Ask Sam Smith

Sorry, I forgot to write my greeting to the Q&A last week. I guess I was just too caught up in that thrilling Bulls run to the playoffs. I will say this: The Bulls have played the best of the half dozen teams competing for the last four playoff spots. Yes, the Bulls are the Best of the Crap Playoff Teams. I don't think the NBA gives a banner for that, but I think you can get that on a hat and T-shirt. One more week to go. Be still my heart.

None of the college players coming out are projected as serious impact players right away. (I still think Sheldon Williams will be the exception though.) Do you think it would be worth it if the Bulls traded their draft picks and a player or two - as long as it's anyone not named Deng, Hinrich, Chandler, or Gordon - for Carlos Boozer and Corey Maggette or Jason Richardson? Would these players fit in with Scott Skiles and his coaching philosophy? --James, Houston

Thanks for cutting to the chase. I have no idea what they means, by the way, and anytime you read clichés in the newspaper, I suggest sending a letter and referring to the writer as an even bigger moron than the guy who may have said it. Ah, but I digress. I get loads of comment from people excited about the draft and the possibility of a No. 1 overall pick. But the truth is you are right. It doesn't look like, at least for big men, there's a big-time impact player. Maybe one of the smaller players, like Washington's Brandon Roy. But if the Bulls have a top five pick, I assume they'll go with size up front since that's their biggest need. Yes, they could go free agent with Nazr Mohammed or Joel Pryzbilla, and it's looking lately like Joakim Noah will stay in school (I'm not convinced unless he's not as smart as he pretends to be). I like Richardson and would take a shot at him. I'd give up both No. 1's without question. I know he's never made the playoffs, but he hasn't really been coached in the NBA. I think he'd be great with Skiles because he was yelled at plenty at Michigan State by Tom Izzo. You don't win with kids. It takes a long time to go anywhere. The Bulls need a veteran and a scorer, and I'd love to get a shot at Richardson. I think with some guidance and pushing he's on the verge of superstardom.

I've noticed a disturbing trend with the Bulls over the last few seasons. Whatever player ends up leading the team in scoring gets traded the following year. In 2003 it was Jalen Rose. In 2004 it was Jamal Crawford and last year it was Curry. This year the Bulls leading scorer is Ben Gordon. Do you think this trend will continue? I believe that if the Bulls select a guard in this draft, it will mean that they intend to use Gordon or Duhon in a sign-and-trade. What do you think? --Shan McElroy , Columbia, Mo.

Interesting. Nice catch. I hadn't thought about that, and in 2000-01 it was Elton Brand. And, yes, Ben may well join them. As I've said, I don't believe they're looking to deal Gordon. But he fits the profile of an expendable leading scorer because he's probably more a sixth man. It's nice to have such an instant offense player, but perhaps not when you have so many other holes. With Tyson Chandler coming off the bench again, it suggests that's where they see Chandler's future. So, the current lineup indicates they need a starting shooting guard, power forward and center. That's an awful lot of starting spots to fill, if you're unwilling to break up your team. Yes, patience is important. But as coach Scott Skiles likes to note, this is a last-place team.

What are your thoughts on Andrea Bargnani of Italy? --Charlie Armstron, Harbor Springs, Mich.

Why is it that every good white guy is the next Larry Bird and every talented European is the next Dirk Nowitzki? I haven't seen him play and I'm a bit of a xenophobe. But I'm told they have medication to control it. No, seriously folks. After the Fran Vasquez disaster in Orlando last season when their No. 1 pick used the leverage to get a good deal in Europe, it's a risk to use a high first for a European. I don't see the Bulls doing that. General managers tell me the guy is talented, and if he were available at the Bulls' second first rounder, which is doubtful, I can see them taking him. Though Nowitzki is a legitimate MVP candidate, the track record of European players isn't exactly that great. There are a lot of language and cultural issues that take time for adjustment. He sounds like a talent, but rarely do you see much very soon in the transition to the NBA.

It's almost the third anniversary of Paxson's hiring as GM. How would you rate him now? Do you think he'll be able to make the Bulls one of the top teams or will they be stuck in the lower tiers? How long will Reinsdorf give him? And what's his salary? I don't think I've ever seen it mentioned. --KJ, Madison, Wis.

