, pick me; I know, I know! It was in 1993 when Jordan retired with Pippen and Grant still in their athletic primes. But given the circumstances with his father's death, everyone understood and was supportive. But the only potential championship the Bulls left on the table—and even that was debatable given the Houston Rockets had a winning record against the Bulls during the first threepeat—was for the 1993-94 season.

Brad Magnetta:

The Last Dance stirred up two big what ifs for the 98/99 season. I can't help but notice that the common trait between most what ifs I've seen is Krause sticking around. Why choosing Phil and the players over Krause wasn't an option in either the 97/98 or 98/99 seasons. What would have happened if ownership backed Scottie over Krause after the near Sonics trade conundrum. Or, what if ownership backed Phil over Krause at the start of the 97/98 season when the infamous "82 and still out" comment was made. I'm all for loyalty, but I have a hard time understanding why it was to a GM over the best player, coach, and team in basketball.

Sam Smith:

As I explained, I believed both Phil and Michael were ending it on their terms. By the way, isn't everyone always begging all these Joe Namath and Willie Mays and Johnny Unitas and Brett Favre and Gordie Howe and maybe Tom Brady to quit when they are on top. Michael did. Why can't we applaud and appreciate that? Remember, the owner overruled Krause's recommendation on trading Pippen in 1997. If you have the most successful executive in the world as the head of your company, do you fire him because your employees don't like him? After all, both Michael and Phil became team executives and management leaders and let's say it wasn't their specialties.

Longgiang Le:

What can you estimate or guess would happen if McGrady was with Bulls in 1998 and beyond? Some argue that McGrady would have left anyway and not been with the Bulls by his second contract. I'm not so sure about that: TMac + Kukoc then maybe Eddie curry or Tyson chandler, Jalen Rose could have been the foundation of at least a playoff team into the 2000s.

Sam Smith:

That was another Pippen trade the Bulls should have made, and another reason why they weren't leaving anything on that title table. Pippen was obviously estranged from the Bulls going into that 1997-98 season. And with his bad back at the end of the 1998 Finals, he wasn't even a crucial contributor in that Finals. Krause the super sleuth scout was again correct the way he was chasing McGrady. With a new team with a budding All-Star in McGrady, with Kukoc to finally play his natural ball handling position, and Brent Barry who was an overlooked excellent free agent addition in 1998-99, the Bulls probably could have been a playoff team in 1999. Then there would have been no Curry/Chandler experiment. They likely wouldn't have been in the lottery to get Elton Brand. But there were some good picks after that with Artest, James Posey, Andrei Kirilenko. And the Bulls would have avoided those years of horror. Would it have cost the 1998 title? Perhaps. But given that 1997-98 team still had Jordan, Rodman, Kukoc and the rest, probably not. Pippen in the 1998 playoffs averaged his fewest points and third fewest rebounds since his second year in the league. And he shot his second poorest of his career in the playoffs. The decline was apparent to the Bulls. It probably led to it because Pippen despite all the controversies was a warrior. It was the third consecutive season Pippen was averaging 40 minutes per game in the playoffs. In nine consecutive playoffs with the Bulls through 1998, Pippen averaged in total more than 40 minutes per game. Be like Mike? Heck, be like Pip!

Michael Freeman:

I was a season ticket holder during the 90's and followed the Bulls very closely. In my own career, I have noticed that friction can sometimes be a positive factor in sales and other organizations. It is my opinion that some of the friction on the Bulls championship teams was natural and others fabricated intentionally. I think Phil Jackson managed the constant frictions to keep the team sharp. What are your thoughts?

