Ask Sam Mailbag: Jimmy Butler's playoff heroics, Bulls trade ideas and more

Bill Kochneff: In 2011, the Bulls got the steal of the draft in Jimmy Butler. They were at their peak, tying for the best record in the NBA. Rose was just starting to reach his prime. Deng was in his. The bench mob came in and stifled the opponents. The roster was far from being "old," especially considering the strength of the team was in its younger players. The long awaited finish to the rebuild was finally achieved. Seeing Butler's performance brings back memories and thoughts of woulda, coulda, shoulda. As for you and other writers covering the Bulls? Well, regardless of whether you're covering the best team in the NBA or the worst, your pay doesn't go up or down. I imagine life away from basketball doesn't change much. But, I have to wonder. It had to be a more enjoyable experience covering the Bulls back then, wasn't it?

Sam: To be honest, not really. It’s still a better job than most everyone else has, so there is that. But like with making a movie, it seems glamorous except for the seven straight days shooting 16 hours a day in some crap location. It’s not quite that, either, but it’s much more fun for the fans the better the team is. Not as much for the media. There is much more interest and more people are interested in your work and actually may read it for a change. But the working conditions often change so much that you become more of transcriptionist. I remember the start of the Bulls championship run at The Chicago Tribune in 1991, and even in most of those playoff series it pretty much was just me and columnist Bernie Lincicome. And not always Bernie because he'd drop off for some tennis match or baseball game if he felt like. By the time of the 1998 playoffs, the Tribune had 18 writers on the road. And at home perhaps double that with writers from the food section to find out what they ate or lifestyle about their gardening habits. There wasn’t an angle uncovered so that you’d virtually have to make an appointment to speak with Rusty LaRue. And then with someone from his high school paper also there because of the demands on Rusty. Like John Kennedy said, “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” It’s the stories for us, and defeat also tells a story. And these are people, after all, and win or lose they are the same people and experiencing much. I think that's why Giannis’ postgame comments gained such currency. He humanized it to obscure the point fans and media most like to make that the victors are winners and the defeated are losers. From a practical standpoint and as far as human relations and access to the combatants, the winning teams often are so much more difficult to deal with because of the way they are pulled in so many directions and in demand and then gain the ability — which not everyone takes — to be difficult to deal with because winners’ behavior are excused. I enjoyed those early 2010s Bulls teams because there were so many good guys to deal with. And because it was the LeBron/Miami era, they weren’t taken seriously enough yet. But I often have just as much fun with the guys whose seasons end much sooner. And as you note, the pay stays the same for much less work. Though I will say the books you get out of losing teams probably are not as beneficial.

Ateeq Ahmed: Here we go. Let the Giannis to Bulls rumors and speculations begin. I don’t think he’ll leave but it will make for entertaining articles in the off-season. Upgrade from Middleton? 

Sam: No story. Giannis has two years left guaranteed and then a player option at $52 million, which he then could waive for a longer deal. The Bucks certainly aren’t listening to any deals. Imagine what that team looks like without Giannis — oh right, we saw that, which got them in the hole against Miami in the first place — and he more than most stars seems unlikely to want out. He’s stated his affection for the Bucks many times and seemed to again in that much-admired postgame Thursday. Plus, in the new labor deal I read there are huge penalties against the player for seeking a trade publicly. I also doubt Middleton goes anywhere with a player option for $40 million next season. I’m sure he takes that given recurrent knee issues that kept him out much of this season and now going on 32. Remember, he became a second round draft pick out of college after a torn meniscus. The only significant change I can see is the coach. He had obviously — and much discussed — a brutal closeout game. He gave up on his bench which has been vital for them all season, odd challenges and lack of timeouts throughout, huge blown leads with no response, curious matchups and he never much has been into adjustments. The bigger issue is it’s starting to look like they are wasting Giannis’ prime. Sure they won in 2021 — and fortunately Durant stepped on the line — but three of the last four years they didn’t make the conference finals with the player generally regarded the best in the league and multiple All-Stars. It’s a criminal underachievement as basketball goes. And now Giannis, who plays all out as much as anyone, is having physical issues and missing games, 19 this season and 15 last and now going into his 11th season. They can’t afford to waste two more like the last two. They got fortunate to get Giannis; it’s not happening again so quickly.

