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Ask Sam | Sam Smith Opens His Mailbag | 12.18.2015

How true are the Cousins rumors? I know you're not big on this guy, but are Bulls brass in pursuit?

Marcus Anderson

Sam: Don’t worry, the Bulls quickly went to Cameron Bairstow and assured him there’s nothing to the rumors so he wouldn’t be worried or upset. Yes, that’s just as ridiculous as suggesting there is even the remotest possibility of a trade of Cousins to the Bulls. The rumor du jour this week was Cousins in a national "report." I seriously doubt the Bulls would even inquire assuming Cousins were available in trade—which I believe he basically is not because of how much they value him—because of how much it would cost and the fact that the guy is in his sixth NBA season and hasn’t come close to even sniffing the playoffs.

As I’ve noted many times, I believe you can’t succeed with him or maybe even make the playoffs because of his combination of a lack of basketball knowledge and indifference to everything but individual play. However, the Kings value him as a top five player in the NBA based on his numbers, which are excellent. But every season at the price of wins. Say they wanted to make a trade with the Bulls and they said they have a top five player and they think the league’s best center. What do you imagine they’d ask for? Then what sort of team would be left? Heck, Kobe didn’t want to be traded to the Bulls if they were going to lose Luol Deng. Cousins hasn’t played with superstars, but he regularly has had teammates who’ve been pretty good and won elsewhere, like Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, Greivis Vasquez, Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks, Marcus Thornton, Chuck Hayes and Andre Miller. Yet, when they played with Cousins they basically had their least success in the NBA. Surely a coincidence.

But what a great start to the unofficial beginning of the trade season this week with most free agents and traded players available in trade again. Two more months of stupid, unimaginable speculated trades that demonstrate the authors’ lack of NBA reality and will make filling up this column fairly easy. I just hope it doesn’t play havoc with Cam.

Not that the Bulls make moves at this time of year but what do you think about:

Bulls get: Jeff Green, Dennis Schroder, and Tim Hardaway Jr

Memphis get: Taj Gibson

Atlanta get: Tony Snell and E'Twaun Moore

--Christopher Doerre

Sam: It’s that time of year, eh? So the Grizzlies with no shooting and Zach Randolph at power forward and bringing him off the bench now to get more soacing are giving up Jeff Green, a decent three-point shooter and 34 percent for his career and scorer to get Gibson? And Atlanta’s giving up a terrific young athletic guard for who? You do know with Harrison Barnes hurt the Warriors could use a three and maybe they go Steph Curry for Snell and Moore. Maybe I better check with the Bulls before they give up Snell and Moore.

Dwight Howard is unhappy with his situation with the Houston Rockets, according to a report.

Howard could become a free agent this offseason: Howard will be traded to the Miami Heat by this year's deadline. The Heat could use Hassan Whiteside as part of a trade package for Howard. The Heat will struggle to re-sign Whiteside due to cap limitations, the report says.

Sam: Pat Riley seemed to be making fun of that one, though we are going to love this trade rumor season. Howard’s a much more intriguing name to speculate about since he can be a free agent and James Harden still doesn’t know his name. It’s interesting how far Howard has fallen out of conversation about the game’s elite. He’s had serious injuries and surgery and turned 30 recently with a lot of miles on him. But I still think there’s more to him, especially defending and rebounding.

But maybe you’ve got to question paying big for him again. Would Houston? Especially how little they use him. They seem to be going nowhere this season and that GM likes to shake things up and make big deals, or any kind. He’ll be one to watch, especially with the McHale firing already and who knows what’s going on there with Harden and Ty Lawson. Plus they have some big guys who can stand there and be ignored by Harden for a lot less money.

Whiteside’s case is interesting because the Heat often sit him in fourth quarters. But as a brilliant pickup from the D-league, he’s so cheap in contract you really can’t get anything trading him without breaking up the rest of your team. But do you resign him to big money when that fourth quarter use is in question? There’ll still be some good speculation to come.

Though they've been having more success closing out games the last week, it still seems to me the Bulls offense is stagnating when we have a lead late in the 4th. In my opinion, they start focusing on running off clock prematurely and end up with little ball movement and poor shots.

