Ask Sam | Sam Smith opens his mailbag | 04.25.2014
Every Friday, Sam Smith of Bulls.com opens his Ask Sam mailbag and responds to the latest round of emails from his readers
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
We are all proud of the regular season the Bulls had. Yes, Noah won the DPOY award. Yes, Taj will probably get the 6th Man of the Year award, too. It is not however a surprise that the Bulls are down 2 games against the Wizards in the playoffs, who by the way is a more talented team than the Bulls by far. Fans and some of the media don’t really understand the difference between the regular season and the play-offs. Teams play with more intensity, dedication, they study the opponent in a 7-game series. Bulls overachieve because of effort, coaching, heart... whatever. We all know it, and yet we act surprised when we get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. I agree with you that tanking doesn’t guarantee you a superstar in the draft. I agree with you that this was a special season, even though we will exit the playoffs in the first round again. But besides defense, firepower and stars win in the playoffs, which is why the Bulls must pursue Carmelo, Love, Gay or any other top 5-7 scorer in the NBA. Yes, trading for a guy like that might mess up our locker room and chemistry, and we might lose in the first round with him too. But I would take a guy who has the potential to explode for 40 points in the playoffs, over chemistry, locker room, play the right way but get knocked out in the first round, any day of the week. If the Bulls are about competing for a championship, I suggest taking some big risks, which may very well turn into big rewards.
Sam: There’s this curious fallacy that the Bulls choose to play this way, that they are some cute team about playing hard and overachieving. It’s to their credit they’ve been able to do that while teams with lesser coaching and management might cede a season because they cannot motivate their current players with a strong system of play or have not gotten the kind of players who won’t give in when things are against them. The Bulls perhaps more than any team in the NBA the last 15 years have pursued the biggest, highest salaried stars in the game. They just have failed to attract them, which I’m sorry to say probably has a lot to do with living in Chicago. When, frankly, is the last time a high level free agent star has chosen to go to a cold weather city. Yes, even with games played inside. The Bulls plan after Michael Jordan retired in 1998 was to get as much cap room as possible to chase stars. I remember them turning down a trade for a young Larry Hughes, who was regarded as a high level player, to have more cap room. They aggressively went after Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan and Eddie Jones in 2000, the four free agent top players. Where did they all end up? Florida and Texas; by the way, non-state tax states. Where did Shaq go in 1996? From Florida to California. Danny Manning chose Phoenix when he was the biggest free agent. You could say Carlos Boozer to Utah, Ben Wallace to Chicago, Amar’e Stoudemire to New York. So, yes, when the biggest free agent was available in 2006, the Bulls got him. It didn’t work out. The next big free agency was 2010. The Bulls went all in, basically giving away a No. 1 pick and two productive players, Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons, for nothing for more cap room. They supposedly had offers out for someone to take Luol Deng for nothing to get enough cap room for three full salary slots. But, right, they could not give Deng away for nothing even as they may have tried, according to reports. But they still had two full salary slots to pay two players to play with a healthy Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all went to Miami. I have no doubt the Bulls will pursue all options for a major free agent this summer as well. But how many times do you have to be used so a player can leverage himself into something somewhere else? That’s why Derrick Rose was so vital, a Chicago kid who loved Chicago and wanted to stay and was a superstar. There only are maybe a half dozen players you can make the case in that category and a lot of warm tax haven places to go. So you build a team with what you can, good management and coaching and high level players, like the Pistons did in the mid-2000’s and the Bulls have now and see where it takes you. If Rose hadn’t gotten hurt this season this season had a good chance of taking you to a title without blowing up your team for the latest tease.
I'm watching the Bulls v Wizards from my office in Sydney Australia. Screaming, all be it futile. I get that Thibs has his 7 man rotation; however this rotation is last in the league in offense. I realise anything can happen in the Playoffs but again, we couldn't put Washington away. Let's get Jimmer or Snell some minutes and see what happens. I love Jimmy, but he is a defender who can shoot an open 3 but can't create his own shot.
Sam: I always wondered if the TV comes in upside down there. Anyway, this, of course, is the question is every playoffs. Well, at least when you are trailing. By the way, does anyone suggest adjustments when you win because you could have lost and would have won by more if you’d done something differently? Sports is great for second guessing, which is part of the fun and the attraction. It’s a formula as well: The Bulls couldn’t score down the stretch and were missing shots, ergo (which is American for throw a shrimp on the barbee, or a prawn), the players played too many minutes and had tired legs and the coach should have gone with other offensive players, namely Dunleavy or maybe Boozer. But as Thibodeau always says you dance with who brung ya, meaning in Texan (which is difficult for the rest of us to understand as well) that you got here playing like that and without them you wouldn’t have gotten here. So why put in players who have lesser value in those situations? Strategies can succeed or fail. But, I agree, it’s better to take a shot in basketball than in war, where the mistakes can’t be merely discussed without ramifications. This also, whether you like it or not, is the circumstance of having a coach who got you here. He got you here doing it his way, and this is his way. Why would he change if this is what he believes works? And if you don’t believe what he is doing works then you need someone else. I don’t hear anyone suggesting Thibodeau isn’t the right coach for the Bulls.