Brodie Larsh: DeMar is great, but he's a ball stopper, and there's at least a half a dozen teams that would love to add him. I've been messing around on the trade machine and found a few that may make sense.
Obvious ones..
DeRozan to the Lakers for D' Angelo Russell (sign-and-trade)
DeRozan to the Hawks for John Collins
Possible but doubtful..
DeRozan to the Mavericks for Kyrie Irving (sign-and-trade)
DeRozan to the Wizards for Kyle Kuzma (sign-and-trade)
DeRozan to the Suns for Deandre Ayton (accompanied by a Vooch sign-and-trade)
Wherever Wembanyama ends up, may push a team closer win-now mode and make them interested in DeRozan.
So crazy it might work?
DeRozan and Lonzo to the Nets for Ben Simmons, Cam Thomas and maybe a low level draft asset. 
A lineup of White, LaVine, Williams, Simmons, and Vučević might just be balanced enough to work. As Donovan prefers, they could play fast, and Simmons would be surrounded by four capable outside shooters. Cam Thomas providing plenty of offense off the bench. The Bulls could throw out a defensive lineup of Beverley, Caruso, Williams, Simmons and Drummond/DJJ when needed.

Sam: Whew, that’s a lot. Though it could be that kind of summer around the league if not necessarily with the Bulls. DeMar’s been a great addition, so I know no one in these many scenarios involving him views him as a negative. But you do make the salient point that Donovan wants to play fast, and if it’s going to work with Donovan management has to begin to accommodate his philosophy more completely. DeMar was the right move at the time because with Lonzo Ball there became a one/two offensive punch and someone to push the ball. But without Lonzo and a capable guard to accelerate the offense — Beverley proved the best at it, but not a long term answer — the offense slowed. Donovan tried to juice it in several ways by playing smaller with Derrick Jones Jr. at center or Javonte Green at power forward, which are hardly long term answers. The Bulls committed to Donovan, so they also have to do so toward his vision of the game. It looked good for 35 games or so. I’ve thought about Russell as well since there seems a fit because DeRozan has talked about closing his career back home in Los Angeles and Russell is sort of a lead guard. He often plays off the ball, and isn’t a great push guard. But he can shoot and run offense. It’s going to be difficult to find a great point guard. Russell makes $30 million and presumably would want to match that long term. That’s my hesitation, but I’d consider that. Kyrie, of course, no way. I once came up with the Woolridge Rules, though I was hesitant because he was such a nice guy. But for awhile every team he left improved and every team he went to got worse until he left. Not his fault since he kept getting traded to bad teams in bad deals, but it was a fact, as they say. That’s Kyrie. Collins is diminishing returns. I’m not sure what he does and he makes a lot of money for it. Kuzma is a wing, where I believe the Bulls want to play Patrick Williams. And Kuzma drifts in and out of games and is not a great shooter. I’d love to get Ayton, but it would take an early Suns playoff out, you assume. I have been a fan of Simmons and liked him more than most, but it’s difficult to do so now. It’s a shame, but his problems may just be too much anymore. Should be a great summer for trade speculation with the parity in the league and already we’re seeing so many potential upsets with multiple play-in teams actually winning series for the first time that even a lot of teams that didn’t make the playoffs have to be thinking, “Hey, we’re not that far way.”

