Ask Sam Mailbag: Reactions after beating Boston & Milwaukee, Lonzo thoughts, former Bulls, and more

Brian Tucker: Well, that sure changed quickly with Boston and Milwaukee. What happened? We go from sluggish play, bad losses and a Zach benching to slaying the East giants. The talent is obviously there with DeMar playing at an all-NBA level, Zach playing a solid 2-way game, and the kids stepping up.  Is it just that the chemistry took awhile?  Took time to build trust to keep the ball moving?  I love that it was Coby and Vuc making the big-time shots late against the Bucks.  This team is better when everyone is locked in and not just watching DeMar and Zach.
Maybe there’s hope yet.

Sam: There always has been; the problem is being a fan (or media observer) and making judgments about the season on one game, as everybody, yes, everybody basically does. Which is the fun of sports, after all. We don’t like to say it’s one of 82, but it really usually is. The concern I have is more transcendent, that it’s the problem with the game and whoever makes more threes wins, which is also why Coby White is maybe more important to the Bulls than given credit for. The Bulls in something we don’t see often outshot two of the better three-point shooting teams, making more than the Bucks and then though fewer than the Celtics, the Celtics shot so many as to shoot themselves out of the game by missing more than 30 and their threes representing 60 percent of all their shots. What was most impressive with the win over the Bucks was the way the Bulls defended and had an effective plan for Giannis, who got 36 anyway. But without Khris Middleton, the Bucks don’t have that midrange shooting component. Though we’re not giving them an excuse with Lonzo Ball out. The Bulls were better, and perhaps not beating the Bucks in the regular season for five years was motivation enough. It takes time for teams to stabilize as we’re seeing with almost everyone in the NBA now. So many highly regarded teams are at or under .500, and many who were supposed to be losing but weren’t are coming back toward the mean. The Bulls’ talent will reach its level, and I see them at or around .500 after this trip, which I see with a winning record with Oklahoma City and Utah leveling off. You never give up hope with a bad start like this season, just as its perhaps not a great idea to assume a great run after a first place start like last season built on some of the narrow wins that this season have been narrow losses. There’s plenty of hope, if not always promise. But this season seems more wide open to an exception than others.

John Cook: What your thoughts on Lonzo? Of course, it’s what everybody wants to know. He’s the key in this team having a real chance to take it to the next level. I’m so hoping like everyone else he heals properly. Can you share anything to have me looking forward to Christmas?

Sam: Christmas miracle? I’d hold off on that. I’ll say to start I have no idea, and based on previous experience I’d have to say no one who says they have an idea has an idea. Because last January’s surgery came with a two-month return to playing. So they don’t know. The general word around the Bulls is he might be able to play in January, maybe by the All-Star break. That would be wonderful, though personally without any information or “insider” scoops from sources who may or may not know, I’m not counting on him this season. I worry about the Derrick Rose syndrome. For those who recall, the season after Derrick was injured in the 2012 playoffs, the media and fans became obsessed with Rose’s return to the point he was blamed for not returning, and before long the media and the community turned on him with the belief he didn’t want to play. Which was as erroneous as could be because no one in basketball ever returned from his injury in less than a year, and now especially players take a year for lesser injuries. But because Derrick never said much, the media speculation went into overdrive and carried the public along with it. I believe one big reason Rose is so warmly received now when he plays in Chicago is a community apology for not believing Rose instead of the speculation and hope for his return because the team needed him. Just as the Bulls need Ball, it would be detrimental to demand his expedited return after not only not playing for a year but coming into training camp still barely being able to walk. This also isn’t the last season in NBA history, and he has two years on his contract after this season. And then starting to bring him up to speed when everyone else is there and they’re pushing harder (as the Bulls discovered the second half of last season) isn’t fair. The players who have been out as long as he has and who are supposedly healthy now, like Kawhi Leonard, not only are returning with limited results, but then not playing regularly. I have no idea how the Bulls plan to handle it, but especially for Ball’s sake I would not expect too much.

Mark Kollar: OK, if we meet the Pelicans in the finals we're screwed. However I think we're beating good teams and on any given day we can beat any team. Nice to beat the Bucks in their stadium. Still haven't seen most of the rest of the east. Good to see improvement with PW and Coby. 

Sam: Those are two of the more intriguing players on the roster. Because of Williams’ place as new management’s primary draft selection and so high he’s probably being valued out of proportion. Conversely, with Coby being part of the previous regime, he’s probably being valued less than his actual worth, to me, because no one on the roster can do what he can, which is produce that heat-up-fast, instant offense. The larger questions are going to arise soon as trading season begins and players start to become available: Who are you willing to give up?

Mike Sutera: Break this Nets up; these are some bad losses. Trade KD for as little as 2 future first and one young prospect. Release Kyrie. Rebuild time. I also saw a report the Jazz rejected a proposal of John Collins for Lauri Markkanen.

