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Ask Sam Mailbag: Rebuild or retool, trade rumors and more

Michael Carson: Zack's situation is similar to Mickey Johnson, Theus, Deng, Butler. I love the Bulls, but they always remind me they draft well but cannot keep players. I forgot to mention that the worst deal the Bulls made in my view was trading 20-10 machine Elton Brand for the rights to draft Tyson Chandler (who they traded as he was developing) and Eddy Curry. I think the Bulls will have to tear down the roster and trade Zach, DeMar, Vučević, Caruso and possibly Coby and Torrey Craig and amass as many draft picks as possible.

Sam: Did you forget the smart deals for Chet Walker, Bob Love and Norm Van Lier? And actually despite missing on LeBron, Wade and Bosh, that 2010 free agency didn’t work out badly with the depth additions of Boozer, Korver, Brewer, Watson, Kurt Thomas and Bogans. And then the best record in the league that season ahead of Miami. Yes, having Derrick Rose already helped. We all know I fear and detest the whole restructure/rebuild/dynamite plans as they can last years without getting very lucky, which the prior regime wasn’t able to do. I still believe there are enough useful and useable players that some more work around the margins with the Bulls finally getting back in the draft next year, perhaps some free agent possibilities with Lonzo Ball’s money coming off after next season, and what seems like some major trade possibilities to come will provide could provide some opportunities. But all options seem to be approaching the table in the form of some sort of person casserole.

Tom Plonowski: In 1996 coming off of that brilliant regular season and a 4th title, the Bulls owned the last pick in the first round of the draft. They selected Travis Knight only to then renounce his rights. The Bulls only carried thirteen players that season prior to signing Steigenga and Brian Williams in the final months of that season. The Bulls were short handed that season, why did they decide to not sign a first round selection in Knight? I can't think back to a team passing up on their first round draft selection altogether by waiving it. Knight may have progressed differently with the Bulls, and could've been more of a serviceable big off the bench. Other players such as Othella Harrington, Malik Rose, and Shandon Anderson were available. I would've probably gone with Harrington as another young big to develop and compete with Jason Caffey though Travis Knight seemed like a safe pick being a traditional center that can rebound and do the little things given the Bulls needed bigs. Instead, the Bulls did sign Brian Williams for the playoffs which was obviously a better short term fit than Knight could've been. I read in the Tribune archives an article of yours from the summer after the Bulls won their 5th title exploring ways to bring Williams back. You suggested something along the lines of paying Jordan and Pippen $5 million/year and bring back Rodman on minimum. Williams would then be brought back on a five year deal. Was there every any realistic shot at bringing back Williams to the Bulls even perhaps at the expense of moving on from Longley or any of the other bigs?

Sam: That’s a classic footnote in Bulls history, and the way things have been going lately better to discuss that a bit now for a distraction. I’m not sure where the statistics are on that, but that has to be the earliest release in decades of a first round draft pick. It once was even first round picks had make-good contracts and often didn’t last long. But that changed long ago. Given the way things were going with the Bulls then, and coming off that greatest season in NBA history, there wasn’t much of an outcry about cutting a first round pick. Those Bulls teams were veteran-oriented and were always adding an experienced big man, anyway, like Robert Parish, John Salley or Joe Kleine. As Tex Winter always said, “You win with men.” And he was a longtime college coach. Anyway, that’s a great story. The Bulls decided they didn’t want a No. 1 pick which required a guaranteed contract and preferred to pursue a veteran free agent. I guess they could have passed, but Jerry Krause never would do that. So they decided to try to get into the second round. Houston had the first pick in the second round, so they decided to try to figure out who Houston wanted, select that guy and then flip with the Rockets. It came down to draft night when they had all the scouts and coaches in. They went around the room right before their pick and did a vote for who they believed Houston wanted; it came out for Knight. The Rockets wanted Harrington, whom they selected next. So the Bulls released Knight a few weeks later. They took a flier that season on a favorite of mine from King High School, 7-foot-2 Thomas Hamilton, but he never played and was released during the season. The problem was Bill Wennington had plantar fasciitis that season and by April was done for the season and playoffs. Which necessitated the addition of Williams, later Bison Dele, who had some good playoff moments. But with Wennington returning there never was interest in resigning Williams, though I guess I could have been hallucinating about those $5 million contracts. And Dennis on a minimum. Williams was in line for a huge free agency deal, which he got from the Pistons, and then typical of him walked away from it prematurely because he decided he had enough money and could quit basketball, which never was a favorite for him. And we know how sadly that ended.

