Ask Sam Mailbag 5.8.20

Clem Zuercher

Do you think The Last Dance hurts the organization's public perception, and its ability to recruit future free agents, particularly younger guys who weren't alive during the 90s? I worry a lot of players are watching the documentary, seeing how Jerry Krause and the organization mistreated their stars of the 90s, and writing off the possibility of ever coming here.

Sam Smith:

Actually, I think the documentary will have the opposite effect; not unlike Jordan saying before it began that people would get this negative impression off him. I think what the documentary shows in the larger picture is how great it is to win in Chicago and what that means. This isn't New York, where you have multiple teams in every sport and many divided loyalties or Los Angeles where everyone loves the team...after going to the beach. Chicago is a place of passion for your team. It's a hard place to live in comparison because of the weather and the long winters, but sort of the biggest small town element in the commitment and defense of its own. There's tremendous attachment to the teams, and especially with the success.

The 1985 Chicago Bears players still are the mainstays of the pre and post game reports and analysis to this day. It seemed like the recent Bulls hires, Karnisovas and Eversley, could have taken jobs elsewhere. But they were apparently waiting for an opportunity like the Bulls. Same with Tom Thibodeau. He had several job offers, but even took a chance at the time of rejecting some just to remain in competition for the Bulls job. I believe people in the business know what it means to win in a place like Chicago with one team, a large, sophisticated city with a small town enthusiasm. And now comes the celebration of the documentary that shows what it was like to win in Chicago, which was unlike NBA success anywhere else. Sure, Jordan was special. There have been many special players in NBA history. But what city ever has celebrated a player and a team like Chicago has for the Bulls? I think that's more of what players will take from the documentary. It helps associate success with Chicago no matter the circumstances. And, after all, does anyone seriously believe Jordan couldn't play again since, you know, he played again and for a different coach. It's Mike paraphrasing Belushi, "Nothing's over until I say it's over."

Longgiang Le:

Funny how Rod Thorn ( or whoever it was) said "Michaels not a tennis player !" But that's exactly how David Falk marketed him .. and it worked.

Sam Smith:

Ironically, the fabulous business success actually was the source of many of Michael's issues with other NBA players (alleged All-Star freezeout in 1985) and Michael's growing reputation in the 1980s that he wasn't a winner because he didn't make other players better. They did say that then as, I believe, Jordan acknowledged in the documentary. Falk working for ProServ then was brilliant with the marketing campaign for Jordan, which likely will be studied in business schools for generations and helped propel Jordan and Nike to legendary economic status. But that individuality as successful as it was as a business strategy was anathema to basketball. The All-Stars were upset with Jordan at that first All-Star game (Magic, too, and probably jealous) because Jordan wore some Nike stuff at a practice. They thought he was rubbing it in that he got the big endorsement and they didn't. He really wasn't, but it put him on one side against the stars. He was getting bigger endorsements than the winners all of a sudden. So it was the players who also spread that around in the 80s that Michael wasn't a winner—and he wasn't winning because Jerry Krause was busy tearing down the team to rebuild it, and he did successfully—because he preferred to play individually. You know, like a tennis player. Michael deeply resented many of the stars back then for that attitude. But they eventually seemed to surrender to his excellence and Magic even became a close friend in choosing Jordan over former best friend Isiah. Money makes that world go ‘round, eh?

Kirk Landers:

I've read several reviews in national sports and news media that give begrudging kudos to 'The Last Dance' as entertainment, but criticize it for a lack of journalism or an absence of journalistic integrity (because the doc doesn't uncover any new scandals). One of these critics was Ken Burns, an esteemed documentarian, but I'm not aware that his greatest works (such as the Civil War documentary) revealed anything more than established history. So, what's your assessment of 'The Last Dance'--as journalism and as history?

Second, you've made the point many times but it bears repeating: lost among the titles, the scoring championships, the MVPs and other honors, and the magical shots, one of the most amazing facts about Michael Jordan was his energy and stamina. He average well over 30 minutes a game in the regular season, and over 35 minutes per game in the playoffs; He played all out on defense as well as offense. And he played in a staggering number of games each year of his career after his foot injury healed. Jordan was the ultimate "energy guy," except he didn't come off the bench for ten minutes each half. He played like that until the dragon was slain.

