Ask Sam Mailbag: Bulls playoff chances, lottery odds and more

Romas Blazys: Bulls had some incredible victories over the last few days. The last game seems to result from some fatigue. I can really see the difference that a great specialist at point guard makes. It makes me wonder where the Bulls would be if Lonzo Ball was healthy and back. Oh well. I really don’t understand the situation with the lottery pick and how getting into the playoffs affects it? It seems to me that if the Bulls make it to the playoffs or even the play in, then they lose a chance at a premium lottery pick. The season kinda got busted with the Ball situation. I think it might be in the interest of the Bulls to have a mini-tank and position themselves for the chance at a good lottery pick (I don’t think the current roster is in a position to be champions because of the Ball misfortune). It is exciting to go far into the playoffs and is a measure of progress. However, if you are not positioned to be a champion, then it does not really matter if you finish 2nd or 8th in the league? In the current situation, how far the Bulls would go in the playoffs this year is not a valid measure of progress.

Sam: There remains some confusion about the potential lottery situation for the Bulls. I heard the lottery TV drawing may be in Chicago this year, but it didn’t help last time. By not being sellers at the trade deadline when there was a lot of interest in deals because of the lack of a true title favorite, especially in the Western Conference, the Bulls basically signaled they were not interested in this draft. They could still have a pick, though it seems they are mostly trying not to get one. If the Bulls make the playoffs they won’t have a pick in this draft unless they trade for or buy one, which is possible with several teams having multiple selections. The Bulls have the rights to Portland’s first round pick if the Trailblazers aren’t in the lottery. But it looks like they will be. The Bulls don’t have a second round pick from prior trades. But they could have a top four pick if they miss the playoffs, which means missing the play-in (which I don’t expect) or losing in the play-in. From the Vučević trade, the Bulls traded Orlando it’s first round picks in 2021 (Franz Wagner) and 2023. But the pick this year has top four protection, which means if the Bulls get in the lottery and move up in the lottery to a top four pick, they get to keep the pick. It’s considered a loaded draft in the top five. Orlando has its own draft pick. If the Bulls get in the playoffs, Orlando automatically also gets the Bulls’ 2023 pick. If the Bulls miss the playoffs and go into the lottery but don’t get top four (they are currently favored for picking ninth), then Orlando gets the pick like in 2021 along with their own likely lottery pick. It seems like from the decisions made at the trade deadline and picking up Patrick Beverley as a buyout, the Bulls believe they can get into the playoffs and then maybe pull off a first round upset.

Victor Wenbanyama looks to shoot the ball.

Mark SchweihsI hope Victor Wembanyama does not end up in the Eastern Conference. However, four of the bottom six NBA teams are from the Eastern Conference. The Trailblazers are slotted bottom seven (7.5% of ping pong balls).  The Bulls are ninth but will make the playoffs. The further problem is the two Western Conference teams are San Antonio and Houston. The Spurs have already ridden winning the #1 lottery choice to a dynasty with Robinson and Duncan. The Rockets have mortgaged their franchise with all-or-nothing decisions so I would not like to see them bailed out. So, we should all hope Victor Wembanyama ends up in the Western Conference. Now as the season winds, Bulls fans are rooting for the Trailblazers to make the playoffs. However, each ping pong ball for Portland puts them in a better spot to build their franchise by getting the #1 choice.

Sam: I know there’s great excitement about Wembanyama, but in his first two years in the NBA in not exactly a powerful conference, LeBron James missed the playoffs. Yes, LeBron James! I know, especially in the West with its parity, that it’s probably easier to make a jump as the Thunder and Jazz are showing this season. But I see Wembanyama as more of a potential defensive rim protector type to start and somewhat limited on offense given his thin frame. He’d probably make an interesting case with the Pistons since they do have the worst record in the league and some potential offensive talent. The Bulls are in Portland Friday, so you’d say a Bulls loss gives the Bulls a better chance to get Portland’s pick this season since it’s lottery protected (as long as it isn’t top 14). But the Bulls clearly are pushing to win every game and you know the players have no interest in getting the Portland pick if only because it would mean someone else with a guaranteed roster spot. The Trailblazers are 13th in the Western Conference, three and a half games out of ninth. So too soon to give up. But with four teams nine through 12 separated by a half game ahead of the Trailblazers, there seems almost no chance Portland will make the playoffs. But that’s also low odds for them to get to the top of the draft. Maybe the biggest question for them is with Jerami Grant a free agent and the team in decline, what will they decide to do with Damian Lillard? But at 33 years old this summer, starting to miss games with injuries and owed a $63 million season four years from now, how much of a market does Lillard really have anymore?

Lonzo Ball warms up during the 2021-22 season.

John Liza: Seems like the loss of Lonzo Ball puts the Bulls management in a tough spot. Since I assume his salary still counts against the cap and the Bulls don't want to pay the luxury tax, how can they afford to improve the team with a high-end point guard/power forward/three-point shooter without giving up a valuable player on the current team via trade or free agency? And thus ending up just as incomplete as they started.