Sam: As would I on the latter. I’ve never figured out what Collins does. He reminds me of Aaron Gordon, a great athlete who doesn’t really do anything else great. You may have issues with Markkanen as the Bulls did, but the ability to shoot like that at seven-foot is one of the most valuable skills in this NBA. How it helps getting a high draft pick for the Jazz is the only reason to make the trade because Collins would make you worse. As for the elephant, KD. I’m all in. Look, we like what we’ve seen from the Bulls these last few games against the Celtics and Bucks, but there’s all sorts of stuff that goes on in the regular season, travel, load management, too much time partying in one city, that don’t carry over to the post season. The Nets remain the ground zero of the NBA with star players and average results. They’re always one losing streak (or Durant crisis of conscience) from that new direction. There seems no way they bring back free agent Irving after this season, and though Ben Simmons has played better of late, that guy from a few years ago seems gone. Durant is just starting his last best four years of his career with a new contract. If he’s there and I’m the Bulls, I’m all in unless they believe they have a title team now. The Bulls aren’t loaded with draft picks from the Vucevic trade, but they have some; and teams seem to like future picks. The Bulls also have young players who were top draft picks. With Drummond and Dragic, the Bulls have shown a good ability to fill out a team. I’d be all in fro Durant if I had a chance.

Jeffrey Pierce: If you had to choose a point guard to lead your team in a seven game series between Mark Price, John Stockton, or Steve Nash who would you choose?  Assuming they are in their primes. 

Sam: Probably Stockton for his ability to defend and toughness. He’s not as skilled as either Price or Nash as far as shooting or spreading out the ball, and I’m glad you mentioned Price because he’s one of the most underrated in league history for being able to run a team and make big shots. But Stockton was just so much more built for the tough play of the playoffs. He was an exceptionally accurate shooter if not in quantity, and while not overtly a dirty player perhaps because of his innocent look and quizzical Alfred E. Newman expression, he sure upset a lot of guys.

Michael Murden: When people compare Jordan and Lebron one thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough is the fact that Jordan had Scottie Pippen, who was better than anybody Lebron ever played with. Yes, Pip was better than AD, Kyrie or the version of  DWade Lebron played with. Another thing is that Jordan had an all time great GM in Jerry Krause. Lebron mostly had himself, and he was not very good at it.  He did have Pat Riley, another all time great GM, but left him. Off court business decisions have an influence over on court success. 

Sam: That’s an interesting perspective on that endless debate which really is all about who you like the most. I’d argue Wade over Pippen since Wade led a team with an ancient Shaq to a title almost on his own when you looked at that roster with broken down Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Alonzo Mourning and starting with Wade, Jason Williams, Udonis Haslem, Shaq and James Posey. Yes, the officials really did hate Mark Cuban, but still. Wade when he played with LeBron was in his prime, and with Wade and Anthony Davis LeBron played with more Top 75 players in their primes, and Chris Bosh would have been if not for the illness that ended his career prematurely. Oh, and Kyrie was pretty good in Cleveland. As for Krause, he did a great job with the Bulls, but also let’s recall Jordan was there before he came. Nice guy to start with. But I get it. You’re not alone favoring LeBron; I guess Pippen does also.

Brendan Greeley: Did Chicago not give Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. enough time to blossom, or did they just find the right situations elsewhere? Do Bulls fans expect too much too soon from one-and-done players? 

Sam: It’s the curse of rebuilding and the fan and media favorite blow-it-up strategy. Unless you fall into a truly generational player who can carry your franchise, which is the whole point of it, you basically are doomed. and so are the guys you are drafting as cannon fodder because you failed to get lucky. I’m sure Lauri would have been a lot better if the Bulls had lucked into Ja Morant. Because then all the attention would have been on Morant to save us instead. It’s an inevitability of the situations, at least in a major market, where results because of ticket prices are demanded sooner. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for instance, could have much more time to develop and make mistakes because they appear to have a 10-year plan and no one seems to much care whether they win this decade or next. It’s actually if you can pull it off not a bad plan since you figure with 10 drafts they should get lucky once.

Parker Lerdal: Will Dallas’ Luka Doncic win MVP? 

Sam: I’d say no given that Dallas is just a .500 type team, but then you look at the standings and the Mavericks are two games out of first. We said this was going to be one of the most balanced NBA seasons ever, but then when it is we just can’t figure it out. And admit it, we are a bit disappointed there are no great teams for all the whining we do to say we hate dominant teams. It’s now the NBA as NFL: If you get over .500 you can win the Super Bowl. I’d always have said you had to combine a big winning season with excellence to win MVP. Until Jokic did last season. So now that’s open season, also. My early vote is for Jalen Suggs. He’s carrying a bad Orlando team. That seems like MVP stuff in the Denver model. In the betting odds, I think Giannis is the leader followed by Doncic and Tatum. I’d like to give it to Embiid because he got screwed out of it last season, but he’ll again miss too many games. I think Golden State will move toward the top, and if they do it’s all Curry now. I respect Doncic’s talent, but I hate the way he holds the ball so much. Tatum is too erratic for me and a volume shooter who too often is lazy just shooting the ball. I’d go for Morant, but he can’t stay healthy. Hey, maybe Donovan Mitchell if the Cavs get on top. Oh, sorry, I was mistakenly valuing wins again. Silly me. I picked Curry preseason and will stay with him. He and Giannis affect the game the most in my view. I know, yes Durant. Is Kyrie still there? And Jokic if the Nuggets get to the top. But then I have to retroactively give last year's to Embiid. No one in this era is good enough for three straight.

