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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 1.23.2015
Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
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By Sam Smith | 1.23.2015 | 3:00 p.m. CT
When Derrick let his frustration show after the loss to Cleveland, it of course opened the door to fans and media speculation on dissension within the Bulls locker room. Suddenly everyone wants to throw someone under the bus. Some blame Gasol, because he's the new guy I guess, so he must be the reason for the bad defense. And of course Thibodeau is getting his share of blame for the usual reasons (too demanding, cause of all the injury problems, players are tired of him). Perhaps there is something to these theories, but I tend to the believe the truth lies somewhere in the gray area. When asked to name names, Derrick says its 'the whole team'. And what else would you expect from a great teammate? My question, what do you think is causing the most frustration among the Bulls core that has played under Thibs for a few years now (Rose/Noah/Taj/Butler)? They cite lack of communication, lack of energy, etc. Are they frustrated with the newcomers (Pau, Niko, Brooks)? Do you sense they are questioning Thibs as a leader? Or are they honestly just frustrated with the team's performance as a whole, themselves included?
Sam: You know, I always tend to blame the Midwest weather in January. I think everyone will feel much better when they get to California next week. I know the Bulls had a bad few weeks, which obviously meant according to my mail Pau should be traded, Rose should sit out until the playoffs, Noah should go into traction and according to several other emails I received it was time to trade everyone for draft picks. Remember last season when the Pacers lost 12 of 19 down the stretch or the Heat around the same time lost six of nine? The conference finalists, as it turned out. Seems to me the Spurs just lost nine of 14. Stuff like this always happens in an NBA season, and especially with a good team. The Bulls are a good team; they are not a great team. They are fortunate to be in the Eastern Conference, where there are only other good teams, and despite the Hawks’ run, still no great teams, and no teams you can’t beat healthy in the playoffs. So the track is dual. Win as many as you can, but don’t also go nuts and push players back too soon, practice them too hard or take chances. As Thibodeau says when you don’t practice hard and regularly you have lapses. He’s right. It’s OK. You pushed like that for four years and won one game past the second round. So maybe try something different. That along with a new team. The Bulls found they can be fun, but not ultimately successful with these heart on the floor defensive teams. So give them credit. They are trying to take a step back to go three forward. They found they needed to score more, so they added offensive players in Gasol, Mirotic, Brooks. Guys took new roles, like Butler. And Rose has to be eased back. It takes some getting used to. For the coach as well. They’re all adjusting. The Bulls had a great two months and then stumbled. That could go on a few more weeks, though Thursday’s win over the Spurs was dynamic. But it’s just one. It’s normal for a team going through a metamorphosis and with injuries that have players in and out of the lineup. You cannot sustain the sort of energy the Bulls expended in recent years over another entire season while mixing and matching lineups and adjusting to so many new players and concepts. There will be down periods. They’ll be another before this season is over. The goal is to be heading upward in April. Not January.
Do you see any similarities between this current Bulls skid and the horrible finish the Pacers had at the end of the regular season last year? I sure hope not.
Sam: Why not? I’m sure the Bulls would take the conference finals, especially given that they have no one who would blow in the ear of opponents and make a mockery of the series.
Since we're definitely not a top team in the East, losing to the Hawks, Cavs, Wizards, barely beating the Celtics, losing to the Magic, etc, should we just trade all but Jimmy, Mirotic, McDermott, Snell, and rebuild? Why be over the cap for a 1 and done team - ousted in 1st round and maybe 2nd round if we're lucky?
Sam: Oh, that was you. Good plan. Sounds like you swiped that one from Jerry Krause in 2000.
I got worried with the statement Thibs made today after canceling practice, mentioning locker room problems and possible changes. I read this on a Bulls fan news page. “We have a problem. It’s more than just basketball; it’s a locker room issue. We’re ready to make a change if have to.” Is there any truth at all to this or this is just the school of making things up?
