Ask Sam Mailbag 6.12.20

Sam opens his mailbag and answers questions on the NBA Bubble, Scottie Pippen, and future Bulls starting lineups
Coby White #0 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 10, 2020 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

Nelson Rommel:

My idea for the teams like the Bulls who won't continue their season: Organize an eight-team tournament to decide NBA draft positioning for this year only. This would collect some of the lost TV revenue, give the guys a reason to play organized ball, act as a test for future NBA mid-season tournaments, and it would provide real incentive for winning… at least for the front offices. Sure, a higher draft spot might not be the most motivating thing for players but at least it gives guys a chance to earn some of their salary. Warriors would most likely win if they have Steph/Klay play, but they have the best lottery odds anyway!

Sam Smith:

I really like that idea. Which reasonably assures it never will occur. But it does answer a lot of concerns regarding giving players from those teams a chance to play—don't they always say how much they love to play?—and getting that tournament test like the Broadway shows that do previews in other cities to work out the uneven parts and test reactions to certain elements before going to New York. The only way it would work is if they also did it in Orlando in the "bubble," which actually seems large enough to accommodate eight more teams. But then why did they leave them out in the first place? If they don't do that and just have a tournament, it would apparently be with lesser safety precautions than in Orlando. And thus establish that two-tier league that the NBA did in its prima facie case with the eight teams, that they are a second division like soccer.


Kirk Landers:

Is the league still working with the 8 teams who were left out of the "season"? I'm hoping to hear they set up their own bubble and get a couple months of work in.

Sam Smith:

There are claims from some of the teams that the league wants to/will/intends to do something, though its seeming less likely with the rumors of players concerned about the length of stay and the necessity of even playing given it's unlikely many advance toward a championship. As if most were, anyway? I guess it's easy for me to say since I would not be going to the Orlando compound given the limited attendance and the questionably legal concerns about barring those over 65. Though I think the coaches backing Popovich, D'Antoni and Gentry made that a quick non starter. You wonder what all those lawyers at NBA headquarters were thinking to let that one come up. I would go if I could (or write about a team that was there), and yes three or four months on the road is a long time. But, seriously, didn't any of these guys go away to college? Oh, right, no one stays long. You know when you're in the service, they don't let your parents come with you. To the Peace Corps, either. It's a Disney resort! Not Fallujah. And you're playing for something if you're playing. That's the point. Most everyone doesn't win and the large majority never have a chance. It's about the game and your job. That said, if a player were seriously concerned for his health or had an underlying condition, I'd say to stay home without any recriminations. It's OK. But just don't ask to be paid. Workers in all fields take unpaid leaves. Players certainly can afford it. No one should ever be forced to work if they don't want to or have to or have fears. Guys get injured in the playoffs all the time. The games continue. Golden State almost made it despite that last year. But the league is always bigger than any player or group of players. The league needs to continue, and it seems they are being extra cautious and responsible. At least for 22 teams.


Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat draws up a play in the huddle during the game on March 6, 2020 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana

Ateeq Ahmed:

I am extremely excited about the NBA's return. Do you think the format is gimmicky, as MJ may have suggested? I personally do not, especially considering the circumstances. Also, how far do the Heat go? Sorry, I'm going with the Heat. I always root for the East, and I am going to root for Jimmy and Nunn. Coach Spo has been underrated the last two years.

Sam Smith:

I'm still deciding if I'm excited. Or even interested. I believe it's vital the NBA play, and certainly try depending on the health circumstances. It's difficult to maintain momentum in any business if you ask your customers to get accustomed to you not being there. Baseball was devastated by the 1994 strike, and it's tough to see a Sosa/McGwire NBA savior. But the way the Bulls and those other teams were treated, it's left me somewhat empty about the NBA's long stated belief in fairness and a level playing field. I'll probably come around by late July, if only to explain why Jordan was better than LeBron. It's also why I was hoping the Bulls got in. Because I think unexpected things can occur following this long layoff. Who knows what everyone has been doing the last three months. So it's almost like seeing this season as a previous season. I believe things start over for many teams, like Portland which gets its big men back. So suddenly they look like a top four team with a sub-.500 record. I agree Spoelstra continues to emerge as one of the best coaches, but I can see them going the other way with a roster I still believe isn't as talented as the Bulls'. It's another reason I was hoping to see the Bulls. I didn't expect them to do much, but I wanted to see Coby with Zach and everyone healthy for the first time all season. Coby/Zach/Otto/Lauri/Wendell seems to me like a stronger team than Kendrick/Duncan/Jimmy/Bam/Meyers. I think with the changes in health and depending on what guys were or were not doing there are chances for what we would consider major upsets.


