Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 03.28.2014
Every Friday, Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
I know looking ahead doesn't really matter as much as getting your team ready to play. And the Bulls can beat anybody or be beat by anyone, really. But I see the worst case as a road 1st round #5/6 vs BKN. Best case would be to avoid BKN in the first round AND have a home series. How do you see it and are the Bulls worth a flyer at 28/1 to win the East?
Sam: Certainly it sounds like a better bet—I assume this is just play money as gambling is mostly illegal and something to be avoided as everyone does around NCAA tournament time—than it did a few months ago, and especially watching Miami and Indiana Wednesday. As I’ve written lately and talked about in my podcast this week, the Bulls were able to defeat the Pacers and Heat the last time they played and 2-2 with each for the season, which hardly suggests any domination. The basketball world still looks at Indiana and Miami as an Eastern Conference finals matchup, but those two teams looked awfully vulnerable again. The Pacers play tight as a contender and have the same lack of offense that makes the Bulls vulnerable. They seem no stronger to me than the Bulls. The Heat as badly as they played in Indianapolis still had numerous chances to win with a changed call here or there. But Dwyane Wade going out again suggests there’s no way he makes it through four playoff rounds. And if he cannot, the Heat become very beatable. You heard them complaining again about rough play. They do not like it. They’re making a lot of excuses for a two-time champion. As Thibodeau has drilled into the Bulls, it’s only the next game. It seems like the Pacers will get No. 1 and the Heat second. The Bulls currently are tied for third. So this is why it doesn’t matter much. The Bulls probably are better off in the four/five slot with Indiana in the second round. But at four/five they probably face Brooklyn, which probably would be the toughest first round opponent and a good chance of not making the second round. And the way teams like Washington and Toronto can score with athletic backcourts too fast for the Bulls, the Bulls are hardly big favorites against teams like that, though they probably would be for experience. That’s why the Thibodeau method is probably best this time. Play it out, try to win as many as possible and then just go from there. Though there’s a case you can make for a long playoff run as unlikely as it is, and no one thinking straight could make that two months ago.
The emergence of Noah has been truly amazing this year. Most folks including myself were not aware how high his basketball IQ is, as well as his passing ability. Yes, we all knew he is great defensively, but I’ve been wondering lately if Thibs knew what this guy is capable of on offense. Great coaches adapt to their personnel (Greg Popovich), and Thibs has done the same with making Noah the focal point on offense. Noah has become a defacto point guard in the half court. It reminds me of the offense Pete Carril ran in Sacramento with Divac/Webber being the decision-makers on offense in that high post area with lots of cutting and passing. How much do you think this style of offense is responsible for the Bulls' success of late? With a healthy D. Rose in the line-up, it was mostly him breaking and penetrating the defense and dishing it out to an open teammate. Even if Rose comes back 100% healthy, it would be more beneficial to his game if he utilizes Noah’s passing ability more, instead of going one-on-one on most trips on offense.
Sam: Thibs and everyone else has known that Noah can pass well and has liked to pass. Obviously, with a point guard driven offense behind Rose you would not have seen as much of it. And justifiably so. After all, the Bulls led the league in wins and Rose was MVP. You’d hardly want Noah having the ball that much in those circumstances. We’ll see how it evolves as Rose returns next season. But I wanted to answer this more for the Nate Robinson issue. So many fans were angry the Bulls let Robinson go. But this was a big reason why and a reason Thibs didn’t much mind. Robinson could do wonderful things in stretches. But he constantly held the ball and stopped things and took guys like Noah out of the game. It’s like preventing a big crime or disaster. If it hasn’t happened most people assume it would not have. That’s why we are such a second guessing people. You respond and react to the things that did happen because people cannot appreciate the things that were prevented from happening. Same in sports. So if Robinson is dribbling all over the place and making some shots, you assume that’s the way it should be. But it immobilizes so many others. There would be no way Noah could be having this sort of effect with Robinson because Robinson is such an individual player. He was terrific for the Bulls last season in an emergency situation. But you cannot have a guy like that too long because he inhibits the skills of other players the way he creates for himself. It’s why someone like Mike Dunleavy fits so much better even if he’s not as individually productive. He better enables someone like Noah to be a better player.
