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Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 1.15.2016

Really don't want Jimmy to play (Friday). You can’t wear out your star horse. The guy plays the most minutes in the league. Has also played several overtime games. Just sit him. He’s earned a nice long weekend.

--Mike Sutera

Sam: Jimmy’s not likely to do that, and credit to him. He thinks like the players of the 80s and 90s; he plays. But the Bulls will have to start looking at that with Jimmy again leading the league in minutes. Because unlike in the 80s and 90s, everyone else doesn’t play all the time. Guys take games, weeks off. Don’t get to May and have not so much nothing left but less. He said after his 53 Thursday he’s playing all 82. This is a tough stretch for the Bulls going to the All-Star break, and Jimmy will be there. And last year he played the least in that game with an injury. He’ll want to be more involved now that he’ll be an All-Star veteran. And then the Bulls have 17 games in March, another tough month with trips to San Antonio, Miami, Toronto, Indiana and Houston. It’s one thing if everyone does it; but no one does it.

Jordanesque again? Bench is so inconsistent. Why? They're not getting consistent minutes! (I think that, then I have to remember I would make a poor coach) McDermott makes a mini comeback, Portis is lost. Moore once again is priceless. Maybe the Bulls should trade about three guys and get a draft pick just so that the rest of the bench can get some consistent time on the court. No, wait, the Bulls can't do that! They'd be in jeopardy of failing to put five guys on the court given how hard it is for them to stay healthy.

William Kochneff

Sam: There isn’t much to take from that 76ers’ win other than Butler’s phenomenal scoring. Yes, dare we say Jordanesque twice in a month? You could see after the first half with Portis, Snell and Moore on the floor when they collapsed that Hoiberg basically never brought them back and finally got Mirotic out and didn’t bring him back. It’s one game so you can’t read that much into it. Plus, there have been big games for the reserves.

That’s also why you are a reserve: Because you cannot be consistent enough to be a starter. It’s also why you need Gasol and Rose. There’s not enough scoring otherwise and the offense is compressed with Noah because his man stays off him about six feet and it becomes basically a zone. Then the passing lanes are flattened out, which results in so many turnovers. Everything Hoiberg talked about and which everyone embraced basically disappears with Noah starting because he won’t shoot. He cannot be a starter unless he can be an offensive threat.

Noah does a lot of good things and is a valuable player, but at this point it hurts the offense to play him too much. But if you are going to be a competing team in the playoffs you need what he brings. I’m not getting rid of him to put the pressure on players as we’ve seen are much too inexperienced to be counted upon regularly.

In this topsy-turvy season which is really quite fascinating, I’m perplexed a little by Jo Noah. For one, it amazes me that people would have thought that he was ok not starting. All these guys have big egos. That’s normal and necessary for where they are and how they got there. He has handled as you would’ve expected watching him these past years, total pro and team person. My question centers around his play, he apparently has forgotten how to score at all which is strange. Never a great scorer, he could still make lay-ups, put backs. dunks etc. Now, not so much. Is it health, confidence, age or Holberg/system?? I know it’s probably some of each. I am afraid that the Bulls might lose both Jo and Pau and now that Bobby is freed, that’s a scary thought.

--Greg Young

Sam: I agree that it is despite the varied notion of Portis-to-the-rescue. Eventually in some respects. There’s been this bubbling up lately that Noah is unhappy. I’ve gotten some mail about it, which usually suggests in sports parlance that he wants out or something like that. That misses the point in the confusion people have about life and the sports fantasy. There’s this notion that guys on sports teams—even though they are adult professionals with families—are still playing one for all games and are all in it together and see the big picture for the glory of team over anything else. And then you are traded!

I’d characterize Noah as disappointed, just as I was several times when I was in a favored position when I worked at The Chicago Tribune and some new editor (coach) came in and had a different philosophy and new favorite. Or some new hot shot kid was hired and we’d all forget Hemmingway because he was the next. It happens in every business everywhere in the world and everyone has gone through it. It happened to me when I was covering the Bulls and some new editor with a new favorite came in and I didn’t get to go to the Olympics for the basketball team. I was disappointed, but still a professional with responsibilities to myself and my profession. As is Noah.

He doesn’t like coming off the bench after starting his entire career as opposed to who exactly? But it’s not going to change the way he goes about his job or his commitment to himself as a professional. Suggesting he is unhappy does Noah a disservice for it suggests moping around and losing interest. To the contrary. Noah also knows some of this blame falls on him for his ghastly shooting and failure to return to the level where he was trying to be an offensive threat. Which suggests to me he’s still not quite right, but is getting there. I don’t see what’s wrong with having a backup center of his skill level in case Gasol is hurt (which he is now and can be at 35) and who can bring some things Gasol can’t when you are playing smaller, athletic big men like Horford.

