Nikola Mirotic and Toni Kukoc
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 4.03.2015

Sam Smith of opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers

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By Sam Smith | 4.03.2015 | 9:47 a.m. CT

Not sure if you've seen Steph Curry put Chris Paul on ice skates. Somewhat reminiscent of MJ going baseline against Oakley/Ewing. I don't like to toss around MJ comparisons, but does the way Curry is dominating games remind you of MJ? Nothing seems forced. Westbrook plays tackle football out there and chases triple doubles. Steph wins games and dominates within the 'flow' of the game -- seems to bend games to fit around him. LeBron did this at Miami's peak. This was something I never felt like D Rose quite got the hang of.

Yoni Solomon

Sam: It’s made for an intriguing MVP debate. Jordan-esque? No, let’s get real, as it were. But Curry and James Harden have turned this last month into a heck of an MVP race. There’s really no one else in the conversation, or should be. I’ve been going back and forth all season and, unfortunately, when it’s close like that a lot of voters tend to be influenced by a game. Like that Curry game against the Clippers. So I don’t think it was a coincidence Harden went for 51 his next game to try to swing the debate. I’ve been with Harden a lot this season for carrying the Rockets within striking distance in the West despite so many injuries, especially Dwight Howard lost much of the season and playing limited time now. Though the unofficial definition of MVP is a combination of the best player having the best season for the best team, which obviously opens it up to not give it to Jordan or LeBron every season. That definition comes closest to Curry, whose team is way ahead of everyone with him its best player. My feeling is he’s slightly ahead in support and I don’t think the campaigning Rockets GM Daryl Morey has done for Harden has helped as Morey tends to be an arrogant and ambivalent figure who will look down on voters who don’t endorse his analytical view of sports. Though having an unpleasant friend should not be a factor. Either Curry or Harden would be a good choice and not really a mistake because both deserve the honor. Anyone else would be an upset.

It's March, and everybody is asking about my bracket. I don't have one and I hate college ball, but usually I lie and say "Duke" or something and go about my day. But whenever I hear somebody say that they love college ball because it's "better basketball" and the players play hard and for the love of the game and blablabla... I have a really hard time not playing the role of the Grinch. I watched one tourney game and saw both sides playing zone and barely moving on defense, and yes, three kids dove to the floor for loose balls, but on two of those occasions it was because they messed up the timing of the play so bad they tripped. Any suggestions on how to break this national romantic obsession with watching teenagers playing clumsy basketball for no compensation so that coaches and organizations can earn hundreds of millions of dollars?

Alejandro Yegros

Sam: The way you phrased it might help stop them. It’s just a big gambling pool; it’s like Monday Night football. Who would would watch if they didn’t have their betting pools? The NCAA, which is listed in dictionaries now as an example of hypocrisy, figured out they could sell this legal gambling as a front for its money making ventures and profit motive on the backs of kids who they are willing to sentence to years of physical disability without compensation among their other crimes and misdemeanors. When you see those coaches or NCAA executives in interviews talking about their concern for their students and universities you feel like showering. There’s an old saying that after recruiting college visits the National Institute of Health advises all family members to shower and use disinfectant. The game is awful as anyone who watches basketball would tell you, endless timeouts, virtually no flow, a long clock to limit action, over coaching with players in robotic situations running side to side like the coach in Hoosiers demanding five passes before looking at the basket, players so poorly trained and coached so they are lacking basic fundamentals of the game. There are some very good people as coaches, the ones you’ll see make promises and stay around like Mike Krzyzewski. But it’s mostly a gypsy world of coaches chasing better deals. Which is OK if you are a pro as we know they are mercenaries in a business. College pretends not to be, which is their true crime that they have the interest of their students first. It would be nice if it were just somewhere on their list. It sure helps their studies playing games on TV on the road at 9:30 p.m., eh? The NCAA tournament is a brilliant scam and con game because of the bracket betting. Hardly anyone who plays claims to know anything about the teams. Heck, the broadcasters TNT brought over from their pro games obviously don’t, either. That’s really better as it does say what it is: A fun lottery to play. Makes for good conversation, and you get an early look at some of the players who will be pros, if not being able to show much of what they will eventually do. It’s good reality TV and you should fill out a bracket. It is a terrific atmosphere in the arena if it were for the kids, most of whom are denied admission anyway because the seats cost too much to support the excesses of the universities and the NCAA. Really, can NCAA executives be considered more trustworthy than Congress?