What are your thoughts on Thibs actually getting Boozer in the game when we go possession after possession without a basket in the 4th (game 2 at home)? I think our defense did more than enough to put us in a position to win that game. It's frustrating to see our best offensive post player/mid-ranger shooter ride the pine for the last 17 minutes while we can't put the ball in the hoop.
Sam: Boozer’s the other guy mentioned most about offensive changes along with Dunleavy. Of course, anything is possible. But I do want to say how much I credit Boozer, who has been a solid offensive player his career and big minutes player, who never basically says a negative word, being positive on the bench and around the team, doing his regular work and never disturbing team chemistry by being about himself or his future even with all the talk about a potential amnesty provision being used with him after the season. And he’s been productive when he’s played. Thibodeau always believes you finish the game with your best defenders, so Taj Gibson has replaced Boozer down the stretch. But Boozer in his way as well has contributed to the team’s success by constantly being a positive influence and performing when given the chance.
I’m down for Melo now. This team will never take the next step without any offense. Deng was never the answer, guys like Jimmy and Tony are not the answer. I’m down for shedding some defensive guys like Taj for some offense. Deal some high salary defensive guys and draft 2 cheap defensive guys.
Sam: Desperation always comes with defeat; they room together. We’ve had this Carmelo Anthony dance pretty much all season, sort of being teased by the prettiest girl or handsomest boy all year before the prom and then finding they already had a date. I suspect Anthony’s is with the Knicks. Yes, there’ll be a lot more speculation with Phil Jackson’s comments the other day that Anthony could help by taking less money. Well, if he’s taking less money why not come to the Bulls, eh? The largest issue for a team like the Bulls is even if you think—wink, wink—Anthony will want to sign, you have to severely dismantle your roster before then: Give away at least one draft pick, give away Dunleavy or Gibson or maybe both; renounce the rights to Hinrich and Augustin. And you send the message to Mirotic in Europe you cannot sign him and maybe he signs a long term deal in Europe. Then you make your offer to Anthony. But here’s Anthony and if I’m in New York I point out how much they underachieved and with a team next season with Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Amar’e Stoudemire, Andre Bargnani, Beno Udrih and Ray Felton I certainly should be a playoff team with a new coach. Then I have maybe $40 million in cap room the next summer with expiring deals and have a shot at LeBron James or Kevin Love or maybe Kevin Durant after that. So if you were Anthony would you give up maybe $30 million to sign with another team because you can’t get a fifth year by being a free agent and with all that coming to New York, where your wife already says she wants to remain? I assume the Bulls would love to have Anthony. I’ve always been a fan. But it’s a heck of a risk and a heck of a lot to believe Anthony would take that risk (health of Derrick Rose, etc.) with an obviously reduced roster. After all, it was the acquisition of Anthony that forced the Knicks to give up supporting players, which many say is the reason the Knicks failed to compete at a higher level. It doesn’t mean you cannot add better offensive players. But it seems to concentrate on Anthony is a huge risk with more substantial down sides and highly speculative. You always can get worse if you do the wrong thing.
This Bulls season seems to be one full of worst-case scenarios. Case in point:
1) After a much anticipated return from an eighteen-month injury, Derrick Rose's comeback is derailed after only ten games.
2) Despite the opportunity to improve their lottery chances in what figures to be one of the strongest NBA drafts in the last thirty years, the Bulls bounce back from a miserable November/December and play their hearts out. With that, it now appears they screwed their chances at a future franchise player for the right to get upset by the lowly Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs. While one can argue everything is 20/20 in hindsight, I saw this coming four months ago and cringed every time the Bulls won an arbitrary game without Rose. It's not just about winning today; it's about investing for the future as well.
3) And speaking of draft picks, the Charlotte Bobcats suddenly improve just enough to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference. Thus after four years of holding out for a potential lottery pick following the Tyrus Thomas trade, the Bulls will inherit the 16th pick in this year's draft. This was once a pick which held some decent trade value, and now, it's as if the Bulls sat on Blackberry stock a little too long.