This notion of addition by subtraction to remove Noah to create time for Bobby Portis sounds good, though I wouldn’t want to see that in the playoffs against veterans with referees only too happy to foul out a rookie within minutes. Check the recent champions and see how many rookies had prime rolls. Essentially none. Or even in conference finals. Yes, maybe they lose Noah or Gasol or both. But why deny them the chance to see one more time if they can do it this way with depth and experience? If they can’t there’s plenty of seasons to come. This isn’t the last one.

The Bulls team speed or lack thereof for the moment appears to their biggest obstacle to success in the playoffs. If you could wave your magic wand and make a trade to improve the Bulls what would you do.

From where I sit Lance Stephenson with his speed and ability to create his own shot seems like someone to consider for trade. Also Taj who is quality thru and thru appears to be the guy with the most trade value that they probably can afford to trade.

--Tom Pappalardo

Sam: Yes, this is trading season, but sometimes you need to read the signs. Like the Hornets trying to dump Stephenson weeks after they got him and the Clippers anxious to get him and weeks later not even playing him. Are these hints for you? We knew to start the season—even with Mike Dunleavy healthy—that athleticism at the small forward was not a strength. But there are no perfect teams.

The Cavs with the erratic J.R. Smith still are looking for perimeter shooting. That’s why Hoiberg started Tony Snell. He knows Doug McDermott is more a specialist—and one I feel has been underutilized—and Nikola Mirotic isn’t that guy, but he’s wanted Mirotic on the floor for his shooting. So he’s given him a shot at small forward at times. Which has caused matchup problems. And we’ve seen the inconsistencies of Snell.

Maybe you can get Luol Deng, a free agent who is being phased out with the Heat. But that would cost at least someone like Gibson, and then do you make a conference rival stronger? Can you pry Matt Barnes from the Grizzlies? Would you want to? Those are the kinds of “athletic” wing players maybe available. P.J. Tucker from the Suns? But he’s highly regarded by them and going nowhere; they are going to want your first round pick. Harrison Barnes is generally ranked between 15 and 20 among small forwards. Imagine what it would take to get someone like that. I’d love to have someone like Jae Crowder, and he’s probably not even ranked as a top 20 small forward. He’d surely cost you someone like Portis. The Bulls just aren’t in very good position to deal with Gasol and Noah unrestricted free agents, Rose’s injury history and Butler essentially untouchable.

So I've been speaking about my suggested trade pieces of Noah, Snell and Doug but what about you? For old times sakes, put your Tribune. I must say since writing at the Bulls, I wonder if you are handcuffed on what to write and not to ever get into who you think we should trade like the old days.

--Andrew Brown

Sam: No, the Bulls really never tell me what to write and what not to. To their credit as they believe the fans deserve an open discussion. Good for them. I have my disclaimer. But I truly don’t see many legitimate opportunities that make sense and won’t make the team worse.

Fans never hear of these things and there are literally dozens of proposals between teams almost every day. Like would you do this guy for that guy? It’s what gms talk about all the time. If anyone ever says yes then they begin to discuss it seriously. And then someone invariably backs off. When Butler had his comments about Hoiberg, the Bulls got multiple offers in trade and actually none involving starters. I know, amazing. But that’s how things really work. Teams want to steal your guys because, especially in midseason deals, teams are looking to say to their fans they fleeced someone with great picks (which the Bulls by organization policy never deal) or front line starters.

With Noah and Gasol of limited value as free agents (teams can get them just for money this summer and everyone will have loads to spend), there’s hardly interest in players not performing. But amidst the talk of Butler against the 76ers and then Moore, lost in all that was McDermott. He made big plays and showed what I’ve always felt, that he can be a scorer for you if given the chances. The Bulls still didn’t get him enough catch and shoot chances, but they eventually will. He’s a keeper because you don’t find shooters like that very easily. Smart teams don’t make judgments on a few games.

I also think what you get for Noah will make you worse in the playoffs when you need Noah even if Gasol isn’t hurt. As I’ve written often—and probably somewhere in here again as well—this season was all about giving this group one more chance to see what they can do as close as they got last season. Give them some time as well to play for a new coach and using more players in different roles. There’s been plenty of ugliness, but with this team basically together the last four or five years, it’s the playoffs that only matters to them. It’s not great they cannot sustain in the regular season, but it’s no great surprise. Everyone has screamed for years to not leave it all on the floor in the winter. They’re obviously not.

