Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 11.13.2015
Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
By Sam Smith | 11.13.2015 | 10:00 a.m.
I get all of your points (Bulls draft choices story Nov. 11) about the importance of the draft and generally agree. But to play devil's advocate, just as many teams fail at building through the draft as they do attempting to build through free agency. One could argue, at least looking at the Bulls of the past 10 years, that building through the draft alone is a great way to sustain a good team that's never great enough to win a championship.
I know the Bulls have taken their shots at free agency and trades and that they just haven't worked out. I think the true secret to building a champion in today's NBA is to draft a future superstar and then, in some way, convince him that your town is cool enough and, apparently, warm enough to convince him to stay there after his second contract. It's amazing how scared of the cold these guys are. I don't get it, they're on the road for half of the time during the winter months anyway. Is it that big of a deal?
Sam: After all, who goes on vacation to Chicago in January? But it’s obviously not the only factor as Kevin Love did resign in Cleveland, though I personally believe that was to guarantee his financial future and I expect him to be traded next summer. I agree: Get a superstar. The problem is everyone wants to and there are only maybe a half dozen to go around. You simply have to be lucky.
Look at the Bulls after Jordan: Four picks in four years in the top four (1, 2 and two 4s) and the worst record in the NBA in that period. And then they started again. Look at the 76ers, who still are maybe five years from making the playoffs with this about to be their third season winning fewer than 20 games. The Bulls did get a superstar in the draft, in case you forgot. Derrick Rose was the league MVP a few years into his career, the youngest in league history and on the way to one of the greatest careers in NBA history. Then he had three knee operations, including the most serious one you can have in the ACL, and he can’t be quite the same player. He still can be very, very good. But no one can expect him to be quite that player again. No one ever came back to that level of play in NBA history after those injuries.
I personally think Rose will return to an All-Star level. He doesn’t say much and doesn’t complain. But it’s now four surgeries in less than four years. Ever tried that? How do you think you’d feel? It takes time for your body to recover from any surgery. And then to ask to play a sport at a world class level. It’s very difficult, and we saw Rose last season improve as the season progressed and play with great explosion in the playoffs. But you don’t surrender if it isn’t happening right away or at the level you’ve seen it previously. The Bulls’ combination of young players and a veteran here and there like Pau Gasol can lead to success.
Look, they were maybe a shot or two from getting past Cleveland last spring. Injuries happen to everyone. The importance is to stay competitive and close and sometimes a great player can fall into your grasp or a young player can take a leap or a favorite can be crippled or a group of very good players without a superstar can break through with teamwork like the Pistons in 2004, the Mavs in 2011 when Dirk was terrific but not quite a superstar, or going back the Supersonics in 1979 when they didn’t have an All-Star the year before when they first went to the Finals. It’s not a zero sum game that if you don’t win now you lose. Things happen that are unexpected as long as you are in position with talent and depth and a solid financial plan.
I hated the fact that Thibodeau played only 7 guys at times and didn’t use his bench as much last year. I think both Mirotic, McDermott and even Moore should’ve played more. We see this year after only few games that those guys can be productive and become very good role players on this team.
But watching the Bulls so far this year, Thibs might've known this team better. He knew that the strength of this team was on the defensive end. He knew even if they struggle offensively (as they did a lot), the defense is what kept them in games and gave them a chance to win in the 4th quarter. Watching the Bulls during the first 8 games, it’s more than clear that this team is not equipped to play the style of basketball that Hoiberg is preaching. Most of the Bulls players are not 3-point shooters, or natural scorers. The Bulls can’t play like the Warriors, or those Steve Nash teams in Phoenix, or Kings teams in the early 2000’s. We can play faster, shoot more 3s, but let’s not completely abandon the identity of this team, which is defense.
I agree; they should play better offense and better defense. We should coach; forget those other guys who watch all the tape and analyze the plays. The first point is that didn’t work anymore with multiple first and second round playoff ousters. So you try something different. It was just time, a natural progression in sports. If you are going to play those players you felt should play, you have to accept the flaws that Thibodeau would not accept.
Not to denigrate what the Bulls did, but there was an artificial element to that defense. They played slow on offense, almost always with the guards back and penetrating less so they could get back to cut off opposing offenses. Was Mike Fratello a great defensive coach in Cleveland in the mid-90s when he slowed everything to a walk? It’s a way to keep the games close when you decide you have a talent gap. It’s also a way for a coach to be more in control and can yield good results. But is it enough?
