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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 3.13.2015
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 | 3.13.2015 | 8:31 a.m. CT
Obviously the biggest concern for the Bulls will always be health. Besides that, are you more concerned about the offense or the defense? I always worry more about the offense, since I think the defensive effort and execution will always get better in the playoffs. The offense always will have its holes, but I think the two greatest factors affecting the Bulls offensive success are turnovers and 3 point shooting. It seems like when turnovers are lower (although this is not as important as in the NFL where it changes a game with 1 turnover) and when the Bulls 3 point percentage is above average, the offense is working at its best. This could be attributed to good ball movement and smart decision-making. When the ball gets stuck or too many risky passes are made, the turnovers go up or players like Rose, Butler, Brooks and Gasol are forced to put up tough shots. Is there anything else that you see as a greater concern for the Bulls?
Sam: LeBron? That obviously would be No. 1 on my list. Though the Cavs recently lost in Atlanta, I see the Cavs as the team to beat, and much better after their trades with depth, size, strength and motivation. And the league’s best playoff player. Assuming no injuries, which you have to do in any field leveling discussion, the issue with the Bulls as I’ve written many times this season is it’s a different personnel makeup. You are not equipped to play the defense you did before with Gasol, Mirotic, Brooks and McDermott and fewer minutes with Rose and Noah. The Bulls, thanks to Thibodeau and responsible players management has provided, will always defend at a reasonably good level. They just have to score more, which is OK as they still give the game to the one who scores the most points; not who gives up the fewest. The Bulls offense often is too stagnant, too side to side and without enough thrust; it’s understandable without Rose and Noah so much and lately Butler. There’s been barely a player on the court the last month to make plays. So there’s a lot of handoff, screen and shot. It would be better to move the ball and create more catch and shoot opportunities, especially for Dunleavy, Mirotic and McDermott, but with the injuries it’s not often possible. So we’ll see come playoff time, though with Rose likely to return in April it’s hard to see him in the 30-minute range in the playoffs.
Does the media in other NBA cities also try to discredit their superstars like with Derrick Rose, or is this unique to Chicago?
Sam: It’s not that unusual, which isn’t a very good media endorsement, but it happens. Perhaps the difference with Rose has been the juvenile and base name calling. The New York media has been on Carmelo Anthony pretty well, but it hasn’t much been lowered to the level we’ve seen with Rose on occasion. And those guys often have no scruples. I will say, as I have many times, that I believe it’s a vocal minority as most fan responses I receive are sympathetic and appreciate what Derrick has gone through. There’s self indulgence everywhere about everything, i.e., the what does it mean for me? Thus, if Rose is hurt and the Bulls as a result cannot succeed in the playoffs—as we have seen and which is undeniable—then it’s not good for the fan or media, many of whom of the latter have beats that are elevated if the team is better. So who to blame? Yourself or someone else? It’s a common tale of the disaffected. Those with violent tendencies become terrorists; those less so throw verbal and written bombs. I thought it interesting the other day with several young NFL players retiring, clearly concerned with their future health and well being. We’re going to see more of this, of guys getting their money and walking away at an earlier age. Because even the players don’t much care for their bretheren. It’s improved slightly, but the current players’ concern for the pioneers of the game has been pitiful the way they have scooped up every dollar in labor agreements and left so many veterans of earlier decades behind. Yes, it would be nice if the league or teams took responsibility, though as we always hear, it’s a business.
The point is when your career is over you are responsible for yourself and don’t expect to be taken care of when you can no longer produce. Sports is not sentimental. Rose was much mocked for similar comments earlier this season, but this is an issue for athletes. Have you ever seen Phil Jackson trying to walk around? It was sobering when I heard a player tell me some years ago when we were talking about old age if I’d seen many 75-year-old 6-10 guys walking around? Though basketball is not as dangerous as football or hockey, it is debilitating on the body and often leads to a lifetime of pain and discomfort. What’s wrong with having a concern about that? After all, when you retire no one much cares anymore as fans and media basically go on to the next generation of players. I’ve heard all the, “Yeah, if I had $10 million” stuff. At the same time, it doesn’t help you walk or feel better. And there’s a long way to go after 30 or 35. Rose was much blamed for not returning to play in 2012. There never was a Bulls official or doctor who publicly said he could or should play. Yes, the doctors probably said he could try as part of the process, but only if he felt he could. The Bulls to their credit never forced him, and subsequent events showed he was correct to stay out. I recall the Houston Astros basically pressuring a pitcher in the 1970s, James Rodney Richard, to play when he said he wasn’t right. He had a stroke on the mound; he almost died and his career was ruined. The Astros still play ball. Organizations always go on and so do leagues. The lifetime of an athlete is short and tenuous and he is on his own to preserve his career and protect his lifetime longevity. Especially for someone with three knee surgeries in less than three years.