I agree 100 percent about Toni Kukoc. I think it's a shame he's not already in the Hall, and he was very much underrated during his career. My son and I watch old tapes of the Bulls games from that 72-10 season and I'm always impressed at how fundamentally sound and unselfish Kukoc was during that year. He could 've been far more dominant had he followed a more selfish path, but to his credit, he sublimated his ego for the sake of the team. Reminds me a lot of the attitude of the current team, especially, oddly enough, Derrick Rose. Same kind of team first, head down and get to work attitude.

Sean Leary

Sam: I always felt badly for sports fans, in a way, regarding Toni as the United States really more than many places is so condescending toward other countries, and it came through vividly with international basketball players. There was always this, ‘We’re the best’ attitude, and with some justification given Olympic results for many years. But that changed in the 1980s. Still, Americans were loath to accept the skills and abilities of players worldwide, though like with many social issues today, people evolve. When you see a player like Nikola Mirotic as a rookie (and we always believed college play to be about as good as European leagues) so much more advanced, especially regarding fundamentals, than rookies coming into the NBA you understand there is no talent gap any longer. Toni was still in an era when many, including NBA coaches and executives, believed there was one. Even the Bulls didn’t really know what they had. It was a credit to Toni as he outlined humorously in the story I wrote about him that he accepted the rookie hazing when he was maybe the second or third best talent on the team, more experienced and a greater winner than everyone including Michael Jordan. You make a good point regarding this current Bulls team. Perhaps the best attribute I see with these players is their sense of individual and team pride. Watch the bench when someone takes a charge. They’re all up enthused. There have been so many issues with this team over the years with the glare of the coach and management issues, the injuries, questions about who should play and how much and use, styles of play and commitment. I have no doubt many other groups would long have given up, the Denver Nuggets probably three times by now. But these guys compete regularly and hard. They may not be talented enough overall, but they won’t give in. Not a single one of them as you appropriately note given the succession of hardships that has befallen most everyone at times.

Toni Kukoc. He was ahead of his time for his position, nobody can defend him 6' 11" that can drive, pass, shoot, & post-up. I remember him scoring 20 points in 5 minutes against the Lakers when the Bulls were down 20. We won the game in OT. Do you think he reached his full potential in the NBA? I felt he was a bit held back because of MJ and Pippen. I hope that wont be the situation for Mirotic.

Rollen Decuzar

Sam: He obviously didn’t reach his potential because he didn’t even get to be an All-Star or starter for the Bulls despite his overall natural talents with shooting and ball handling I believe better than everyone but Jordan. Pippen moved ahead with his defense. It was to Toni’s credit he accepted the role—and was the second most important player on the 1997-98 team and Rodman did get himself injured or suspended 45 games in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons so Kukoc did start a lot—to be a big part of three titles. Mirotic is in a more accepting era for his talent. His larger issue is immediately I don’t see the Bulls coming back next season without Gasol, Noah and Gibson. So Mirotic will have to continue working himself in and be patient; but he’s just 24. The big question will be after the 2016-17 season. You don’t see many talents like Mirotic and the Bulls will have to make sure they don’t spend too much money before then so they can retain Mirotic, though as a free agent he’ll be able to pick his destination. Though Kukoc wasn’t honored as much in the NBA, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame honors the world of basketball. It isn’t the NBA Hall of Fame and some years NBA players don’t even get in. Kukoc should be an automatic as he won more international honors and titles in a shorter period than anyone I ever heard of and was a big time contributor for arguably the best team ever. Seems resume enough.

I've been noticing a turn in Chicago sports media these last couple of years, especially since Derrick's injuries. I've noticed a more vitriolic spirit, always looking to stir things up. Hearing the media's opinions on Derrick Rose reminds me a lot about the Debbie Downer character on SNL. It seems as though these local writers (and broadcasters) are always looking for the negative angle and speculating just so they can write some juicy gossip for people to gorge on. Is the Chicago media being infiltrated by New Yorkers or something? I thought the Chicago media was better than this.

Gabriel de Jesus

Sam: Maybe it’s global warming, hotter elsewhere and colder and more miserable here. There’s always been an edge in media and a debate. The attacks regarding Rose have mostly gone beyond fair debate at times, which may have potential free agents saying life will be easier in New York given their more supportive and fair and balanced media. After all, never has a former league MVP been demeaned in his home city like Rose has. I could understand it better if it were some drug user or domestic abuser. Unlike many Chicago athletes I recall in the past, he never has condemned the fans or community, but has made the mistake of being hurt while working. It’s sort of like the NCAA the way they schemed to prevent having to pay so called student/athletes workmen’s compensation when they are hurt. How dare you get hurt and affect our ability to celebrate and have a party! Sensationalism in the media is nothing new. The New York tabloids were pretty much credited (if that’s a positive) for starting the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, though it did wonders for Teddy Roosevelt’s career. These are very bad times for all media. Many people seem to believe they deserve receiving all the information they want without paying for it. Advertising cannot support all media the way it once did. So the demands for attention in some places—the hey look at me or did you hear what they said thing—becomes even greater. It’s an old media trick. The more outrageous you are perhaps the more you are talked about and maybe you get to outlast the others. And it is literally about survival now compared to ratings and circulation. And after all, if you can demean someone else to help yourself succeed is there a greater media and political tradition?