Sam: Is this a glass half empty view? I know fans are down from the first two games at home. Yes, there have been some unfortunate occurrences, though the Rose injury is the greatest and nothing anyone could have done or predicted. Bad stuff happens to everyone. Though if you are more interested in yourself you notice it more. But the Bulls did the right thing and it’s been another season to enjoy and appreciate, and, really, that is the essence of the games. In practicality, it’s ridiculous to suggest the Bulls could have “tanked” the season to match anything the 76ers, Jazz, Lakers or the others have done with Noah, Gibson, Dunleavy, Hinrich and Boozer on the team. These are pro players with pride. And while they are good team players, their responsibility is first to themselves. They are not sacrificing their careers and the rewards that come with it for the Bulls to get a high draft pick. There’s little major difference between pick No. 10, say, and what the Bulls will get at Nos. 16 and 19. Certainly not enough to make any major difference with the team’s future. They will be able to get talent better in free agency. The irony here is you both want the Bulls to spend money to build a contending team. They did with major contracts for Noah, Deng, Gibson, Rose and Boozer. But you lose a guy—and then they did trade another—but it doesn’t diminish the others they have and they cannot quit. Their responsibility is to do the best they can to win every game they play. If they didn’t think that way you wouldn’t want them. That doesn’t turn off. As for the Bobcats’ pick, it always was speculative, which was why it never was in high demand as an “asset.” The Bulls still did exceptionally well with it given they weren’t going to resign Tyrus and got a first instead of nothing, as expected. Overall, it’s been a heck of a good season considering everything.
Having lost the first two against the Wizards, should Bulls fans be worried? Also, do you still think they'll win in 7?
Sam: Yes, I would be worried as the odds are not good with only three teams ever winning a series after going down 0-2 at home. I’ll stay with my pick as it would be insincere to do otherwise and I still don’t have the Wizards in the elite category. But it does show what I suggested coming in that someone very unexpected is likely to be in the conference finals. It just may not be the Bulls.
Have you spent much time with ESPN's real plus minus?
I noticed the Bulls are the only team with a top 10 player at each position.
A few interesting points from that metric:
1. Butler is ranked higher than Stephenson despite a historically bad shooting season.
2. Our PG situation is horrible. Augustine rates merely as a mediocre offensive player and the worst defensive PG with 20+ minutes other than Brandon Jennings. The only team with a worse PG situation is Miami.
3. Houston is the only other team with 4 top 10 players at each position. You figure that number would increase to 5 for the Bulls if Rose were healthy.
Sam: I’m not much into analytics in basketball. It’s interesting, but doesn’t have that much to do with playing basketball and what leads to team success. I’ve liked Noah’s answers to this about the lack of understanding these statisticians have about team dynamics, responding from a loss, working together and things like that. It’s interesting you mention Houston as their general manager is one of the chief gurus of this analytics movement. I’ll add I’m moving into a larger minority with the changing ownership of NBA teams. A revolution is going on in the NBA that’s never much mentioned. The prices of franchises are expanding with the Bucks deal the latest, the team getting more than $500 million after the Kings did. It’s extraordinary growth from a few years ago and with a new TV deal coming reflecting the growing social media markets worldwide NBA franchises are soon to become billion dollar companies. So you see who is buying them, the hedge fund, internet billionaire types who have thrived and succeeded with mathematical formulas. So what you’ve then seen is a core of general managers coming in to run teams who advocate the analytics because that’s what most appeals to their owners. The new owners don’t understand much basketball, but they do understand mathematical models from the business schools they’ve used to make their fortunes. It works in business, so why not everywhere? I know they made fun in Moneyball of the old time scout types like I’m suggesting to be, though I see Moneyball author Michael Lewis in his latest book is beginning to show how the markets are losing control with these models. It’s helpful to know tendencies, but we’ve always known that in basketball. You see a guy go left all the time you play him to his left hand. We did that in sixth grade basketball. Houston is interesting because of the dynamic unfolding as they went down 2-0. Morey the GM demands the analytics model, which for basketball is shoot threes, get to the free throw line and layups. Don’t throw the ball into the post. Kevin McHale has had to buy in to keep his job even though he’s one of the great post players ever and won that way. So he can’t throw the ball into Howard. Now Howard gets upset after they lose Game 1 and wants the ball. Now that throws off Harden who does little but fire up threes. So they’re flailing, though it may have helped to double team Aldridge some. Anyone can lose; they didn’t lose because they pursue analytics. But it’s not the only way you win as the Grizzlies had to make an early season about face after their analytics model showed throwing it to Zach Randolph was inefficient until they couldn’t score elsewhere. The analytics are fun to look at and one of the legitimate tools, but they generally tell you what you already knew. But if you want to run a team in these coming years you better have an MBA because that’s where the NBA is going.