Also, let’s remember whom the Bulls’ principal defenders were: Noah, Deng and Gibson. Deng is gone, though Jimmy Butler is a good replacement. But Noah and Gibson have had surgeries and obviously cannot defend to that level afterward. And we know of Rose’s multiple surgeries. The Bulls are just grateful to have him on the court. Then you add a top free agent like Pau Gasol for offense; but his defense never was a specialty. What a good coach does is adjust to the talents of his players. You don’t condemn the turtle for being unable to outrun the rabbit. You do it a different way.
Plus, the league has changed. Look, even Washington is trying to make Kris Humphries a shooting power forward. It won’t work, but the league is changing with spacing and shooting. You either keep up or get left behind. So the Bulls are trying, and a full test case probably is a bit more than eight games. And, by the way, the Bulls are second in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage, which is one of the principal measures of good defense, and seventh in overall defensive efficiency, which makes them one of the league’s better defensive teams in the early going. What do you know: They have performed after eight games like a top 10 defensive team in this NBA.
In your opinion what is the best starting lineup we can deploy? I say: Rose, Butler, McDermott, Gibson, and Gasol.
Sam: I say who cares; this is going to be an ongoing story all season because there is no ideal starting lineup. It really doesn’t matter that much. Fred Hoiberg likely will change again as he was about to change for the second time this season earlier this week and not because of injury. The Bulls basically never changed the starting lineup while having so many different ones the last five years without an injury. Hoiberg was about to do so a second time going back to Noah at power forward for defense or more so a different look after some slow starts.
That didn’t work last season as we know and likely will not again. But give Hoiberg some credit for being flexible; it’s also why the Bulls will have some ups and downs as Hoiberg clearly doesn’t know yet who fits with whom and for how long. Not that he should and especially given everyone played about half the preseason or less. Plus, Hoiberg has varied rotations basically in every game, which also is new. The core issues are obvious: Pau/Jo is flawed because Noah doesn’t spread the court or create space; Pau/Niko is flawed because both are weak defenders and better on offense, and now with McDermott at small forward adding to that.
That’s why I felt the Bulls were hoping Tony Snell would work well because of his defense to cover for one of them. But he’s been too passive again. Pau/Taj has issues similar to with Noah given Gibson’s limited shooting range and that he likes to post up when Pau is a bigger post player. OK, the elephant in the room: Jo to start with Mirotic. That runs a big risk of marginalizing Gasol as older players tend to have more difficulty coming off the bench and contributing. The larger point is it doesn’t matter if they don’t start together as they could play together in various rotations and have and Hoiberg has shown he’ll do that. So the starting thing is really overrated and mostly will be media theater as the season progresses.
I thought it was interesting that Hoiberg was going to pair Noah and Gasol in the starting lineup against Philly. The fact that Noah started the year from the bench seemed like an indicator that he doesn't like the Noah/Gasol pairing. Even Noah seemed to state that they haven't played well together as a tandem. If Hoiberg wanted Noah's energy and defense with the 1st unit, wouldn't the obvious move be Gasol coming off the bench and starting Noah/Niko? From my outside perspective, it seems like the team is hesitant to move Gasol to the bench. Is this reality, or just in my head?
Sam: Perhaps some of both; on the other hand…There’s not a right answer here, as I’ve been noting. Again, I think the “Who starts” debate is way overrated and overstated. Basically the Bulls have trailed the first six minutes of almost every game and won five. Noah, of course, is a much better defender. And with Mirotic is a balance. But then you have no post player and have to rely on your guards for postup offense.
You can get away with it when you shoot like the Warriors; not many others can. Why waste the advantage you have as Pau is a very good offensive player. After all, they were giving the Cavs big problems in the playoffs until he was hurt. Nobody likes to say it as it makes them look selfish, but personally I do think it matters to Pau to start. And Noah indicated as much when he said he never asked to come off the bench. Everyone wants to be introduced. No matter how little I think it matters.
You can make the case you look better coming off the bench playing against lesser players. One issue with starting Noah is, though younger, he is the less healthy. I think Pau has shown since he’s been with the Bulls he can be counted upon to play more than anyone. I suspect these knee things will crop up time to time with Noah because of the surgery. So now Hoiberg may try Pau and Noah, which we all agreed last season didn’t work. But Hoiberg didn’t see it like we did. So he’ll try it. Nothing wrong with that. What Hoiberg has shown is nothing is locked in like things were with Thibodeau. So it’s a moving target and can change. You have to give Hoiberg at least half the season to get a feel for what and who work best with whom. He’s maybe 15 to 20 percent toward that. There are no easy or simple answers.