I'd compare it to a football team putting in a prevent defense with 3 min to go and giving up easy points when they've been shutting down the opposition all game long with their normal defense. Is the isolation offense late in games dictated by the coach, or is it more the instinct of the players? Or is it all in my head?

--Dan Michler

Sam: You may be rooting too hard. I’ve always felt that’s part of what happens when you watch the end of those football games, though, you are right, they do go into those bad “prevent” defenses, which we long know is moronic given you can easily make up half the field in one play. That’s not the NBA. But, look, those guys are so juiced on drugs it’s tough for them to think straight. As for the football players, they have to just listen to those coaches.

Ah, but I digress. It’s impossible to read this Bulls team yet or make many judgments the way Hoiberg continues his mad scientist stew of rotations, substitutions and plays. All the micro analysis often misses the larger point, which you are fortunate to get here. Hoiberg has effectively been saying, “Think the game, go off your instinct, see what evolves and take advantage.” There are a lot of smart basketball guys on the team, but they are saying, in effect because it’s been years of it, “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it. Because that’s the way we play.”

It’s simplistic to say it’s just basketball and you act and react. But these are such conditioned players. You can’t have the success they had for five years doing it one way every day for six straight months and not be conditioned to play that way. And, really, Hoiberg is thinking ahead of them. He’s not weighed down by the baggage. So he sees mismatches and substitutes immediately to take advantage; but they never saw substitutions for those reasons. No matter who came in the game against them, they came in and out of the game the same time in the same order.

Now you’re in this quarter and not that and then that and not this. So you look at the Bulls scoring by quarter and they’re actually among the league leaders in the first and among the worst in the third, right in the middle in the fourth and overall better than opponents and among the worst in the second. Hoiberg for the most part has stayed with hot hands or hot groups, so there’s little measure. The Bulls have lost some fourth quarter leads, and when they do it seems catastrophic. But they have a winning record overall when trailing coming into the fourth quarter. Sometimes the shots don’t go in, but I really don’t see them freezing down the stretch. When Noah’s in there he’s throwing those wild back door cut passes no matter how much time is left; and they’re throwing those lob passes that often don’t get over the height of the rim. They’re making aggressive plays; just not always expertly.

The Force Awakens. I feel like we’ll look back to the 3rd quarter of the Grizz game as the turning of some kind of a corner, or I hope so. It was all there, most importantly passion and energy as a group, and boy was it fun to watch.

--Elijah Humble

Sam: Didn’t you write me a few weeks ago to say the Bulls had become a comedy routine and you weren’t going to watch? Four wins will do that, I guess. I’m still with Rose, as you probably know, but with the sentiment that there’s a long way to go. I expect many more ups and downs and, remember, this has been the softest part of the schedule.

I thought Rose alluded to a salient point I mention often—and actually just did a few sentences ago—that it takes time to adjust to playing with different guys at different times and that this rotation while more consistent of late seems hardly set. Noah’s role keeps changing in playing time and he’s been with Pau much more than we thought he’d be, and I still think we could see more of McDermott with Rose and Butler as we did in that fourth quarter against Memphis, though Rose only got back for the last five minutes.

Actually, it’s why I love this season and this team. I don’t see them as a champion, but I do see them as a team that could improve and has some intriguing playoff possibilities with Rose and Butler and shooting and in the conference if they get there healthier, which has been the goal until they lose three straight and everyone wants to know why Jimmy can’t play 48 and Noah can’t play 40 and, these guys are dogs! And I’m done with them like I’m done with the Bears!

I'm glad to see that Taj Gibson has joined the starting five. As well as he and Noah play together, perhaps Gibson will become comfortable with the starters and become the role player the Bulls need. Not exactly a role player type of guy, but one who can play the part. He needs to get to the offensive boards. It's just taking a lot more time than we have patience for. A disappointing football team and a slow starting hockey team tends to make fans a little restless. We need a team that will dominate!

--William Kochneff

Sam: I liked the move with Gibson. The Bulls are 4-1 since, but these things aren’t always measured by numbers. And as I’ve noted the rotations change and Gibson isn’t really playing much more than he did before. Starting is really overrated, but it is a symbol. And players are sensitive to symbols as well as fans. I remember when I worked at The Tribune the columnists used to get into fights about being called the No. 1 columnist. It’s my team! It’s my newspaper! It’s my cat litter liner!

