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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 5.01.2015
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 | 5.01.2015 | 2:02 p.m. CT
I think the best thing that happened to the Bulls was they got a tougher series than expected and an additional two games. They needed the time to get into a rhythm. Do you think in a way, these six playoff games with the Bucks were like a playoff preseason? Will they be much more prepared to play the Cavaliers than if they ended up winning game 4?
Sam: That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, as the phrase goes. A few players mentioned that after Game 6 in Milwaukee Thursday, and it sounds like a nice set up. I’m not so sure because this Bulls team all season has been one you never know what you’ll get. The narrative now will be they haven’t played together a lot with all the injuries and thus have needed more time getting their rhythm and coordination and all they needed was the wakeup call they got. But we basically saw it one game in two weeks. It was a heck of a game and the way many have been suggesting they play, faster with fewer play calls and less in the half court with quicker shots. Doesn’t sound so difficult, but I’d have to see it more than one game to believe they can carry it through for a series. I still don’t see that desperation on a regular basis.
Would the loss of Love be a silver lining for the Cavs - at least they'll be able to find Love available next season at a reduced rate? With his reduced level of performance - albeit as a sidekick vs. main guy this season, plus the injury, no team would offer him max money, thus keeping Cavs as the most attractive place for Love?
Sam: I think you’ve misread that; it may personally even do him better. If they don’t win, he may get credit for if he were there they may have. And if he were there and they lost he’d likely get blame like Chris Bosh always did. Rajon Rondo’s free agency value likely has changed the way he seemed to quit on the Mavs. There aren’t a lot of top free agents and teams are going to have loads of money in a year. Love will get a max deal from someone. The conventional wisdom is he opts in with Cleveland and then becomes a free agent and leaves when the big money comes in the summer of 2016. I see that occurring, though many around the league tell me he dislikes it so much in Cleveland he could leave this summer. I’m still saying he returns for one season, especially missing this playoff run. But the playoffs change a lot. Everyone is watching LaMarcus Aldridge now as a few months back no one thought he would leave Portland, but suddenly they are looking like they are sliding back in the West and maybe he moves. Most still believe Gasol returns to Memphis. Since Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are restricted and likely will be resigned or matched, this summer’s free agent list isn’t that great. LeBron isn’t going anywhere, and suddenly Draymond Green is a big money guy. Better watch out paying him a max deal. The other big names are Goran Dragic, Paul Millsap and Greg Monroe, who are not exactly franchise guys.
That was a tough one to watch Monday, team seemed to be sleep walking and we got no production from the bench. I think a lot of people are down on the Bulls but they are not giving the Bucks and Jason Kidd any credit. Kidd has done an excellent job exploiting weaknesses in the Bulls line up, primarily by making Noah a scorer, using Dudley on him when Bulls on offense, and hurting Noah defensive prowess, with Dudley pulling him out to the three point line. I also see that Brooks has been neutralized, Kirk is still hurt, and Mirotic and Snell have not played well since Game 2. I still think we pull it out but this Bucks team has earned my respect, and Kidd is a much better coach than I thought he would be. The biggest problem I see is the Bulls not really being a team that knows how to close out a series, we’ve only won one series in the playoffs since Derrick originally got hurt, and I think they need to exercise that demon before we really start to see this team come together.
Sam: It’s often said reputations are made in the playoffs, and Kidd’s reputation as a coach has made a huge jump. Kidd has proven facile and daring, though perhaps a bit like Thibodeau in his first years with the Bulls: It’s much easier in a sense when there are so few expectations. This Bulls team has major expectations now; no excuses with everyone available to play. But you make a good point about closing, though not precisely. This Bulls group hasn’t come up very strong in the playoffs; sure they’ve had excuses with injuries, especially to Rose. They had an inspiring Game 7 win in Brooklyn in 2013. But their resume isn’t great overall. Lost to an 8 seed in 2012; yes Rose was hurt. But they still had future or former All-Stars in Deng, Hamilton and Boozer and high level role players in Korver, Gibson, Asik and Watson even with Noah getting hurt in Game 3. Then with home court advantage they lost in five to Washington last season and in 2011 even after sweeping Miami in the regular season lost four straight to Miami in the conference semifinals. It suggests in some respects an underachieving team disguised as an overachiever.