What would be the future outlook for this team after Rose's contract ends? Not that there's any chance of this team winning it all this year, by the time his contract ends the nucleus that somewhat had a chance to win will be dismantled. Would you be able to think of any possible way to trade DRose now? Perhaps involving multiple teams? He's obviously trying hard and I do feel very bad for him but the whole healing process is really hurting the team. Are there absolutely no takers out there due to his health and high salary?

--Bambi Choy

Sam: I understand these inquiries, but I see them as misguided, shortsighted and out of touch with the realities of running a sports team. Was I too subtle with that response? Mainly I resent the lack of compassion. As I’ve written many times, here’s someone who was injured at work. Working for you. Three times. Maybe the first and most serious time was because he was playing when he maybe shouldn’t have been after being out so long.

In any case, he’s past that. So now, “What’s he doing for us today? Can’t help us now? Throw him in the trash!” I understand the reality of being a fan: I want to win now! And later also, but certainly now. The reality is this is a healthy year for Rose. He’s doing the right thing, I believe, after perhaps not always doing so before. He’s basically saying--which everyone moaned about in the playoffs the last few years—“I need to be better when it matters most. So if I’m a bit extra cautious until then I’ll have to live with it.”

So, yes, it’s disappointing when all the players are not there all the time playing all the time. Except, of course, when they break down because they did. Rose obviously wants to play no matter what some may believe. It’s not like I see him running a restaurant or out at the clubs. You rarely see Rose out at all, including on the road. He’s playing basketball or preparing to do so with all that rehab and training. Basically he is saying to the community he’s trying to have a long career. So why get rid of him now? Assuming you could. Given his health history and huge salary for next season he’s likely untradeable. But he is clearly on a path to be healthy for later in the season and next season. Will he become an All-Star again? Maybe not. But do you want to be the general manager known for trading Rose who becomes an All-Star next season when you have E’Twaun Moore or Aaron Brooks as your starting point guard?

And instead a protected low draft pick and Tim Hardaway Jr. traded for Rose? Rose missing a few games here or there is no big problem. I don’t care for it, but everyone does it now with their starters: The Spurs sit guys like Tony Parker a week at times. Their fans love it because they say the playoffs are the goal. Not the January record. Good starting point guards are rare finds. Even at his worst, Rose is averaging about 15 points and five assists and draws double teams and we’ve seen moves no one else on the team can make underneath.

People expect a lot because of the way he played before. But check the Bulls list of point guards the last 40 years and show me which ones were averaging 15 and 5. This group is obviously near the end of its run with the free agents. Better to let them run it out and see what they can do. They say they are talented. If they cannot achieve, then you have the answer. Often midseason deals are a disaster. I recall the great John Salmons trade in which there was a small boost and then so much desperation to dump him the Bulls almost cost themselves a chance to even make a pitch to LeBron James because they were stuck with Salmons’ salary and declining isolation game. Trading Rose at lesser value in the name of “I want something done now!” could be a blow that sets the franchise back for years.

Butler is really emerging as quite the feel good story, a massive work ethic that has become an awesome player, do you consider him a top ten player yet in the league? I don't know if the consistency is there as of yet for me. Particularly the game against Toronto he seemed nonexistent.

--Matt George

Sam: Everyone slips up on occasion, but Jimmy has been unusually consistent and productive. And he sure looked like top 10 Thursday against the 76ers. His story and rise really is one of the more remarkable in the NBA, to be passed by 29 teams and seriously having to think if he’s top 10. He’s probably not, which is maybe the ultimate issue the Bulls have now as far as this team. The informal formula for a title team is two top 10 players and another top 15.

Jimmy’s not top 10 but close and Rose, Noah and Gasol have slipped out of that that top 15 category. You could have made that case a few years ago with Rose an MVP, Noah a top five MVP and Defensive Player of th Year with Deng and Butler. But with the injuries and the age, the dynamic has changed as far as talent. Jimmy’s the team’s best player now, but not good enough to be the best player on a great team that beats great teams. The Bulls need Rose and Noah to get better, and the good news for them is they could even this season.

Rose has been, for the most part, healthy and is building responsibly, in my view, by not playing with questions. I know fans love the macho hockey view of playing with body parts hanging off and sucking chest wounds, but that’s because many see players as disposable items. OK, who’s next? I’m also not convinced based on his offensive hesitation this season that Noah is fully healthy. I think playing less as much as he doesn’t care for it could help later as well. Jimmy can get contact as well as anyone attacking the basket.

Who even expected Jimmy to be an All-Star? The way to figure it out is whom you’d rather have. Would you rather have Jimmy or Klay Thompson? Thompson is obviously a much better shooter and thus better for his position as a shooting guard. Jimmy is an average or below shooter, but better defender and stronger rebounder and better two-way player than Thompson, who also is two-way. Thompson is barely top 15 and the third best player on the Warriors.