Sam: It’s this era’s media, which is better described as antisocial. Thibodeau didn’t speak with reporters Tuesday. The team had a private meeting. He did Monday after the game; I was there and he said no such thing. You have to be a much smarter reader in this era since traditional media sites, say like the New York Times, can look like some guy’s uncle’s site. It’s why I recommend staying with people whom you know and believe have credibility. Otherwise, you should be wary of much that you read as there are so few filters anymore; so many blogs are personal and erroneous, tweets are unedited and sorting out what may have actually happened from a practical joke takes some work. Also, you have to be sensible. Have you ever heard Thibodeau dump on his team like that? He doesn’t do those things. He’s not that kind of person. He deals with issues privately and professionally. Though I did hear of one locker room issue with a lack of toilet paper. Maybe that’s what you’ve heard regarding a crappy season.
Don't [you] think the big man rotation would be much better suited and balanced if we moved Noah to the bench and started Taj Gibson? I just think the substitutions would be much smoother and we would always have a 7' out there instead of going with the smaller lineup of Taj and Mirotic. It would also spread the floor out much better because Taj has deeper more consistent range than Noah.
Sam: This has been a theme question all season and I assume we are done with it now since as soon as Noah went out—and I am hardly blaming them—and Pau started with Gibson the Bulls had their worst stretch of the season and maybe in five years until Thursday. The Bulls need Noah back.
Nothing like a good slump to bring out the wacky trade ideas, huh? OKC gets Gasol and Brooks; Bulls get Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, and Tobias Harris; Magic get Snell and Jeremy Lamb. I would hate to trade Gasol - he's been arguably our best and most consistent player and his contract is looking like a steal - but him and Jo both play the 5 and it seems pretty clear that Jo at the four is not the best way to utilize him.
Sam: I get the notion, though I think the Thunder’s idea was to keep their center of the future and dump Kendrick Perkins on someone. Interested in that? I’m sure it was coincidence the Bulls also get the better of that. I still doubt the Bulls make any serious trade or are even looking. They liked their roster to start the season, it still has the pieces that make sense for a title run, they were thrilled to get Gasol and working in one new player is tough enough but several? As Thibodeau said after the loss in Cleveland, no one’s walking through the door and I believe that unless a veteran free agent gets cut late or like Ray Allen. If it doesn’t work, then you consider changes to be made in the summer.
After all the talk of the offensive strength of this team, the Bulls are not getting consistent and adequate scoring from either forward spot. With Pau at the 5, the 4 has been a combination of Noah, Taj and Mirotic. While Mirotic has a very promising future, he is not earning regular minutes either offensively or defensively. Noah was never a shooter and Taj seems to have regressed with his attempts to score in the paint. I don’t prefer Boozer but he was a solid fifteen a game.
Sam: I am getting a lot of hey Booz wasn’t that bad after all stuff. Seriously? The Pau/Noah connection has been an issue more since the Bulls started 25-10 while they were playing together. Remember, the Bulls regular starting five is 12-3 this season. True, Noah isn’t ideal for the power forward position and as I’ve written he has sacrificed more for the team than anyone. But it shows how much he has been missed with all the talk about a lack of communication and spirit without him. He may not be the best player, but he is the soul of the team, especially on defense. I believe the Bulls were confident they’d have Carmelo Anthony and Taj/Noah would be the inside combination. Taj has been the good soldier, but it likely hurts being back in a reserve role. Team is nice, but human nature is concerned about No. 1. Just like everyone else at work. Credit Taj for playing hard. Mirotic has hurt himself some, understandably, being a rookie. He pump fakes himself into worse positions at times instead of just shooting as he also has gotten himself on the scouting report. Teams take advantage of his inexperience and trick him into those three-shot fouls. He’s a rookie and still coming along amazingly well given the circumstances. Still, with all that the Bulls average more points than they did the last few years. As Thibodeau notes, the problem is not the offense.
About a year ago I wrote in just before the Luol Deng trade with essentially the message of “let’s not panic, we’ve got so much young talent why lose any of that for the sake of mixing things up.” And I believe the same applies today with Rose’s and Thibs’ comments about being unhappy with the team. I even read somewhere that the Bulls cancelled practice today due to a ‘locker room issue.’ Whether or not any of this is true I think everyone needs to calm down; talk of Thib’s job being on the line and talk of major trades is just silly. The Bulls have 2 of their starters injured (Noah and Dunleavy), bags of young enthusiastic talent that will take time to get used to playing with each other and a healthy Derrick Rose. Why is everyone panicking? I don’t think the Bulls need to make a move they just need to give it time let the injuries heal and for the team chemistry to build. All this is showing to me is 2 things already knew – firstly that Noah is really important to this team. Secondly that Rose really wants to win badly, in a way it’s great to see Rose out there fired up again. The road to a championship is never an easy one but if we just give it time there’s no reason why this season can’t be a success story.
