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Ask Sam | Sam Smith Opens His Mailbag | 11.27.2015

I think the biggest surprise so far this year has been the Bulls defense. After all this talk about losing Thibs and moving to a more offense-focused head coach in Hoiberg, I thought the defense would slip, but it looks much better than advertised. With that said, the next big surprise has to be how utterly slow the offensive pace has been. It sounds like all Fred Hoiberg preaches is pace, spacing, and ball movement... but where is it?

I think each game I see about two to three minutes of good pace and ball movement, then the Bulls fall back into their half court, grind it out type games. Has Thibs’s repetitive and micromanaging coaching style built up too much muscle memory that this team unknowingly falls back into their old ways? Have the players not bought in to Hoiberg’s system? Is it too hard and tiring to keep an uptempo pace for a full NBA game? Does this fall on Rose’s shoulders for not pushing the pace of play? Do they need that final piece in Dunleavy?

--Mike Habs

Sam: That’s it, Mike Dunleavy the final piece. Maybe he finally gets some overdue MVP votes. But your points are accurate as well as your observations. I think it’s mostly habits. And not only because the Bulls were playing that way for five years. A great part of Thibodeau’s success with the team was the constant drilling and repetition. The Bulls under Thibodeau probably scrimmaged less than any team in the league; but they did walk through and defensive drills more than anyone. One month doesn’t change habits, especially with half the team out or not playing in preseason.

Then there’s the lineup change. With the team spread out more with Mirotic and Snell, the Bulls don’t rebound as well. Thus you don’t get out as fast. Rose has a habit, much like Michael Jordan did, of carrying the ball out of the backcourt. Bulls coaches used to beg Jordan to run out to take the defense with him. But he liked to control the ball. Similarly with Rose. Butler is a ball holder in the offense as well, not as good a pick and roll player as Rose and more faceup. So the offense stops. Hoiberg is urging movement, and as you note there are sequences when it occurs. But some of the top scorers don’t move as well without the ball.

It’s actually impressive given a team with so many personnel lineup changes and trying a new offensive philosophy that it can defend that well. So you credit players like Butler, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Rose. You don’t want to break them of those habits to defend and rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter when the Bulls have shut down several teams to escape their pattern of blown leads. After five years with mostly the same players doing the same things it may well take more than a season for things to change in a major way.

Again, we look at the best. Look how long it took for the Warriors, first with three years under Mark Jackson, to build to this level of offensive play. And though it sounds like an excuse, Rose did miss basically all of training camp and essentially was starting again less than a month ago. It would be amazing if they were playing that offensive style at this point.

I feel bad for Jahlil Okafor. I find the management might be too selfish on this. It's definitely tough when you're putting up numbers and you're 0-15 to start the season. And you're the rookie. I don't even think they deserve Okafor. He definitely would be more useful to other teams than the Sixers. It's like he's being wasted.

--Josiah Regencia

Sam: I’ve acknowledged the circumstance of Philadelphia fans, supposedly such demanding and notorious critics, accepting this plan not to compete. I understand the basic philosophy that it’s better to be last in the race if you aren’t going to win until you can win. In other words, it’s better to come from eighth and win than get an honorary mention. I understand the concept, which is nothing new, that you don’t want to be caught as a perennial contender for eighth.

But that misses a huge point about competing, which you can take from the Warriors, for example. Which is one element. They never tanked seasons. They kept trying to compete while trying to fill out a competitive roster, sort of like finishing a great art work. You don’t keep the canvass blank until you have one idea. The other point the supporters of the 76ers’ “system” miss is losing creates losers, which is where you feel badly for Okafor. He’s only learning to lose in that environment. It’s why players are advised to be around winners, why sophisticated organizations bring them in.