Greg Young: Poor Donovan answering the same questions over and over. Or, maybe he is the problem with the increased pace offense not working. Or not. I will keep watching, primarily to see where this ends up. Good guys all but I see the train a coming.

Sam: I know, and that’s not a light at the end of the tunnel coming at them?

James Wallace: Trade LaVine? Are the Bulls that crazy? LaVine is not the problem, and trading him weakens the team with little hope of much in return. The Bulls don’t have a great record, but they play tough. With a quality point guard, this team wins many of those close games. Easy to say, hard to fix. The addition of Carter and Craig were great signings. Caruso has been wonderful. But what makes him great makes you nervous to build around him. A contender would love him for the playoffs, but could they offer enough in return? Doubt it. Given his age and contract, I could see them trying to trade DeRozan, but teams don’t give away skilled point guards very often, so the best case is a high draft pick. And how much does that help this team soon? I don’t see this team as a playoff team. The core starters are a bit older, and the season is long. Caruso will miss games because of the beatings he takes nightly. Wish if you want, but this team, or the starters, don’t seem interested in the quick, rapid passing half-court game. They prefer one-on-one battles with occasional gunslinging from the outside. Absent getting a talented point guard for Christmas, this team will battle and lose too many close games they could have won.

Sam: It does seem there is some sort of crossroads ahead, and since I’ve been using a lot of Yogisms lately, since the Bulls may be coming to a fork in the road they should take it. You’re identifying a lot of the inability to find that middle ground. The coach obviously has been trying to push them along faster in what’s been a herding cats thing with them not seemingly able to play that way. It is difficult to find more of a facilitator as we saw once Rose was hurt. But is it they don’t move as much off the ball, so it wouldn’t matter? Or that they don’t move as much because there isn’t someone there who would naturally find them? I’ve long been a champion for LaVine, who seems more the victim of increased expectations because he’s the best talent. Since he is, then why, the question goes, doesn’t he win like Jokić or Embiid or Giannis? Because he’s not them. Zach’s a modern NBA player with elite athletic ability to get to the rim and range to easily shoot threes at a high percentage. That’s a lot of stuff. But not a No. 1 guy; not his fault. Players like Kyrie, Beal and Lillard are great talents, but without a better talent to pair with also don’t make the playoffs. Not No. 1s. It’s just that when you are where Zach is and cannot combat the expectations it may reach that point of no return that both sides need a divorce. Maybe I’m being naive that there can always be a reconciliation. I think it’s clear I’m a romantic. 

Parker Lerdal: Will Zach LaVine be traded to the Heat in exchange for Duncan Robinson, Nikola Jović and Caleb Martin?  

Sam: My fantasy trade inbox has quieted some lately. That’s not near enough for matching money, and the sense from the Miami staff who was here last week was that they believe when they get Tyler Herro back from injury they can make a real run in the East and don’t see the need to upset much of what they have for now. That makes sense to me, also.

Kieron Smith: The trade I would accept from the Lakers involves Christian Wood. Playing for the Lakers has got to be rough. Is Christian Wood's situation as bad as Patrick Williams? If the answer is the same, maybe a trade is needed so he can get back to the right scoring status. Christian Wood would need serious training; clearly he's not receiving it with the Lakers, so why not a new beginning with the Bulls? Thought he was going to be a steal for Mavs last yr and a steal for Lakers this year but he's been a letdown. Hasn't been the same since he got his big deal in Houston. Bulls fans wanted to go into the luxury tax for him. 

Sam: Yes, he’s barely in the Lakers rotation and it would seem they have some buyer’s remorse by now even if he came cheaply, and everyone applauded at the time. But there’s some problem you don’t seem to get to know until he’s with your team. It’s true that he was a favored name among Bulls fans this summer, though I don’t hear much of that anymore with another uninspiring debut. I’ve heard the speculation with Zach and the Lakers because his agent is close with LeBron and Zach is from UCLA and all that. As a child of the 60s, I’m still looking to give peace a chance. You know, peace, love and show tunes.