Sort of like his career: Better things to come. I believe he can have the job as long as he wants it, but friends of his tell me he takes the games and deals hard and they wonder if he will want to get away and live a normal life before he's asked. Overall, he's done a very good job. The Bulls are regarded as a serious team again, which they weren't when he took over. Perhaps what he seeks is not possible, but he is the NBA version of a '50s moralist. He wants his team to represent values of hard work, effort and professionalism. The question is whether you can achieve that without the occasional talented goofball. Thus far it hasn't made much difference to fire Eddie Robinson and Tim Thomas, and I doubt that will hurt them in the free-agent market as money transcends any personal feelings or loyalty in pro sports. Paxson also is ultra competitive, as much so as Michael Jordan ever was, but it's talked about less. I think he's done very well in the draft and has a good eye for talent. Some didn't have Kirk Hinrich as high as he picked him and he was on Dwyane Wade early and would have taken him third in that draft if he had a pick that high. Luol Deng was a nice pick at No. 7, Chris Duhon was a good second-rounder and Andres Nocioni was a steal as a free agent. Though Paxson's overall free-agent record is spotty since the Bulls haven't been a big player before. They can be this summer and this will probably define his career. The Bulls have cap space, high draft picks, though it's not a great draft, and flexibility. This summer should be the foundation for what the Bulls will be and probably establish Paxson's legacy. As for his salary, I'm not sure what it is. But I know it's way less than Skiles', just as mine is way less than just about everyone who is on TV and radio. Paxson and I, though, retain our dignity even if we don't drive expensive cars.

In the trade proposals you have made to bring Kevin Garnet to the Bulls, I have noticed that they all involved this year's draft picks, with no mention of next year's picks. Can the Bull's trade their right to swap picks next year with the Knicks in addition to this year's first-round picks? Would this sweeten the deal enough so that the Bulls wouldn't have to trade Hinrich, but rather another more expendable piece like Gordon? Yes, Greg Oden would be great to have, but it seems safe to assume that Larry Brown is going to get guys that fit his system and coaching style next year and the Knicks won't be drafting first. --Ryan Gustafson, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The Bulls can trade the right to swap picks, but I doubt they'd do it even though I agree with you that the Knicks will make enough changes to give Brown some of the players he wants and will be better. But you can't pass up the chance at a player like Oden, even if it's unlikely.

The Bulls need to draft Brandon Roy with that first pick, because I believe that he will be like the next Dwayne Wade, a total package that can do everything. I think that Aldridge will be like Eddy Curry, a project. They can get a big man in a free agent. --Rocco, Evanston, Ill.

I'm sort of with you. I understand the Bulls' desire for a big man and help on the front line, but I'd probably rather do it in free agency with players like Przybilla and Mohammed. I've always questioned the general NBA philosophy that you can't take a player higher than he's rated. Toronto got a good laugh out of that with Charlie Villanueva last June. I remember well the 1989 draft when several general managers told me Tim Hardaway would be an All Star. But they would then say you can't take him with the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth picks because there were big men available. So these were the Nos. 5 through 9 picks in that draft: J.R. Reid, Stacey King, George McCloud, Randy White and Tom Hammonds. Remember them? Nick Anderson was 11, Mookie Blaylock 12 and Hardaway 14, and they all had better careers. If I thought Roy could be a big-time shooting guard to fill a need for the Bulls and had star potential, I'd take him. I believe in players rather than positions and you worry about where they'll play later.

Sam, what are the contract situations of the core of Deng, Gordon, Hinrich, Nocioni? I am worried that with so many top draft picks hitting their primes at the same time, come contract time we won't have the money to keep them. I believe one of the most overlooked aspects of Krause's career was how he signed MJ and Pip to long-term contracts early. Will Paxson be able to do the same with his team? --Mike, Evanston, Ill.

Yes, that's a good point many often overlook. The trend in the NBA is for fewer players to play out contracts and go to free agency, instead signing extensions. It's what happened with Amare Stoudemire and Yao Ming, which surprised some--certainly the Lakers, who were building their future on those signings--and likely Chris Bosh this summer. Figure the Bulls will extend Kirk Hinrich, which they have to do in order after draft picks and free agents to have the cap room they planned. Deng and Gordon aren't eligible until after next season, and the Bulls will be able to extend them as their own free agents. The Bulls will have to right to match on Nocioni after next season. So I believe they've done a good job of identifying the way to keep their players and probably why, in the end, they'd have to be too creative and allow Hinrich to become a restricted free agent to save money for the free-agent summer of 2007. So this figures to be their final hit in free agency in order to keep their young players.

Sam, What do you think is the biggest reason for the bulls recent success? --Jeffrey Dinkel, Mesa, Ariz.

Lots of trade speculation started by me that makes the players realize their positions are not secure and they have to play harder. At least that's my story. Actually, I think the Bulls are the most impressive sub-.500 team maybe ever. They certainly have less talent than the Bucks, Wizards, 76ers and Pacers, but they compete better and more often. I believe it's a combination of the character factor John Paxson uses in getting players and the demanding nature of Skiles. You rarely see teams play throughout offensive and defensive possessions like the Bulls do. The question for both is whether Paxson can continue to find those players with big-time star talent and whether those kinds of players will respond to Skiles' demands. Mostly, it's a credit to the Bulls players, who do not pout, complain, take games or possessions off and don't give up on games. And they don't spend time after games hugging their opponents. I hate that. I still feel badly when I lose at golf or cards. Don't you hate to see these guys hugging and amiably chatting with players after losing? The Bulls at least look like they care when they lose. At least players should be as upset as the fans are.