There is a mentality you develop with winning and losing. You see it now with the Warriors and back then with the Bulls and Celtics and Lakers before them. It’s not some mystical notion like karma. Confidence breeds success; defeatism produces the same. When you go into a game or enterprise expecting to succeed you have a better chance. Not just the power of positive thinking, but there is an energy and awareness about confidence. Similarly with losing. When you lose regularly you come to fear or expect something bad happening. Thus you tend to relax and lose your edge and it fulfills the prophesy of losing. It’s why the positive coaches like Pete Carroll or Steve Kerr now or Phil Jackson often produce more success. There is something to inspiring confidence.

The players for the 76ers only experience losing. It will take them years to break out of that. So even if they get some superstar, he’ll be surrounded by players expecting to lose. It’s why the Bulls’ experiment of the early 2000s failed so badly. It took Tyson Chandler a few seasons after leaving Chicago to become the leader and competitor he is because he’d become a loser. Okafor faces the same fate. He’ll put up big numbers, but he won’t understand what it takes to win or be part of success. It’s not that he doesn’t care or doesn’t try hard. But all you hear about your team is you are a loser; the talk in the media and public and among your friends is about your historic losing. The 76ers are doing him and his teammates a major disservice and why they never will pull out of this dive until they bring in a new philosophy instead of a vague future in the name of some ephemeral ultimate success.

They’ve sold their fans an amazing deception. Though you have to credit them for pulling it off where once long ago they knew when they were being taken for fools and refused to accept that and revolted. If that were modern day Philadelphia we’d be drinking warm beer, think hot tea had flavor and eating, as my former colleague Bernie Lincicome, famously once wrote, “pets in a pie.” Late last night I saw the report of Okafor involved in a street fight supposedly over someone taunting him about the losing. It’s too soon to equate that with the 76ers’ philosophy, though some will. But it’s no fun being around that level of losing. Nothing good comes of it.

Did Kobe bring the baton to the game tonight? Looks like it's time to pass it! So sad.

--Rex Doty

Sam: I know there’s this narrative going on now that Bryant should retire rather than subject himself and his fans to poor play, embarrassing himself, so to speak. I don’t agree. He’s shooting badly, but he looks like he can move well. And though the Lakers are playing some fantasy games, their future is not Randle, Clarkson and Russell. Unless they’re satisfied to compete for the last playoff spot for the next decade. What I’ve learned is you never stop doing what you most enjoy doing until no one will let you do it. As long as Kobe wants to play, if there is someone who will let him, he should. You never retire or walk away because of someone else’s view of who you are or should be.

Of course, the other side is the organization. It’s one reason why the worst player to have around is the greatest past his time. You’d much rather have Eddie Johnson at 40 than Michael Jordan. Not for attendance, of course. But Chicagoan Johnson knew he was a role player and accepted that. Stars rarely do. Kobe cannot accept being a supporting player because his mentality was part of making him the star he became. It’s hard to turn that off; maybe if he were with the Spurs or Warriors. But not with these Lakers. If you love doing something you keep doing it as long as you can. Plus, the judgment on Bryant for now seems more based on results than potential, which I know most everything is. You’re not finished if you just miss shots. It seems to me Kobe’s health is returning after several major injuries. A few weeks of bad shooting doesn’t mean much. The good thing about Kobe is he’s so mentally strong I doubt he cares what anyone thinks compared to what he knows.

Does anybody ever tell Tony Snell that he has bad footwork when he's shooting the catch and shoot 3s? They need to show him some tapes of Danny Green from last year. He could become a similarly productive player if he just put the work in and stayed confident.

--Jermaine Arias

Sam: Snell reminds me of Tyrus Thomas; not in demeanor and personality as Thomas could be a miserable guy and Snell can’t be nicer to everyone. But it’s the tease. It looks like there’s so much talent there, and occasionally it comes out and you think, wow, wait until I work that in, and then it’s three games of nothing much. Snell looks like he should be terrific. He’s got a nice shooting touch, he’s got long arms and moves well. That’s why you can see him starting.

