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Ask Sam | Sam Smith Opens His Mailbag | 12.4.2015

Did you see the I am a Kobe hater article?

--Matt Adler

Sam: Kobe’s retirement—by the way in five months—was the story of the week in the NBA. For a guy who didn’t want a farewell tour with gifts, he sure set up a nice farewell tour with gifts. Great player, legend, historic figure. We’re all agreed. Some will never forgive or forget the off court suit. Was he almost a Bull? No, but he may have been the only top free agent in the last 50 years who said he wanted to play for the Bulls.

To close out that story, Kobe was a free agent in the summer of 2004 and upset with the Lakers, angry with Phil Jackson, who would write a book not particularly flattering to Kobe. Kobe was being blamed for the 2004 meltdown with Karl Malone and Gary Payton that gave the title to the Pistons in five games, considered one of the great upsets. Kobe was fighting with Malone about something Malone said to Kobe’s wife and with Shaq about most everything. Kobe had actually been impressed with the Bulls mini turnaround under John Paxson and he did have that mischievous desire to upstage Jordan in his own city.

Kobe was the only player who never ran away from the Jordan shadow, which basically kept the Bulls out of free agency for years. No one wanted to try to be next. Kobe welcomed it. That’s why he became who he did without the physical makeup. The Bulls flew everyone out and met with Kobe, but they had just the mid level exception. Kobe wasn’t passing up tens of millions of dollars even if there were moves the Bulls could make to free money with time. Actually, the Clippers were convinced they had him with a pretty good team that featured Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. They even had a jersey made up, but at the last minute Kobe resigned with the Lakers.

Then came the trade of Shaq as the Lakers chose Kobe over Shaq when Shaq refused to take a stint as No. 2. Which he basically became everywhere else he went. Or No. 4. But the Lakers became a seventh seed, were blown out in the first round in five games and Kobe locked himself in his basement and began actually calling into radio shows demanding a trade. He named the Bulls as his destination. There actually were talks and Kobe was regularly going over Bulls related trade scenarios with his agent. Kobe was having fun with the idea of going to win in Chicago. That would show Michael! No one but Kobe thought like that.

At one point, the Lakers asked the Bulls to get an All-Star player from another team to combine with their best player to make a deal. The Lakers were saying, after all, this was Kobe Bryant; they needed at least two All-Stars and a few No.1 picks. The Bulls didn’t even have one All-Star. The rumor was the Bulls wouldn’t trade Deng, which wasn’t true. Once the proposals began going back and forth Kobe started saying the Bulls couldn’t give up all those players as then he’d have no one to play with.

It really was all a charade. Jackson was back with the Lakers and Kobe was talking to him because he was mad at everyone else. Jackson to retain credibility with Bryant had to assure Bryant they were in trade talks; after all, the Lakers promised him they would look into it. Jackson told Lakers’ management they couldn’t remain credible with Kobe if they lied to him. But the Lakers were convinced Kobe was blowing off steam, really didn’t want to leave and they just had to play it out through the summer. So the proposals kept going back and forth and it soon became obvious to the Bulls what was going on as every time they’d come up with a new combination, the Lakers would ask for another star.

Kobe went to camp and the Lakers asked him to be patient. He was, they pulled off the Pau Gasol deal, and the Lakers were back to three straight Finals and two championships, Kobe’s legacy cemented as he’d won without Shaq and as the No. 1 guy. It was a fun summer, however.

Do you see a contending team that needs a big wanting to trade for Gasol? I'd love to trade Gasol for an athletic perimeter player who can hit threes.

--Chris Ragalie

Sam: I’ve distilled by mail since the start of the season and it pretty much breaks down to this: Keep Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis and trade the rest of the guys for three players like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Lately—though not so much after the Denver game when he had 26 and 19 and the last two games when Gasol made the big defensive plays in the fourth quarter—I’ve gotten multiple suggestions to trade Gasol.