Sam: How the heck did you get into my email box?
I know this isn’t a question about the Bulls (though after yesterday’s meltdown, I’m thinking you might want a question that’s not about the Bulls), and believe me, I am not suggesting we trade for Lance Stephenson. But I was reading during the previous off-season that Jordan met with Stephenson and laid out the various ways that he could fit in with the Hornets, all the different things he could do on the floor with the opportunity MJ was giving him. And supposedly LS was all excited about it and gung-ho, and the man is certainly talented, albeit a head case. So what happened? Did MJ misjudge Stephenson’s talent, or did he just give him too much credit from the neck up?
Sam: All owners and GMs have a lot of fan in them, and it’s not unusual to be influenced by success. We saw that with the 90s Bulls when players like Scott Williams, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler went off and got big contracts (or bigger) and suddenly weren’t hitting the game winning shot or making the big play. What you see on TV in the spring doesn’t necessarily translate over an entire season. Some people look better on a date than to live with. You make big plays in the playoffs, especially late when everyone is watching, and you seem a lot better. Stephenson was an erratic guy his entire stay in Indiana who was championed by Larry Bird, who plucked him late in the second round given he was regarded as somewhat difficult to deal with. I’m not exactly sure what’s gone on in Charlotte, but as amusing as blowing in the ear of LeBron James during a game might have seemed, it’s a bizarre and erratic act in the midst of serious competition. Imagine doing that to the CEO during your big business meeting. We excuse a lot of behavior in sports. Yes, I know people also don’t wear shorts to work. But guys like Lance who act in bizarre ways on and off the court are difficult to live with all season. Though I think they have blamed too much on Stephenson as there are many flaws with that team that have nothing to do with him.
I seem to always be "sticking up" for D Rose among many fans, as it also seems you usually give him the benefit of the doubt. Many fans think he is slacking on defense and not really giving his best overall effort, and at the same time saying the wrong things in the media. I, on the other hand, still love how he is approaching the game more cautiously (waiting til the 4th, waiting for the playoffs to go 110%), and I understand his frustration with the team. If the Bulls were winning, he would not be questioned as much, but right now is a time that so many Bulls fans are jumping ship and acting like the season is a waste before the All-Star break even hits. Do you still agree with how Rose is playing and how he is talking and acting on and off the court, or are you questioning anything he does or says right now?
Sam: I still believe it’s a vocal minority driven by some in media who are anti-Rose because he’s not dancing for them like they want him to. I believe he’s handled the season ideally. The season for him more than anyone else—much like the injured or aged Spurs players—is a process building toward the playoffs. I don’t always endorse that theory, but understand and in Rose’s case it makes more sense than most given missing two years, which no Spur, for example, has endured. So he’s not playing in the air as much or taking as many athletic chances until the crucial points in the game, which is smart. The same people who call for that will condemn him for it if he gets hurt and misses the playoffs. So he ignores it, as he should. Thibodeau is correct to push everyone, which sounds at times like he is disappointed in Rose. But a coach needs to as much as possible make similar demands from everyone. So Thibodeau talks about attack, attack, attack, practice, practice, practice and if Rose doesn’t do it sometimes no one can say Thibodeau is giving him a pass. Rose is handling this season the best way for himself and the team given the importance of playoff success. Those who condemn him in my view do it selfishly because they feel they are being deprived of some daily thrill. I get the sense the Bulls are very pleased with his season.
With our deep team do you think we can compete for a title without Derrick Rose?
I watched Rose score 29 tonight and know that he had 32 in his previous game, but can we just accept that we're not going to see the same MVP caliber Derrick Rose again? Anybody that watches how he moves on the court knows that he does not look the same. Instead of finishing over defenders at the rim, he's finishing around them. I understand he's easing his way back, and he'll turn it up come playoff time, but this isn't a Russell Westbrook or Adrian Peterson situation. When those guys came back from injury, they moved exactly how they did pre-injury. Derrick is a different player now, and I believe that is something Bulls fans have to come to terms with.