Fred Hoiberg wants the defensive component alongside Gasol and Mirotic. But Snell has been unproductive too often. Against Portland Tuesday it was encouraging with a three and a drive and foul in the first few minutes. Then he goes quarters and you’re not sure if he played. Maybe you have a point. Green was waived twice before he found a role with the Spurs and became even a big time playoff performer. No one is quite sure if it’s confidence or personality or comfort with the system or experience. There’s something there; with some players you just never figure a way to get it out. Though it’s not like he’s had a regular chance until now. So it’s probably too soon to make any ultimate judgments.

Kirk really has been playing well, and it does my heart good to see it.

I absolutely hate how some Bulls fans malign him (and spell his name ‘Heinrich’ after all these years). Kirk is the kind of athlete I find most inspiring, because he’s not all that different from us normal folks, and has achieved excellence largely through intelligence & hard work, not just growing to 6’8”. I hope that when he hangs ‘em up, we can keep him on as a coach.

--Art Alenik

Sam: I think there are more of you as I got a good response about the Hinrich column I wrote earlier this week. Though his father was a coach and he knows the game well and guys truly respect him, I can see Kirk getting away for awhile with a young family. He talks sometimes about opening a store in Idaho or something. He’s not a city guy. The vitriol that comes his way sometimes in the fan posts is curious. He never was supposed to be a star, and actually as a tweener for not being a pure shooting guard or point guard he’s defied the conventional wisdom in having such a long career. Which is a tribute to his normalcy. I don’t think he knows how social media works, anyway, so he seems happy.

I noticed that LeBron James has been widely quoted this week to the effect that the Warriors are the healthiest team he's seen. I thought that was a point well taken and it reminded me of how durable Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and many of the other Bulls were during the glory years. I don't know how much of that was luck and how much was conditioning, but the other very remarkable thing about those guys was how much energy they were able to invest in each game. We were all aware of Jordan's incredible leaping ability, but as I watch those old games what gets me even more is how he and Pippen and, later, Rodman, could go all out for 40 minutes, offense and defense, game after game, year after year. With today's Bulls trying to force the pace, it bears repeating.

--Kirk Landers

Sam: Part of it is my bias, but I believe part of the “secret” to good health is not leaving school so soon. You’ll notice the core of the Warriors team is made up of players who were in college three and four years. Barnes was two, but Curry and Thompson were three and Green four. You need a chance for your body to mature, which again the players’ association in the name of bargaining is hurting its members. I understand the desire to make money without the risk of injury, though the guys aren’t very big in college and there are fewer chances for injuries. Your body is not ready at 19 to play against men and I think it does lead to injuries.

p>Remember, Jordan was in college three years, Pippen four and Rodman like 10 or something before he got to the NBA. There’s considerable debate about these issues among people who have studied them more seriously than I have. But the things that strike me among kids are the concentration on one sport and the constant, full year training to play that game. My suspicion is it breaks the body down. After all, how much stress can the body stand? Of course, guys are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before; so that must be a factor. Not that guys never got hurt before. But bodies at 22 seem much better prepared than bodies at 19. And then being lucky helps.

What will be interesting to watch with this historic winning Warriors season is how much they push. The conventional wisdom these days is you need a break, and at some point you assume the Warriors begin to rest guys. I think they’d like to take a crack at that 33 straight now. But my guess is come February the back off and see how many wins they have coming into March. If they’re still on pace, then I think they go for 70 wins or plus the last month. But there’s a huge second guess coming if you break down then. Phil Jackson understood that, but Jordan was beyond reasoning that season toward pulling back. It just takes stepping on someone foot to change all that.

If on draft day a top ten draft pick could choose two pathways his career will take, which of the following do you think the modern player would choose?

Pathway 1 (Steve Kerr) – Be a career key role player on multiple championship teams with no All-Star appearances and earning approx. $20,000,000 throughout your career.

Pathway 2 (Joe Johnson) – Be a career team leading scorer, multiple All-Star appearances but no Playoff success at all, earning approx. $150,000,000+ throughout your career.