First, the Bulls are not doing it. Second, it’s a bad idea. Third, you better really be good on defense then because you’re going to have to hold teams under 80 points. I know Gasol can be an acquired taste, especially compared to Joakim Noah with all the hustle and enthusiasm and passion so many love. That’s not Pau, though there’ll be the occasional primal scream after a dunk, though sometimes I’m guessing it’s a tribute to Don Giovanni.

And I assume it comes up more now with Noah obviously uncomfortable with his reserve role. Though it’s probably in the team’s best interest to get Noah to the finish line in better health and ready for the playoffs. Not that you couldn’t trade Pau, but with an opt out to become a free agent and salary close to $8 million, he’s not obviously going into cap room on a bad team. They’ll want to lose. A good team might have to break up its bench to match salaries. And then he might be just a two or three month rental. And you can’t give up a high level player or even top rotation player for that.

Free agents generally get you salary cap space, which no one needs anymore with the cap going up so much, or a future draft pick. Take Gasol off the Bulls and replace him with a draft pick or low level reserve and you can forget this season. Remember, before he was hurt against the Cavs, the Bulls won in Cleveland and the Cavs had little answer for Gasol’s pick and pop game with Rose. Pau is going to pace himself some because he is smart; he knows as a two-time champion you need to be at your best in May.

He probably pushed himself a bit too much last season in leading the team in minutes played. It was understandable as he had new teammates and a coach to work with and gain respect from. Plus, he played a hard summer for Spain when he was brilliant, which shows he still has plenty of game. He’s a rare talent in the NBA being able to shoot so well for his size, a big man you can have on the floor at the end of games because teams won’t foul him and even if not a frenetic pick and roll defender a seven footer with size who changes so many shots inside as he did in the fourth quarters of the last two wins.

The Spurs and Thunder pursued him when he signed with the Bulls. They have two of the best general managers who know winning talent. They’d love to steal him, but I’m fairly sure the Bulls aren’t quite ready yet to commit to Jimmy and Portis two on five and to commend them for their hustle.

Let me first say that i am a big supporter and fan of D Rose. However, one thing i have been noticing a lot this year is his inability to play steady defense. Even mediocre defense would help the Bulls out tremendously. I know defense has never been his forte, but he should make up for it with his athletic ability. This year, i feel that he is the worst guard at pick and roll plays and appears to lack effort. Is this something Bulls fans and the team have to live with? Or is this another thing where "it's coming"? Am i wrong?

--Leon Paz

Sam: There are some good points there for the narrative. Of course, it’s totally wrong and, in fact, Rose has been one of the team’s better defenders this season. Forget the game saving block on Tony Parker Monday when Rose exploded from in the paint to the three-point line to block a guard’s jump shot, a rarity in itself. He’s not Butler, who has to defend the opposition’s best scorer. But I decided to actually look at facts rather than rumors and supposition. Rose basically has held just about every guard he’s played this season below his season averages in shooting and scoring.


  • Mudiay Wednesday: 2-13 for 4 points
  • Tony Parker: 6-12 for 13 points
  • George Hill: 3-8 for 6 points (Monta Ellis did have 20 as sort of a point guard in the Bulls win on 9-20 the other game when Hill was hurt)
  • Damian Lillard: 4-22 for 19 points
  • Kemba Walker: 6-12 for 13 points and 5-18 for 13 points.
  • Westbrook: 7-18 for 20 points
  • Shane Larkin, Brooklyn: 3-8 for 6 points.
  • Elfrid Payton: 2-7 for 4 points
  • Mo Williams: 7-15 for 19 points
  • Ricky Rubio: 2-10 for 7 points
  • Someone named McConnell from the 76ers: 3-8 for 6 points
  • Reggie Jackson: 9-24 for 22 points.

Though Rose has not shot well this season, he’s basically won his matchup just about every game and when he didn’t in head to head in points, his man shot a low percentage as well. I’m not sure which part of that qualifies as poor defense. But if it fits the bias why not continue with it. As they say around the media business, why mess up a good character assassination with the facts.

I’m sorry that the fans are so hard on Rose. We’ve gone over-and-over this. They all wanted him to be their savior, and somehow blame him for being hurt. Hey, look how they treated Jesus. Sure, I’m disappointed at how his career has gone so far…. but not angry.