It’s about the mix, and the mix is better with Gibson next to Gasol for defensive reasons. I actually like the mix of McDermott with Rose and Butler, though Noah is very good at getting McDermott shots. They’ve worked well with a Noah screen and McDermott getting lost behind and shooting as Noah is one of the better screeners. But McDermott plays plenty with Noah. So we’ll watch and see. Who says Bulls games aren’t exciting and mysterious?

Why is Hoiberg so reluctant to give Noah more playing time? I know it was just the lowly Sixers but Noah had 15 rebounds and 8 assists in just 22 minutes while Mirotic had 17 pts including 5 for 8 from beyond the arc in just 18 minutes. Noah understands this team better than anyone on this team and everyone else seems to play better when he's on the floor. Best players on every other team play more than 30 minutes per game.

--Jay Choi

Sam: Did you c.c. Hoiberg after the Philly game? Noah did play about 30 minutes in the win over the Grizzlies and the entire fourth quarter. But Noah is causing some of his own issues as teams are starting to foul him. Noah’s shooting 46 percent on free throws and didn’t attempt a fourth quarter shot. We sort of agreed the Noah/Gasol thing last season didn’t work when it mattered. But down the stretch you often need Gasol, who had five fourth quarter points, second to McDermott’s pair of threes. Plus Gasol had six of the Bulls 10 fourth quarter rebounds. But here’s even the bigger issue. It was obvious since his 2014 knee surgery that physically Noah isn’t the same player all the time. He’s a terrific competitor and inspiring for the team, but are the Bulls again going to go back to we have to win every game in December and January? You can’t have it both ways to push players all season and then wonder why the playoff results aren’t as consistent.

We have to do everything in our power to keep Gasol (short of throwing ridiculous money at him, which I'm sure someone will do). Hopefully we've won his heart with the culture of the city, and the love from the fans. Our offense is best when it runs through him, or with Derrick driving and kicking out to him at the high post. And even his weak defense is good enough for a block or two a game. Not a good defender, but still a big seven foot body, and I'd say a pretty good rim protector.

It pains me to say, but if we had to pick between Gasol or Noah, I would have to pick Gasol everytime. He has been dominant since coming to Chicago. I love Jo, and even with his dominance on the boards, there is still such a disparity between the old Jo and the guy he is now.

--Daniel George

Sam: In this election season, I, too, am bound by the equal time rules. As we know, both Pau and Noah are or can be free agents as Noah’s contract expires and Pau has an opt out. Though Pau never would insult anyone, I’m fairly certain he’s not going to Oklahoma City or Memphis to chase a title or his family because Pau is about balance: Life is not just basketball. Not that he doesn’t care about the game. He behind the scenes can be among the most vocal Bulls. But as we know he appreciates the finer things in life, the arts, which in those cities basically come down to bar-b-que.

Pau will sacrifice for balance, but no one knows what sort. In losses it’s always easy to find deficiencies, but it’s not luck or happenstance to always be among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding and double/doubles. What is probably most certain is uncertainty. Whatever plan you may think the Bulls have or are pursuing, or any team for that matter, it usually comes down to what happens throughout the season and then especially in the playoffs. But that the Bulls don’t have control over either center leaves the Bulls more to wait and see what happens. They have Bobby Portis in reserve, and he could play center the way the game is played these days. They still want to change their style of play, but if they have success without doing so maybe they won’t that much. It’s all to be determined.

It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg uses Joakim Noah in the coming games (more minutes) as it appears he is coming into some good form in recent games. When you look at some of his numbers, he has actually been playing pretty well throughout the season. When you look at ‘Per 48 minutes’ they stack up against his Top 5 All NBA 13-14 season.

2013-14 (Per 48 minutes) – Pts (17.1), Rbs (15.3), Ass (7.3), Blks (2.06)

2015-16 (Per 48 minutes) – Pts (8.1), Rbs (18.8), Ass (7.6), Blks (2.53)

Obviously his scoring has been an issue. The biggest factor here is that he is clearly healthy again after never being quite right last season. His play is warranting more playing time.