Mike Sutera: That Jazz/Suns game this week never understood in OT why teams never go to their bench for fresh legs to have the advantage. Both teams were exhausted. Not saying take out Lauri or KD but insert a guy like Olynyk who’s been sitting. Insert fresh legs.

Sam: It is emblematic of the insecurity in a lot of coaching that permeates the league. It’s why Phil Jackson was so good in comparison, telling his players to get the ball to Brian Shaw instead of Shaq and Kobe when they were going bad or Steve Kerr or John Paxson with the Bulls at crucial times. Like that clinching game in 1991 when Jackson in the last six minutes is famously reminding Michael Jordan that, hey, Paxson is open. Not you! It’s also why their reserves contribute so much because they know they are an integral part of the team. But it’s why there aren’t many Phil Jacksons or Red Auerbach or Gregg Popovich. The best in any profession are the rarities, and most others operate similarly. So the wins become so precious that the coaches often despair and go for what has worked best for them, which has been those starting names. That double overtime was a classic example with the “veteran” Suns coach using his bench a total of 5:33 among five players in the 10 overtime minutes. The young Utah guy played one guy 14 seconds in the two overtimes. But like with the draft when everyone does pretty much the same thing no one much sticks out for making mistakes.

Marco Bee: What is it going to take for the Bulls to shift from a Play-In Contender to a Title Contender? First, please let me say I am a huge fan. I often think if the great Phil Jackson and Tex Winters were the coaches of this current squad that we would be either a second round or an Eastern Conference Final Contender. This is no disrespect to Billy Donavan since we are comparing him to probably two of the best coaches ever. The option besides replacing the coach and a blockbuster trade would be another Rebuild. I think we would be entering our 5th round post Jordan and Pippen only with a different approach. This time maybe management tries to assemble a team that is more aligned with Donovan’s philosophies vs. the other way around. Perhaps a younger, smaller team where the point guards are asked to play center at times and really experiment with the element of “small ball.”  

Sam: Yes, no fair Phil and Tex, but even they would probably need more. Though I think the triangle offense would help. It’s a valid point regarding Donovan. He always says he’s on the same page with management, but it often seems like he’s forced into doing that round peg/square hole thing. Billy is a student of the Rick Pitino school of aggressive defense and fast break offense, the 40 minutes of hell thing you can do more so in college than the pros as Pitino discovered in Boston. But Billy always talks about playing fast and pressuring on defense. The Bulls after timeouts and to start quarters do often trap in the backcourt this season, and probably the best thing they’ve done this season is keep turnovers low while causing turnovers to produce more shot attempts. But his primary players and starters don’t play fast, which probably accounts some for the slow starts. He brings in a defensive-oriented reserve group that does expedite the play and harass, but it’s offensively deficient. Perhaps rather than a full rebuild we’ll see a sort of series of tweaks and an adjustment of philosophy to add players who fit Donovan’s vision better. I’d rather give that a look than the dynamite/draft pick route if it comes to that. Though obviously a lot depends on what, if anything, they do the rest of this season. At least for now the goal has to be figuring out how to find that sixth spot to avoid the play-in before reaching for more.

Wally JamesI don’t see the Bulls getting top talent back from breaking up the team. Teams won’t give up draft picks out of fear of losing a future All-Star. Of course, the money issue. Current management went all in to win now when they took over. Will their hand might be forced, given some players seem to want out. Hope for the best. Can they clone Caruso? Or keep him?

Sam: That’s the point, that this management seemed to be about competing and building from that as opposed to mining the draft for a few years. Would they change course? It’s what we’re all wondering. I’ve weighed in that to me sensing their feelings that Caruso is the most untouchable. But if you are not in serious contention and someone else is, and if they are and willing to overpay….Man, this is making my head hurt.

Ken Miller: Forget Zach. The Bulls should try to trade DeMar to the Lakers. DeMar wanted to sign there when he became a free agent in 2020, right? LeBron regrets now he didn’t and pushed for Westbrook instead. Ooops. So Bulls get Jaxson Hayes and D'Angelo Russell?