Well we're down 0-2 but I am still not giving up on my team. I've heard a lot of announcers say plenty of times that the Bulls go so hard during the regular season that they don't have another gear once playoff time comes. How true do you think that is?
Sam: I know that’s the shorthand explanation that is mentioned in connection with the Bulls. No one said that when Rose was healthy. The Bulls often don’t have enough at playoff time because Derrick Rose is not playing. But last season they won a first round series on the road against a team with more talent, which suggests they have something come playoff time. The last time Rose played in the playoffs they were a conference finals team beaten only by the champions, and at that in overtime and in the last minute. What the Bulls lack without Rose is, well, a Rose gear.
I’m wondering, are you excited about the possibility of bringing Mirotic over in the offseason? I’m not too thrilled about the idea. At this point, I just don’t see him as the answer to our woes. Do we really want another Carlos Boozer, 1st and 3rd quarter type of situation? I would much rather turn the starting PF duties over to Taj Gibson and find a serviceable backup –say Trevor Booker- via free agency. He’s proven that he can be the two-way player that we sorely need. Why bring in another player that could be a liability down the stretch? Unlike the guy on the Sprint commercial, I would much rather add a player like Gordon Hayward. If I remember correctly, I don't believe that you're too fond of the guy, but we’ve seen Thibs bring out the best in players.
Sam: I get a few emails every week about Hayward. He’s a good player; my point is he’s unavailable financially because he is a restricted free agent and the Jazz has loads of money to spend they have to spend. So they’ll match any offer and he’d cost at least double what you’d spend for Mirotic. Which means even if the Jazz didn’t match you’d pay so much you’d have to let several players go. So it’s really a moot point. If the Bulls were to bring over Mirotic, he’d actually seem to be a good fit as a big man who can shoot and stretch the floor and not ready to start. So he’d be ideal off the bench. And he wouldn’t be a typical rookie as he’d have played several years in Europe and be much more ready to play and for considerably less than any of the top free agents. So then you’d have money left to add other players and not lose the ones you have, like Augustin.
I overheard two people talking about the Bulls after Game 2. One said, "The problem is they don't have anyone who can score." The other said, "That's what I've been saying for years. We don't have a LeBron. We don't have a Durant." If "the" problem with the Bulls is that they do not have either of the two best players in the game, then that's a problem a lot of teams would be thrilled to have. The Bulls for the past two seasons have been extraordinarily exciting to watch play, and the drama has been thrilling and memorable. If Washington ends up knocking us out in the first round, it will be disappointing. But I'll take this over having someone "who can score" leading us to a sub-.500 record. Are Bulls fans obsessed with acquiring a Carmelo-like player because they got over-accustomed to Jordanesque stardom, or do all teams' fans feel this way?
Sam: Everyone feels this way. Everyone wants LeBron and Durant and Carmelo, for that matter. But there aren’t many to go around, as you note. Two years ago everyone wanted Derrick Rose and felt it was unfair the Bulls had him after having had so much success. After all, there are 15 franchises whose teams have never—not once—won an NBA championship. There are several others, like New York, Washington, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Portland whose teams haven’t won titles in more than 30 years. The best way to win is to have a star player, as the Bulls did in the 1990s. When the Bulls have not ultimately succeeded of late they’ve provided excellent teams that have raised hope and possibilities and produced and exciting product. That’s really what sports is mostly about.
Any thoughts on why current players can't play as many minutes per game as the older generation. From Wilt to Elvin Hayes the mpg are staggering. Especially in Wilts era when they constantly ran because of the high scores not to mention traveling commercial and by train.
Sam: You train people as well. It’s like pitchers in baseball. Why can’t anyone pitch nine innings anymore? Yes, I understand the strain on arms with the added assortment of pitches in this era. But if you ask someone and train someone to pitch six or seven innings and all they hear is they face danger beyond that their mind persuades the body. The mind is a very strong predictor of the body’s behavior. I’ve marveled at times how often fans demand players play less. I never fully get that. Especially when as you say the travel and life was more difficult then and the pace of play was much faster and the game tougher. If you watched that Bad Boys documentary on NBA-TV last week you saw what were hard fouls. Not what’s called a flagrant in this era. But money changes things. Many players have become more cautious because of the financial stakes. No, not everyone. But the ethic has become with some you need to restrain yourself and not play too much or risk injury. There hasn’t been such a strong connection, and there are a lot of guys who average 35 to 40 minutes. So it becomes accepted and guys bodies’ adapt to that. But, yes, Hayes averaged about 44 minutes early in his career. But he didn’t run to the defensive side that much.