It’s easy for media critics to dismiss that from the comfort of studios or press boxes. But what if they had three surgeries on their voice or on their hands or on their brains (hold the jokes, here) in three years, the tools for their profession? Would they want colleagues to be so cavalier about their situations? Might they be hesitant a little about their health and well being? It’s a rhetorical question. But when you feel good and safe it’s easy to condemn others going through misfortune. You have cancer? Toughen up! Commentary, analysis and opinion all are part of our history of open debate. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to care for Rose’s game, his shooting or the way he plays point guard. It’s all part of the world of critique and discussion and fair, though I will say I never have heard of a league MVP discussed as Rose is in his home city, and especially one who is a native of that city and does so much charitable work that includes seven figure charitable donations. Too often regarding Rose it’s descended into spineless name calling, which to his credit Rose has been above by never responding and thus showing he really does operate at a higher intellectual and maturity level.
Does Derrick not travel with the team currently because of his knee, or is it part of rehab, or what? I don't really care (not trying to bash him) but just curious about why he doesn't ever seem to be with his team and hasn't been through these injuries.
Sam: This “be with the team to support the team” thing is much overrated as LeBron I noticed took two weeks off to hang out in Miami to rest this season and no one much said anything. Though some in Chicago blamed Rose. Of course, he should not be with the team in my view. Frankly, I never understood why he was in 2012 and 2013. If you are rehabilitating from a knee injury, I don’t see how being cramped up in airplanes and on buses and sitting on the bench for two hours at a game is good for your knees. I know the other side is the team’s top trainers are on the road, so I understand. But I’d rather not see guys around who are not playing. Do you really think Pau Gasol or Aaron Brooks can’t concentrate or feel let down if Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson isn’t there to cheer from the bench? I think Rose is being smarter now in staying back and putting his full efforts into strengthening his knee. On the road this is the basic schedule: Fly after the game, get in maybe 2 a.m. Up at 8 or 9 to get to shootaround, sometimes a half hour bus ride, back to the hotel for a meal and then up again from a nap if you have time if you don’t have to do rehab then and on the bus about two and a half hours before the game—three if you are in a crowded city or far from the arena—to get to the game and then workout, sit for a few hours on the bench and then back on the bus to the plane and maybe another two hour ride somewhere and getting in at 2 or 3 a.m. That’s a good rehab plan?
At the end of April, Tom Thibodeau (should do) the following:
1) Have Pau Gasol be starting center.
2) Have Taj Gibson be starting power forward.
3) Have Joakim Noah be backup center to Pau Gasol.
4) Use Nazr Mohammed whenever Gasol or Noah get injured.
5) Use Bairstow whenever Gibson or Mirotic get injured.
6) Use enough McDermott.
7) Use enough Moore.
Sam: Thibs has been working in Moore well and giving a shot to McDermott at times. I thought McDermott was the most comfortable he’s been in the 76ers game, though didn’t play much. He’s not Kyle Korver. He’s potentially a great shooter, but he’ll take the ball to the basket and fight his way there. Tom has subsequently admitted he didn’t use Korver enough and the right way; it’s a little different with McDermott given being a rookie and injured. But he can help. Tom’s also taken to using Nazr about the right amount, so credit to Tom for adjusting. The Noah question is the most interesting. I felt before the season McDermott should start to better spread the court and give some versatility to the second unit with Dunleavy given Gibson and Brooks don’t move the ball much. It’s OK; they are good at what they do. But you can see this Noah/Gasol pairing has been stifling to start games as the Bulls generally fall behind. Of course, it’s been hard to tell in recent weeks with so many out. But when I referred to a starting lineup shakeup I’d like to see about a week back is just getting a scorer in there, perhaps Mirotic, though I know what Tom would say on the defensive end about having Gasol and Mirotic to start games; and I understand. Not an easy answer. Without Noah against the 76ers, the Bulls did get off faster, though it is the 76ers. The Bulls have to put more speed and spread into their starts, and perhaps some of that occurs as Butler and Rose return. But I wouldn’t be afraid to bring Noah off the bench. I don’t think he’d object even if he is the team’s best defensive player and first team all-NBA last season. Noah is more about team and less about himself than anyone in the NBA. He does well with Gibson and has been playing with the second group a lot lately; Thibodeau likes to play Noah late for defense and Pau can certainly use some rest in playing more early and less late, except for closing situations where you need more scoring and a more rested Gasol.