--Andrew Robson

Sam: But then if he gets it does he become less healthy and less useful for the playoffs given he has had injury issues? Maybe he breaks down with more playing time, especially the way he plays. After all, it happened when he was younger.

Looking at the conference standings this morning (Tuesday 12/15), first place and tenth place in the East are separated by three games, all 10 of those teams are above .500, 13 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have gone 4-6 or better over their past 10 games. This is the type of stuff we used to see in the West. Not that I'm rooting for one conference over the other, but it's nice to see such competitive basketball in the East again. Do you think it will continue for the rest of the season or has this been a mirage?

--Cameron Watkins

Sam: I don’t see anyone in the East but Cleveland quite on the level of the Warriors, Spurs and maybe the Thunder, though the Thunder can lose to anyone the way they still play so individually. But I do see the East deeper with talent as we expected coming into the season. I expect Orlando, Detroit, Charlotte, Boston and Indiana to all be there, and I think the best race is going to be the last few playoff spots in the East. It will make for some scary fan bases with the possibility of third or fourth becoming ninth. They may not still be the most exciting teams, but the East conference race is going to be the one to watch. And, by the way, the Cavs, Bulls, Heat, Hornets, Raptors, Magic and Pistons all thus far have better records against Western teams than Eastern teams.

I just wanted to know how Derrick Rose is perceived in Chicago nowadays (I live in England) as i believe it's unfair the criticism he faces on a daily basis. I understand that now with social media we tend to nitpick every persons flaws instead their good qualities. I know Derrick will never reach those heights he had in his earlier years which we all took for granted but I see a young man who despite all the media bashing he receives, carries himself with dignity, that same young man who gave us all hope of a championship when he came into the league, who became the pride of Chicago when he became the youngest MVP,and moved everyone with that emotional speech. I understand that it's easier for people to criticise than praise, but I still hold hope that there is a beautiful ending to this story with the kid from Chicago hoisting that championship trophy in the air.</em

--Abdinassir Suldan

Sam: I think Rose understands he has a lot of support and well wishers, though the negative and anger generally drown out the backing. I’ve been accused of bias regarding Rose and it has seemed to me there is way too much micromanaging of every shot and every plays and drive. To me it’s about health. He’s shown in last season’s playoffs and time to time in games speed and elusiveness. Perhaps not the same explosion, but Chris Paul never had it, Dwyane Wade doesn’t and can score. If you have it you have it.

I have no doubt Rose could easily average 20 per game. But with Butler and Gasol he doesn’t need to. Watch just him some game. He’s one of the team’s smarter players. He sees the matchup advantages quickly and goes to them faster than anyone else. He is like Noah watching the action in cutting. I’ve never been a fan of his jump passing, but that’s the way he does it. He’s certainly been held back this season by the eye injury, but he should be building toward the playoffs as well. Maybe because of that slower than expected, though first impressions—of every season—often dominate the conversation.

It should be a celebration for Bulls and NBA fans that he is healthy. Really like Kobe, who I also thought took too much cheap shot criticism for his poor start. Critics too easily dismiss the effects of being injured three years, like Kobe and Derrick were. Hey, you look OK. There has been an unusual amount of negative perception about Rose in Chicago, though I think driven more by a part of the media. He’s mostly immune as I think he understands it becomes part of the contract in sports: Perform and be celebrated too much; underperform and be condemned exponentially. Media doesn’t deal much in subtleties. I think he’s fine with it all as long as the body works.

I know its hard to actually get a message to Derrick Rose due to his star status, but just wanted to say that the whole city of Chicago is behind Derrick and we want him to push himself regardless of what anyone says, we appreciate everything he has done for the Bulls and we will always have his back. He is and will remain chicagos heart.

I just want him to know the haters will always talk but the fans will always be there for him no matter what. We love the whole Bulls organization and we hold Derrick to the highest standard of the game because we witnessed his potential early on and we know he is waiting to unleash the beast within. We are behind him 100% and when he goes into battle we all do. God bless Derrick Rose, God bless the Chicago Bulls and God bless the city if Chicago. Bulls #1 fan,

--Gezim Kash

Sam: There you go, Abdinassir.