Kieron Smith:

And here I thought the end of June. When someone told me the NBA was starting again, I immediately thought the end of June( what a relief/finally!!!), just to now find out it's not the end of June but rather the end of July. Why so late?

Sam Smith:

Waiting to throw out the first ball at a baseball game? Obviously, there has to be a training camp again and then LeBron has to skip the preseason games. It's also going to be interesting to watch the load management ethic at play since they'll be trying to compress the schedule to get the season finished before the feared next virus wave and who plays and how much besides whether someone gets the virus and has to sit out awhile. It's an aberrant time for everyone in the world; so why not sports teams. It's OK to have an unconventional season and call it that because it is that. And just be satisfied with whatever the results are and appreciate that there was a season. And the champion is legitimate because they won against the same circumstances everyone else faced. There's no excuses that if the season went longer, or if there were the usual rest in the playoffs, or yadda, yadda. Play it out and the best team wins. Whoever wins was the best team for 2019-20 and just face and accept it.


William Blanco:

The players of the team's left out will get paid for the games not played?

Sam Smith:

I think you'd have heard a lot more complaining about being left out and demands to play if they were not.


Tom Golden:

Did I miss a memo? Why is everyone so down on WCJ, We wouldn't get much for any of our players; talk about selling low. I'm willing to take another flyer with Lauri and Dunn. We should add someone of quality either through draft or trade, I think we could be good. What if Zach, Coby and Lauri start playing lights out with WCJ, Otto, Young, Gafford setting picks and going for rebounds like madmen. Add good specialty people, and you are now the next poster city for the next big free agent, hello AD?

Sam Smith:

Enough with Davis. He's not going anywhere and with the league minimizing the Bulls as it has with the exemption from the Favored 22, free agent pitches are going to be difficult for awhile. Which is why I think Karnisovas has talked extensively about development. But I agree they could be good, and much better than they were without doing much other than adding a draft choice, which Karnisovas has said will be better than advertised. And another reason why I was anxious to get at least that eight-game glimpse. I don't think the Bulls, and most importantly Karnisovas, are down on Carter. It's just that there are a lot of potential four/five players on the roster with Markkanen, Porter (perhaps more a stretch four these days), Gafford and Young. So fans and media have been speculating about possibilities because Carter is smallish for a center and the seven-foot Markkanen may actually be more useful as a transition big man like the way the Mavericks had started to use Porzingis. So actually there are multiple possibilities for using the roster different ways, which is another reason—did I mention yet?—that I wished the Bulls got that eight-game finish in Orlando. Carter has talked about playing power forward, but he's probably a better fit as a center the way Miami uses Bam Adebayo. It's also a way to get Markkanen more involved in the game than just being a stand still shooter. Markkanen's not as physical as Bam, but he's more skilled.


Coby White #0, and Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls react to a play during the game against the Washington Wizards on February 23, 2020 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Matthew Crook:

I have that Zach and Coby are the future of the Bulls; who would you like to see as the starting 5 for the bulls next year?