It would seem Bulls do not need two first round picks in this year’s draft. If Mirotic comes over, you add two rookies in draft, and still trying to figure out what you have in Tony Snell, it would seem we already have too many young guys. Any idea what they plan to do?
Sam: I’m quite sure they have no idea and dozens. They manufacture scenarios all the time and Forman is a big proponent of having scores of possibilities based on something happening with each player, e.g., amnesty, trade, draft. But it’s usually what presents itself at the time. Yes, it’s unlikely they’d want so many young players on the roster. But you never know who wants picks until almost draft night, who wants to do a sign and trade, who wants to break up their team or throw off a big salary. It’s why “flexibility” is mentioned so often. My guess is the general plan involves trying to recruit Mirotic, which also remains uncertain, using the picks and then seeing what that leads to and keeping yourself open if someone decides they need to move a star level player now. We’ll have no idea until after the rally in Grant Park.
What do you think about the story of Marcus Smart staying one more year at Oklahoma State when he would have been a top three pick last year? You routinely state that players should spend more than one year in college, doesn't this prove it's not always right for some players to stay in college?
Sam: I think it actually makes the case. He had publicized issues and his team didn’t do that well. Still, he’ll likely be a high lottery pick and he’s a more mature person and player for having been in college longer and experiencing more. It doesn’t appear he’s a better shooter, but very few players do much learning in college, at least on the basketball floor. So yes, you say, come to the NBA soon so you can begin learning to play basketball. But then again you don’t get to play that much as a rookie with a good team, anyway. Quite the conundrum. I always believe you have a chance to be a better player like so many of the great ones who spent anywhere from two to five years in college the longer you stay in college to develop and mature. Perhaps LeBron gets there. A slight chance for Kobe. But among the top 10 players the common denominator is learning to become an adult in college, like so many do.
I know there are a few interesting possibilities in the coach of the year race, but shouldn't it be Popovich? That team never ceases to amaze me.
Sam: The Bulls, true, cannot win all the awards. Popovich’s name doesn’t come up often for coach of the year because he’s like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. We sort of expect it, and since he’s considered the best isn’t he supposed to do this? And if you are supposed to do it why win an award for doing it? But Popovich has to be a contender given the Spurs have the league’s best record despite both a lot of injuries and a lot of games off for the guys not injured. Yes, best record of everyone. And that’s after basically blowing a championship and not collapsing from the hangover that would have afflicted just about everyone else. It should be an interesting vote as you can make strong cases for Tom Thibodeau, the Suns’ Jeff Hornacek and the Bobcats’ Steve Clifford. If the Bobcats don’t make .500 and the Suns miss the playoffs, they probably fall out. You might make a case for Doc Rivers as well.
Am I drinking the Kool Aid or can the Bulls win 50 games this year? They have 40 wins and 11 games left against some very beatable teams.
Sam: Theoretically possible, obviously, though you don’t get anything for that. But it does raise another issue. How hard do you push when the games are not as crucial? The Bulls are pretty well set for the playoffs, except for the home court advantage. It turns out they didn’t need it last season. In any case, if they get to the last two or three games and have a home court spot clinched, do you keep playing all out and with a short rotation? I know I’m one who condemns tanking or not playing all out all the time. But it’s not really diminishing the product to ease off and prepare for the playoffs at that time. One of the questions often raised about the Bulls is whether they are at risk because of how well they play. In other words, because they compete so hard so often, does that mean they do not have as much room to raise their games for the playoffs than other teams that don’t compete as relentlessly as often? Not necessarily. I assume the Bulls ease off the last week. It should be an entertaining playoffs.