LongGiang Le: Years ago the Bulls traded away Jimmy Butler. I felt strongly that Paxson, Forman, etc. had made the wrong move: there were only a handful of impact two-way Olympic-level players in the NBA. The bulls struck gold by getting Jimmy nearly in the 2nd round. But our Bulls didn’t believe in Jimmy long term.  The Bulls claimed they had the pieces to move on from Jimmy — a bunch of draft picks (resulting in Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Pat Williams, etc. With Jimmy, the Bulls could convince Wade to stay and compete in his older years. Rondo would be a savvy and experienced point guard/facilitator. Fast forward years later: The Bulls are in no-man’s land. Not bad enough to get top picks but not good enough to go anywhere in the playoffs. Jimmy has been to the NBA finals. He just put up a 56 spot pushing the champion Bucks to near elimination. Looks like we know who was right about trading Jimmy. 

Sam: When Butler has a great playoff game — and against Milwaukee in Game 4 truly was historic and his series was as good as it gets — I get a bunch of these. I wish we could just celebrate Jimmy’s achievements without having to blame someone else. Though that is an American tradition. The philosophy comes from a German word, schadenfreude, meaning your success is not fulfilling enough unless someone else fails. Which I guess means human nature. Oh, that’s why the world is the way it is. Anyway, these sorts of queries remind me of the guy who asks his buddy how could he divorce the beauty queen. Or the gal who wonders why her friend is moving on from the handsome, rich quarterback. And everyone who wants to go back to high school for their sweetheart. Life doesn’t exist in fantasy leagues. It's always more complicated that it seems to others. Plus, that was six years ago with Jimmy’s trade, and in that time All-Stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, DeMar DeRozan, Domantas Sabonis, James Harden and Rudy Gobert have changed teams. It’s part of NBA player empowerment, which is fine with me. They deserve those rights. This is Jimmy’s third team since Chicago. James Harden, for example, probably would be working on his fourth title by now if he stayed with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, but he was searching. He wanted something else. He wasn’t settled then. Like Jimmy. Jimmy’s is one of the more remarkable stories in a league filled with them. Not so much the homeless part, which also was, but here’s this role playing, relatively non athletic college guy with a poor shot and no real position who becomes a future Hall of Famer; and he will be there. The Bulls did run it out with him, eventually paying him a maximum deal. But like LeBron in Cleveland, Jimmy wasn’t having much luck recruiting. And then when he did recruit Dwyane Wade, it proved a disaster of mediocrity as the Bulls fell into a series of middle-of-the-pack seasons with little room for change given the max salaries of Butler and Wade, the latter whom the Bulls acquired because of Jimmy’s lobbying. Hey, it didn't work; it was worth a try, I guess. It just became time after the Bulls averaged 45 wins in Jimmy’s last five seasons with two playoff series wins. And then Jimmy wanted to play for Thibs and didn’t, and then he was with Embiid and not. Maybe if Kris Dunn doesn't get hurt, or Lauri Markkanen develops with the right guy ... Jimmy’s been great, but Miami and the Bulls were in the play-in, and the Bulls did sweep them this season how little that matters now. These are not teams that far apart. Though we do hope the Bulls don’t completely see it that way if the Heat get past the Knicks. Life and basketball are complicated and rarely what it seems to be. I’ll just say great for Jimmy and I love to see him getting these plaudits. He treated us well here, but wasn’t ready to settle down. I remember one season he was so unsettled he wouldn’t dress postgame in the player locker room. That was a fabulous performance against the Bucks, and I never hear him blame the Bulls. C’mon, he lives in summer climate all year long. He seems to finally have found his happy place. Good for him. Can’t we just say that? 

Elijah Humble: Hate to say it but in the last decade, Heat culture > Bulls culture. Maybe there's something to it after all. As good as DeMar and Zach are, can't see them doing what Jimmy just did, wow. He's got baggage for sure, but on the court you want that guy.