Sam Smith:

I'm not sure Coby/Zach is the ultimate backcourt. Coby might be a better fit as a Lou Williams/Vinnie Johnson three-guard rotation type player. But I believe there's more there than this season showed. It's just going to be a long wait to see it again. The draft could be big because there are a few intriguing possibilities for a point guard. Could LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes or Tyrese Haliburton, all possible Bulls point guard draft picks, become the starting point guard? Then start one of the three with Zach in the backcourt with Coby the instant offense? Then maybe Porter at small forward with Markkanen and Carter? That's more traditional. Though even if the Bulls select one of the point guards, White probably starts with LaVine for now. Maybe the Bulls draft small forward Deni Avdija and play Porter at power forward with Markkanen at center. Maybe Porter off the bench behind Carter and Markkanen. Young remains a big question mark at power forward or small forward. He started often with the injuries, and he still considers himself a starter. He would seem the most likely to move given his potential value to a contending team and that he was among the few players healthy and productive all season.


Kristijonas Mareckas:

Recently I've heard that there was a time when the Bulls management had banned players from wearing headbands in games. Reason for it being that the relationship between John Paxon and Eddie Robinson (a headband wearer) was so sour, that after Eddie left the team, John implemented the ban as an act of some kind of vengeance. I find it really hard to believe. Especially when there are players for whom a headband is a feature of their image, and any kind of emotionally driven act that could limit their ways of expression would give the team a very bad publicity and ridicule. do You know the reasoning behind such a move?

Sam Smith:

Well, there is something to the word "uniform." I don't think everyone has to express their individuality all the time, especially in a team concept. Remember, the NBA still requires players not in uniform to wear sport coats to sit on the bench. The Bulls actually are fairly informal as some teams travel in sport coats and the Bulls don't. There was an issue with Eddie, who wore a head band, though there were other personal (and injury) issues with Eddie, a poor free agent choice at the time whom Paxson inherited when he took over as general manager. Paxson hired Scott Skiles, who was for the headband ban. Skiles initially benched Ben Wallace for wearing a headband, but relented and by the next season the Bulls began to look like Woodstock. And before long players like Rajon Rondo and Bobby Porter were looking like John McEnroe and the Karate Kid.


Head coach Jim Boylen of the Chicago Bulls encourages his team against the Boston Celtics at United Center on December 08, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Art Alenik:

I read this in an NBC-Chicago post, "…in a sign of Karnisovas' leadership style, he has communicated to Boylen to focus strictly on coaching and working with his staff and players, sources said. Too often last season, Boylen got wrapped up in dealing with player agents or honoring commitments on the business operations side, which sidetracked his focus." Do you know what that's all about? Is it AK telling him to stay away from agents? Or the press?

Sam Smith:

It sounds to me like Karnisovas telling Boylen to focus and concentrate on coaching after just one full season that was marred by near record injuries. Which suggests to me there's a long evaluation period about to occur, which Karnisovas has been open about promising for the entire basketball part of the organization. And he's only recently finally arrived in Chicago. So I can't see imminent changes. After all, why would you come in and describe an altered job description and then make changes without seeing how that job description is carried out?


Jeff Baum:

I'm a rare die-hard Bulls fan that hasn't yet seen The Last Dance. Waiting to watch it with my dad who, as a kid born in the 80s in Chicago, naturally shared his love of watching the Bulls with his son. I know that no two players are ever the same, but I watched the GQ Sports analysis of MJ's training regimen and I believe Kobe and Curry both worked with the trainer or some protége-disciple. The physical craftsmanship of the body is a key part of each of those players' success, and I think the overall mental hunger drives that progression far further. I feel like each sparked a similar type of viewer magic fundamentally, and I know that MJ and Kobe's comparisons are fairly well-fleshed out. I also know that MJ has an insane mental drive even above the others that has never been matched. You've written about Steph before, but what would you say is the biggest difference in terms of his legacy vs MJs? I feel like from a mental and tactical standpoint there are a lot of parallels you could draw - the way they both try to dominate physically and assassinate mentally - and the obvious 73-win-season battle help push some through lines. Curry has had some marks for a resounding supporting cast, but MJ had a pretty darn good team himself most of the years. It's great to appreciate any greatness for what it is, but I like your take on what is the Jordan argument for a future "is Curry the greatest" debate?