Sam: The point they’ve made about the luxury tax is that if it’s for a player that puts them in position to be a serious contender they will go into the tax. The luxury tax issue more is the salary cap rules; in the NBA unlike baseball you just can’t buy a free agent. You have to be the amount of the free agent’s salary under the cap (basically a stripped down payroll) or match a salary in trade. The way you get into the tax is basically extending your players for huge money, which they did with LaVine and would not make sense with players in their 30s. Or taking on a player like Lillard with multiple years left for a player with an expiring deal. But then you can’t make other moves. And does someone like Lillard make you a championship contender? Though the Bulls do have options with a Vučević expiring contract and trade interest for players like DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso. Most everything, it seems to me, will depend on what happens regarding the play-in and if they make the playoffs. The obvious needs are a point guard and three-point shooting. Though there’s been media speculation about Ball for next season, the Bulls would not qualify for an injured player exception unless an independent medical panel determined Ball could not return before the end of next season and he agreed to that. I haven’t heard anything yet suggested like that from either side. If it comes to that, the Bulls could get an exception for half Ball’s salary, which is about $20 million for next season and a player option for $21 million the season after.

Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan exchange high-fives during a game.

Michele Morandi: While we pray for Lonzo and enjoy the rest of the season, what do you think about this to do list for the summer? 
1) Trade DeRozan and Caruso. Main targets: a real playmaker, draft picks and / or young talents who suit the modern NBA style of play. 
2) Try to re-sign Vučević at a reasonable price. If you can't, sign and trade him to get something back. 
3) Extend the qualifying offer to Coby White, then trade him (if allowed by the rules). Nothing against Coby, but teams tend to overpay their own guys coming out of rookie contract. 
4) Try to re-sign Patrick Beverley. 
5) Ask the ownership if is it possible to have the financial resources needed to buy a high second round pick. 
6) Build around Zach Lavine. 
7) Put a framed Lauri Markkanen picture in the office and repeat with me: never again. Never again this franchise will let a talent like this walk away, instead we'll do everything we can to develop him and maximize his potential.

Sam: I often say, especially because there’s basically no degree, test or course of study to run a franchise and often it’s if you stood next to someone who was successful, the difference between us and them is just that they have the job. But if I were to guess their plan this season, it may sound a lot like this yours. For your first part, one rumor making the (media) round these days has been a Lakers/Bulls deal with a sign and trade, D’Angelo Russell for DeRozan. There’s obviously have been no discussion since they are not allowed now. I’ve never been  huge Russell fan. But DeRozan long has expressed a desire to finish at home in LA, LeBron likes him (most important part), and Russell is an excellent three-point shooter and a point guard. And if Ball can return, either could play off the ball. And did I mention, Russell is a point guard. Coby really has improved, and the Bulls do have matching rights. But would he be satisfied with the in and out role he has now? I expect mutual interest between the Bulls and Beverley and see a contract and a reserve role for him next season. And I can see the the Bulls getting into the draft, if maybe the second round. As for Lauri, well, sometimes you’re never going to get the chance somewhere and need to be elsewhere. Once the new management selected Patrick Williams it was the end for Lauri here. If you ever coached your kids’ team you’ve seen that dynamic. The coach doesn’t want your kid to fail, but he’s always going to do more, subliminally or not, to make sure his kid succeeds.

Lonzo Ball stands during the 2021-22 season.

Randall Sanders: I don’t understand the reports that say Ball will be out most if not all of next season and the recovery time for such a surgery being six months. Based on the fact he’s already had the surgery and is recovering, if he can come back, wouldn’t the timetable be between the start of the regular season and say Thanksgiving?

Sam: Because this is a third surgery in just over a year and seemingly exploratory/experimental, there is no timetable that has been officially mentioned by the team, the doctors or the Ball family. Everything you read has been media speculation. I’ve heard Bulls coach Billy Donovan being asked about it several times and as polite as Donovan is, it’s easy to summarize that Jambalaya of words he’s prepared: I have no idea; why are you asking me?

Jimmy Butler posting up Zach LaVine.

Parker Lerdal: Will Ex-Bull Jimmy Butler part ways with the Heat next season? 

Sam: Jimmy is home. Jimmy’s contract extends through the 2025-26 season with a player option that year for $52 million that I assume he’ll certainly exercise. As a result, it’s going to be difficult for Miami to move back toward the top of the East, as if anyone much cares. Plus, Jimmy will be 34 to start next season and rarely plays more than 60 games a season anymore. So his value no longer matches his contract in trade. And why leave Miami? You can be assured he has a better view than most anyone else. More so when I think of Jimmy, his is one of the most remarkable stories in sports. And that doesn’t even include his too much discussed nomadic youth. Not only was Jimmy a No. 30 pick after thought by the Bulls,  but a skinny kid with seemingly no offensive game. Thibs had little use for him, and then grudgingly gave him some time because of injuries as a role playing defender. Even instructing hm not to shoot. Jimmy's career arc is one of most impressive in league history as he defied every label or expectation, and without the natural athletic gifts, sponsors or connections. He really is the stuff of fiction.