I've seen us better. But, those flashbacks of passing and big shots seem embellished by a fan wishing on a star studded season. I recognize the opposition is rare: that combination of length, athleticism, and unabashedly profligate double-teaming await nowhere else in these playoffs. But, our box office star is looking to share the marquee, unconfident he still delivers blockbusters.
That's not the reason my son wears his shoes nor why his failed attempts against Miami made me a fan for life. It was his effort and Teflon belief that he had what it took to prevail. I'm looking for that guy instead of the doppelganger vying for a supporting role to Jimmie Butler. Where's the real Derrick Rose and is he capable of showing up?
Sam: I’m not making an excuse for Rose because I think he’s done fine in the context of Butler being the team’s leading scorer and the team trying to start games going through Gasol. Plus, the Bulls play calling has changed as they now call way more plays for Butler than anyone else. But the larger issue is you just don’t walk out of surgery after missing six weeks not playing with the team and then walk in seamlessly. It doesn’t happen with anyone. Look at any of the players with major injuries. Rondo still can’t play. I feel Rose actually has been amazing in this series, averaging an astounding 39 minutes per game the first five games. I thought I’d read he wasn’t even going to play. If someone told you to start the season Rose would be playing 39 minutes per game in the playoffs would you have taken that? This Bulls team has plenty of issues; Rose is hardly playing at his highest level. But to continue to judge him against his MVP standard is unrealistic. He’s not that player now and that season is irrelevant. He’s been a great addition thus far; imperfect, flawed, but playing and competing. Could be a lot worse.
I'm writing at the point that the duration of J.R. Smith's suspension has yet to be determined. I assume contributing factors will be intent, result, history of similar actions, etc. But is honesty a factor? Does a player get worse punishment for claiming a foul is unintentional in cases where it clearly is intentional? Doesn't the NBA (and its many young fans) stand to gain something from rewarding players who make awful mistakes, but are immediately contrite?
Sam: Well, you can apologize for killing someone, but they still send you to prison. No, saying you’re sorry isn’t good enough. It’s nice, but the damage is done. Think first. Smith should have gotten three to five games. The NBA will deny they do this, but I believe they do. Smith I felt would have gotten three to five games if Love hadn’t been hurt. The NBA doesn’t want certain teams to win as is often suggested. What they want is the most level playing field for the best series. So they didn’t want to see Cleveland penalized too harshly with losing Love as well. Why else would the Cavs announce so quickly Love was out? He wasn’t playing; so let the other team think he is and make them prepare. Coaches love to do that. But the Cavs released it immediately. So I believe they could tip off the league before it ruled on Smith. The league had to give Smith more than one game as a multiple repeat offender with numerous suspensions, many for violent acts. One game would have been a horrible message to send. So they made it the smallest multiple they could.
Are Bulls fans over-reacting to the Game 5 loss? Yes, we should expect the Bulls to beat Milwaukee. But the reaction from many in the Bulls Fan Universe after Game 5 almost seems to indicate a dislike for this team, possibly because they haven't quite lived up to pre-season expectations? It's like they're just waiting for failure. I wonder, is losing 2 games to Milwaukee such a bad thing? We weren't exactly the favorites entering the postseason, but is this a sign that things are much worse than we thought? The Spurs went 7 games in Round 1 on their way to the title last season. Dallas went 6 in 2011. Lakers went 6 in 2010. And the dominant 2008 Celtics took 7 games to get past the 8 seed, 37 win Hawks in Round 1. The playoffs aren't easy. Milwaukee played well in Game 5. The Bulls shot poorly. I don't think there is anything embarrassing about it. As long as we get that 4th win eventually, I don't think it matters.
Sam: It’s not unlike many of the reactions to Rose; when you are disappointed it’s much easier to fault someone else. But you do make the larger point. It’s a series. Yes, the champion Bulls generally rolled through the first round, but this isn’t that team. This is a team that’s been inconsistent, hasn’t played together all that much, has changed its style from five-man defense to offense oriented with Gasol, the return of Rose and Butler on occasion now considering himself—as he admitted—an offensive player, and having to deal with all this media and fan nagging about if Rose is the right guy, what about Thibodeau and management, can you beat LeBron? The Bulls have everyone available for the playoffs for the first time in four years, so all the talk about minute restrictions limiting the team seem moot and overstated. But Noah physically isn’t what he was, Gibson has labored through ankle problems, Rose missed a large part of the season with surgery and young players have had inconsistent rotation time. So it’s hardly a connected team; certainly not as much as previous teams even when less healthy. While the Bucks have been connected, buying in with a young and motivated coach like the Bulls a few years back. So how can anyone expect rolling through a series against anyone. The title Celtics in 2008 when first put together went seven in the opening round and then to the Finals is a good example. The Spurs won last year after a seventh game first round. The Mavs you point to got bailed out in the first round by some favorable calls and then won a title. This Bucks team has been underestimated because of the season disruption and a .500 record, but teams buy in and get on a roll and that can negate talent for awhile. This Bulls group has a lot of personal pride, which can carry them. The playoffs are about surviving and moving on no matter how you do it. That’s what this series meant for the Bulls.