So it looks like Steve Kerr will soon be the fastest coach to 100 wins, overtaking Thibs. The Warriors are 92-20 since Kerr took over. Luke Walton has been coaching the Warriors for the beginning of this season but officially those wins and losses (what losses, they're 9-0?) go to Kerr. Kerr will tally probably tally win 100 before December, whilst laying in his bed recouping from surgery. So Kerr gets the record?
Sam: I’m fairly sure knowing Steve it’s one he’ll never mention as frankly it’s wrong. But that is the way the NBA counts it. I have texted with Steve the last few months and I know he’d trade every record he has now for just feeling better. The other interesting part of this is what if Kerr stays out until say All-Star break? Can he still be coach of the year? Or is it Luke Walton? After all, if the wins are Steve’s, why wouldn’t he also be considered coach of the year, as ridiculous as that would be.
That’s where keeping Kerr as fastest to 100 breaks down. Something like this happened before in the NBA. Jack McKinney was coach of the Lakers in 1979-80. A month or so into the season he suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident. His assistant, Paul Westhead, replaced him as interim coach. The Lakers went on to win the title and after the season the interim title was lifted and McKinney was fired.
McKinney then went on to win Coach of the Year with the Pacers the following season. But in 1980, Westhead was second in the voting for NBA coach of the year to Bill Fitch. Even though he was an interim and McKinney was still Lakers coach. So how can Kerr be fastest to 100 if Walton is interim coach? Obviously, it’s no big deal and no one cares. But maybe Thibs does. Let’s get this one for the Thiber!
I know you hate what the 76rs are doing - but looking back, what players did they give up or choose not to sign that would have made them a playoff team or even competitive? They snuck into the playoffs one year, but I don't think that team had the core players around which to build. Thaddeus Young is a stat stuffer on bad teams, Jrue Holiday can't stay healthy and isn't a top 15 point guard.
Carter-Williams doesn't look like a future star either. Of course, they blew it with the Bynum trade, but that was a mistake, not a philosophical error. Just seems like if they make one great pick next year or the year after, they'll be fine. If they do hit with a pick they'll have three great pieces, and as begin to add mid-level specialist veterans then they'll be doing what everyone would have them do.
I am surprised how many fans, many of the 76ers, are not upset by the way they have given up and disgraced the notion of competition. Of course, you’re not buying any tickets. We all understand the concept of getting lucky in the draft and getting a star player. Now Minnesota can get going with Wiggins and Towns. But are they a playoff team? Next season? Maybe. Probably not.
So the 76ers working on their third season losing more than 60 games probably have several more to come. And that’s if they get lucky. You also potentially ruin the players you have in the process. While it may be intellectually stimulating as an observer to say it’s OK to lose 65 a year and then see want happens in June. But when you play those games and lose and lose and lose it not only gets you in the habit, but you get ready to leave as soon as you can because you are sick of it.
Plus, you usually don’t develop enough as a player unless you play in meaningful games. Because you never know if you are a player until you are in those games. You don’t want to create the culture that is losing. Sure, they’ll eventually luck into some good players; they have one in Okafor. Good, though not great. Sort of like Elton Brand when he came to the Bulls; will average 20, get a lot of shots blocked with his lack of lift, lose a lot of games and then maybe look, like Michael Carter-Williams did to them if Embiid can play, not enough of a star. Like Elton seemed to the Bulls, and then he’ll be elsewhere and they’ll start again.
I’m a bit biased about this approach having seen it with the Bulls and six horrible seasons until they began again just to get to 45 wins. I know the Cubs model from baseball is popular now, but it doesn’t happen that much. More often you start again. Remember, when Oklahoma City started this: They already had Durant. After three years, I don’t see one player on the 76ers roster or whom they have rights to who projects as a perennial All-Star. They appear to be building a team to get to .500. The Celtics are the team to watch with all the picks they have coming from the Nets from the Pierce/Garnett deal and the moves they made while also being competitors. It’s a franchise you can admire. The 76ers are an embarrassment to the sport.
For some time, the Bulls have had a very inchoate right to Sacramento’s first-round draft choice. Sadly, the choice is protected to some extent. My admittedly limited understanding is that the degree of protection may lessen as the many years go by. For example, the protection may have begun so that if the Kings draft choice was top 10 in a year, the Bulls’ entitlement would roll over into the next year. So, where does it stand by now? Does the Bulls’ right ever become completely unprotected? On the other hand, does the Bulls’ entitlement expire at some point?