Sam Smith:

That sometimes gets lost in the celebration of Jordan's competitive zeal to almost a mania. And it may have led some to his premature first retirement in 1993, though his father's murder, to me, really was what drove him to pursue baseball. But perhaps no one ever attacked a game and played through everything like Jordan did, from returning to North Carolina in 1986 when he had a broken foot so he could play pickup ball unbeknownst to the Bulls to the so called unique Love of the Game clause in his first contract that enabled only Jordan among all NBA players to play basketball whenever he wanted to these remarkable (to today's players) streaks. He didn't miss one game for three and a half years when he returned in 1995.

Following his broken foot season in 1985-86, he sat out one game the next five years. And that was a time when the physical play was borderline vicious and the Pistons were painting targets on him. I remember the one game he missed in that period. The Bulls went to Boston and lost badly. The next morning he was at practice first thing when the team got back and spoke to Doug Collins about playing point guard. Nine triple doubles in the next 10 games later…The documentary wasn't supposed to be a news breaker. It was supposed to be a chance for Michael to tell his story his way since he never has. It's done a great job of that. I suspect Ken Burns is having difficulty preparing to watch the Last Dance get every award he thought he would get.

Devin Antus:

I was wondering if you knew of any trade speculations going on in the Bulls organization.

Sam Smith:

I don't expect any significant trades, at least into next season. It's going to be difficult, for one thing, with it looking like the playoffs, if they even get played and I believe they should, not ending until maybe September. No teams really know what they want to do until they finish their seasons and have the draft. My sense with the new Bulls executives is they appear to be relatively cautious and studious, so I expect they are going to want to see what they have in the talent and how the players fit and work together. I know there was a lot of criticism about the previous management team of John Paxson and Gar Forman. But one reason I believe the new group is so optimistic is Paxson and Forman set the Bulls up very well with financial flexibility to make moves going forward without any burdensome long term contracts. The new management team hasn't even been to Chicago yet. And we don't know if the Bulls will get to finish the regular season or for how long if they do get more games. So I'd expect an initial period of inspection and introspection. Which doesn't stop rumors and speculation, of course. It should be an entertaining period.

Wayne Warner:

I am thinking that Bulls will improve with a tighter rotation of players

I can envision:
3 guard rotation of LaVine, White, and Sato
2 forward rotation of Otto & Hutch
4 big man rotation of Lauri, Carter, Gafford, & Kornet.

I can see Gafford playing minutes with Lauri while Carter playing minutes with Kornet (Carter plays the 4).

Thus a 9 player rotation. Trade Young and really no reason to resign Dunn nor Valentine. Harrison, Felicio, Ryan, & Makoka are bench depth & G league players & for practice. Hoping that draft picks are wing players and just focus on development in 2021.

Sam Smith:

I also believe the Bulls will improve. We all feel like they were vast underachievers given the talent (I know, yes I picked them for fifth, as I recall; oops). But I do think there's enough talent for that at least in the East. So that's appealing. Good health required, of course. I also can see something of a development era based on the initial comments, though I believe that's somewhat overrated. I believe players do more to develop their skills than organizations do, and the great ones continue to add to their games. It's difficult to develop during seasons because of the constant demand for the next game preparation. My recommendation would be to add more talented players. Rotation analysis is a bit premature because it sounds like it's heading into more of an experimental period to see who works best with whom, how and why.

Oliver Doc:

While I'm thrilled about the regime change, I do want to address GarPax. While I was never really down on the tandem until after DRose's MVP season, I think they did a helluva job. U look at what Krause did after he drafted Tony Kukoc, til '03, it was far from impressive. Unfortunately, the 2 players he did draft that were promising, prematurely had their careers ended (Eddie Curry/Jay Will). Which brings me to GarPax. From 03-12, the job they did was outstanding. I think they should've had more cache with fans after drafting so well regardless of draft position. But much like Krause, they lost their touch once they became a winning team. Is that a common thing once teams wins in the NBA? Is it harder or a matter of needing fresh eyes? I think now I get why San Antonio is so respected as a franchise.