Sam: Well, no one missed two years with two major knee surgeries. And two months back is hardly a certainty. But the larger issue to me is two fold: No one in the history of the NBA ever played like Derrick Rose. Westbrook is athletic, but not with the explosion Rose demonstrated at the basket launching himself. He was not going to be able to play like that for long even healthy. Michael Jordan when he returned in 1995 was no longer even one of the top 20 athletes in the NBA. He played nothing like he did before and he was pretty good. Also, just because you win an MVP award doesn’t mean you win one all the time. Bob McAdoo, Dave Cowens, Wes Unseld, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Karl Malone were league MVPs. They didn’t often play like that again afterward. No one condemned them for it. They were appreciated for being excellent talents. It’s too bad Rose cannot be accepted for being an excellent NBA player who now has more supporting talent and is doing what he is supposed to be doing, which is deferring to players like Gasol and Butler and still averaging close to 20 points. And in the last month basically being the best player on the team, as he was again in Thursday’s win over the Spurs. It’s a credit to Rose he isn’t trying to show he’s that player and trying to be the right team guy by pushing more when he’s needed, which is the latter stages of the game. It’s too bad he’s measured against a sometimes selfish media standard. It seems to me Rose has a much greater concern for the benefit of the team than his critics, which to think of it makes sense, actually.
34 minutes for Snell and 2 minutes for McDermott Thursday. Way to build up your rookie after a tough injury. What is Thibs seeing in practice from McDermott that warrants a whole 2 minutes in a 20 plus point blowout?
Sam: This is your classic Thibs can’t win. Plays guys too much coming back from injury and now doesn’t play guys enough coming back from injury. And you wonder why he acts like he does.
The Chicago Bears started their season last fall with high expectations. These were immediately tempered by a terrible defense and an offense, though stocked with many so-called “weapons,” that was frequently predictable and plodding, and struggled to score. Despite a lengthy run of home games, the Bears had no advantage there, frequently losing to bad teams. Meanwhile, the team suffered increasingly embarrassing losses to good teams. The Bears coach, a noted specialist on one side of the ball, struggled to fix the problems on either, as speculation increased that he was losing the locker room, and amid reports of simmering tension with his general manager. Bears players, meanwhile, kept insisting that the solution to the team’s issues lay within, even as many of them visibly regressed and the team as a whole began look disinterested in competing. Along the way, the leadership of the Bears’ most important player was questioned, and he endured withering criticism from the press and from many fans. Whoops — have I been saying “Bears?” I meant the Bulls! OK, even though the Bulls storyline is alarmingly similar so far to the 2014-15 Bears, I don’t expect them to play out the same. The Bulls have practically enough wins already to make the playoffs, for example. But the Bears just provided us with an object lesson in how a promising season can spin quickly out of control. So how do you think the Bulls can right the ship before they become the Bears?
Sam: Keep the basketballs inflated? You are comparing that Bears season to a team on pace for a 55-win season despite having its regular starting lineup together for 15 games and already has defeated the Rockets, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Raptors and Clippers? They lost in overtime with the Cavs, are 1-2 with Washington and have their best player just now having his minutes limitations lifted from missing two years with major surgeries. That team you are comparing with the Bears?
Someone said to me as a life long Lakers fan the Bulls won’t win as Gasol is a soft player and cited the Boston series that they lost in the finals. I have been thoroughly impressed by Gasol I was so wrong thinking we should take a chance on Stephenson and move Butler back to 3. Gasol has played better D than I think he ever did in his life under the proper coaching. Yes I don’t expect 46 and 18 a night but he has been a massive pick up.
Sam: Did your someone miss the two championships? Pau has been a great addition, one of the better free agency moves the Bulls have ever made. He’s a true pro and probably the best all around center in franchise history. He maintains a professional balance about the season, and I saw some huge games in the playoffs from him, a tip in that eliminated the Thunder in one series, which was as tough a play as you can make. It’s true there’s some softness regarding Gasol, but it’s in the brains of those who are saying it.
What in the world is with all the whining the Bulls players are doing this season? They look like the Pistons, Celtics, and Heat of the last 10 years except those teams didn’t generally start this level of whining until after they each won a championship. Do I sound whiny?