With what's going on with this team you're probably not really wanting to answer this question but do you think because of Thibodeau clearly getting outcoached in this series the writing may very well be on the wall as coach of this team? It seems utterly astounding that with the level of all star talent and a deep roster at full health this team could be so poor? Obviously certain match-ups are going to be worse than others and the Bulls have never been great against young, athletic teams but it's looking more and more obvious that the longer this series goes on the more Thibs is being outcoached.
Sam: When asked this season about all the Thibodeau rumors I’ve always said the same thing and believed it: That the playoffs as they do for many coaches will determine things. Especially after a coach is with a team five years. That’s been a standard around the NBA, especially with the coaches like Thibodeau, who weren’t players, like Fratello, Lawrence Frank, the Van Gundys, even going back to guys like Del Harris and Motta. The voice of a coach and his motivational techniques only last so long and especially those who weren’t players and motivate more through preparation and strategies. Thibodeau is a good coach who has worked hard in this series, had the team well prepared and made some nice changes in the closing Game 6. I’m not one for the coach scorekeeping; Thibodeau has done what he’s always done for the playoffs. He doesn’t believe in making many changes as Pat Riley didn’t and he was pretty good. Jason Kidd has been more flexible as he’s also had a lot less to be held accountable for as few expected his team to even make the playoffs this season. It’s easy to second guess and differ as there are no certainties in the way to play a sport. That preparation wins the Bulls a lot of games. But the playoffs determine your legacy, and it should be that way with Thibodeau as well as any coach the Bulls ever have had. I’ve felt from the start of the season with the personnel changes, Rose and Noah’s injuries and the rotation changes and rookie additions this was a two-year run for this group. It’s not as easy as people think to blend a group, and this one is very different. I’d like to see them all together for the two seasons to see if they can get there.
The OKC Thunder part ways with their coach, who led them to several conference finals and the NBA finals, replaced him with a college coach who has no NBA coaching experience, and based on the national TV coverage I've seen, aside from the initial day when Brooks was let go and people said he got a raw deal, the narrative has largely been it's time for a new voice and Donovan is quite accomplished and story is over. Before it happened I barely heard a word about Brooks' job being in jeopardy. Now, contrast that with the past two years of consistent stories that there's tension between the Bulls front office and Thibs that's heading toward irreparable, several reports (all ultimately untrue) that he's heading to New York, Golden State, Los Angeles to coach them, that his friends believe he's being fired, that third parties are looking into other opportunities, that people on national NBA broadcasts like Jalen Rose definitively state he won't be back, and local talk radio wonders how the Bulls could part with him when he's so accomplished.
Why is there this difference nationally in how these situations are covered? Aren't the Thunder more accomplished in the past five years than the Bulls? Shouldn't Brooks being let go be a bigger deal, especially when the mere idea of Thibs being let go can warrant 2 years of speculative commentary? Do the Bulls just have an enormous number of leaks that spread these stories compared to other franchises, or is there just a desire among some media people to portray the Bulls in a bad light? I'm starting to believe the national media views the Bulls as the Kardashians of the NBA, and if they can write a story to make them look bad, they will. For example, Thibs gets the reputation of working his guys too hard--in contrast, the Cavs have two of the top 4 players in terms of minutes played. No reputation of overworking players for the Cavs, though. Pat Riley chooses Michael Beasley in a draft where he could have had Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love, but Jeff Van Gundy doesn't mention that in national TV broadcasts--just how Paxson traded Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas. It's getting tiresome. I'm a big Bulls fan, so maybe I'm just tuned into the comments that affect Chicago, but am I wrong? Doesn't Chicago seem to get overly covered with these types of stories compared with other franchises?
