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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 3.06.2015

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | 3.06.2015 | 2:23 p.m. CT

As a retired military veteran I know a few things about ambushes. There comes a point where odds of survival are safer to run directly into the fire than escaping another way. Let's, the Bulls, run directly into the fire. Charge! What do we have to lose? Is there any good reason why this is not an opportunity to see what Snell, McDermott, Moore, and Mirotic can do with extended minutes? What's next for Thibs, to run Gasol and Noah into the ground as well? In fairness he is not to blame for the injuries, but he is not completely blameless either. As I've said, I believe the disdain between Thibs and GarPax primarily stems from his lack of willingness to evolve as a coach. He is too micro in his approach. Alas, let's see what the youngsters can do in the final 20 games. Who knows what we might find?
Greg Mendel

Sam: I assume we are being figurative here. Sometimes the military imagery, as you probably know, can be a bit too much. There’s a lot of well on the other hand in your comments. There’s obviously a time to play some of these guys, as I’ve noted, and Thibs given the circumstances of this season is really doing it more than he ever has, e.g., Mirotic, Moore and Snell. Tuesday it was all four and the Bulls beat the big, bad Wizards. Ding dong. But Thibs is right there with basically every coach in that they play their regulars. Everyone does. Everything becomes micromanaged when you watch one team, as Bulls fans do.

So every move Thibodeau makes is over scrutinized and over analyzed. We’ve seen this with the unfairness toward Derrick Rose and it’s also the case with coaches. Talk to fans of any team basically not named the Warriors and Hawks this season, and maybe the Spurs as their fans are afraid Pop will yell at them, too, and you hear and read all sorts of second guessing. The role of the coach is way overstated in sports. It especially is in baseball where I still cannot figure what the managers do but slow the game with all those crazy pitching changes. If they want to speed up the game I can tell them how.

Anyway, Thibs has done an excellent job coaching the Bulls. You may not agree with everything he does, and I don’t, either. That’s OK; that’s part of the fun of being a fan and an analyst in sports, debating perfection in activities that can never be perfect. So someone has to be wrong every day and in everything they do, or at least according to some. I’ve even had readers question me! Really! I know, amazing, eh? There’s a natural sturm and drang with the coach and management everywhere; the coach is focused on winning only today’s game; management needs to build a group to contend for years. The goals are mutually exclusive, so unless there is absolute harmony there are inevitable disagreements.

The Bulls have done a terrific job with the draft, maybe better than any team in the league with low picks, and they’ve been the most active—if not always successful—team in free agency the last five years, signaling an annual willingness to spend. Thibs has been one of the league’s most successful coaches by the only measure of wins. Some coaches, like Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, decide they don’t want that management dynamic and want both jobs. It rarely works because you pretty much can’t coach a player once you turn him down for a raise. Rivers, a great coach, is being beaten up already in Los Angeles for his personnel moves. We’ll see with Van Gundy, who just started. It’s obvious you can’t play a team of inexperienced players so much. After all, you are judged, as Thibs will be every game, on winning. You can’t give training and compete in the same game. You can do elements of both. Plus, the Bulls have plenty of veterans who need to play going toward the playoffs, like Gasol, Noah and Dunleavy. No one strikes the right balance to please everyone. For now I’m more comfortable debating “charge” when it is that or a block for an offensive foul.

Thibs must have his reasons for not playing Doug; however there has to be more to it. Absolute head scratcher.
Mike Burling

Sam: Thibodeau never publicly says why he doesn’t like or play someone, though there always have been guys in that category. And Thibodeau will sort of admit it later, like when he answered questions about Butler playing too much in saying he asked for it so now shouldn’t complain. So Jimmy doesn’t even when he’s worn out. So in some respects this elbow injury may help some. But when Jimmy was a rookie and into his second season he literally was begging Thibodeau to play. He didn’t until Deng, who we know was Thibs’ Elmer’s, became unglued with his own injuries. So Jimmy got in and performed. So you have to give Thibs that: Perform and you play. It was the same with Asik and then Tony Snell, who rarely played until recently and seems now a regular.