Sam: I’m just proud to have a question with the word “inchoate.” For this inchoate Bulls team of 2015-16 under new coach Fred Hoiberg, it’s not looking good for that pick. I had the Kings this season sneaking into the playoffs in my preseason rankings, but, alas, I should have known better as I know you can’t win with Cousins.
I’m such a cockeyed optimist. But the skies in Sacramento obviously are not a brighter canary yellow. Yes, the Kings’ race is falling on its face. The Bulls have the pick top 10 protected through the 2017 draft, which means two more. If they don’t get it by then they get the Kings second round pick in 2017, which likely looks like what they’ll get.
It turns out this Steph Curry guy is pretty good after all. I know Steph and MJ are different players, but is there anything in the way Steph is completely dominating games right now that’s reminiscent of Michael? He's essentially un-guardable under today's rules.
Sam: Not certainly in the way they play, but there is that uh oh, unstoppable, here-he-comes-and-what-can-we-do element to Curry’s play. He’s the No. 1 NBA attraction to watch today, so there is that similarity to Jordan. Except in a sense Curry gives every team more hope than Jordan did. Not that he’s easier to defeat, but look at the guy: Teams have to be thinking they can get a guy like that. No one figured there were many Jordans running around. After all, college player of the year, NCAA game winning shot, best player on the Olympic team.
Here’s a kid, Curry, who’s playing for a small college, the fifth guard taken in that draft. Enough with the Sam Bowie pick. How about six teams passing Curry? OK, I get the Clippers with Blake Griffin. After all, you can still make a case for taking Olajuwon first. Then in 2009 came Thabeet (OK, huge mistake), but then, James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn (Ok, big mistake there, too). The NBA guys were pretty unanimous they weren’t sure Curry could make it. Great shooter but the classic too small for shooting guard and not with the handle or instincts for point guard.
I remember getting mail from Warriors fans when I was making my various cases to trade Monta Ellis that they’d never trade Ellis because he was their best player. Remember when their owner was booed practically off the stage at the Chris Mullin jersey retirement almost four years ago for trading Ellis? Curry was busy missing most of that season with regular ankle problems and no one was projecting him in Golden State their star. Yes, he has an advantage in this NBA because of the lack of perimeter contact permitted when Jordan played. Curry probably couldn’t have adjusted to handle that to play like he does. But that was then.
He’s ideal for this era and gives hope to teams that you don’t have to luck into the No. 1 pick for a superstar. The problem, like with the Warriors, is you never know who it will be and when, as the didn’t, either. You know when you pick a LeBron or Duncan or Anthony Davis you are getting a star. Look at last season’s All-NBA teams, for example. Of the 15 players, 11 were top five draft picks. The four who weren’t were Curry, Marc Gasol, Klay Thompson (mostly because of the Warriors’ success) and DeAndre Jordan (lack of centers). You almost always need a top five pick to get a star. So, yes, we all understand the 76ers’ plan. Others have done so for years. That’s how the Rockets got Sampson and Olajuwon in back to back drafts. But don’t make a mockery of the game while you are doing it. Curry gives everyone some hope. His rise is one of the great stories all time in the NBA.
Howard Beck put out a great piece on the decline of black coaches in the NBA (Bleacher Report). I'd like to hear your take. Maybe an actual story needs to be discussed.
Sam: I saw the story and basically side with those in the NBA who suggest circumstance. It’s not uncommon with so many white owners and general managers that they’ll hire friends. There’s also a trend in management these days to hire coaches who will be more open to analytics, which tends to be less embraced by so many of the former players who become coaches. But one thing I know about the NBA is it’s one of the places in America where racism and bias are the least practiced. Nowhere is perfect as the Donald Sterling saga showed. But I’ll take the NBA experience thanks to the leadership of former commissioner David Stern.
I’m well aware of the racism and bias that exists in our country and has from its founding, and well before with the extermination of the native population pretty much from the day whites landed. In the mid-19th Century, it was bias against Catholics and immigrants of any kind. In the early 20th Century, Al Smith running for president faced a huge bias for being Catholic. Those in power in world history have done whatever they could to stay in power and suppress any minority they considered a threat, real or imagined.
Race, religious and ethnic biases are a common function in humanity. Civilization is when they are minimized as much as possible. The NBA more than any sports league in the world embraced black players and executives first, a league for women, executives of different color and gender; it was first to reject the fears surrounding AIDS and HIV. I don’t know why there are not more black coaches at this time. I am certain it’s not because there’s a racial bias in the NBA.