Sam: Two words, Pat Riley. Like those two words for the greatest dynasty ever, Red Auerbach. OK, Jimmy Butler also is two big words in this one, also. Look, some people are more qualified than others, and Riley has been special as a coach and executive. Jimmy’s not always like that, as we know, since in his last two seasons with the Bulls when he was the definite No. 1 guy, they missed the playoffs at 42-40 and after a 41-41 season were swept four straight after going ahead on Boston as the No. 8 seed 2-0 when Rondo was hurt and he and Dwyane Wade were dominated by Isaiah Thomas. After Rose’s knee injury when Jimmy emerged to be the Bulls No. 1 option, the Bulls were top four in the conference twice in five years and never top two. And I can’t say Miami now with all these undrafted guys has more talent than those Bulls. Jimmy has just gotten so much better with his various experiences. And the last four years as Jimmy himself said he doesn't really start playing until after All-Star. He’s averaged missing about 20 games a season. But Jimmy truly was great and great to watch in this series, and frankly for an individual it was as good a playoff series as I’ve seen a player have. And I was there for just about every one Jordan played in. Plus, most of Kobe’s. Of course, you also could look at that’s what it took to beat the Bucks. Will he need as much to beat the Knicks?

Mike Sutera: Are we looking at a Knicks/Lakers Finals. My worst nightmare.

Sam: It’s no longer that NBA. We’ve talked about the end of the superteam era, and this is what it means. Not only the bad news for the NBA that you can coast through the regular season, though the Lakers did start to take it seriously after All-Star at least. But that it officially is the Era of Parity. It’s a 1970’s return when nobody teams like the Seattle Supersonics without an All-Star or Phoenix Suns with Alvan Adams the second best player made the Finals. The end of that NBA wasteland came with the merger with the ABA and all the talent coming back to the NBA. Which is a big reason why the 80s produced those great and deep teams with so many fewer teams pre-expansions. We experienced the superteam combos, but now players are just taking the money first (Lillard, Beal, et al.) and combining is secondary. So with one injury here or there — and they are here and there with the fragility of the players perhaps given their lack of playing or practicing enough or much — low seeds like out of the play-in can emerge as contenders, a Warriors team barely hanging on and almost never winning on the road can look like a favorite, a hard-working makeup like the Knicks have without a transcendent star can pull itself into equal contention. Which also makes me think about the Bulls. Artūras Karnišovas at his post-season postmortem talked about bringing everyone back. Looking at a Miami team the Bulls swept in the regular season and with impressive Bulls wins over teams like the Knicks and Lakers and twice making the Celtics looks weak, maybe he’s thinking why not again. I suspect this relatively level playing field is going to prevail for many years to come. I don't see dynasties coming with the aging superstars and the draft depositing too many who are too young. And often hurt too soon, like Zion. So why not Knicks/Lakers. They’re at least not about to be dynasties. If it comes to that, too bad Willis is gone. What a home court opening that would have been to recreate that 1970 Game 7 start.

Tim Worrall: At last year's presser, Artūras said the team needed to add 3-point shooting and rim protection. They added neither. This year he says the front office and coaching staff will sit down and "figure out what needs improving." He kept the team together this season so that they could evaluate what they had. He knows exactly what needs improving. Don't you think it's possible that all Bulls' management and ownership want is a .500 team, one that gets lucky occasionally and wins a playoff round? 

Sam: Because fans who pay the money and thus affect a team’s profit prefer a team that isn’t serious about competing because they can chant, “We’re Number 7?” No one wants that, least of all management, which is evaluated on success, and ownership, whose stockholders are influenced by the profits. My history suggests team owners and management want to succeed more than the fans who watch the games because team owners all can be wealthier investing their money other ways. And managements get to continue to work based on success. Not halfway there. If your team loses as a fan, no one asks you every day what’s wrong with your team and how are you going to fix it. Teams make a huge amount of their money from playoff games. So you’re saying they’d rather have fewer of them? Let’s remember there are 30 teams — OK, maybe 22 and now 24 with the play-in — trying to do the same thing, which is win. Imagine what it would be like also if people were publicly accusing you of trying to be less than your best and basically trying to mislead people by saying you are not trying to succeed. Not that any fair-minded, right-thinking person would do that, I assume. Look, often the best intentions don’t result in success. We may be seeing that now with the White Sox. The Bulls after Derrick Rose’s injury were bumping along at barely more than a .500 team for five years. They got big time free agents, like Pau Gasol, who became an All-Star, and then Dwyane Wade. They traded up to get into the lottery. They signed quality veterans like Mike Dunleavy and Rajon Rondo. Nothing was working. They said they didn’t want to settle for mediocrity. So they took their most valuable asset, Jimmy Butler, and traded him in an attempt to reposition themselves with multiple stars and a better future than 45 wins a year. It didn't work, though the point was what they mostly didn’t want was a .500 team. As Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley, An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!" Which if you don’t read ancient Scottish much means, “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” Like a lot of sports rebuilding projects.