It just obviously comes down to this, as we’ve seen: Thibodeau likes a short rotation of guys he feels he can rely upon. It’s not that unusual among a lot of coaches, though Thibodeau stays on the low side of rotations. Though not as much this season with the injuries. I agree you can’t play everyone. But with guys dropping again, I felt you had to at least give McDermott a strong look. After all, he was a high lottery pick. Though he was taken right with Nik Stauskas, who hasn’t played much for a bad team. It’s an arguable point. I felt I’d want to take a harder look at McDermott; Thibodeau’s view is not until absolutely necessary given he already was playing a rookie in Mirotic and an almost rookie in Snell; Ok, fair enough. But now with Butler going out, too? So, yes McDermott played a reasonable 15 minutes Tuesday. He got just one spot up shot, which is his strength, and was unable to finish at the basket, not unusual for guys just coming into the NBA and playing. They don’t see that game speed and the Bulls never much scrimmage. If he performs, I assume we see more of him, at least this month. If he doesn’t, back to talking with Nazr.

Reading/hearing a lot of 'Wilt-esque' comparisons to DeAndre Jordan. He's having a great season, but is averaging 11, 14 and 2 blocks all it takes, nowadays?
Yoni Solomon

Sam: I’ve heard those as well and I think they are directed toward William Chamberlain, who played in the ABA in the 70s.

I don't know what other Bulls fans are thinking but I'm just getting annoyed by this constant media dribble about coach Thibs getting fired this year or next year. I'd sign Thibs to a 10 year deal as head coach with confidence, such is my trust in his ability as head coach. Thibs works harder than any head coach in the NBA and critically players who play under Thibs consistently improve. All this talk about Thibs being the reason for player injuries is stupid. I [couldn't] care less if Thibs is clashing with the front office because both the coach and front office are doing their jobs to a best few in the game standard with the constant strong first round picks we bring in and bargain free agents we bring in, but then development of our talent. If I had a criticism of Thibs it would be that he was slow working Tony Snell into the rotation when he looked ready to produce and that he hasn't played McDermott enough when we have needed floor spacing and that we've overused Hinrich who I wouldn't be playing at all given he is not making baskets and not a threat on offense when out on the floor. Otherwise I'm pretty satisfied with Thibs.
Christopher Doerre

Sam: It has been a distracting conversation at times, which hasn’t been helped the way TV broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy has numerous times injected himself in the midst of it, provoking everyone. But Jeff is media and that’s what they do. Don’t you hate them? Oh, right. Well, not all media. Anyway, wake me when it’s new. I saw Phil Jackson clash with management through six championships. Management and coaches have those differing roles, which I have often mentioned of winning now versus building something long and have not always been on the same page. Or even in the same library (they are big buildings with books). Like squirrels and foxes or Fox News and MSNBC. It’s all speculation because no one has made any decisions, but the fate of coaches pretty much everywhere is based on the playoffs. Three coaches are gone already and expect three or four more based on playoffs. It’s one reason they are paid so much, that the intention is not necessarily lifetime service but come in and fix your team and once they do or can’t to go somewhere else to do the same. It’s why colleges coaches move regularly as well. Management has done an excellent job this season, not only with the history of low draft picks, but cleverly adding players whom no one even wanted like Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore making impressive contributions. But you can likewise make a Coach of the Year case for Thibs with losing Rose again to surgery, Butler for two long stretches, Gibson again, nursing Noah through the season and working in, albeit slowly at times, Snell and Moore and McDermott. And the way Thibs has shown so much confidence in rookie Mirotic. And the Bulls with 20 different starting lineups second in the East with 20 games to go. Pretty impressive, really. But there’s another season to come, the important one, and there always are major decisions and changes made as a result of that season. Or not.

I've long thought Jimmy Butler was a really good player at moving without the ball (though not quite Luol, though more athletic). This year, it seems like he is doing this less and scoring by stopping the ball more and taking (albeit making) more jumpers. I imagine without Derrick for awhile, he'll be moving off the ball even less - maybe not purposely, but in any event it seems this might reduce his effectiveness. Then I came across an article about analytics and read this:

The reason Wade was being so tightly defended was that his opponents, themselves enriched by data, discovered that Wade scored lots of points by cutting off the ball. So defenders were following Wade wherever he went, even when he ventured to spots on the floor where he was unlikely to shoot. (This can be measured by the metric called “gravity score” and “distraction score.”)

