Ask Sam Mailbag: Bulls offseason plans, the history of the Most Improved Player Award and more

Sam answers your questions about free agency, the history of the Most Improved Award and much more.
by Sam Smith
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Stephen Zwick:

Celtics vs Bucks is going to be a good series. Miami vs Philly should be a good series as well. All four of these teams have been together for awhile (plus or minus a player or two). That's probably the biggest difference between these top four teams and the Bulls....team cohesion from playing together longer and having fewer major disruptions during this past season with COVID and injuries to key players.

The Bulls kind of came together and then completely fell apart....whereas Boston did the complete opposite. So moving forward, to me it seems two key things needed for the Bulls to get better next season are health and time. Then some better quality back-up size at the 4 and 5 along with a better back-up PG so, if Zo is out for extended periods of time the Bulls don't turn into a team of players trying to create everything (mainly jump shots) off of the dribble with a lot of isolation players playing hero ball. More consistent bench scoring would help as well. I thought Coby could be that sixth man, but he's just way too inconsistent.

Am I off with this assessment?

Sam Smith:

I haven't given up on Coby since, remember, he started the season late recovering from surgery for which he couldn't play last summer, and because of the circumstances I never believed he was used well. Or fairly—there's no fairness in basketball!—but he was told to be just whatever they needed that day and never really put into a specific role. Anyway, he's got another season to work it out. Your sense about the continuity is all everyone spoke about post season, which is accurate about those top four teams, but also what everyone talks about after the season. After all, no one—OK, maybe Kyrie—suggests trading teammates. Other than the Bulls, unfortunately, it really was a terrific first round with so many competitive games and series even if they didn't go to seven. It also gave further evidence that you, too, can be a GM since I recall their preseason survey had a Nets/Lakers Finals. OK, I had the Nets, too. But not the Lakers! Welcome to the new NBA, finally. Super teams are dead. The superstar diaspora has evened out the competition. I think we'll be looking at six to eight title possibles every season for awhile. Hello, Bulls?

Joel Embiid apparently is out the first two games against Miami. Of course, a huge blow and makes them, it seems, a big underdog. But I also thought despite the results Milwaukee didn't look that great against the Bulls and would lose to Boston. And may still, but it sure didn't look like it Sunday. And Golden State/Memphis, wow! That's really all you were hoping for with the Bulls, to get in games like that at home even if they lost. Which as I watch these games has given me some pause and concern about the Bulls makeup.

I've talked about the need for a spot up shooter, a rim protector, a penetrating guard, though at the margins as it was mentioned at Arturas Karnisovas' post season wrap. But many of these teams still playing have a lot of young athletes who push the ball and make quick twitch shooting decisions compared to a more deliberate game. True, Milwaukee isn't that (yes, Giannis), and we know the wily veterans come through in the playoffs. But, you're right, there are a lot of smart kids out there.

The Bulls may also have to take a look at that athletic component.


Picking up the ball

Michael Mortenson:

Rule changes I'd like to see: Start the clock when the ball contacts a player or the floor. I hate watching players bent over walking behind the rolling ball. And we need delayed foul calls. Like in hockey. Let the play continue until the foulee (person fouled) scores or loses the ball.

Sam Smith:

The latter is called continuation and we (well, the NBA, has that) have that, too. It's just that unlike hockey there is actual scoring in basketball, so it's understandable not to see it. Have not been able, however, to find anyone considered the "foulee" in the rule book. Looking, though.

I, too, dislike the very stupid roll the ball and pick it up at half court and then wait 18 seconds for a shot offense. Actually, until the last two minutes, as I recall, the game clock starts when the ball is thrown in. Just not the shot clock. We all understand the theory of more time to set up the offense, which often becomes an extra 10 seconds to dribble between your legs before shooting. I always root for the guy walking up beside the ball to accidentally kick it out of bounds.

That's when it likely will stop, though if the ball were inbounded and players were trying to push the ball or threw a Wes Unseld/Kevin Love outlet, that would take about a second or maybe two in order to get the ball to half court. So on the whole it's a basically useless act, though on some players' endorsement deals I believe they may get more money the longer they are directly on camera, so maybe that's why they are doing it.


Pelicans

Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are looking to turn the Pelicans into title contenders.