This NCAA season reminds me of the '94-'95 season. There are a number of highly-touted big men but they're all sophomores. The 94 draft had Joe Smith (No. 1), Antonio McDyess (No. 2) and Rasheed Wallace (No. 4). Tim Duncan was a sophomore, too, but he was not quite as highly regarded as those guys were at that time even though he's the best of the bunch now after electing to stay at Wake Forest for three years. Do you see the same parallel with Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Glen Davis, and LaMarcus Aldridge? If so, which one do you think the will be the Joe Smith of the group - meaning the least effective in the NBA - and which one should be the Tim Duncan of the group - meaning he will stay in school and probably end up making the biggest impact? Personally, I think if Aldridge comes out now, he'd be the Joe Smith of the group. That's why I don't think the Bulls should take him if they get the No. 1 pick. He has a nice game at the college level but he's not yet physically ready to bang in the NBA paint and he could really stand to sharpen up his back-to-the-basket game to make a bigger initial impact. --James, Houston

Interesting point. One thing you need to remember is how much higher-level players were in college then. That was the year people questioned whether Garnett as a high schooler could make the NBA. As happens many times--and as will be the case this June--there was no consensus No. 1. So the Warriors took a shot at what's always been popular, going for the athlete who could have a high ceiling. The No. 1 pick next year will be Greg Oden, who is going to Ohio State, assuming he decides to declare. That's why some wonder about Florida's Joakim Noah, who could be No. 1, but is saying he'll stay in school. Rarely do you get a chance to be No. 1, and he won't next season with several impressive high school big men going to college next fall. But it didn't hurt Duncan staying out. Glen Davis isn't in that class, so he wouldn't be a Joe Smith type. The one who could be is LSU's Tyrus Thomas, also questionable whether he comes out. He's more athletic than skilled, but NBA scouts like him. Aldridge has some more size and skill, but he's a project as well. Noah seems the only impact player among the big guys. The 76ers took Jerry Stackhouse No. 3 in that draft and he turned out to be pretty good. I expect someone will spend a top three to five pick on Adam Morrison and perhaps even Brandon Roy.

I just read an article that Indiana would be more inclined re-sign Peja Stojakovic and consider trades for Jermaine O'Neal. With two draft picks what are the chances of the Bulls landing O'Neal? What do you think the Bulls would have to give up and would it be worth it? --Angelo Ppanikolas, Melbourne, Australia

Though much of the off-season trade talk will probably be about Kevin Garnett, I think the most likely big name to be traded with be O'Neal. The Pacers clearly are a team that has had its run and has to retool. I can see a major overhaul, and O'Neal is their big piece. As you saw with Ron Artest, they aren't going to give him away, but I believe they see him as the way they can get a head start on coming back without the big fall. I think that's the point Minnesota is missing. Their run with Garnett is over. They just don't know it and are too stubborn to accept it. They are heading to be the Bulls of 2000. I believe the Pacers will search out an All Star for O'Neal and wouldn't be interested in what the Bulls have. They don't want to start over with kids in a weak draft. Plus, their experience of trading Antonio Davis for a draft pick (Jonathan Bender) didn't work out very well. I also don't see O'Neal fitting with the Bulls. He's fooled many a media person since he's very open, cooperative and controversial. But he's also known for a lack of a work ethic and leadership, which the Bulls could not afford from a top player.

Are Chicago basketball fans smarter than the average fan? That was my belief but that is now in doubt. I'm tired of reading how much Bulls fans miss Elton Brand. I was a big fan of his in college and the NBA, but he is gone. I would also like to add that he will never LEAD a team to a ring! Neither will Tyson, but I love what Tyson brings to our team. You know who I miss? Jerry Krause! I think the man is a genius of a GM. Even geniuses make mistakes. He turned Longley into Artest, Perdue into Rodman and drafted Jason Caffey over Michael Finley. Ok, the last one got me mad, but who's perfect! What are your honest thoughts on Jerry Krause as a GM? --Victor, Aurora, Ill.

I keep getting this letter from Jerry's family. Just kidding. Jerry was a much better executive than he ever got credit for because his personality clashed with his more popular players and coaches. The fact is the Bulls won when Jerry was general manager, and that's our sports bottom line. He had a plan for after the championship seasons; it didn't work and he lost his job. It happens to everyone. You're right that it's time to move on and every franchise makes mistakes of that sort. But trading Elton was a big risk at the time after Jerry made the right pick when many said he should have taken Steve Francis or Lamar Odom. But it was time to move on and, as you say, Bulls fans will have to. Though I still root for Elton. In this NBA, he's probably in a tie with Grant Hill for the best people in the game.