Sam: It would take a little more money; maybe Gabe Vincent, too, who’s still out with a knee problem but supposedly back soon. He is the spot up shooter type the Bulls could use and also seems like a buyer’s remorse transaction for the Lakers. I’ve never been big on Russell, but he is sort of a point guard. But I do think there’s something there with Hayes. With DeMar into his final season on his contract and that long stated desire to finish his career in LA, and they would get the Bird rights in a trade, that seems like a win/win deal if the Bulls were inclined despite what seems to me their desire to retain DeMar that would make sense in the notion of not having to go into one of those rebuilds and add the sort of supporting players that fill some of your holes and flush out your roster. Works for me.

Art Alenik: What bothers me more than the press with Zach and the nothingburger off-court interview is the way the fans have treated Zach (and in similar fashion, D-Rose). From the moment he came to Chicago, we started hearing that he’s not good enough to be a #1, he’s too selfish, he doesn’t play defense. Of course, what they’re all really Saying is, “He’s not Michael Jordan! We want Michael Jordan!”. The past games he’s been passing the ball and playing good D. Now the fans are complaining that he’s not shooting enough (even though he’s making everything in the 4th quarter). Years from now, Bulls fans will have “fond memories” of Zach, just like they do of D-Rose now. 

Sam: I never fully grasped that ambivalence toward Zach, which wasn’t universal, though popular on social media. Bad place to be popular. It’s also something about that first impressions thing that is hard to counter. He gained a reputation in Minnesota for that sort of play with a bad team. Bad team means he must be, A: Selfish. B: Bad defense. C: Empty stats. D: All of the above. And then he comes to a full rebuild at the start when the fans are demanding losing and then wondering why Zach isn’t in the playoffs more. So he makes two All-Star teams voted by national fans and media, and he’s selected for an Olympic team where he plays a key role as a defender and playmaker under a not very forgiving coach in Gregg Popovich who uses him a lot and they win a gold medal. Doesn’t sound like a loser. With Zach we’ve probably seen some of the most remarkable scoring performances since Jordan with a Jimmy Butler night or two thrown in there. Derrick’s Chicago treatment at the end was bad under the media-fueled insistence the public finally realized was specious that he didn’t want to play. I’ve always felt the long standing ovations whenever he returns is a continuing mea culpa without an apology. No one likes to admit they were wrong. I doubt it reaches that level if Zach goes since the team hasn’t done as well as it did with Derrick. But many will find that talents like Zach’s don’t come around so often.

Mike Worth: Toronto like Bulls needs to rebuild. Bench weak, no shooters, Jakob overpaid to get him from Spurs. Barnes is the next Otto Porter Jr in my opinion. Shows you promise but doesn't love the game. OG, guys always hurt and reportedly wants big big money this offseason.

Sam: And it’s Bulls/Raptors Friday to maybe sort out who wins that group for the in-season. Yes, Toronto seems like they have many of the same questions hanging over them that the Bulls do now with a year of rumors surrounding their top guys, like Pascal Siakam and Anunoby. A trade coming? Siakam also is on a big money deal of four years and about $140 million, and the way the salary cap is being squeezed to penalize the big spenders in future years it’s tough to say now how teams are looking at this regarding trades and taking on salary. They’ve got some intriguing players, but also are reaching a crossroads of making a decision on which direction to follow.

Michael Mortenson: How about this trade: Jerami to Sixers; Simons and Harris to Bulls, Zach to Blazers, a Sixers pick to bulls
Blazers get Scoot a running mate and Zach is close to Seattle. 

Sam: Nice for the family, but it seemed like from the reports last summer when Lillard was going everywhere that Portland didn’t have Zach interest. Also, it does seem like the 76ers are good for now and as we figured without Harden, Nick Nurse would free Tobias Harris. It was shocking the way they let Harden freeze out Harris last season. He’s back to being a 20-point scorer and 39% on threes, and maybe Most Improved? After being Most Overlooked.