Players always talk about success and winning being the most important aspect to their career, but I suspect given these two choices despite $20,000,000 being more money than anyone could dream to have, nearly all of them would take the Joe Johnson pathway. I think the combination of individual success and obviously the money would outweigh any notion of team/championship success.

--Andrew Robson

Sam: Yes, but not for the cynicism you suggest. Players want to have success. You don’t get to the NBA level without being competitive and routinely playing for championships. But nowhere is winning guaranteed. The vagaries of life and basketball always are lurking, like injuries, personnel and coaching changes. Who had the Warriors two years ago where they are now? With essentially the same players. Steve, as he’ll tell you, is the world’s luckiest man. Helps to have an idea what you are doing, but he was almost out of basketball after five years as a low draft pick when the Bulls decided to give him a shot because he was cheap and Jordan just left and they needed a guard and, well, the rest is history.

You take the money the first chance you can, and then you can do what David West did this season in walking away from about $10 million. I admit I wouldn’t have. But he’d already made $85 million in NBA salary. So take a shot. But not on the speculation of trying to find a so called winner. And then what if LeBron walks out on you like he did Miami. Suddenly, you’re Mario Chalmers and trying to get Graceland passes for the relatives.

What do you think of the bulls releasing Bairstow and signing Henry Sims?

--Ryan Carpel

Sam: What for exactly? So he could replace Bairstow in the D-League? As I hear only time to time lately, Bobby Portis still doesn’t play. And it’s OK since the Bulls have plenty going with their big men. You don’t pass a chance for a young big guy, so the Bulls had to go for him when they had the chance. But there’s just no playing time yet. I’ve noticed Sims has put up some good numbers in the D-League, which isn’t exactly loaded with great big men. I recall Sims from a Bulls summer league team a few years back as sort of a poor man’s Roy Hibbert (and not just because he also went to Georgetown); skilled, not very athletic, a bit slow. This isn’t Hassan Whiteside. I wouldn’t fear putting Bairstow in a game. But it’s a long line to get to him. And, remember, Mike Dunleavy still hasn’t played, so someone else is heading to DNP-land.

--Thoughts on Noah's future if he continues to play this poorly with limited minutes?

--Adnaan Hamid

Sam: I don’t believe he will and the Portland game was a nice indication with a strong defensive finish on a switch; again, Noah is one of the few big men who can do that, and finally tossing up the tornado jumper that he’s hidden away. Noah’s going to struggle with the limited playing time, but so will Pau and Taj. It’s part of the deal with this team and in the long run should work to everyone’s advantage with better energy come April, hopefully better health and a bit of internal competition to stay in the game. Hoiberg has been pretty consistent of late in trying to ride the hot hand instead of sticking to a designated rotation. I believe Noah will be in demand as a free agent after the season and by the Bulls as well.

Many suggest a change for Rudy Gay, but for me it is best choice to bring Danilo Gallinari, as it could play 3 or 4 and is playing very well, shooting over 40% for triple. We should deliver to make this change? What do you think? Ciao.

--Piero Paguaga

Sam: The ciao gave you away. Relative?

The Bulls probably don’t have enough guys coming off ACL surgeries. He’s been a good shooter, but hardly the athletic wing player missing. Plus, he makes about $16 million a year for two years after this. The Nuggets probably would give him away cheaply given his salary and that he’s come back unsteadily from the surgery about when Rose had it and still hasn’t recovered his shooting form. Next.

Just looking at some of the meaningless articles posted on the internet.

Never knew that Indiana passed on Larry Bird in the draft! Why is this never brought up as draft blunders?

--Rex Doty

Sam: Different time. Plus, it was before ESPN started, which for the modern sports viewer is the dividing point in time like with the era of Christ for our calendars. It’s also why Red Auerbach was the greatest. Back then (yes, the ancient 1970s) owners made a lot of the personnel decisions. Thus the Ted Stepien rule that still exists of not trading consecutive No. 1 draft picks the way Stepien owning the Cavaliers did so and effectively built the expansion Mavs and enhanced the Lakers.