Matt Superior: The Knicks are being led by the 33rd (Jalen Brunson) and 36th (Mitchell Robinson) picks of the 2018 draft. 

Sam: And Jarred Vanderbilt at 41, Bruce Brown at 42 and De’Anthony Melton at 46 still are playing. Which goes to my larger point that not only is NBA scouting difficult, but it’s the greatest flimflam going, all those trips to Hawaii for the tournaments and all through the South all winter (funny how they mostly scout in better weather), the fabulous dinners in Europe. And those are the first round picks they come up with? And the mock drafts we all keep reading as if they know what they are talking about. Like a lot in life, you and I could do it as well. But they just won’t let us. If you want to know who the Bulls selected with their two No. 1s that year you’ll have to look it up. But also remember all the other teams that, with higher picks than the Bulls’ second No. 1, selected Jerome Richardson, Kevin Knox and Zhaire Smith. Mo Bamba went right before the Bulls best pick, by the way.

Michael Metz: Is Danny Ainge laughing? All those picks. Young talent. And Donovan and Rudy both knocked out in 5.

Sam: Danny is a funny guy and laughs a lot, anyway. To summarize, for Mitchell (and it sounded OK all season and especially the night he hit the Bulls for 71), the Jazz received  Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, 2025 first-round pick, 2026 pick swap, 2027 first-round pick, 2028 pick swap, 2029 first-round pick. For Gobert, the Jazz got Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler and Jarred Vanderbilt along with unprotected first round picks for 2023, 2025, 2027, 2029 protected top five and a pick swap. Yikes! Of course, then you have to make the right picks. Which we know doesn’t always happen after the weekend stays in the European villas “scouting.”

Kurt Payne: I just don't see the Bulls keeping this group together next year. To me extending Billy was a signal to this group that he's going to be here, you guys need to make your group work. Beating the top teams and losing to the lottery candidates has been a bad sign. They stood pat at the trade deadline, giving these guys a show of confidence that they could finish out the season. I think they they might have gotten offers but none that would have improved their chances this year or given them enough for next year. Then they added Beverley. How did they respond? Without a starting PG that LaVine and DeRozan can respect to control the ball, next year is going to look a whole lot like this year. The Bulls rarely get out and run when DeRozan gets the ball. The defense gets back and sets up and the other 4 Bulls don't bother running because the ball isn't going to keep breaking. If they keep Caruso, Ayo, Green, DJJ, Beverley, Drummond then there's no room to add shooters or minutes play them. I would like to see Javonte Green be a defensive guard off the bench and not continue with this fairy tale that he's a PF. I actually think he's a better shooter/scorer than Caruso and close if not equal to Ayo. I think Coby White has improved and will continue enough to be the backup PG/6th man. Zach and Demar aren't going to give up the ball to him. With a different group who move the ball more willingly maybe he could be. I would like to have seen Patrick Williams be released from the corner to get 20 shots in the last few games but he rested. He's shown he has moves and can make plays when he and White come off the bench and when LaVine and DeRozan aren't dominating. I'm for one trading DeRozan to some team that lost in the playoffs and thinks he's the final piece. Caruso to a team that wants defense and has plenty of scorers who can offset his lack of shooting. Move LaVine to a team that either wants the marquee scorer or can't seem to attract big name FAs. I think Vooch would look good to either Dallas to give Luka a scoring center that he hasn't had or GSW to be a change from Draymond. Coby could be the starting PG who has been here 4 years and they'll let him lead them. They have Terry, Taylor, Lewis and MVP Jones; let's see if they have potential to be part of the next bench mob that features some youth, hustle and the potential for upside. In the event that Portland gets the Knicks pick at #23, would that be an acceptable value to fulfill the Blazers obligation of that lottery protected pick? It's got to be better than waiting until 2028 to cash in.