Sam: There’s an old newspaper saying about Don’t mess up on a slow news day. You’ll end up the front page headline. Perhaps in sports it can be altered so you better be more careful in a big market. Though teams are equal, the media is not. When you do something or don’t in a major market it draws much more attention. I’ve always thought Carmelo Anthony made a huge mistake to go to New York. His reputation has taken a major hit since going there with the constant drumbeat of accusations and ersatz controversies. They don’t much cover the sports there as much as the controversies around the game. It’s the kind of place where media much prefer to give both sides a pistol and stand back and see what happens. Yes, you are more sensitive to what’s said about the Bulls, so you surely pay more attention. There are rumors in many places, though you probably don’t listen to Portland talk radio a lot. And, yes, there is a laziness to media in all areas that once you are labeled that’s who you are. In politics and business as well. Once the minutes thing got hung on Thibs no matter what he does it gets more notice. And Chicago, oddly, has become a place where fans have begun to obsess about minutes played as well, so it’s contributed. Van Gundy long has had a bias toward the Bulls dating back to battles with Phil Jackson and his Pat Riley inspired frustration about losing to the Bulls and having his face wiped in it like when Jordan went after him after his fairly innocent comments—though Jeff talked way too much for a coach and why he’ll likely remain where he is where his rants contain more humor—about Jordan having his friends in his movie as a con man. The NBA broadcasts are not journalism; so Jeff’s bias is accepted. But remember it is the entertainment business and, after all, these all are critics with opinions. You may not like some opinions, but as they say everyone’s got one, so no big deal. You are judged in the end on what you do. If you succeed no matter what they say about you then you were right. If you don’t then you just collect multi million dollar annual salaries and deal with it.
I mailed Dennis Hopson a card and a 1991 NBA schedule. Signed both. Such a nice guy. He's very religious and he just turned 50 the other day. I spoke to Joe Kleine (on Twitter). I asked him if I could send him something and he said no need that he will mail me a few autographs. He's doing real well. He is part owner of a popular BBQ restaurant.
Sam: I like to hear stories like that. Over the years, there have been a bunch of good guys to come through the Bulls. One thing I wish the Bulls and other teams did more of was brought former players back for events. The Celtics are the gold standard with this. They treat every player who ever has played for the Celtics as part of a big family. Players with them even back into the 1940s still receive regular mail and updates from the team and are kept involved in future events on occasion. I know the business aspect, and frankly the one that really lets down is the players’ association, which tends to forget about players once they are inactive. There are retired players’ associations and they try to keep guys apprised. It’s always good to hear about familiar names and the guys being accommodating with fans. Hopson was one of the nicer guys; tough situation when he was with the Bulls through no fault of his own. But a classy person.
What do you think about Poppovic's Hack-a-Jordan strategy? Should the NBA get rid of this?
Sam: It’s a tough one because you don’t want to change the rules to accommodate someone who is as incompetent as Jordan. And it’s not like this is new. They used to do it to Wilt and he’d literally be running away on the court; other times he’d simply threaten guys that if they fouled him he’d knock them out. Everyone feared Wilt. What I would have done in this series if I were Doc Rivers to really get this done was foul Tim Duncan every time. Duncan isn’t a good free throw shooter and under 60 percent in the playoffs. With the intentional foul he’d probably be uncomfortable as he doesn’t like attention—you can tell the way he usually looks away in interviews—and then you make a mockery of the game and the NBA would have to do something. I’ll admit I missed the end of the Clippers/Spurs Game 5 because when they started the fouling of Jordan I turned off the game as it was late anyway. I assume many others did. You don’t change the rules to accommodate one player. But it’s not a basketball play, which is the larger point. If you foul a guy in the act of basketball, then that’s fine. Fouling someone not involved in the play is not basketball. Popovich is taking advantage of a technicality in the rules and I believe he is hurting the game by doing so. As a result, I do expect a change. The NBA judges flagrant fouls on the notion of whether it is a basketball play. Fouling someone trying to run away from the play is not a basketball play and I expect they’ll change the rule this summer to declare that you have to be doing something in the course of basketball, like going for a steal or getting a rebound. I’m sure his players are embarrassed by it as they’d rather win with sportsmanship rather than a flaw in the rules. It won’t tarnish the Spurs’ titles, but they have probably forced the NBA to make the change.