Sam: A little, but you have a good point. We’ve seen a lot of exasperated looks and stares at officials (the Dwyane Wade pose) and then being late on defense, which hasn’t helped the defensive numbers. There’s some frustration from that, and we’ve seen it from Thibodeau as well as he’s well on pace to establish his personal record for technical fouls. He needs to back off the officials as well if he wants his players to. After all, if they see him getting all those technical perhaps they feel they are being misjudged. It’s more for them, I suspect, a bit of the frustration with all the changes and new rotations and positions. One of the things I know about athletes is they like order and they like to be told their role and what to do and they’ll take care of the rest. But with the injuries and changes and everything going on with the Bulls this season it’s understandable to become a bit frustrated. Though you forget the Bulls are mainly home in December and January and seeing the sun once every six weeks doesn’t exactly translate to a sunny mood.
Remind me again why the Bulls got rid of Korver?
Sam: As I recall at the end of that 76ers’ series in 2012 after Rose got hurt, the bulk of my mail from fans was that Korver couldn’t play without Rose; he’d shot about 30 percent in that series, was hurt and I don’t recall that much regret about his departure. He wanted a stronger more significant role the Bulls could not guarantee. Benches turn over often in the NBA given salary cap restrictions. Korver wasn’t about to the starter he became in Atlanta, especially as the Bulls had Luol Deng at the time and the belief was Korver couldn’t defend shooting guards. The notion the next season was Marco Belinelli was a good replacement. And, of course, Nate. I didn’t get much mail that season to bring back Korver as it seemed to make sense at the time to have a pure shooting guard in Richard Hamilton, who was a multiple All-Star, and under contract to play shooting guard. Though he’s done it well enough with the Hawks. Let’s say like with the Hawks, no one quite saw this coming.
I would like your thoughts on comparing the Bulls to the 12-13 Lakers. Looks great on paper, but failed the execution of two centers, former MVP point guard, and a strong two-way shooting guard. Since the season is obviously no where from over, I really hope the Bulls soon understand they can't wait for a teammate to take over, which is the curse of the luxury of having so many great players that can be game changers; they all have to play hard, help each other on defense, and then ride the hot hand once established.
Sam: I get the point, but that was a truly dysfunctional situation with a new coach starting 10 games into the season after Mike Brown was fired, the coach having no chance after ownership rejected Phil Jackson’s return, Kobe Bryant routinely condemning Dwight Howard and Steve Nash barely able to walk. In fact, I don’t get your point. That group is as far from this Bulls group as you can get.
So the Bulls have a losing streak and the (media is) blaming it on Thibs because it turns out he's a mean scoutmaster and makes the team work too hard. Should Thibs be waterboarded before being fired?
Sam: I’d say they take away his recorder for game tapes first.
There is common theory that the smart NBA teams don't take the regular season too seriously. Once you are assured of getting in the playoffs, the smart thing to do is just rest your key guys and be healthy for the postseason. Assuming this is true, we should see teams that settle for a 3 or 4 seed come out as champions with some regularity, no? I looked at the conference seed of every NBA champion since 1990 (25 seasons). Here is the breakdown....1 seeds (14 titles)....2 seeds (6 titles)....3 seeds (4 titles)....4/5 seeds (0 titles)....6 seeds (1 title)....7/8 seeds (0 titles). There seems to be a pretty strong correlation between regular season performance and postseason performance. In fact, if you aren't a Top 3 seed, then your chances of winning the title are next to nothing (unless your the 1995 Rockets). Maybe Thibodeau isn't a lunatic afterall? Is it possible that pushing for every win in the regular season is actually what prepares you to win in the playoffs? Yes, the Spurs are noted for giving a few nights off for their aging stars the last couple of years. But, they've also finished with the best record in the West in 3 of the last 4 seasons. You don't accomplish that by coasting.
Sam: I actually mentioned this to Popovich Thursday night before the game about perhaps he might take the second half more seriously since his team doesn’t look like a top four seed and they never won when they weren’t. He basically gave me the third quarter interview treatment. But I won’t argue. I’ve always believed and backed Thibs on this. Players should play. All these days off don’t look anything like the way the Bulls played it when they were winning titles. You rarely rest your way into excellence.
Judging by body language Thibs is disgusted with this team. Has he lost the team?
Sam: No, he knows right where they are.
Isn't this what Phil Jackson refers to as the journey?
Sam: Zen you very much.