Sam: That sounds like the rebuild/overhaul I don’t think they believe they have to do or want to do even with no promises for Ball. I think they say (and have) looked at where they were a year ago in first place with Ball. I don’t see those sorts of massive changes and any evolution to a youth movement. Plus, it seems too close to the previous rebuild that the community had enough of. And as we've seen, this NBA is more wide open than it's been and more vulnerable to the vagaries of injury and disuse that can change narratives. The Portland thing is a possibility, I guess. The Trail Blazers owe the Bulls a lottery protected first round pick for Derrick Jones Jr. in not such a great deal when Portland got Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs got Lauri Markkanen. But Lauri wasn't great with Cleveland, so Utah Lauri wasn’t happening with the Bulls, either, most likely. The pick is No. 23 this year — not so great — but the kicker is NBA rules which limit what Portland can do in trades until it satisfies future trade obligations, which include that pick to the Bulls. Which I think changes to a second rounder if it doesn’t convey before 2028. And with Portland rumored likely to trade Damian Lillard, the speculation is they are heading for a full rebuild. But then you’d ask why would they give up a No. 1 this year that you may never have to give up? Maybe the Trail Blazers send the Bulls a player to get rid of the future protection if the Bulls don’t see the pick coming. There are so many possibilities in this wait-and-see Bulls summer.

John Leichenko: On a positive note, Giannis’ answer when asked if the Bucks’ season was a failure. That’s a good man. 

Sam: I am one who celebrates and appreciates the regular season, perspective in sports and rejects the zero sum sports notion that there are just winners and losers. We’ve seen for many years what a mensch Giannis is, though I don’t believe he speaks Yiddish. Still. But if that were your team I don’t think you’d be as sanguine. Like Giannis suggested, you never fail when you compete with an honest effort. But best record in the league going out in the first round after blowing fourth quarter doubles digit leads twice, the last at home, and then when you were the healthier team is if there is a movie As Bad As It Gets.

Eric Cohen: Luka Dončić for Zach and DeMar. I think it's the right trade at the right time for both teams. Could such a blockbuster happen?

Sam: No, though Mark Cuban does make some bad deals. But not for Luka. He is the franchise now. Maybe all that tanking they accused Cuban of was a shark tank thing and they misunderstood.

Jake Henry: I am finding it harder and harder to watch games throughout the NBA.   What used to be a beautiful game has turned into something different as the league has basically morphed into we want everyone to score 150 points a night. The flopping is out of control offensively and defensively. I tuned into four minutes of a Sixers playoff game and Joel Embiid spent more time falling to the floor (at least four times in that span) than playing basketball. This is our MVP? Offensive players throwing their arms and bodies purposefully into defenders and being rewarded with free throws is similarly out of control. Carrying the basketball... why even dribble any more? Put your hand under the ball and start running, let the ball bounce every four or five steps and we are good now. Bomb 45 threes a game. This nuanced beautiful game has turned into who makes their threes on a given night and who is going to get the LeBron whistle where you shoot 10 more free throws than your opponent on a given night.  

Sam: I’m not a fan, either, of the video game bouncing ball Tetris shootout three-pointer the game often becomes. Nor am I a fan of social media nor likely were my surname namesakes of the transformation from horseback to automobiles, but adapt we must. You know if things don’t go right, go left. And then there’s the playoffs, Kings-Warriors, Heat-Bucks, Lakers-Grizzlies, Jimmy, Ja, LeBron and Booker. There’s been some great basketball going on. Sorry you’ve missed it.

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