Mike Freeman:

Are the Pelicans as good as they seemed against Memphis? It seems there are fewer pushover teams and there are many more no name, long, 3 & D young players around making an impact. (See Toronto). Where does that leave us for next season and the next step?

Sam Smith:

As I was saying, oh right, you're worried too? The Bulls made a lot of win-now kind of moves last year with Vucevic and DeRozan, (we liked them and still do) and they advanced the Bulls into instant credibility, which was badly needed and most welcomed. But you also wonder if they have enough savvy to offset the agility. So it's still going to be another intriguing summer to see what they do.

Karnisovas has shown he's not particularly patient.

The Pelicans are an intriguing group, revived with the C.J. McCollum trade. It seems like the 76ers might have done better than Harden if all that McCollum talk was serious given the 76ers could have kept more when giving up Simmons. And a big offseason question with Zion Williamson for New Orleans. I've seen where he'd like the $100 million or so, and who wouldn't after not playing all season. But as productive as he was when he was playing, and it wasn't much, and who knows if he can sustain, he often seemed to diminish Brandon Ingram's effectiveness. To accommodate Zion, they put Lonzo Ball off the ball. But now they also have McCollum with Ingram and some junkyard dog defenders. And loads of draft picks coming. But if you could get Zion cheaply...? Of course, you'd have to pay him.

It's a complicated deal with base year rules if he gets an extension. There were rumors he wanted to be elsewhere; maybe not now? Maybe after he's paid? There's obvious risks with his health and conditioning issues, but people will come. If you build him up, and you don't have to that much, they will come. Another team to watch. Anyone mention the Jazz yet?


Marko Simonovic

Bulls fans are excited to see the type of player Marko Simonovic (left) could develop into.

Richard Meagher:

Doing some more research on Marko Simonovic, will he be on the team next season? From looking at tape of him online, he has a nice offensive game. At at 6-foot-11, he could add some much needed size to the front line. So what have you heard?

Sam Smith:

Haven't heard anything, but I suspect it's another year mostly in the G-league. He's guaranteed through next season with a team option the for the year after. He averaged 17 and 10 for Windy City, which is pretty good, but he still doesn't seem strong enough for the NBA. He's not particularly athletic and doesn't seem to block many shots. He doesn't make 3-pointers. He seems to run the court very well, but big guys in the NBA without a butt and some girth have little chance.

It depends on what he looks like when he returns; maybe get Zion's diet.


Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams' growth as a player will be a major part of next season's Bulls.

Jeff Lichtenstein:

To me, the key to this team is Patrick Williams. Vucevic will be 32 and DeRozan 33. The best you can hope for is a slow incremental decline as those are ages when injuries plus wear and tear start in interest. However, a major jump in progression from Williams would also alleviate pressure from the Big 3 and perhaps make them more effective.

What are your thoughts on the ceiling for Patrick Williams?

Sam Smith:

He appears to be at least a hope based on so many post season questions about him asked to just about everybody. And the just 20 years old thing. And the flashes, like the last two games against the Bucks, however uncompetitive they were for the team. That's the thing, and it's hardly his fault. But you have to see him when it matters, when the defense is attacking him, when the other guys are playing their best players, when the game is being decided.

I do agree with DeRozan, and especially the way he plays, that DeRozan will age more gracefully. Similarly with Vucevic, though he gets criticized for not being more graceful. But I feel like both will be as effective at least through the end of their Bulls contracts.

Unless he's been wide open, I still haven't seen Williams shoot much. Charitable is nice in theory, but NBA effectiveness requires a degree of selfishness. You have to take that contested shot sometimes so they also might think you will. He's also had some unusually empty rebounding games for a guy his size and apparent strength.

I've mostly accepted the conventional wisdom, which I agree with, that he's so inexperienced and basically missed this season that I can't say yet. And he was the guy in that draft whom the scouts were all saying you might have to wait five years, but then you might really have something. So far, he's been too deferential. He needs, at least, to be a less nicer guy on the court.


Bobby Portis shoots over Tristan Thompson

Bobby Portis shoots over Tristan Thompson.

Ryan Carpel:

If we had Bobby Portis and Lonzo Ball we'd have beaten the Bucks. We need Portis back in free agency.