Patrick Beverley celebrates a play with Alex Caruso.

Bill Kochneff: Is it Patrick Beverley's contributions or is he just the catalyst? I suppose it is probably both, but it's nice to see the Bulls playing with a little more "oomph" on the court. Nice to see Jones Jr. back.

Sam: Fans and media have had fun with this Pat Bev effect, and I know people prefer just for things just to work instead of having it explained to them how it works. You know like when the mechanic at the car place shows you some crank shaft manifold piston and asks if you’d like to keep it while he replaces the valve, gasket,  pulley. It’s always more complicated than it seems. Basically, Beverley while not your dream point guard is as close to one as the Bulls have had since Ball’s first surgery with the Bulls. They brought in Dragic as the insurance, and he should have started since he was the insurance. And, you know, a postman guard. But whether it was injury, age or the staff just lost confidence in him, he never got that role. Instead, playing Dosunmu there compounded the problem. It wasn’t his fault and if you get a chance to play, you play. It did seem like the Bulls wanted to feature him more after his surprise rookie season and him being their draft pick. But the word got out around the league you could pressure his dribble. So he seemed to become somewhat cautious and basically walked the ball up court presumably to avoid turnovers. As a result, the offense would have less time on the 24-second clock. Then Dosunmu seemed maybe awed by DeRozan and seemed to defer to him. Instead of making a decision driving into the paint, he’d hand the ball to DeRozan. DeRozan then often would seem to seek out his shooting spot, this also taking time off the shot clock. Then when LaVine’s knee problems exacerbated around the time of Ball’s surgery, DeRozan’s play and shooting became remarkable. So the offense naturally tilted toward him. As it needed to. But it seems like it also was why as LaVine was building back up, you'd see so many late shot clock attempts. By the time he’d get the ball, the shot clock often would be at five or six and he’d have to dribble and force something. So finally in comes Beverley. And if not exactly John Stockton or Maurice Cheeks, he’s confident with the ball, so he pushed more quickly up court. And he’s Patrick Beverley. What does he care about DeRozan or LaVine or Vučević? Respect, but he knows the game as well or better than any of them. Whomever got open or in position gets the ball. So it’s no surprise that since Beverley arrived, LaVine with more versatility and being a three-point shooter is averaging 28.8 per game and DeRozan 24.1. Last season it was about 28 for DeRozan and just over 24 for LaVine. It’s also made the Bulls offense less predictable, though there wasn’t much else they could do last season with LaVine’s knee problems and Ball unavailable—notice I am able to observe this without a film clip of one play posing as a universal example or a mathematical equation that makes you as dizzy as the auto mechanic. It’s also why there is more internal confidence about a post season because with Beverley making the decisions you have two elite scorers and so the defense can’t just shade toward one.

Former Bull Derrick Rose drives to the basket.

Pete Zievers: How is it that Bulls wind up in this point guard predicament? True point guard is like an football O-line center or strong side safety or a catcher. You can dress the guy up and there's the measurables but then there's the "it" factor. It seems to me that there's always been a serviceable if not-first-tier guy and it seems troublesome that the Bulls can't even seem to find that second-tier guy. Further somewhat weird: they ain't the only one in today's game. How come/what happened? Is it that the payroll is all filled up? The concept of "few players gobbling majority of salary cap" seems newer. Example: Put together with LBJ's functional paranoia and Leonard's apparent creativity in finding a way to get the equivalent of a pay raise within cap rules, looks like this factor really clobbered LA. Are teams actually running out of money to pay mid-level fairly-skilled-but-complementary-in-the-team's-system players (think Norm Nixon or Cheeks) b/c of what things have become?

Sam: I have some theories about this as I do on many things that don’t necessarily compute. Derrick Rose did drop magically onto the Bulls roster, which however is generally the way executives in the NBA get better jobs elsewhere. Hey, can you get us a Giannis, also? But as we painfully witnessed in the post Rose injury era, it’s a difficult position to fill not only for its importance but the paucity. I think why the types of players you mention aren’t so common anymore is the way the game changed. This reminds me of something I read recently about the great Japanese baseball player Ohtani. I think it was the USA coach who said every guy in his dugout was Ohtani in Little League and high school, best pitcher, best hitter, shortstop or center field, captain, cleanup hitter. Now it’s just Ohtani. In basketball, it used to be the best player was the big guy and support players like Cheeks or Nixon could play a role. Now in youth basketball, the best guy, the five-star super athlete, often is the point guard because the game is played outside/inside. So he has the ball and is a scorer/shooter and the star. So when he gets to the NBA, it’s not to set up everyone else. And many guys tapped for that point guard job now as pros haven’t been trained as well or have the level of talent because they weren’t running the teams before. Yes, it’s sort of a generalization, but those are the best theories, if not conspiracies. The Bulls just have had some really bad luck from Jay Williams, who I doubted would be that guy but had a chance, to Rose and now Ball. It was clear the new management coming in identified point guard as the primary issue. And it seemed like they made the perfect decision with Ball as the complement to DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević. At least for 30 or so games.

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