The top 10 is generally considered LeBron, Curry, Durant, Westbrook, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. Most would have DeMarcus Cousins, though he’s no favorite of mine. Would you rather have Carmelo? Better scorer than Jimmy, but not as good all around. Probably for impact on the game, Chris Paul. Chris Bosh? Kevin Love? John Wall? Damian Lillard? Dwight Howard? Marc Gasol? Draymond Green? Al Horford and Paul Millsap? Andre Drummond? Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan? Bradley Beal?

You can make a strong case for Jimmy with this group from 10 to 20 andcloser to 10 after Thursday. Which is pretty amazing given the expectations. But to have ultimate success you need either that superstar and one close or three players on the Butler level as some teams have done like the Pistons or Mavericks to win, though many had Dirk top 10 then.

Is it time for Bulls organization to channel Phil Jackson and send the league a video of Derrick getting bounced around like a pinball going to the basket and getting no calls while guys like Kyrie get breathed on too heavily and get to the line? I was happy to see him try to defend himself somewhat and get T’d up in the 4th quarter last night. Kid’s averaging 2.5 FTs per game for the season with zero in back-to-back games where he drove to the basket on several occasions…it’s not like he’s standing on the perimeter taking a bunch of jumpers these days.

--Marc Brauer

Sam: I assume the Bulls always do and it seemed to have some affect his last few games before the tendinitis. But you shouldn’t have to do that. It’s been a curious mystery Rose’s entire career given how often he drives to the basket. And this season it’s more than ever given every time he shoots a jump shot a petition circulates in Chicago for him to be released. I suspect it will even out, though the curiosity of officiating this season—and you know I am a big fan of NBA officials—is how often there are calls well after the play is finished. Perhaps they’ll reconsider more often the ones they are missing on Rose.

Noah's not happy these days and there are constant talks about him getting traded. However, I believe the Bulls can benefit more by trading Taj Gibson instead. Don't get me wrong. I like Taj and he's been a good trooper for this team but I'm afraid we've already seen the best of him. More importantly, he's hindering Jimmy's offense by clogging up the lanes as he's more of a position rebounder unlike Noah who likes to crash the board from all angles. Noah will then not only get more playing time but what he brings to this game will be a lot more than Taj can especially to help develop Portis' game.

--Jay Choi

Sam: Not that the 76ers game was any turning point, but you saw there how much Taj meant with the sort of defensive energy no one could supply but Butler and how lost Portis was. I’m not picking on him as that’s what happens with rookies. One major reason you don’t trade Gibson is you can lose Noah and Gasol and then your front court is Mirotic, Portis and Bairstow. But more importantly, Gibson is more reliable and consistent than anyone with that sort of energy on a regular basis and a reasonable contract that will be more valuable if you need to do something major after the season. You don’t waste that now for a minor upgrade, if that.

Thibs to the Nets is heating up. He can reunite with his boy Bargs.

--Bob Ding

Sam: I believe Tom would be interested, especially because there’s an opportunity there to run personnel as well, and his buddy Jeff Van Gundy always told him in his next job like brother Stan and buddy Doc Rivers to get personnel control. I think it never much works out as it’s too much with coaching a full time job, especially the way Thibodeau does it. I’ve heard Tom is anxious to get back in, which is no surprise, and I suspect he’ll take any decent job that he can get. In my view there are 30 decent ones as it’s a heck of a good job.

Win or lose, it is so much fun to watch Golden State play the game the way it should be played.

--Rex Doty

Sam: It’s also the way they are capable; they have the players to play that way, which not everyone does. The Hawks play similarly with a lot of ball movement. Actually, the Hornets have done a good job trying to change their game to play that way. Having Stephen Curry makes a big difference. It looks a lot easier with someone who can shoot like that but who is so willing to move the ball and himself. Stars do that.

That Curry has become that level star is a surprise to everyone in the NBA, including the Warriors, who were close to trading Curry to the Bucks when they traded Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut as they weren’t sure Curry ever would be healthy with severe ankle injuries that required surgery. And the prospects for a not so fast guard in the first place with ankle problems was not encouraging. And even under Mark Jackson when they improved who saw this? Plus winning makes you look a lot better. And shots going in. The Bulls have the same idea; they don’t make as many shots doing so.

So should we just give the ball to Butler from the beginning of the game and have him to his thing all game? I know the answer should be "no," but what I see is that the Bulls actually play better defense and play with more energy when him or Rose is doing his thing like this. Maybe deep down these guys really don't want to have an equal-opportunity situation?