How sorry is Cleveland going to be giving up Wiggins for Love. I mean wow, can that guy play. Him and LeBron would have been unstoppable.
Another example of the inmates running the asylum.
Sam: I really can’t blame them and can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing. I loved that musical, Damn ‘Bron. Look, they sold their souls for a championship. And I expect they’ll get one. But in inviting James back after all the really ludicrous condemnation--after all, he didn’t owe them and did try to recruit guys who wouldn’t come--they essentially turned the personnel operation of the franchise over to LeBron.
And LeBron isn’t about building and couldn’t care less about the Cavs 2022. Great players are about immediate success, and LeBron saw it was a losing group of players. Remember, they got a good player in Luol Deng for nothing and still couldn’t win 40 games. He needed veterans; not babies. Everyone knew Wiggins would eventually be a star with his talent. How great it was hard to say; he had the stuff. But no matter what LeBron said last season he didn’t see it as a process. He wanted a shot at a title every season. And the best way was to get Love for Wiggins.
As I’ve written, I think they deal Love after this season. But they’ll get something good, a young player, and Tristan Thompson is now ready to help. No one knew last season if he could. You can’t look back and go what if when you have a chance to win. I’m always a believer in now as things change—as the Bulls have seen—and when you have a chance you go for it because you never knew who will get hurt and when or how many. The Cavs know they have a healthy LeBron for a limited time; they have to take advantage as long as the can because Wiggins without LeBron isn’t bringing them any titles.
There goes DeMarcus Cousins again with a profanity laced tirade. I feel bad for Marco and for Caron Butler. Caron must think hes back in Washington with this nonsense.
Sam: The conventional wisdom is they blame it on George Karl, who didn’t get to suspend Cousins after Cousins did the near Latrell Sprewell act as GM Vlade Divac apparently overruled Karl. That pretty much does it for George in the players’ minds. Too bad; George would help that team if they did what he asked. The problem is Cousins.
I never fully understand the media’s fascination with Cousins other than you have to assume they just read the box score and never watch the guy play. He’s a team killer. You have no chance to succeed despite the amazing numbers he puts up and skills he has. They’re not that bad that with a supposed All-Star and Olympian center that they basically never have played .400 ball. What kind of star basically never gets his team to mediocrity and don’t give me that tough Western Conference stuff. You watch Cousins—who I won’t deny has talent—at the end of games and he’s dribbling, thus making everyone stand, taking dumb fade away shots, complaining on every play for a foul and thus basically never hustling back.
The only time I’ve ever seen him play reasonably well was with USA Basketball and Mike Krzyzewski, who wasn’t putting up with any of that crazy, selfish stuff. But the Kings continue to allow his behavior, which only continues to enable him. Karl knew exactly what was the right thing to do when he got there and could have traded Cousins for a package including Kenneth Faried. Karl has seen winning and he knows Cousins doesn’t have the right or any sort of stuff for success. But instead they again sided with Cousins and basically ended Karl’s tenure before it started.
Can any coach get the best from Cousins, which basically would be playing like Andre Drummond? Cousins probably would never buy that. And I’m not getting into his obvious anger issues. He doesn’t seem to be a bad guy. He just doesn’t understand how to be a good teammate, a good basketball player, an unselfish person. Perhaps with Pat Riley? Though Hassan Whiteside plays better. We’ve seen him before in the NBA. He’s Benoit Benjamin and Joe Barry Carroll and Marvin Barnes and Williams Bedford and Chris Washburn. All that talent and if only, if only, if only they would do things the right way. But they never do. The never can. It’s who they are.
Did Jordan ever have 3 40-point games in the first 10 games when he played?
Sam: Let's not get too carried away as great as Curry has been playing. Michael averaged 39 points his first 9 games in 86-87 with four games of at least 40 and a 50. And everyone was guarding him on a team winning 40 games that season.
To start the 88-89 season, Jordan scored more than 50 two of the first eight games with a 42 in there also.
To start the next season, 89-90, Jordan had at least 40 three of the first four games with a 52 and four games of at least 40 in the first eight.
To start the first season after the title in 91-92, Jordan scored at least 40 in three of the first four.
And back to 1986-87, Jordan scored at least 40 points in 13 of the first 20 games with a streak of nine straight games of at least 40.
So please, not in the same sentence: There is No Next.