Sam Smith:

I've been there before and you can't fault the Bulls because they offered him about three times more money four years ago than he's making now with trips around the conference.

Bobby has acknowledged some hubris, but with the success of the Bucks and the likelihood they will take good care of him finally this offseason where he's become the most popular non-Giannis guy, Bobby looks like he has hit it big and isn't going anywhere.

Plus, the Bulls aren't likely to have any significant free agency salary cap room. Whether it works or not, the Bulls obviously are committed to Patrick Williams at power forward and I don't see a change there high on their offseason to-do list. Yeah, Ball would have helped, if not changed the result.


Ja Morant

Ja Morant won the 2021-22 Most Improved Player Award.

Michael Worth:

They gave the Most Improved Award to Ja Morant. Don't you have to suck first to win this award? They should have gave it to Jordan Poole.

Sam Smith:

Hey, I was for Desmond Bane, who I think Ja was for also as he apparently tried to given him the award, which by the way looks a little cheesy. Seems like they used to have a heavy plinth with a statue. Now it's some small crystal thing. The award has a curious history.

It started out as Comeback Player of the Year, but the top nominees were becoming mostly guys coming out of drug rehabilitation, and the league was somewhat uncomfortable with honoring that as welcome as it was. So it evolved to Most Improved with the general idea that it would go to players who surprisingly improved. Generally it was going to lower draft picks like Scott Skiles, Isaac Austin, Kevin Duckworth and Gheorghe Muresan or top picks who stunk and then didn't, like Pervis Ellison.

I guess technically if you go from an All-Star to a superstar like Morant that's an improvement. But I think the league had the award in mind for guys who wouldn't be included in the conversation for other awards, like MVP as Morant will. Though Giannis was a Most Improved, and since he was No. 15 in the draft I get it. But I'd rather have seen Poole or Bane. I guess Ja agrees with us.


Pat Riley

Pat Riley (left) coached some amazing teams throughout his Hall of Fame NBA career.

Parker Lerdal:

Which was better either the Showtime Lakers or the Miami Heat "Heatles" both with Pat Riley?

Sam Smith:

Yeah, Riles has had a heck of a run. The current HBO series that most of those Lakers don't like likely has raised the favor of the 80s Lakers.

I know I'd be expected to favor them and do. To try to be fair, and I never had issue with LeBron and wasn't even upset with his TV show (never understood why it was such a big deal as, after all, it's all a show), the opponents those Lakers faced were so superior to the Heat's opponents of that era by one measure.

I know it was their start, and the Bulls really should have had them in 2011, but I'm not sure if that Mavericks team even makes the playoffs in the 80s. Yes, I know, Dirk was too young in the 80s. Even Kidd. They never did face what the Warriors were becoming and survived one time when Gregg Popovich out-thought himself. Those Heat were really good. Those Lakers were a lot more reallys.


Donovan Mitchell

The are many offseason rumors surrounding Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell.

Mike Sutera:

In the New York Post they said the Donovan Mitchell watch began with the Jazz' ouster.

Sam Smith:

And the free agency parade to New York continues? Is Amare Stoudemire making another comeback? Anytime a team loses early in the playoffs, especially one with preseason aspirations, the media roster dismantling begins.

The Jazz is a hotter topic because even during the broadcast of their games the national play by play guys were talking about the trade rumors. Mitchell, Rudy, and now the coach in Lakers speculation.

Dwyane Wade buying in as a partner and Danny Ainge hired to, well, do stuff, and with continuing Mitchell/Gobert feud rumblings you assume they are the main target of the vultures. But breaking up is hard to do, and often unproductive. Actually, the Jazz, though under different ownership, were in similar situations in the early 90s with four first round eliminations in seven years, trade Malone rumors, fire Sloan, and they hung in there, patched around the edges, as it were, and went to consecutive Finals. Unfortunately for them Michael Jordan was there. But both Mitchell and Gobert are under long-term deals and some patience and perhaps a new coach, which everyone likes to do regularly, might be enough to give them a new theme.

The Bulls found out perhaps as necessary as it might be sometimes and that it can work, it also can be very unpleasant. The Knicks? I read they're trading for Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal and signing Jalen Brunson.

Ask Sam will appear periodically in the offseason

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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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