Sam Smith:

Eventually it's just time. But Paxson did put together two contending teams with smart draft picks for players like Deng, Gordon and Hinrich and finding Nocioni when no one else did, plus savvy additions like Antonio Davis. That was a fun team. And then with the luck of the Rose draft, he and Forman were Krause-like in finding the right supporting pieces in guys like Korver, Watson, Brewer, Taj, Noah (picking up valuable players and picks for Curry and Chandler, among others), Kurt Thomas and a heck of a second round draft pick in Asik. Even Mirotic late in the first. And giving a great coach in Thibodeau a first chance. We know about injuries and no one likes excuses. And would people feel differently if the lottery went other ways and the Bulls had Zion or Doncic? They don't, so it was time. But those guys got an executive of the year and twice led the league in wins, which very few franchises can say about their entire tenures. A well run franchise like the Nuggets, for example, have done well in recent years. But they've never led the NBA in wins like the Bulls did twice when Paxson was running basketball. The Bulls as was the nature of Paxson and Forman as older era executives haven't been as aggressive in modernizing the front office like many teams have done. Is it better or right? Perhaps it doesn't matter because it's what everyone does, and now it's the Bulls time. It was inevitable as these things are in sports; except, you know, in San Antonio. Which actually may be coming for them, too, the way things are going there lately. Everyone's time eventually comes. If it hasn't been an ultimately fulfilling era lately for the Bulls, it's had a lot of entertainment.

Paul Giuntoli:

There's plenty of talk about how players of yesteryear would dominate in today's NBA, especially stars of the 80s & 90s. MJ would average 45 ppg. Hakeem would get 40 every night. Hell, Drazen Petrovic would get probably get 30. I was thinking about the reverse of that - which stars of the 80s/90s would not find a home in today's NBA? And I don't want to really consider the all-star big men, like Ewing and Shaq and David Robinson and Moses, because even though today's NBA doesn't emphasize post play, I believe that's a byproduct of young big men (and their coaches) practicing shooting 3s and pick n pops, as opposed to establishing post position, making moves immediately on the catch, drop steps, and jump hooks. Plus, point guards often struggle nowadays with post entry passes. Post play can't be successful if no one practices it. Who were some stars of the 80s/90s who you believe would struggle in today's NBA? My first thoughts are guys like Alex English, Gervin, Dantley, and Tripucka. Guys that were scorers, but couldn't spread the floor. Wouldn't they be inevitably moved from the "wing" to a "stretch 4" and their games suffer as a result?

Sam Smith:

Kelly was sort of a version of Wally Szczerbiak, an all scorer, only scorer not particularly athletic who was streaky and maybe makes one All-Star game. I tend to believe the stars would be stars in any era because of what they worked on. Dantley, like Mark Aguirre (who, by the way, should be in the Hall of Fame) was an amazing post player for his size, though also with a great first step. Players like that were so good they would have evolved to what the game was and become better shooters. Same with English, who had an elite mid-range game. In their era, the three-point shot was considered a bad risk because the thinking was the closer you were to the basket the easier it was to score. Seemed to make sense at the time. Excellence transcends tactics. The way Steph Curry shoots he would have figured something out. His issue would have been less talent than coaches trusting him to take the shots. His dad was probably as good a technical shooter, if not quite as good with the ball. But like with Craig Hodges then and guys like Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson, if you were a great shooter they generally wanted you to be a sixth man and not a starter. It's often more about opportunity.

Ryan Carpel:

Why doesn't the NBA just restart and go straight into playoffs without fans in attendance? Why would they want to let go of TV revenues?

Sam Smith:

Because they don't want to let go of the local TV revenues, either, which are significant. All those Fox Sports and NBC Sports support the local teams and there's a minimum number of games teams need to supply, which is around 70. I suspect the NBA has been trying to figure out of they can get there. The larger point is if they don't and TV revenues collapse, it cripples the salary cap. Then teams lose their space for free agency and all teams are left with is basically the ability to resign their own free agents on the Bid exception, but not add new ones. The economics of the game are in peril, which probably is why this is such a difficult and vital decision.

Jordan Cordero:

The "Last Dance" certainly didn't waste any time demonizing Krause as the architect of the dynasty's demise. It's sad, but not completely unexpected.