A bunch of teams lost at home in game 1 (including Pacers, LA clippers, and the Rockets) and spurs escaped with a win. I think it's clear that the NBA talent is so intense right now - probably the best talent in any of pro sports - except tennis, that it's not even a slam dunk to win a game even if you're at home now. Even favorite teams have to work at it.
Sam: It is becoming a really terrific playoffs as I was noting in my pre playoff predictions as I couldn’t figure who would win half the series. If the Pacers do lose this one it’s crazy time. It’s the function of a lack of a super team. It’s tough to find a dominant team, which is becoming the result of the recent collective bargaining agreement that with the tax penalties is making it difficult to have a deep bench and too many high salaried players. This is the primary Bulls issue now with Rose, Noah and Gibson accounting for $40 million alone on the cap next season. It limits your ability to make major moves. It’s what the NBA wants; it wants a more NFL-like system where teams routinely go from winning to sub-.500 and put the pressure on management to make the right decisions. But when you have a major injury to your highest paid player it’s the worst thing that can happen. Plus, there really aren’t many stars—maybe just LeBron and Durant—who can carry teams, and it’s looking like it might be one the way the Thunder is having troubles with the Grizzlies. At least it means you probably won’t have to worry about any more Lakers’ dominance.
Where you do think Maurice Cheeks will surface next season? I am sure many teams would like to employ him as a lead assistant?
Sam: When Mo was let go in Detroit besides being inappropriate, I wondered if he’ll end up on the Bulls bench as Thibodeau tried to hire him previously but the Thunder would not let him go for an equal job, which is traditional in the NBA. He’d be a good addition as one of the better people ever in the NBA. The story is he was undermined by Billups trying to get in with ownership, which doesn’t appear to give the Pistons a great chance going forward if they could do that to such a good guy.
Does the cap does get raised by 5 mil which it is rumored to, improve the Bulls chances with Melo?
Sam: Not a great deal as all the teams had heard for months the cap likely would go to about 63 million and they’d planned accordingly. Obviously, it all rests with Anthony who would be making a substantial financial sacrifice if he leaves to be a free agent to go anywhere. As Phil Jackson likes centers, the only sign and trades I could see would involve Noah or Dwight Howard. I’d doubt either team would do that, and if they did Anthony would not make much difference. Plus I doubt the Clippers would do Blake Griffin as if the Clippers don’t advance it would suggest perhaps they have the wrong guy in Chris Paul more than Griffin.
Let's just say the Bulls think they have a shot at Melo and I believe would have to trade Gibson. The NBA is unlike the NFL in that you don't see teams trading down in the draft for more 1st round picks. However, could you foresee a team taking our 2 first rounders plus Taj and give us a higher pick? For the Bulls it would give them only 1 guaranteed contract at a price likely lower than the combined salaries of the other 2 picks. Is Taj valued highly enough with other teams for this to make sense?
Sam: I think Gibson is valued, though not higher than a top five pick in this draft. But you then have an awfully thin team with Rose assuming the health, Noah, Butler, maybe Dunleavy and maybe Hinrich or Augustin and no Mirotic. It’s tough to see how Anthony would consider that close to winning a title with virtually no size and thus willing to accept a substantial salary reduction.
14 seconds to go after the Bulls timeout late in OT. Down 2. D.J., Butler, Hinrich, Noah, Taj on the floor. I just can't wrap my head around that choice in personnel. Defense is not a factor at all at that point. We need a bucket, period. Kirk and Jimmy are both shooting sub 40% this season. Jimmy has 6 points in 53 min, 4 off dunks and 2 off FT's. Why is Mike Dunleavy, arguably your best shooter, not in the game? I don't pretend to be a basketball genius, but I just can't understand Thibodeau's thinking at that moment. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and Kirk could have made that lay-up or the FT's. But it seemed odd at the time and I'd love to understand why that is the lineup we went with.
Sam: There is never one answer, and then, as you say, you have a 75 percent free throw shooter with two with 2.4 seconds left for a second overtime you’d usually take that. Thibodeau, like most coaches, expands out possibilities. He pointed to a couple of loose ball scrambles that led to scores that if they’d gone the other way change the outcome. I’m not saying I’d have done it that way, but Jimmy is his best with a scramble, a loose ball and a second shot and offensive rebound. On a miss he wants guys who can get to the boards. They were cutting off Augustin on the pick and roll, so he likely wants another ball handler out there to make a play for someone. With Thibodeau it’s those are the guys he’s finished with who have won more than they’ve lost for him. No one objected until this week.