Pete Zievers: DeMar DeRozan? The scoring is good and I do appreciate the midrange game, absolutely. He's clever for sure and that has it's pleasing moments, fan-wise. It's good that Bulls have a guy they can get something from with the clock winding down and that doesn't seem to shy away from decisive shots late in the game, that sort of thing. But he takes way way too long to get to decision point with the ball. He'll pass but he's going to work things first, and this has always been the case with him. He's a way talented guy and an NBA player for sure, but his game looks too much like some guy who patiently waits to get the ball, then thinks "my turn" and endlessly jabs at the defense to see what's there. Maybe this would all go away if he got a bossy point guard with a big reputation (eg. Chris Paul) that'd get after him to make a decision. Please, no. I don't want Bulls to get Chris Paul, who would slow them down even more even though they do have some nice pick-and-roll bigs and the sort of athleticism that Paul has leveraged to advantage. 

Sam: Yes, the DeMar conundrum. It’s also why there was so much negativity when the Bulls signed him and then a long round of (quiet) maybe-I-was-wrongs when he had possibly the best clutch season in the NBA two years ago. There’s no question it was a great signing to go along with Caruso that summer — and Ball was the right move — to make things look so promising then. But now what to do with DeMar entering his final contract season with the Bulls? There’s been mostly rumors about trading Zach LaVine, but as you note DeMar plays a more deliberate game in the mid range. Maybe it works better without LaVine and DeMar at shooting guard with a more athletic wing player option. You do need scoring, and DeMar can score anywhere and at any time. But also as discussed the coach always talks about playing faster with quicker decision making. And then back to the other side is you need that closer, which is essential for any good team. DeMar does it as good as most, if also from a bit closer in. It’s just another of the huge decisions the Bulls have ahead of them, and not an easy one.

Michael Freeman: Would you trade DeMar for Westbrook?

Sam: Well, the Clippers are in LA, too. It’s something I never would have considered before given Westbrook’s frenzied play and poor shooting. It’s likely not possible given Westbrook makes maybe $4 million now and DeMar seven times that. And the Clippers are not about to throw in one of their big money guys, you assume. But for the Bulls now with the energy and fury Westbrook still brings to the game I probably would.

James Wallace: I hope LaVine stays, but I can understand why he might leave; with a passer like Jokić, he would average 30+ points a game. LaVine isn’t perfect. He holds the ball a bit, doesn’t read defenses as well as you might like, and could break down defenses better and involve teammates. Ignore his defensive limitations. Still, he is an elite scorer who, if he played with someone like Jokić, would have ESPN talking about him as an all-time great. If I was trying to trade LaVine, I would try to get the Spurs two first-round picks this year and get the first-round DeRozan pick in 2025 back. Then include Williams with Vassell or Collins back. Hope to draft Collier or Proctor, who look like good PGs in the draft of 2023. Then trade DeRozan to the Knicks for two first-round picks from all the picks they hold.

Sam: I see you are into helping the Bulls. As has been discussed, it’s not likely to get a haul of draft picks for a player with an expiring contract or one with a big one. The Spurs have been mentioned regarding Zach, but my sense with them is they are in no hurry to get back in contention quickly and intend to spend a few more seasons developing Wembanyama before they try to do something substantial. Because they now have a player fans want to see, there likely is less urgency to become more competitive sooner. It looks like they’ll take a route more like Oklahoma City with draft picks and young players for a few more seasons. Probably why Popovich took that longer contract to be in contention toward the end and then be in position to hand off a high-level product to his successor.

Brian TuckerI know a lot of folks out there are calling for a huge blow-up and amassing as many picks and young talent with all the tradable guys. Please remind us how painful and difficult that path is, and what you might consider as alternative “retooling” and perhaps even salvaging this season since it is still so early. I do want to acknowledge that this team still puts on a good show, and while the record speaks for itself, they aren’t total crap getting blown out. A few buckets here and there and that record is flipped, but that’s really the point of shaking things up. This team has talent, but once again the special sauce is simply missing.  Whether it’s the wonky fit of star talent, the lack of edge or true grit we’ve discussed for years now, never properly compensating for the loss of Ball, or the draft strategy of position-less role players… it just hasn’t worked, and so here we are.

Sam: Which as we understand means doing something. It’s the what part that remains confusing, though like you I still wince about the prospect of a tear down. Coming off Thanksgiving I know there’s a lot of talk about leftovers. But it can make for a satisfying meal with just a few of the right pieces added.

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