I've always been amazed with the value Krause has been able to extract from most of his transactions as our GM (post Rod Thorn):
Pippen in exchange for Polynice + draft pick compensation
Rodman in exchange for Will Perdue (Popovich clearly had some issues with Rodman)
Signing Luc Longley to a team-friendly contract
The alleged T-Mac + Antoine Walker + Top-6 Pick for Pippen trade that never happened
Jamal Crawford for Chris Mihm

So, I would like to ask you: If we would've received the first pick in the 2002 draft, and Krause (most likely) selects Yao, do you think he would finally get the respect that he deserves? There's no guarantee the Bulls win anything with Yao, but he's definitely the centerpiece Krause was searching for to build a contender around. Krause would still be scapegoated as the reason for the '90s Bulls breaking up, but I wonder how he'd be looked upon if he got another legitimate shot at building a contender.

Sam Smith:

Well, Jerry twice was executive of the year voted by his peers, which few NBA executives ever have achieved, and was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, which also is rare for league executives. And though there was much carping about Krause, after all, why would you dismiss the leader of the team that is dominating the NBA? When a corporate executive has his company the best in the world, he or she gets a raise no matter what the employees say. All executives have hits and misses. Jerry's issues with the players generally were more personality oriented. So the documentary is accurate. After all, if it were up to Jordan and Pippen, Toni Kukoc, a crucial player for the second threepeat, probably never would have been a Bull because they wanted more money for themselves and didn't want the team to pursue and pay Toni. Depends on how you look at things. As for Yao, not sure how much of a center piece he ever was other than getting teammates great Chinese shoe contracts. Perhaps better if Jay Williams followed his contract or learned to ride a motorcycle safely. Did Krause break up the 1997-98 team? Seems I heard a lot of clips of Jordan saying he was finished.

Richard Meagher:

With the new management team in place do you see the Bulls drafting for need or going best player available? I also think Laurie Markkanen will be the first one traded. He does not fit this team and is too injury prone.

Sam Smith:

Markkanen, obviously, is the largest question for now given his uneven season and another injury,. But that's also why I see him not going anywhere. He's got a lot of talent. And OK he's probably not the No. 1 type guy the Bulls were advertising him as a few years ago. He's a unique and special player in this era with his shooting possibilities. Plus, you don't sell low. His value probably is at the lowest it's been, so I expect he gets a longer look than most. We always hear in the draft that best player available stuff, which is misleading. Because as every draft has shown, the order of players on draft day is much different than if you analyze it three years later. So there's really no legitimate order of best to worst. Both Karnisovas and Eversley have indicated the draft and development are priorities. Getting lucky in the lottery should be their main goal. The problem is this isn't considered a great draft. There will be some excellent players to emerge, but not likely a No. 1 type player like LeBron or Anthony Davis. Or Derrick Rose. But players like Westbrook, Harden and Leonard were not No. 1 overall picks. The Bulls are overloaded at shooting guard and power forward. I'd say they pick for need if they can get a center or point guard. They have several guys who are listed as centers who perhaps don't have ideal size.

Christopher Billingsley:

I vividly remember that young, permed Doug Collins leading this group, with the team feeding off his energy and making a run in '89 against all odds. I can't help but wonder what he could have done with Tex Winter's triangle offense and his perspective of it. Why was Doug so opposed to using it? Did Doug not believe he had the personnel to run it? Or did he just have more faith in a prime Jordan than that system? It's obvious that his dismissal is still a sore spot after so many years and I guess I always felt bad that he couldn't taste the champagne because the '91 and '92 teams were basically his.

Sam Smith:

I think Doug knows he was a championship coach; he just didn't get to the party. Though I believe the Bulls understood his contribution and I think he got some form of jewelry. Remember, Tex's ideas weren't universally accepted. He took them to coach Elvin Hayes and Houston and was fired quickly. Doug was coaching a pro style game for that era led by Michael, and with a team that Jerry Krause was basically rebuilding on his watch with constantly changing personnel. I think they brought in a half dizen point guards to try to replace Paxson during that stretch. But Doug being an All-Star NBA player also understood that it was important for the Bulls in that era to show results more than development. That meant wins, which obviously drove Michael. It proved with the change to Phil one of the rare handoffs that worked well. Though if you recall Michael was no fan of the triangle to start. And Phil massaged the offense quite a bit for Michael still to lead the league in scoring and use many of the teachings of his Knicks coach, Red Holzman. We always accept what occurred as some sort of inevitability. Like the Bulls would never have won with Rose because they didn't. Phil was massively instrumental for the long term. Doug's strength was the immediate turnaround. He coached four NBA teams and each improved by double digit wins his first season. He did his job for the Bulls and his contributions to the arc of the championships shouldn't be discounted.