Sam Smith:

I believe both Michael and especially Phil used that magnificently. I believe they call it creative tension in the business world. Phil wasn't always the favorite of everyone in the organization. But his methods worked, obviously. At times back then he might be considered manipulative and aloof. But his job was to win. Like Mike. Not there to make friends. Michael's explanation was about leadership and the edge necessary to drive people. Phil's was to figure out a way with so many diverse and competing personalities to not only form a group but enable them to bond. So if Jerry Krause had to be a villain, it was for the larger goal of being successful. And wasn't that what he was there for? The Bulls hired Phil not for his personality. Doug Collins with his effusive nature probably was more well liked. The Bulls believe they'd gone as far as they could under Doug. It was a heck of a gamble, but it paid off because Phil was allowed to coach and lead his way. Everyone didn't agree with all the methods, but no one seemed to have an issue with the results. They asked him to produce. Not pander.

Nicholas Hill:

I know how much you love offseason trade ideas. I have 2. The first is Thad Young, Otto Porter Jr, Lauri Markkenan and our 2020 2nd rounder to the Thunder for Chris Paul and Mike Muscala. The 2nd is Wendell Carter Jr, Cristiano Felicio, Tomas Satoransky and our 2020 first to the Cavs for Kevin Love. Then signing Jae Crowder with our mid level exception. There's also the possibility of retaining one or both of Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn. I think it's a realistic price for 2 all stars but it doesn't completely destroy the Bulls' depth and they still retain some of their promising pieces like Gafford and Coby. This definitely isn't going to happen with the new front office stating that the focus for next year will be developing the current team but my main mission is to help others understand what the price really is to put together what could be an immediate contender.

Sam Smith:

I miss my trade speculation, also. I haven't done much of it in recent years mostly because the Bulls were primarily in lottery mode. No sense trading guys to get better when the plan is sort of to get worse. My sense is that basically is over with the management transition. I'm sure the Cavs would do that one just to get anything for Love. Wendell and a first would be way too much. I've never been much of a Love fan. His back problems, obviously, would be a serious concern. But even without that I've never thought much of his game. He doesn't create and really doesn't have a post game. He actually is just mostly a face up long distance shooter who you'd hardly design a last play for. And the Bulls have plenty of fours. Now Chris Paul would be appealing because he's really remade himself at 35. He was easily the best player on a playoff Thunder team, a true All-Star and at a position the Bulls could use, a facilitating point guard. He holds the ball a lot, but he can make plays and shoot. He's owed $41 million and $45 million the next two years, which would make you gulp. I see the logic in that because despite the Bulls record this season, I believe they really are not that far away in a relatively weak Eastern Conference. An All-Star Paul with what you have really could propel you to compete for the top four. But that's a lot, lot of money for an older player who's had injury issues. Thus pretty risky at a time some investments in highly paid veterans have not worked out. My sense remains the new management will concentrate on examining and developing who they have. But there are opportunities with this topsy turvy sports world and NBA these days.

Beth Collier:

I'm curious about how Pippen nearly was traded and why the Sonics were so against it. I've been curious about Pippen, as I don't think he got a great edit in The Last Dance., e.g. Why didn't they include the story about "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday"? It's a great story.

Sam Smith:

Scottie once again has emerged as a polarizing figure with the Last Dance even as he's done nothing. And again, the best supporting actor. The aborted 1994 trade to the ‘Sonics really was one of two attempted Jerry Krause trades of Pippen that actually would have been pretty good. Jordan's comments at times of not returning to the NBA in 1995 if Pippen weren't there, of course, were more of Michael's dramatic fiction. Seriously, you believe Michael Jordan was giving up basketball because Scottie Pippen, who Jordan says in the documentary was out of line to not return to that 1994 playoff game, wasn't going to be with the Bulls? Nah, it was just another way for Michael to tweak Krause. Though Pippen had a great 1993-94 season and was third in MVP voting, Scottie still was raging about his contract that season. I recall him even winning MVP at the All-Star game and then openly trying on other team jerseys in the locker room and asking reporters how he'd look in them. That also was when I was interviewing for a Clippers' executive job, but that's another story the Athletic's Jon Greenberg forced out of me. Because Kemp had a precipitous decline in the late 90s, people forget how great a player he was. He was one of the most feared forces in the NBA at power forward and a crowd favorite with his spectacular dunking. Michael would have loved playing with him, though you cannot dispute Pippen's similar salutary effect. The Bulls did win with Pippen, so you can't beat that. I believe they also would have won with Kemp. There would have been no Rodman, so less hysteria. But Kemp was far better and more responsible than Rodman. In the four seasons starting in 1994-95, Kemp missed a total of six games. Rodman missed 45 his first two seasons with the Bulls. Then not having to get Rodman to replace Horace Grant, the Bulls could have added another scorer to support Jordan. But Pippen was so unpopular around the NBA after that playoff walkout, when word of the talks emerged, Seattle fans were so enraged they flooded local media with complaints. The owner pulled the deal that ‘Sonics coach George Karl was pushing for with Jordan's blessing since Karl also was a U. of North Carolina guy and close with Jordan. But to many then it also was another sign Jordan was not returning because he advised Karl to make the deal. Meanwhile, you are right about Scottie's greatest ever trash talk line. Scottie is rumored to be hurt by some of his portrayal in the Last Dance, especially the focus on the 1.8-second episode when Jordan wasn't on the team that season. So since it was a Jordan hagiography, why was that so prominent? And not 1997 when Pippen so masterfully, cleverly and humorously iced Malone, which led to the Bulls Game 1 win in the Finals?

Ateeq Ahmed:

One of my favorite parts of the last Dance was the passing of the torch between Paxson and Kerr. I'm glad all of the front office haters got a chance to see how important Paxson was to Jordan, Phil and the entire team. It may help them understand why he was trusted to guide the Bulls front office. In fact, didn't Jordan ask Paxson to be GM of the Bobcats when he bought the team? No way he asks unless he respected Paxson's knowledge and decision making.

Sam Smith:

I believe Jordan asked Paxson to be a coach for him. It is true Jordan even as he said Pippen was his favorite teammate likely trusted Paxson more than anyone. The Kerr thing was remarkable because he basically was running out Paxson and Paxson instead of being resentful and jealous—as most of us likely would have been—was supportive because he believed it was better for the organization. I was a little wary of Steve at first because he didn't seem like an NBA player. Had he not hooked on with the Bulls with a make good deal, he was likely going to play overseas the rest of his career. But Steve's obviously bright and in watching the Bulls he recognized, as he said in the show, how well he'd fit with his limited skills (and they were very limited on an NBA level) the way the Bulls played. And especially around a star who drew so much attention like Jordan. See, Jordan did make players better. So Kerr contacted the Bulls. They never sought him out. He was basically applying for a job like the rest of us, and that also was the particular appeal of Steve. He was more like the rest of us than he was like them. But instead of Paxson seeing it as an attempt to take away his job, Paxson embraced Steve because he believed it would be best for the Bulls. Really, who does that?

Christopher Billingsley:

Looking back at that pivotal game 6 against the Jazz, much was focused on the burden that Michael had in carrying team, especially after Scottie injured his back which limited his productivity. What I do remember about that game is how Toni was the only player other than MJ to score in double digits. He quietly plugged in the holes offensively and defensively while Michael and Scottie got the most attention.

Judging from an outside perspective, I somewhat felt that he was undervalued during those runs. From the time he finally came to the Bulls until his departure, he hit game winners, didn't create any drama between himself and Scottie, welcomed the challenge of Michael's return and embraced a successful role as pretty much the sixth starter because of lineup changes for various reasons. Outside of Dennis Rodman, he was a key to that last three peat. Again, it speaks volume of how Jerry Krause, not perfect, but always seemed to get it right somehow and knew just what the roster needed to win.

Sam Smith:

Because Toni was not a salesman for himself and the NBA still hadn't accepted European players as equals, Toni's contributions often were overlooked. Kukoc played power forward instead of his natural point guard/point forward position because Dennis was missing so many games with suspensions, injuries, technicals, ejections and vacations. But Kukoc also enabled the Bulls to basically invent that switching lineup system by alternating at center with Dennis late in games and spreading the court with his long distance shotmaking that only Kerr matched.