Why do international players only seem to be compared to each other? I don't see a ton of Dirk or Tony Kukoc in Niko's game. Actually, his game reminds me more of Kevin Durant. I'm not saying he's the next KD (who was 19 as a rookie, not 23), but if you look at their games and their per-36 rookie numbers, they're pretty similar. Durant scored a little more, Niko rebounds a little more. Also, if you think about their games, both tall and slender, difficult to match up with at 3 or 4, can see the court well and put the ball on the floor comfortably, draw a lot of fouls ... there are a lot of similarities. If I'm looking for an aspirational model, I'm showing Mirotić lots of Durant film this offseason.

Brad Hergott

Sam: All right, Mirotic for 2016 league MVP. He’s no Kevin Durant. But your point is a good one. Everyone does get caught up in the great tradition of comparing every European to Dirk, every white guy to Bird and every guy in a wedding dress to Rodman. Actually, most of us compared Mirotic to Ryan Anderson, which was inaccurate as well as racist since we felt we had to pick out a white guy. The notion was that he was a spot up three point shooter with size and great range. The surprise is he hasn’t shot threes well, but is much more than just a stand still shooter. When he struggled earlier in the season, I felt he was trying to do too much as he’s so anxious to please I thought he’d be better off just standing and taking the shot. But he’s shown a remarkable ability—still out of control a bit—to get to the basket and especially draw fouls and free throws. There aren’t many guys to compare him to since it’s a new phenomenon to have big guys as perimeter-type players. He’s not nearly as athletic as Durant. Perhaps someone like Bob McAdoo, though Mirotic is not as strong, of course at such a young age. And McAdoo is a Hall of Famer, so maybe that’s too much as well. He’ll be an intriguing player to watch develop.

Am I the only person who gets irritated when basketball fans and analysts talk about how the league is better when the Celtics and Lakers are good (sometimes they even include the Knicks). Shouldn't we be appreciative of the fact that we have these other teams, small market teams at that, competing at a high level? I love that the story out of LA is the Clippers and that the force in the west is coming from no less than Golden State. Then you have Memphis. In the East you've got Atlanta out of nowhere with the best record because they play great team ball and of course there's Cleveland. Why are we whining about the tired storyline that is Boston and LA when we have so much to appreciate in the league today?

Trevor Hoffler

Sam: No one is upset; it sounds like you read too much East Coast media. They’re really never upset in L.A. as they have the beach in winter. There’s a general consensus this has been one of the better seasons because of the competitiveness in the Western Conference and a lot of excitement for the playoffs. Ratings seem strong and the NBA has done pretty well without the Knicks truly relevant for much of the last 40 years. Boston and the Lakers just are old habits. But like when Bird, McHale and Parish departed, the Celtics took 20 years off and the league was never stronger with the Bulls 90s run. The Lakers are a mess, badly run with little direction and likely won’t be a factor for the next decade. Boston got lucky with the Garnett gift. They have a nice group of nobody special, which won’t get you very far with drafts that take much longer to build from given the age and inexperience. Get used to it. The NBA will be fine without the Celtics or Lakers in serious contention for the next decade.

Preseason, I thought you mentioned the Bulls had no chance without [Derrick] Rose playing at an all star level. 3 surprising things have happened since then.

1. Gasol is playing better than expected.
2. Mirotic has become a major contributor.
3. Butler emerged as an all star.

On the flip side, Atlanta is better than we thought and Cleveland made some nice player additions since preseason. Do you think those 3 things counterbalance Rose and the Bulls championship aspirations if he is playing at the same level he has done during the season?