Back then, the NBA wasn’t in good financial shape. So the emphasis with many franchises was to quickly put a contending team on the floor to improve attendance and then hopefully sell the franchise. Building for the future wasn’t thought of by many. Other than Auerbach. Plus, there was no cable TV. So even though Bird was averaging 30 points, it was as a white guy at Indiana State against who knew what sort of competition. He looked good and was becoming a name. But who could be sure?

Because Bird had started at IU and then left for Indiana State, he was eligible for a fifth year to play. After his fourth year he was eligible for the draft. But he had made clear he would be in school another year. So five teams passed on Bird. Mychal Thompson was a consensus No. 1 and anyone from North Carolina was big, so Phil Ford was next. By the way, that No. 1 should have been Indiana’s. But they had previously traded it for No. 3 and Johnny Davis. Big men mattered then, the Pacers were a mess coming over from the ABA and Robey was on a title team at Kentucky. And ready to play. Remember, the Pacers also were the team that swapped a future No. 1 pick in 1981 to get Portland center Tom Owens when Robey didn’t work out. Yes, that was the pick Portland used in 1984 to skip Michael Jordan and take Sam Bowie, the Pacers’ pick.

Anyway, the Pacers also had financial issues as the ABA teams did coming into the NBA. The Nets had to sell Julius Erving to the 76ers. So they also weren’t sure they could afford Bird and could lose him if he didn’t sign. And we all know Larry could be fine sitting out and working on a garbage truck for a year with his buddies. So Auerbach who knew talent when he saw it was patient even with the Celtics in the poorest stretch of their history. Then he struck with that pick and the McHale/Parish deal and a dynasty was reborn. And the Pacers still seek their first NBA title. But many still are seeking their first NBA title.

Is Butler the next Jordan? The similarities are there. Their careers started so differently. Their skill sets developed differently. Their star status emerged at different times in their careers. Their court time started differently. Their lives started differently. Nothing would lead you to believe these players are anywhere close to being alike. But, look where they are now at similar points in their careers and there is a lot of similarity. A lot.

Team leaders. "Two" guards. Similar height. Physically strong with endurance. Number one in court time. Tenacious defenders, often defending the opponent's best player. Ability to jump the passing lanes and create turnovers. Ability to drive the lane. Good mid range jumper. Ability to rebound from the two position. Desire and ability to take over a game in the last period. Willingness to shoot the three increasing as time goes on. Willingness to shoot and ability to make the shot as the clock winds down. (Butler will have to go some to equal Jordan's ability in this category.) Leading scorers on their teams. (Butler just knocked down 32!) The will to challenge teammates to play hard. All-stars!

I'm not saying Butler is the new Jordan (yet) but there is much trending that way in his game and attitude.

--William Kochneff

Sam: If it were true I’d have a book, and no one’s suggested it yet.

<pPaul George quietly in the early MVP race. He’s doing wonders. Meanwhile, the NBA game is so soft now. It's getting so hard to watch. This scrawny 7"3 guy Porzingis is just bullying guys that's how bad it is. All this game is perimeter shooting. Don't worry if we get down 20-30 pts cuz we will just jack 3s come the 4th and be right in it. Maybe it's I'm just bitter that my 72-10 record is coming to an end.

--Mike Sutera

Sam: It may be a bit too soon to predict 73 wins, but in this era we want new records, and we want them now! And we want to say we were there. It is jarring for many of us to watch as you see the Warriors pull up for threes on three-on-one breaks all the time. And then make the shot. Or miss and who cares.

I heard Isiah Thomas on the radio the other day say he’s amazed at the soft way opposing guards play Curry. Yes, there is less contact allowed on the perimeter than in his era. And Isiah was a physical guy. But some contact is allowed and you saw Hinrich play Curry the way everyone should play him. Kirk ran out of gas late having played so little this season, but you have to pick up Curry early. I suspect that will change. Not that teams don’t try hard, but there is this ethic about saving legs early. So you don’t see as much aggressive defense in November and December as you’ll see after the All-Star break. It’s still tougher than you’ll see in any college game ever, but only some guys like Hinrich will have their hands on you like that. It bothers everyone. But it’s hard to do relentlessly.