I always felt Toni was more valuable those three years than Dennis. Perhaps not in certain matchups when Dennis wrestled with Malone and Shaq. But Toni's versatility was that team's secret weapon. I expect within the next year or two Toni will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He's one of the best players Europe ever has seen and the only one from overseas who was such a crucial part of so many NBA championships.

Tony Reed:

I'm loving the "Last Dance." My British wife who knew little about basketball is watching for historic reasons and finally understands why I insisted on having the space in the backyard of a Jordan court. I was actually on a plane with MJ from Charlotte to O'Hare the night they drafted Pip and Horace. I was in uniform, and he told me his brother was in the Army. He invited me up to first class to play Spades.

Sam Smith:

That also sounds like Jordan. When he made that rare (Air) appearance at Kobe's funeral, many were surprised about his emotional response. But we'd seen that often and viewers saw it again at the end of, I believe, the seventh segment when he asked for a break after discussing some of his harsher tactics. It can be lonely being Michael Jordan, as he noted. It becomes difficult to go back to those reunions sometimes. He had great regard for the military, in part, because of his brother and often was quietly inviting servicemen to the locker room for chats.

Dan Brecher:

Tex Winter is the most recognized Bulls assistant coach for his famed Triangle Offense but how essential was Johnny Bach and his "Doberman" defense to the team's first Three Peat?

Sam Smith:

Johnny died in 2016 in 1991, and his presence certainly was shortchanged in the documentary. Which did suggest Michael didn't have as much influence on what was included. He was much closer with Johnny than Tex or even Phil. Which is why he invited Johnny to Washington when Michael went there. Michael loved Johnny's military emphasis and war stories (literally). Johnny was in the South Pacific preparing for the invasion of Japan when World War II ended. Johnny was one of the most interesting and accomplished people ever in the game, a former NBA player with Boston, one of the youngest Division I coaches ever, an NBA head coach with Golden State and longtime assistant with many teams and defensive innovator. He should be a Hall of Famer as a contributor to the game. Plus, he was a painter who had his works displayed at galleries and a pilot who on the road with the Bulls often would rent planes for relaxation flights. He was a true renaissance man and perhaps the most interesting person in that group of remarkably fascinating people.

Brandon Seitz:

Watching Episode 10 of ‘The Last Dance" last night, I was left wondering: Why did the Bulls stay in Utah after Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? Why did they stay and celebrate in a Hotel in Utah? Why didn't they jump on a Plane and get Back to Chicago? Was it because the Airport is closed in Salt Lake City, Utah on Sundays, being heavily Mormon? I know BYU doesn't play on Sundays. If so, it's odd to me they couldn't find a private airport that could accommodate them.

Sam Smith:

I guess they weren't afraid of the pizza by then. Talk about another tall tale. Geez, who believed that crazy one? Some teams fly home after a title as we've seen with some of those welcoming receptions at airports. The Bulls were one of the organizations that basically paid for the families of everyone among the team and staff to accompany them on the road in the Finals. It's not something many organizations have done. So the players preferred to remain and celebrate with their families as they did when they won in Los Angeles in 1991.

Cindy Rendel:

Before the start of a game, which player, or players asks the famous question during the championship years?

Sam Smith:

I always wondered about that chant since I could have told them what time it was. It think Ray Clay and TommyEdwards knew, also. But as with everything Last Dance, it's now become something. I believe it was Cliff Levingston in the first three peat and then Randy Brown later on. Like with everything, Michael always knew what time it was.

Victor Devaldivielso:

I remember Jordan attempting several free throws with his eyes closed over the years. Is it safe to assume his free throw shooting percentage with his eyes closed is better than Shaq's with his eyes open?

Sam Smith:

It was. And also better than LeBron's in the last minute of games. Again, we are declaring that debate over!