Sam Smith:

Can't say I've been asked about that comparison before. Curry clearly had way more offensive talent to play with, which is a big part of this era and also why Jordan had to score so much. But it's also why I believe in the fantasy matchups why the 90s Bulls were superior to the 2010s Warriors: D-fence! Jordan and Scottie Pippen were two of the best ever defenders at their positions and combined with elite defenders from their eras in Grant and then Rodman. Curry's going to be an interesting discussion guy for the coming added 25 for the NBA's 75th anniversary list. He'd always be good, but likely would not be quite the elite level in the 80s and 90s because shooters who couldn't defend didn't get as much time. Jordan would be dominant in any era with any group.


 Scottie Pippen #33 of the Houston Rockets in action during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Compaq Center in Houston, Texas.

Stian Nordvik:

I`m sitting here watching the last dance. Being from Scandinavia, we are more used to recognize each other, working as a team than your American dream philosophy. When someone are as good as Scottie Pippen, and someone are as dependent on Pippen as Jordan was, he should have gone forward and gotten him a better deal coming back from baseball. Anyway, for the last 3 championships, Pippen being number 6 on the payroll, the Scandinavians would have joined together each numbers 1-5 would have donated pay, making Pippen number 2 on the team, recognizing his ability and value. 30 out of 30 teams would have done so. Imagine that, making America great again, doing what is right and identifying talent and value of the individual.

Sam Smith:

Now that's a good one. Why didn't I think of mentioning it to Jordan when he was making $30 million per year? Of course, it's also why Americans generally lapse into panic and delirium when someone suggests sharing wealth that evolves to a discussion of socialism and social democracy. And then immediately begin to scream communism and go for their guns in anticipation of the imminent invasion. It's not the way we do things here. It was mentioned in the Last Dance how the Bulls manipulated Pippen's free agent contract with Houston for 1998-99 so he could make an extra $20 million. What was left out was when Pippen signed his deal he was the eighth highest paid player in the NBA. He balked at management's offer of three or four years and wanted eight. So the contract obviously began to become obsolete. But also left out of the documentary was that under the new union rule agreed to with the league at the time teams were prohibited from doing renegotiations. Plus, America is big on this greeting when you've made a bad deal for yourself: Sucker!


Elgin Baylor #22 of the Los Angeles Lakers warms up before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 21, 1969 at the Milwaukee Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Paul Giuntoli:

Your Hard Labor book. Wrapped it up in 3 days. Such amazing stories. Hits especially hard given today's racial climate. The efforts and sacrifices of yesterday's players need to be celebrated more. Also, I'd never heard of Tom Meschery before, and I'm fascinated! I wish more of today's players gave love to those guys. Since you wrote the book we've lost Hondo and now Unseld. The time to publicly give credit to all those players is running out. I know LeBron has given shoutouts to Jerry West and Oscar. Kobe did too. Shaq famously paid for Mikan's funeral costs. MJ always rejected the Greatest of all Time tag by saying he never got to play against West and Oscar, so it's unfair to them. I hope today's players do more, and I hope the organizations invite the older giants of the game back to participate more often.

Sam Smith:

I usually don't congratulate myself, especially since I have short arms and it's difficult slapping myself on the back. That book didn't get much initial attention, but it's more relevant these days because it did explore so many of the racial issues the players faced in an era of Civil Rights reform, but which didn't much extend to athletes. I learned with pride how players refused to play in cities where restaurants and hotels were segregated, how Elgin Baylor skipped games when a team hotel was white only, how Bob Cousy took midnight trains home rather than stay in a city where his black teammates couldn't get a meal, how Bill Russell driving home to Louisiana in the offseason couldn't stop for food or a rest room with his kids, how white players had to be beards and signal for taxis and then their black teammates would pile in with them.

The NBA was the first most integrated society. It's an amazing story. Not because I wrote it, but because of how they lived it. It resonates so much more given these times. The book focused around the Robertson free agent suit and Havlicek and Unseld were among the 13 living plaintiffs (of 14). They were seriously ill when I was doing the interviews. But it still was so important to them they agreed to interviews, which were their last. Thanks for reading. Many of today's players respect the game's pioneers. But they have no idea what they went through for the NBA to get here.

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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