The Bulls barely got by the Pacers at home recently and are in Indiana Friday for a tough one. George has made an amazing comeback from his injury and looks as good as ever carrying that team. He gave Jimmy a tough time with 26 points and four threes. As surprises go early, I have the Pacers up there on the positive side along with the Knicks, Pistons, Hornets and Mavs. On the negative side the Clippers, Rockets, Bucks and Pelicans. I didn’t think the Pacers would have the size, but as you note it’s a different game.

What do you think of Luol Deng making a return to the Bulls next season, since he is a free agent at the end of this year? It may be a little premature to talk about but Deng was a staple for the Bulls for almost 10 years. It would be great to see him back home. He still is getting older but he isn't bad and could be an upgrade at small forward.

--Raj Desai

Sam: I’m pleased to get this one as it can replace my get Ben Gordon back demands, which have pretty much dried up.

There’s always something to talk about after Van Gundy does a Bulls game. Obviously last year it looked like he was trying to fan the flames with the coach-management rift. In the Warriors game it seemed like he had an axe to grind against Rose. Here’s a few things he seemed to go out of his way to say during the broadcast:

  • Quite oversimplified Rose calling him a “13 point scorer and 37% shooter.”
  • Said of Hinrich, playing for Rose: “If you’re a competitor, you want to play in this game. Rest me against Portland.” Kind of an irrelevant thing to say about a guy who isn’t injured, unless, of course, you’re making a thinly veiled comment about someone who is.
  • Called Butler “by far” the Bulls best player. I’m sure there are some that feel that way, but I think most people who follow the Bulls closely feel Rose can take them farther than Butler can (not that they're competing with one another, as so many suggest).
  • Marveled at the backcourt play of Moore and Hinrich and kept saying this team is championship caliber. And also mentioned the team is so used to having Rose out they don’t miss him anymore when he is.

So I guess if Rose would just get out of the way this team could just go ahead and pick up their championship rings.

--Rory Butterly

Sam: Well, I guess Tom is mad at Derrick. Who knew? Maybe I should have watched the game on TV instead. Jeff’s becomes a bit of a caricature, which can happen when you are on TV and you are under some pressure to get attention. I think Jeff can be entertaining the way some of the other popular announcers, like Bill Walton and Tommy Heinsohn, get off the subject and feel more like company sometimes. OK, some maybe an annoying friend. But it’s basketball and not that serious. So you tune out a lot of stuff. But the stories can be fun.

It’s not important where you have to be serious because of world matters like in a presidential debate. OK, I take that back. We won’t hear anything from Thibodeau since he has a no comment clause as do all employees still receiving salary after being let go. It’s fair enough. I’m fairly sure if Jeff were still coaching—and everyone knows I feel strongly about Kirk—Kirk and E’Twaun wouldn’t be his backcourt choice. Derrick takes more cheap shot criticism than any top player I can ever remember. At least who did nothing to deserve it like a Bill Laimbeer.

The Bulls obviously need Rose and Butler to play at a high level, and then they’re still not favorites. Jimmy’s terrific, but he’s not beating defenses on his own. He’s maybe the best two-way guard in the league now. But you see against good individual defense he’s giving up the ball. Nothing wrong with that as it’s the right thing to do, but we’re not talking Jordan here. The Bulls need Rose’s presence to draw defense and presumably when they become more comfortable with what Hoiberg is advocating he and Jimmy will cut and change sides more in the half court to get the offense moving. Rose and Butler have made it clear they like playing with one another and prosper playing off one another. Who’s better is like diminishing Durant or Westbrook or Griffin and Paul. You need them both. That leadership thing is vague, but it’s been clear for a half dozen years that Noah is the one who most inspires them.