With kids coming into the NBA so young (and under-coached), you need a little patience and the willingness to teach... yes, even shooting & fundamentals. I get the feeling that Thibs feels that is not his responsibility, that kids should come in with all that down, and just execute his gameplan.
Sam: I’m not sure Thibs feels that way, but I agree with that thinking if it is Thibs’. The NBA is not a developmental league; it is a wins and losses league and if you don’t win, you lose (your job as well). That’s why those like the players’ union are doing a disservice to kids. They say they should be able to earn money as many need it. I understand that. But you are not ready to be a pro at 19 with, of course, exceptions of the great ones. But don’t compare LeBron, Kobe and Garnett with the rest of the world. That’s like asking why your kid can’t be in advanced physics with the Nobel prize winners. The majority of kids coming into the NBA after a year generally have shortened NBA careers and less long term earning potential and are less fulfilled. NBA teams don’t teach; they work. You better get better yourself, like Jimmy Butler did. But as a four-year college kid he was mature enough to understand. Thibs is there to win games. Yes, there’s a balance in development, but his first job is to win games. If you want a developmental team like the 76ers, you get that kind of coach like Brett Brown who celebrates development and losing. I don’t believe Chicago fans prefer that. Every staff has capable assistants who try to help players, but when you have been through the AAU stuff and jumped around to high schools like so many do and then spend a year in college going to class for two months there’s too much to make up and too much to ask of any NBA coach.
I’m curious on your thoughts on Thibs use of Noah's minutes in the rotation. I’m wondering if there needs to be a slight tweak in the timing he is taking him in and out of quarters – more specifically his timing on the 4th quarters. Obviously he was on a minutes restriction to start the season (and he may still be now), and with the depth in the front court with Taj and Nikola it ended up that Noah was playing a large bulk of the fourth quarter from the start of the quarter (while Gasol was resting) and then being taken out around the 4 minute mark. He then may come back with under two minutes remaining (sometimes less) depending on matchups and the clock running down. I’m just wondering if this the ideal time to take out your ‘All NBA center’ particularly when he is as healthy and playing at as high level as he has all season. Ideally, wouldn’t they be best suited to have him on the floor for the entire remaining 4 or so minutes? I get the sense that just when the game is ‘on the line’ Noah coming out can be somewhat deflating. I don’t have the answer as to how the minutes should be managed and with such a stacked front court (when healthy) someone has to miss out. I noted that Thibs tried to play Nikola at the 3 (against Memphis) along with Noah and Gasol, obviously this wouldn’t work when a team goes small – I’m just wondering how you think this could be best managed or is Thibs just caught between a rock and a hard place?
Sam: I prefer to call it between fans and media. This came after the Memphis game when I received several of these sorts of missives about his late substitutions, especially with Tony Snell who just made three three pointers. Of course, I then got a few asking me why Tony was in the game against the 76ers when he made that brain lock turnover in the last 24 seconds with the game tied in regulation. This is the classic coach-can’t-win and I’m with Thibs on this one. I’ve generally been with Thibs about minutes as I think NBA players have gotten too soft like baseball players (OK, for them just softer) who don’t pitch entire games or players who need all this rest time. The greatest players played and succeeded the most when they did play. I think all teams have given in to this view of rest preventing injury and helping a player perform better. I understand the logic that if you are less tired you will be more energetic. But there is no science to the injuries part and it’s debatable about the rest given Jordan and Magic and LeBron and Kobe played the most minutes when they were winning. But life is mostly copycat and so it succeeded for the Spurs and everyone jumped in. They better get Tim Duncan, though. So here is Thibs being condemned for playing guys too much and being criticized for taking guys out, like he did with Snell, who sat for all of 51 seconds in the second half of that game. He was playing too much until he was playing too little. It’s the job of the second guesser Monday quarterback. The only problem I see is Thibs is bothered by it. He should avoid it because in a sport where excellence is shooting 50 percent (40 percent if you use analytics), you never are going to please more than half, or maybe more than 40 percent. Those who are doing can do; everyone else is right 100 percent of the time after the game is over.