Have other teams been defending Jimmy differently because of these metrics, and thus he changed his game? Or did he change his game anyway. I would love to know the gravity score/distraction score for Snell because he seems quite good at moving off of the ball.
Rob Lininger

Sam: This sort of stuff is why so many of us who have been around basketball so long resent the analytics. There’s nothing wrong with anything new, and like Barkley said, we had statistics, too. But there’s this superior and condescending attitude among so many of the advocates of the advanced stats that demean the lack of them. And then they make up terms like “gravity score” and “distraction score,” and, of course you don’t know what that means because it doesn’t mean anything. The notion with the so called “eye test” is that people who do so prefer rotary phones. That’s not it. It’s more that analytics gave a name to what you instinctively knew about the game and were taught as a kid but was not formalized in a book or seminar. You were taught tendencies. If a guy dribbled with his right hand you played on that one to try to make him dribble with his left hand. We just didn’t have a term for it other than fundamentals. So if a guy cut all the time, we’d bump him to stop his cut. So what else would you do? The short answer with a lot of the analytics is it confirms for you what you already knew—or should if you understand basketball. But never articulated. Many of us even knew that you didn’t have to shoot the same percentage of threes to get as many points as more twos. We sort of did it in our heads because we weren’t allowed calculators in school. Or were in trouble because we couldn’t spell calculator. Jimmy’s obviously out now, but when he was not moving as much was because they needed him more as a primary scorer. So they posted him a lot and gave him more screens on dribble handoffs according to their offense. Really, there’s something called “gravity score?”

Can you let Jo Noah know that his reaction (to Nene) is appreciated by fans everywhere? "The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed it." by Marcus Aurelius.
Ramsey Badre

Sam: I’m not quite sure how Nene meant the word “hate” as I wasn’t there to hear him and this sort of stuff in sports is said generally in cliché form by players as well as media. They talk about war and battles and fighting and fox holes and all sorts of stuff that have nothing to do with being in combat. It’s just sports shorthand in the place of thinking, difficult for media as well as participants. But it is good to be reminded at times that there are meanings to your words. Since fighting no matter how minor is punished severely in the NBA now, it doesn’t make logical sense. But in the heat of battle... Uh oh, there I go. It would have looked hypocritical in that instance with the video and Noah’s further peace initiative he revealed Wednesday with the sale of tear drop necklaces, so it was good for Noah and the team he stepped away. Though you make the larger point about thinking before you act in life and practicing the standards you claim to live by. Sports is an entertainment form, so the words and actions are not exactly meant to be taken literally, like art. But it’s not a bad lesson to keep in mind.

Moore was an obvious hero Thursday, but don't underestimate Hinrich's contribution. He played a critical role in the win. Why can't fans see how important it is to be in the right place at the right time, both offensively and defensively? Hinrich is rarely out of position.
William Kochneff

Sam: It depends on what you were looking for. Kirk’s had a tough season at times with his shooting, but if you ask opposing guards—which fans rarely have the time to do—you discover they’ll be glad when he isn’t playing. Moore certainly deserves more time, and it’s a credit to him as his teammates noted after the game the way he’s retained his attitude even when not playing, the negative of which means he can’t play for the Denver Nuggets. We know Thibodeau likes whom he likes, and that’s his veterans whom he’s been comfortable with. But it is more than just favoritism, as you noticed. Hinrich’s a terrific defender, runs the plays exactly as they should be, understands spacing and time and possession, all the little things not taught in college. Or not retained. Kirk’s played too much again given all the injuries, so a guy who planned to play maybe 18 to 20 minutes is up above 25 again because the team needs him. He has physical issues, but he plays. He is Jerry Sloan, who he just passed on the alltime Bulls list for games played. Kirk’s a Bulls legend. If you don’t like Kirk Hinrich, you don’t much understand the game or appreciate what the franchise stands for. Which is also not ending sentences with a preposition, so Kirk and I haven’t exactly been perfect this season. But we’re trying.

Are the Bulls going to make a run at McGee once he clears waivers? Or are we sticking with what we have even with the injuries?
Shaun Chalmer

Sam: My guess is the Bulls stay with what they have given McDermott and Moore have just begun to play. After all, you have to give the guys you have a chance first. Plus, the front court is basically still OK with Mirotic only able to get playing time because Gibson is out, and we’ve seen quickly enough that Mirotic helps, and helps much more so when he is playing than when he is not. McGee’s an interesting case. He’s a terrific athlete, but has rarely played this season with injury. Plus, he’s played erratically and has been the subject of those Shaq follies videos more than any other player. So I doubt you’d see Thibodeau giving a chance to such a player given the Bulls circumstances. And I assume Gibson gets back before long as he doesn’t sit out much. And then how do you play Mirotic enough? Tough to bench the team’s leading scorer the last three games and in the fourth quarters as well. The kid walks on the floor with barely playing for weeks and leads the team in scoring against tough teams. He’s absolutely got to be a regular, if only with his shooting which in a spot up is as good or better than anyone on the team despite his percentage not being as high because he doesn’t really get enough spot up opportunities.