Cary Lichenstein

Sam: The Bulls have no chance to win a title without Rose playing at an All-Star level. I still feel pretty good (or bad) about that view. I actually expected Gasol to play like this. I think I wrote before the season I felt Gasol would be the best center in the East. He was badly underutilized in a deteriorating situation in L.A. I did believe McDermott would be the rookie to develop, and about at the same level Mirotic has. I believed Thibodeau when he said Noah, Gasol and Gibson equaled 96 minutes and there was none left. Injuries and Mirotic’s exceptional play has changed things, but it’s still bench production and we figure Thibodeau will go to a defensive game in the playoffs. So it will be interesting to see how much he uses Mirotic. Butler’s emergence is huge and a potential difference maker as he can score and especially get to the free throw line. But the court spacing remains an issue as he still isn’t a three-point shooter for the shooting guard position. But his emergence has been the biggest boon. I don’t see the Hawks as a major threat given their lack of size and a big time scorer, which you need to close playoff games. That’s still what Rose can do if healthy and, really, something no one else on the Bulls does. Of course, the Hawks have surprised me all season as I had them sixth or seventh preseason, which wasn’t that close. While Mirotic led the league in fourth quarter scoring in March, do you really believe Thibodeau is going to have the ball in his hands to do that in the playoffs? The Cavs are much better with their additions than we thought they’d be. And, by the way, I thought Rose was playing at an All-Star level in January and February. The Bulls aren’t really going anywhere very far without him playing at some reasonable level.

I was curious on the background of how the Bulls came about drafting Toni Kukoc? I assume it was a similar scenario of how they have picked up Nikola Mirotic? Amazing that the then 3 time NBA champions then managed to get their hands on Europe’s MVP. Was Jerry Krause the brains behind the move? Was Phil Jackson on board? It seems the players (Jordan and Pippen at least) didn’t seem to be?

Andrew Robson

Sam: Yes, it’s another of 4,000 reasons why you don’t listen to players about personnel. Players—as they are supposed to be—are about what is best for them at that moment, which is winning a title. It’s generally why you also don’t listen to coaches, who are supposed to win that title now as well. Organizations are supposed to win now and plan for five years or more, clearing cap space or lining up prospects. It’s another reason why this Bulls coach/management thing has been misread at times. They have different jobs! With Phil Jackson it wasn’t so much he understood the management position better, but he didn’t care much for the draft as he didn’t want young players. He was no different than Thibodeau that way as a coach, though as an executive you see Phil is more interested in draft picks now. It’s ironic and unfortunate Krause was condemned for one of his greatest achievements because Jordan and Pippen didn’t approve. It was mostly Pippen then because he wanted his contract renegotiated and resented money going to Kukoc. Because Kukoc was a free agent and under contract in Europe, the Bulls were trying to get him and offering a $13 million/five-year deal after drafting him. Pippen then was making maybe $1 million, though he would soon get an extension and the Bulls committed at the time Kukoc would not make more than Jordan or Pippen despite erroneous media reports (see, that darn media was at it 20 years ago as well). Kukoc had leverage; NBA players don’t believe in leverage unless it applies to them. As a teammate and given the choice between Krause and Pippen, Jordan chose Pippen. He later came to understand what a great move Krause made, but it was too difficult to credit Krause publicly. Krause wasn’t the first as executives began to see that European players were talented and worth the risk of a future pick. Now guys from overseas will go in the lottery, but that was the start and teams might invest a second round pick, which the Bulls did for Kukoc in 1990. It was such a relatively new phenomenon that the NBA didn’t even have rules for it. When the Bulls tried to lure Kukoc after that draft the NBA made up a rule giving them a 21-day in season window to sign Kukoc. The Bulls weren’t able to as he was actually making more money in Italy. But eventually Kukoc won every title and MVP award and decided he needed to try the NBA. Looking back and redoing drafts always is an entertaining exercise. If you redid 1990, Kukoc would probably be No. 2 overall. The Bulls didn’t have a first that season and selected Kukoc with their second rounder, which was No. 29. Derrick Coleman was No. 1 and while he had a good statistical career, he was a disruptive, losing player. Gary Payton was No. 2. After Payton was Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), Dennis Scott, Kendall Gill, Felton Spencer, Lionel Simmons, Bo Kimble, Willie Burton, Rumeal Robinson, Tyrone Hill, Alex Kessler, Loy Vaught and Travis Mays. With the haul of four first rounders in Simmons (the only NBA player ever debilitated by playing video games too much), Mays, Anthony Bonner and Duane Causwell then coach Dick Motta famously said if he didn’t turn them into All-Stars he should be fired. He soon was. Ironically, the draft picks of Pippen and Kukoc were Krause’s best moments and were key ingredients for winning six titles. Krause never got the credit—though winning titles should be credit enough—for the Kukoc pick because of his other players and their influence on the community. But other NBA teams noticed and quickly found out it also was a pretty good gig to travel overseas on owners’ money. Many team executives now spend months there as a result on an expense account. They can also thank Jerry Krause.


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