I don’t think it’s fair to put it (i.e. team’s success) all on Rose. He was over-hyped from the get-go, because everybody wanted him to be “the next”. (And you know how foolish that is. Some guy even wrote a book…) I’m just glad that the Bulls are done trying to “build a team around him”. That was never the right move.

I think we now are developing a team with many weapons, where Rose doesn’t have to be the offense. I like that Derrick’s assists are up and TO’s down. I remember you writing that Zeke could have scored 30 a game, but preferred to share the ball & win. That’s what I’d like best from Derrick. Still… 3-17 ? I’m sure Rose is concerned about that too.

--Art Alenik

Sam: I’ve always felt that Rose’s declaration about why can’t I be MVP, also, was a Thibodeau inspired motivational technique. When Rose came to the Bulls as the celebrated No. 1 overall pick—and I remember a split debate even in the media and on some of those famous draft boards then about whether to take Michael Beasley—I remember getting mail asking whether he could be an MVP. I pooh poohed the notion in my best pooh poohing attitude and said Rose could never score enough. After all, he averaged about 15 points in college and I knew about his last high school game to win the state title scoring two points with many more assists.

But Thibodeau knew what he had and didn’t. It wasn’t something Thibodeau said a lot, but I recall after that 2010-11 season him saying rhetorically about winning 62 game starting Keith Bogans at shooting guard every game with backup guards like Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas. Thibs felt a lot of pride about that. There wasn’t a guy on the roster who’d ever averaged 20 points other than Carlos Boozer, and he wasn’t featuring Boozer.

So I always felt Thibodeau planted that with Rose as a challenge, and as driven as Rose was and as talented as he was and as limited as the team was offensively he just kept scoring. And won the MVP. Sure, it’s fun. Everyone likes to be the star. But I don’t believe, as evidenced in high school and college, Rose had any problem being a facilitator even with his athletic scoring ability. That’s why as critics break down his shooting or reduced scoring I don’t believe he’s overly concerned.

He’s trying to be the team guy; the Bulls most consistent offense thus far has been his pick and roll with Gasol. He’s taking threes basically when the ball falls into his hands with three seconds left. And last season the threes? With Noah and Gasol inside and Noah never even threatening to shoot and no real three-point shooting, the defense generally had four players in the lane with nowhere for Rose to drive. So he shot.

The Bulls don’t have many players who make plays off the dribble. So without the ball movement that Hoiberg is advocating, the ball stops a lot and then gets dropped off back to Rose with five seconds. It’s why Hoiberg has emphasized a desire for quick shots so as not to get caught with those late shot clocks so often like last season. But the habits have proven hard to break.

Rose had that bank shot going for several games, but it’s been off the last few. After all, it is an addition. And he just hasn’t seemed to get the feel yet on those soft ones inside. Maybe a bit cautious with the broken face? He denies that, but who wouldn’t be? Hoiberg’s message is to make the whole greater than any parts, and Rose seems happy to just be one of the parts. That would seem to be a positive especially for a former league MVP.

Most of the complaints/concerns from fans/media are about Rose and McDermott, and it seems silly at this point. Regarding McDermott, people are acting like he was a top 5 pick and should be playing like a top 5 pick! The guy is finally getting consistent time and with more time he will become a better contributor. I am happy with what he has done so far, even if he is a liabilty at times on defense. Basically, people need to slow down the negative outlook for these 2 and realize how well they are doing and how it is only going to get better if they stay healthy.

--Jon Kueper

Sam: Actually, it seems to me McDermott is doing well and his defense has been fine. Hoiberg even said after the Nuggets win McDermott got more playing time because his defense was much better. I think this “bad defender” thing is a short hand, lazy person’s way of sounding smart about the game.

So which of these guys is a great defender: Stephen Curry? Chris Paul? Tony Parker? Damian Lillard? Jarrett Jack? Brandon Jennings? Isaiah Thomas? Oh, yeah, just about every scoring point guard in the NBA. I’d get a shot off against Curry. Are you benching him? If anything, McDermott has been underutilized, which is changing. Hoiberg was being cautious and conservative, I feel, because he was starting Gasol and Mirotic, two average defenders, and wanted a better wing defender with Snell to offset their weaknesses.