Scott Lucas: The Bulls are .500 over their last 82 regular season games, and 16-25 (.390) over the last half season. We can blame it on health and missing Lonzo, but those are just excuses as he’s supposedly the team’s 4th best player and not an all NBA star. Good teams win despite injuries, and Denver won two more games than the Bulls last year without their 2nd (Murray) and 3rd (Porter Jr.) best players. The Bulls starting lineup with the three All Stars in LaVine, DeRozan, and Vooch, has consistently put the team in a hole this year with a -2.7 point differential in the first quarter - which is 6th worst in the league. AKME sought continuity but there’s a large sample here showing this group is really trending downwards. Do you think management will change course and pivot to a new roster building plan - perhaps trading older vets such Vooch and/or DeRozan and recouping assets before they expire? Or do you see them riding it out with this group hoping to make the play in section of the playoffs in a vastly improved Eastern Conference? 

Sam: After the last two games, it’s ride it out. Before then, yeah, probably ride it out, also. Despite the disappointing start—and you obviously wrote before the Boston game—I believe they were committed to do so unless something fell in their lap like Durant, to play it out and wait for Lonzo. I recall at even his first press conference Karnisovas said he’s a very, very patient guy. Also at this time in the season the top execs start scouting and watching college games at tournaments in places like Hawaii. So they are happier about things than you are.

John Stuercke: It's too soon for AK to pull the trigger. But do you think the Bulls should make a run for Ayton on January 15? I would give them Zach, Drummond and a 2024 draft pick. And if that is too much put a hold on Drummond.

Sam: The Drummond situation is going to be one of the bigger questions in the NBA since the Suns clearly had second thoughts about paying him. They’re doing well considering they are in the West, but not great. And Ayton has proven to be just OK, and not worthy of being No. 1 in that draft with Luka and Trae Young, though probably top five. They’d likely want Vucevic with the expiring deal, and the Bulls can’t give up their 2024 pick until the 2023 pick from the Vucevic deal is settled. But the Bulls do have future No. 1s. I’m less sure he’s the final piece, so while I’d be interested, I’d probably keep a more open mind about other possibilities.

Neven Holland: My question is about Zach LaVine. Why does the press not ask Zach why he is struggling to live up to his max contract? The game against Orlando was one example where it was more about Billy benching him than the press asking him does he think is worthy of his max contract right now and how he can turn his game around. As a fan, I'm struggling to believe Zach is the future. I want to believe him, but he seems to be a very one-dimensional player. If he is struggling to find his shot, he struggles to contribute elsewhere with his defense, rebounding, and assists.

Sam: Actually, I believe the issue of him being a “max” player is brought up often, and in my view speciously. So if you get a raise at work does that mean you then have to be a more productive worker? I think the point generally is that you are paying me for what I’ve done, and while I’ll certainly continue to work hard and try my best, you’re paying me for who I am and not who you want me to be. Zach has provided plenty of evidence being with the Bulls now into his sixth year of who he is, and that’s what the Bulls paid for. If suddenly you give me a raise to rival a Nobel Prize winner in literature, does than mean then I have to produce that level of work? That I do on a nightly basis is not the point. But I am trying to make a point. Zach was available to every team. The Bulls decided to outbid everyone after having watched him the closest for six years. I have no doubt Zach will continue to play as well as he can and the Bulls will get everything he has out of him. Zach’s not a load management guy. He wants to play and will. That’s a lot in this NBA.

Matt Cooney: Do you have favorite memories of the circuitous/circus trip? Doesn’t seem quite as bulky now that the elephants have left town. It didn’t seem to be a cause for much anxiety when the Bulls were winning 60-70 games, but it caused some angst during the many rebuilding years. My favorite memory from a distance was when Vinny Del Negro invited the whole team to his house in Phoenix for Thanksgiving dinner. That was the high point of Vinny’s career.

Sam: Vinny was great company, if not always the greatest coach. The road when you are following the team is more a solitary place than a lonely place. I was always fine with my own company, which is vital since chasing after the team as a writer you are alone a lot. And friends often say to me they are not surprised I am alone a lot, whatever that means. During the circus trip times we were always out during Thanksgiving. The Bulls this season without the circus got a break with Wednesday in Milwaukee. So they went home after the game and then left Thursday evening for Oklahoma. For whatever reason, we’d often be in Phoenix during Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite NBA city for the weather and lack of beach traffic. But on that Thanksgiving Day, there’s virtually nothing open. So my routine was I’d have Thanksgiving dinner at Denny’s, the rare always open eat here if you have nowhere else to go place. And while I was sitting there, I would usually buy a dinner for two for some of the others “enjoying” the holiday meal at the counter at Denny’s. I know, the NBA beat is glamorous, and I’d never suggest otherwise. I’ve always been thankful. Hope everyone had a good one.

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