I just read your article on Shaquille O'Neal, and living in LA, I supported Jerry Buss trading O'Neal. He wouldn't recognize the changing of the guard, he wanted top dollar (more than KG), and jealousy blinded him. It will come to pass that O'Neal will not be seen as the greatest center of all time, not if he was never able to win ONE rebounding championship. I would still take Jabbar as an offensive threat because he had a shot he could make from farther away than three feet. And Jabbar could make his free throws. No, Shaq falls behind Jabbar and Chamberlain for me. Not to mention Russell... --Lewis Kincade, Glendale, Calif.

The Lakers aren't quite getting beaten up about that trade like they were a year ago. The irony, of course, is the role O'Neal now willingly plays was the one Phil Jackson envisioned and which O'Neal refused because of his dislike of Kobe Bryant. It's like when Don Nelson went to New York, saw Patrick Ewing was a second option, suggested it and was fired for it. It's tough for big guys to accept being less than the giant. Kareem did it well and Wilt tried, though he preferred to retire. Yes, there's so much more Shaq could have been, but it's also what made him what he was. If he had the desire of Russell or Jordan, he might have been the most unstoppable force in the history of the game. Probably same with Wilt. But Shaq liked being a lovable kid, and basketball was more a means to the ends he preferred than a destination. He just didn't want to be embarrassed, which was happening with all the playoff sweeps in the late 1990s, which is why he sought out Phil Jackson. I don't see another championship driving him as much as it does, say Pat Riley. I think Shaq is fully content to finish it out and see where Riley and Dwyane Wade can take them. The Lakers would have been better off if he stayed than they will be. Their plan was to get a major free agent, but as we're seeing with the Bulls, the big stars rarely leave anymore, preferring to get early extensions and lock up their futures. You can't blame them. The Lakers with Kobe and Phil could have become a true dynasty to rank among sport's greatest if Shaq had stayed. Who knows what it would have taken as no one ever got better losing a star. Shaq probably will be regarded less than Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain, but he always will be considered a much better person and favorite of the players around the NBA for his wonderful nature and charitable ways. If he just could have gotten past that Kobe thing.

I've read that Shawn Kemp is down to about 270 and wants to make a comeback. Even at 36, a motivated and in-shape Kemp is better than anything the Bulls have up front. Could you see the Bulls taking a chance? --Tim Grisham, Washington D.C.

No way. And no cheap paternity jokes. Here's a guy out of shape for almost 10 years and not playing for several. I know he's been snooping around for a chance and Dallas was supposed to take a look. But I don't see how he has any chance at that age to do much but be a bad fit in a jersey. Plus, he hasn't played in several years and it takes longer than you think to be back to the speed of the game. His game when he was a star was explosiveness and he lost that several years before he left the NBA. I believe he is straightening out--being out of a job does that--but I cannot see how he could contribute against the talent in the game now given he never was a fundamental type player. And he's not the Bulls' kind of guy even in shape given his history. I think for that type of player they'd take another look at Antonio Davis for a veteran's minimum next season if he wants to return.

What exactly are you wearing in the "Ask Sam Smith" picture? It has been bothering me for years. Now I have an office pool on it. So: Is it a lab coat? A sweater? A towel draped on your shoulders? I've gotta know! Is there a big Bulls emblem on the back of it? Is it a white suite a la Miami Vice? A Hefner-style smoking jacket? Or perhaps a white terrycloth robe stolen from some hotel while you were on the road? Help! We've got money on this one! --Fashion Police, Oakland, Calif.

Yes, it's the shoes. I wear saddle shoes. This is a symbolic statement about where I am in life. No one who wears saddle shoes can care what anyone thinks about them. Thus I can continue to answer these questions. The look is simple, yet elegant. OK, simple. From the feet on up, it's thus golf logo apparel highlighting my wardrobe. Let's be realistic. I spend a considerable amount of time interviewing 6-5 men while they are getting dressed. How formal do I have to be? The golf stuff is a function of living in Chicago. I play golf, but am not very good. But by wearing the logos of famous courses, I can, even for an instant, be transported to those places while dragging myself through wind and sleet to the United Center. It's all about mental preparation. Pro golfers pay thousands for those image gurus. It costs me a few hundred dollars in new shirts every year. So the look is slacks, button down shirt and vest sweater with a course logo in winter and slacks and golf shirts in spring and summer. It's about consistency and habit, too, which are important in sports and journalism. Always make your deadline and give a good effort every time. Don't surprise anyone too often. Be reliable and accountable. Don't give a crap about what they say about you. Thanks for the first interest about my taste in clothes since my future wife said on our first date, "You're wearing that?"