But McDermott is such a good shooter and maybe better finisher it hurts the team if he isn’t getting at least a dozen shots every game. He’s not some great athlete, but he’s a better athlete than Kyle Korver and better putting the ball on the floor. He’s basically a rookie after not playing last season. I frankly don’t get much criticism about him, and if there is it would be misguided.

Steph Curry is an amazing player and has been very fun to watch. I'm a fan of his, so I don't want this to come across as sour grapes. His shooting ability would certainly make him a great player in any generation, but do you think the current NBA rules and the way the game is called today allow him to be significantly greater than he would have been in other eras? I'm thinking in particular of how defenders would have been able to defend him more physically in the past. Also the fact that his amazing ballhandling wouldn't have been allowed going farther back, though again his shooting and distribution skills would still have made him great.

--Cameron Watkins

Sam: It’s another reason why you can’t truly compare eras. The guys who played in the 80s and 90s on TV like Barkley or Kenny Smith I’m sure note many times about how Curry would not be able to flow around with such freedom. Which is true. Though I heard Isiah Thomas make a good point asking why teams today don’t pick up Curry sooner after half court and fight over those screens and trail him more. It’s not like there is no physical contact allowed at all. You can play Curry tougher than teams do; it’s not easy, I agree. It requires hard work and takes away from your offense, and the point guards today like their offense.

I’m waiting to see him against Patrick Beverley, a defensive point guard who isn’t intimidated by anyone. They had Beverley playing off the bench then when the teams played in October, though as no one else on the Rockets plays defense except Howard occasionally. So Curry would be fine to watch others make shots. But more than anything Curry deserves credit for exploiting the advantages he has in this era. Everyone else can do it; no one else has like he has. Again, I love that the media saw Curry as MVP and the players’ vote didn’t. I’m not sure why we ever talk to those guys. It suggests how smart and talented and skilled Curry is and that he’d find a way to be a star in any era. After all, good shooting always was a positive. And it’s not like guys like Pete Maravich or Tiny Archibald or George Gervin or Calvin Murphy or Gail Goodrich, great scorers in their era, were in line to fight for the heavyweight championship.

Who says no? Bulls get: Chandler Parsons Mavs get: Noah, Snell and Bulls 1st round pick.

--Billy Habibi

Sam: The Bulls, their fans, the media, Noah’s family and Parson’s doctor who says, “The guy had microfracture surgery. You’re joking, right?”

We have an abundance of depth, quality contributions at each position. But we only have two overwhelming talents, Jimmy and Pau. Would it be prudent to package some of our vets for a star? Also, why is Kevin Durant so grumpy?

--Matt Mikulice

Sam: Who, by the way, are these stars teams are so anxious to give up for the Bulls players on expiring contracts at a time those contracts are worthless now with the expanding cap and 30-plus aged players who come off the bench after major surgeries? Those vets? Obviously, there are few trades of any substance to be made with this Bulls team. The personnel you see now is likely whom you’ll see in April for the playoffs.

The combination of players with expiring contracts, players over 30, players who’ve had major surgeries and players under performing doesn’t suggest any change. Not that it cannot work for the Bulls now. Players in those situations stand a good chance of improving with better health getting farther away from their surgeries, an eased workload because of the depth and increased experience with more play. But you are not gambling on that as another team.

As for Durant, I think it’s mostly a fake tough guy act since he changed agents and went with the music industry’s Jay-Z and I think they probably told him his good guy image didn’t sell and he needed some edge. It sounds more like an act and seems humorous, actually. He’s basically available and cooperative with reporters as it looks more like when you are around him it’s like Danny DeVito playing a tough guy role. If he’s worried about the treatment of Kobe, no one treated him worse than Shaq. When they had that fallout after Shaq left L.A., Shaq was telling media people they had to choose either he or Kobe, and if they wrote nice things about Kobe they could forget talking to him. That’s where more of the criticism came from. I heard Durant growled, “Oh, yeah!”