This era of injury-decimated Bulls teams is making me wonder: What if da real MVP of all of those Bulls championships was Chip Schaefer?
Marc Dadigan

Sam: I know this will at least please Chip. Though he had some better natural bodies to work with, it seems. The irony is back then Horace Grant was routinely condemned for being a malingerer and taking too much time off. By fans! Constantly. Horace never played fewer than 70 games, and that was his last year in Chicago, his seventh. In Grant’s first five seasons, he missed a combined total of 11 games, an average of about two per season. And, yes, Horace Grant was considered a shirker then by Bulls fans. Now fans are hysterical about Thibodeau playing guys more than 35 minutes when it’s rare for a Bulls player—any Bulls player—to play in more than 70 games per season. Yes, that would be your difference between the NBA then and now.

When people (journalists, fans, everyone) talk about D-Rose it looks like they think "oh, we're talking/writing about Derrick! Let's stop using our brain and see what happens." Just after the news came out that he was injured on Tuesday, everybody was like "I'm so sorry he's done," which is just what they said when he twisted his ankle in November, when he had the hamstring issue, when he shot 9 3s in a game and even when he missed a game due to illness. I happen to write for one of the biggest basketball websites in Italy, so when news came out on Tuesday about Derrick, I decided to cover the story. I gathered all my information and came up with an article sayng it's common for players to have to "clip" a repaired meniscus, that he could be back in a month, that the left knee was doing great so there was really nothing to worry much about. Yet, I scrolled down the comments and it was mostly "he's done, Bulls should move on," "he's like Brandon Roy" and similar things. It seems like people, even Bulls fans, want it to be that way and don't really care about facts. I mean, we should be grateful as fans to have him in a Bulls uniform and support him, or at least not make up stories about "mental weakness" or stuff like that to make him look bad. What has he done to desereve all this negativity surrounding him?
Cosimo Sarti

Sam: I am sorry to inform you that you have little chance for a career in American journalism for allowing reason, facts and thoughtful analysis to get in the way of hysteria, bias, blunders and exaggeration.

Who are those guys? First spoken by Butch Cassidy, of course, but lately used when remarking about the Rockets. After they beat the Cavs, I looked at the box score and I only recognized 2 of the starting 5. I’m no NBA expert, obviously; but how are they doing it? Even Harden was only 8 for 18. And I know they say he’s actually trying on D this year, but he’d have to improve 1000% from last year to even be adequate. And they’re doing it all without their big guy at Center, too. Are we going to look back on their current lineup in a few years and say “Oh wow, they had Motiejunas AND Beverley on the same team? No wonder they won it all!” Or are they just a 2nd round KO playing above their heads?
Stu Gilbert

Sam: I’m probably not going there, but that’s also why I mentioned in my Monday NBA column this week that perhaps we ought to take a closer look at what Kevin McHale has done with that team. While Kevin is funny and friendly, he doesn’t have much patience for media and doesn’t do many interviews. So he doesn’t promote himself like most coaches with how hard they work and what a great coach the other guy is so the other guy will also praise him in the game so many coaches play. Plus, he doesn’t have the core of former coaches/broadcasters promoting him because he is a Hall of Fame player and a big man. There’s always been something of an unspoken bias against big men as coaches. Like in baseball with former infielders, there’s been this notion promoted that your small man or former guards see the game better and are better schooled to be coaches. It’s nonsense, of course, but it seems to have worked on owners in both sports. Phil Jackson’s one of the few successful big men, and he was sort of a combo forward when he played. Rudy T. and Alex Hannum were the others, but really no true big men. Kevin may be the best ever among the big men. The Rockets’ season could earn Harden the MVP just because of what you noticed, that those guys are hardly noticeable. Harden with Dwight Howard out certainly has been doing the most with the least of all the NBA contenders, which basically include for now Curry, LeBron and perhaps Westbrook. They’re crazy with those threes with the Rockets analytics formula, but the defense is pretty good and Harden’s a star.

Our starters are going to be rested for the playoffs and our bench will be more experienced and stronger than ever! Problems are just unsolved opportunities!
Rex Doty

Sam: Hey, a bumper sticker!