I just ordered four Drops. I'm going to rock mine and give the other three to friends who will rock theirs. Part of my love affair with the Bulls is that they seem like such a truly good group of people. I know you give the NBA great credit for their commitment to philanthropy. But do you think most teams take it as seriously as the Bulls? Or are the Bulls special? Does that have something to do with management's approach of taking character guys, many of whom stayed in college?
Sam: It’s not something I know for sure, but there are histories of great humanitarians in the NBA. Dikembo Mutombo basically built hospitals; Magic Johnson has done so with business in minority communities to help give people jobs and better chances, NBA players routinely are involved with clinics and building educational and sports facilities all over the world; no league has better people than the NBA regarding helping others. Character has a lot to do with it; it’s vital for winning and discipline on a team, understanding responsibility and leadership. I don’t imagine you’ll find much of that with the Denver Nuggets. The Bulls have a good group when it comes to helping others and truly caring; we know Luol Deng was exceptional and so is Kyle Korver. I’d seen Korver on road trips unannounced leave the team hotel right after the team got there and head for a soup kitchen or some facility to work on a day off. Jimmy Butler has done a lot as, of course, has Noah and Derrick Rose, albeit quietly and without publicity as well. It’s a group you can feel good rooting for.
I agree Kirk is playing a little too much though, he plays so hard that he should get some more rest to be able to perform better but unfortunately he's been overused with all the injuries. One thing I noticed is that when you hear interviews from other Bulls' players they always point to him as their inspiration for whatever they accomplish in a game. Hinrich is also the reason I love the Bulls and the game of basketball so much, and the reason I am always sore from diving to the floor whenever I play on my team or simply with friends. To me, he's what being a Bull is all about and I really do hope they retire his jersey when he's done playing even if the Bulls don't do it as frequently as other franchises. Besides his on court contributions, he doesn't appear much and tries to avoid the spotlight, so fans don't really know much about him. What is he like in the locker room? Is he offering advice to the younger guys? Is he always in the gym shooting? How does he have so much influence on his team? Is he a nice guy to be around?
Sam: There is something to selling yourself, which Kirk never has been about. But you can see not only around the team but around so many different groups of players the last decade or so he’s been such a popular player because the players see how much he puts into the game and never complains, sacrifices for the team, puts his body on the line to his own detriment and supports his teammates. He is the kind of person you hope to have as a teammate and as I have noted despite his shooting flaws this season the kind of defender other guards do not like much. Kirk’s had a tough season, but you never see him back off or back down even knowing he’s probably shortening his career for the team. Few players do so anymore. Forget old school; he’s one room school house.
I've spent my fair share of time this season perusing internet comments from Bulls fans, and one thing I've noticed is that they have all the answers if the Bulls would only listen. To summarize the key points to fixing the team before the playoffs:
1. Bench Hinrich. He's the cause of 90+% of the losses. At worst, we'd be 60-4 right now if he wasn't on the team.
2. Fire Thibs for the following 3 reasons. First of all he plays Hinrich. Secondly, he isn't starting McDermott, who is most likely the next Larry Bird. Lastly, he's caused most of the Bulls injury problems by playing guys for about 3.2 min per game more than they should be playing. If you add that up over the course of a season, its like playing an extra 15,744 seconds. No wonder Jimmy got his arm caught in that screen! He never stood a chance.
3. Sign JaVale McGee. The Bulls bigs can't handle physical play. McGee is clearly the answer as evidenced by the 28 games he's played over the last 2 seasons. Guy is a beast. Well Kendrick Perkins was actually the best answer, but the Bulls were too dumb to realize it. The Cavs got a bunch of new players, so we have to respond!
4. If we do #1-3 and still don't win the title, then I'm afraid the window has closed. Time to reload. Buy out the remaining $41MM on Derrick's contract. Trade Taj, Pau, and Jo for some expiring contracts and draft picks. Free up enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016, then Westbrook and Curry summer 2017. If for some reason those guys pass, then at least we should have the inside track to draft LeBron James Jr. in 2025.
Please use your secret inside connections to pass this along to the front office.
Sam: I would, but this would make everyone look too smart. Let’s keep it between us and see if they can figure it out on their own.