Does Mudiay remind you of Tyrese Evans? Poor shooter/great slasher. Mudiay has better court vision. Not really impressed with him. And what about Okafor?

--Mike Sutera

Sam: Nobody wants to be in the same paragraph with Okafor these days. Too many easy jokes there. Actually, I like Mudiay a lot and think he’ll be really good. If I did the draft now I’d take him easily as the first guard. He’ll learn to shoot. Tony Parker couldn’t, either. Neither could Karl Malone when he was a rookie and after four years of college. Mudiay’s stroke isn’t that bad. It’s easy with the 76ers to point to their damaging philosophy leaving their kids without any veteran guidance from players, management hung up on numbers, seeing players more as worksheet figures than accepting any of the human intangibles that factor into success.

My first reaction was this kid growing up where he did in Chicago who confronts people on the street these days with seemingly everyone in America armed and a few feet away from an automatic weapon? The 76ers obviously knew about this weeks ago or more with all the incidents and still don’t have anyone working with and accompanying him? Not that anyone in the NBA really cares as all the other teams just look at the 76ers as an easy win and a way to eventually get their top young players as, after all, if anyone like Michael Carter-Williams helps produce too many wins he’ll certainly be traded.

The Pacers are run by a coach who was traditionally very conservative and Thibs-ish, and they manage to now consistently play with pace. The Bulls are having a hard time. Can you give an explanation with why we're having a hard time following what Hoiberg wants? I mean, if Indiana is getting it done...

As I'm writing, my guess is that the answer is that Indiana also took the bold step of changing personnel, which the Bulls did not. So perhaps the better question is: who is the personnel who is most blocking what Hoiberg wants?

--Alejandro Yegros

Sam: Well, the Pacers didn’t fully abandon their philosophy to change personnel as their anchor guy, David West, basically said you have no chance and I’m out of here and taking a 90 percent pay cut. They also tried to bring back Lance Stephenson, who said he’d rather be elsewhere. And they have Paul George, who probably has been the second best player in the NBA this season and can really shoot the three. Sometimes you also find a guy on your roster as they did with C.J. Miles, whom they weren’t using all that much and was a 34 percent three-point shooter and now he’s 42 percent, by far his career high, because of all the attention George is getting in a most impressive return from his broken leg.

Hoiberg obviously is trying with starting Mirotic and working in McDermott. Though Snell has not been sharp, he has shot threes well. The problem if you can call it that is the Bulls strength; neither Rose nor Butler run the court regularly. Butler likes to lay back to wait for the ball and sometimes Rose will run and nobody is ahead of him, so he slows up. Butler much prefers the half court game as he’s more an isolation player; Rose really is the only player who runs a decent pick and roll, so he’ll end up looking for that.

Though I think mostly it’s habits. You don’t change five years of being instructed to get to a spot and think through the progression of plays and in a month with the same personnel turn into the Warriors, whom I have noted took several seasons under Mark Jackson with basically the same guys to get to last year’s level after a coaching change. We’ve heard it plenty, but Rose did miss training camp, Gasol and Mirotic came in off full summers of serious play, Dunleavy a ball mover and shooter still hasn’t gotten on the court. While the Pacers with several players defecting went for speed players like Monta Ellis and to an extent Rodney Stuckey. Though credit Vogel for a very good job with his team.

Right now, 10-8 isn't good enough to make the playoffs in the East. In the West, 8-10 can get you in. Do you think this will be reversed by the end of the year, or has the East finally turned the corner?

--William Kochneff

Sam: Wonder if they’ll object to that best 16 teams thing in the Western Conference so eight of their teams can still make the playoffs? It’s why NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been right to ignore the baying of media critics about merging the conferences. Travel does matter; you’re not going to have a geographically balanced schedule.

These things change like in the 80s the East dominated for, well, since the 60s. The East is deeper this season; the West has some of the biggest disappointments in the Pelicans and Rockets. The East has surprises in the Magic, Knicks, Pistons and Celtics. If I’m looking for Phil Jackson to start complaining about the Knicks not being in the Western Conference. Too cold, also.