--Alejandro Yegros

Sam: That’s obviously not the case, though if it is that’s why it takes you overtime to beat the league’s worst team and not so great in the midst of four in five nights after losing to also sub-.500 Milwaukee. Perhaps you’ve seen the teams who move the ball well, like the Warriors and Spurs.

The Warriors are quite impressive and are deservedly talked about a lot, but are the Spurs actually a better team? You look at point differential and San Antonio is actually ahead at +14.1 to the Warriors +12.1. Looking at points allowed per 100 possessions, the Spurs are #1 by an incredibly wide margin. In this category, the margin from the Spurs to the #2 ranked team is a bit more than the margin from #2 to #17.

Where the Bulls hold teams to a low FG% but then allow a lot of second chances, the Spurs hold teams to almost an equally low FG % and are also the best defensive rebounding team in the league. How are they doing it? At the half-way point it looks like these 2 titans are headed for a showdown this spring. Neither have lost a game at home, so getting that #1 seed could be huge. Barring injury, does anybody else stand a chance? Cleveland or OKC?

--Dan Michler

Sam: Bulls and Clippers Finals? Nah. Right now you’d say the only three teams that look like they have a chance to win the title are the Spurs, Warriors and Cavaliers. The Warriors were most concerned with the Spurs last season and once they were upset early in the playoffs basically took a breath and decided it was theirs. The Thunder may have more talent than both, but Durant and Westbrook still are the coaches and don’t much let anyone else play. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are probably just good enough to lose and who knows with the Rockets.

Most around the NBA still feel they’ll trade Dwight Howard next month rather than risk losing him, though Howard’s been playing well lately. But stuff happens. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have vast injury histories. LeBron, we know, is Superman. But there’s Kryptonite. And he hasn’t taken his break yet as he had this time last season. If they don’t give it to him he could wear down as well.

The Bulls’ advantage is there is no second in the East. You’ve seen the Bulls play well against Toronto and Indiana and poorly against Atlanta and Atlanta poorly against Charlotte. We all expect the Cavs to be in the conference finals, but someone has to play them. And I don’t see anyone else in the East noticeably better than the Bulls. Of course, I also see seven or eight teams that can beat them in the first round. Which is why it’s important not to expend everything now. You can take some losses, try some different guys so you can tighten things later, have Rose healthy, Gasol. Find which of those reserve guys can produce under pressure. And when you trade you risk changing rotations and chemistry again.

I can’t recall too many midseason deals or pickups from buyouts that have vastly helped or changed a team. The Spurs don’t do it. The Warriors haven’t. The Cavs did make a big midseason series of deals last season, but that was around 19-20 and coach/general manager/owner James was still building. I saw a replay of the Spurs/Cavs Thursday night and it was good stuff. The Bulls aren’t playing at that level, but they can improve. And they have beaten good teams. If they don’t make a run, you change things when there are more opportunities in the summer. During the season, good teams want to steal your guys and bad teams just want your future.

Stacey King is always talking about how Mirotic takes so many long threes and should step in more, has anyone from the coaching side told him this? Pretty sure when Niko shoots from closer his percentage is way higher. He rarely makes the long ones.

--Darren Rowe

Sam: I’m pretty sure they have, but maybe he’s not listening in English.

I have been reading much Chicago media saying the Bulls roster needs change/overhaul; additionally, that Hoiberg's message is falling on deaf ears, players aren't happy, the front office has unrealistic expectations etc...Most of this is do to the frustration of uneven play i.e. win six (with impressive victories)/lose three (serious head scratchers.

I do not believe the sky is falling. Wasn't Thibodeau fired, in part, because of his micro approach (all out for every game) as opposed to taking a more global view? Weren't Joakim, Taj, and Pau breaking down toward the end of the season with nothing in the tank for the playoffs? Isn't this (kind of) what we wanted? Hoiberg will be measured by playoff success. What I see is a coach playing 9 to 10 players consistently. No one is averaging 40 minutes per game (not even Jimmy).

Yes there are some issues, but if focus seems to be the problem, I expect players to lock-in during the last quarter of the season and playoffs. Thibs mantra was "you get better by practicing good habits". True, but "the body" does not lie. I believe the Bulls will be better served in the long run with more of a macro approach. Winning will solve most of the matters. In the meantime, in the words of Aaron Rodgers, RELAX!

--Greg Mendel

Sam: And they have won 60 percent of their games, so they aren’t quite done yet, I agree. But patience is difficult with deadlines and especially tweets and blogs. And, really, a lot less fun. So don’t worry, be happy.