Sam Smith's Bulls mailbag

Last week's concern de jour for anxious Bulls fans was Ben Gordon (I'm working on several languages now with the influx of international players and am starting with English). After all, everyone has selected their favorite spot to watch the championship rally after the win in Miami and FOR GOSH SAKES CAN'T ANYONE MAKE A SHOT! Not that we'll ever be done with Ben, but this week it's Scott Skiles. Yes, it's on. Five-game losing streak and 3-8 starts can make anyone look dumb. Can Skiles be a C guy? I know we're past Point A--Tim Floyd. This is probably Point B, although the slow start doesn't seem like it. Relax, I have seen signs: It's hard to believe anyone in the East will end up over .500. Good thing it's not an even schedule and Eastern teams have to play Western teams just twice. If the Bulls can get those 42 wins again, they might win the conference. Well, you get the idea. So don't despair yet. And they play the Knicks twice in the next week.

The Bulls' inconsistent start this season seems to be directly related to the energy level on both ends of the court, but especially the defensive end. The higher the energy, the better they play. When the energy level is low (often in the first half), the Bulls are often flat and often lose. Scott Skiles is known for running strict and grueling practices. Are these workouts maybe sapping his players' energy? When gametime comes and the players need that extra something or need to dig a little deeper, it's just not there. Is it the practices? --Jake, Chicago

It's the economy, stupid. Oh, sorry, the campaigns are over for now. I'm actually with Skiles on this one and think the big babies have it too easy. The NBA players association actually fought for and got the NBA to cut down the number of training camp practices. Geez, how pathetic is that? These are the biggest, strongest, fittest people in our society, and they're getting tired playing basketball? Don't ever listen to them complain about the second of back-to-back games. I never write about that because it's such a cop out. No athletes are pampered like NBA players with charter flights, the finest accommodations. How many hours do they really work a day? Practices generally last two hours. Say they shoot on their own for another hour, which not everyone does. That's a three to four-hour day--in sweat pants or shorts. Skiles does practice his players hard, which is why they've been able to transcend their talent level the last two seasons. They come ready to play, or did until this season so far. I believe that will change. I wonder why more teams don't. If you practice hard, the games should be easier. I say run their butts.

When an opposing player posts up Ben Wallace, why does Scott Skiles always send help and leave a shooter wide open, often beyond the arc? I think Wallace doesn't want help and he is more than able to defend anyone one-on-one. What do you think? --Jay Choi, Glenview, Ill.

I think Ben needs help these days, though I don't believe that's the reason. Unlike the other Bulls centers, or what pass as centers, Wallace doesn't front the post much. Old habits die hard. Also, the Bulls have a philosophy, which I like, of not allowing opposing players to work in the post to get a shot. So when a player starts dribbling in, it's automatic to drop in help and then recover. It's the recover part that hasn't been working as well. Though I'd like to see Wallace energetic for more of the game than he has been. After all, this was the best we were supposed to see from him in his new contract with the Bulls.

As of now, the Bulls do not like the team they were hyped up to be. Is Scott Skiles the kind of coach to take the Bulls to a championship series? I have been questioning a lot of his decisions as of late. Why doesn't he start Thabo or Gordon, Hinrich, Deng, Noce, and Wallace? Duhon gets way too much playing time. Deng needs to play more minutes. The Bulls also are a completely different team with Tyrus Thomas in the game. The kid is amazing. He has blocked Shaq and Yao; give this kid some time! The Bulls have the potential to be a championship team. Does Skiles know how to efficiently use this team? --Jim, Lincolnshire, Ill.

I'm not sure about that championship team thing, but I still believe they will be good this season. The way the East is, they could get to the Finals because I can't figure out who else deserves to. I like what Skiles does even if I don't agree all the time and we don't know how players will react to his demands when they get their contract extensions. But I don't see signs of discontent. What I see is a coach who is a bit frustrated with players not developing the on-court chemistry they had. I like his system of play because it involves everyone and, even though I wouldn't do it, has offensive opportunities for Wallace. I thought going into the season they could have two units and overwhelm teams with pressure and speed. It may still come to that, but Skiles clearly isn't sure who fits with whom and is experimenting now. I believe he'll get past that and get a stronger rotation. I think he's moving toward the rookies, and I still get e-mails about why Viktor Khryapa and Michael Sweetney aren't playing. You can't play everyone and he is trying. The team is playing hesitantly now as the players feel one another out. But I think they'll come out of it soon.

So when does Jerry Reinsdorf and/or John Paxson conclude that Scott Skiles is not the man to take the Bulls to Point C? Sure, Skiles got the Bulls from Point A (the lottery) to Point B (the seventh or eighth playoff seed), but can he get them to Point C (actually competing to make to the Finals)? I'm starting to doubt it. From L.A. (and I went to the recent Bulls-Lakers game), the Bulls look young, athletic with decent depth, but they look and play tightly wound, much like their head coach. I'm beginning to think there is a reason why Skiles was out of the league for as long as he was. Personally, he reminds me of a college coach. --Mark H., Los Angeles

I see you're a point man, too. Thanks, by the way, for explaining those point locations. It's never been clear because Doug Collins made it to the conference finals and was fired. Actually, I think Skiles has been very patient this season. He plays the rookies when other coaches with the expectations of this team might not at all. He says nice things all the time about Ben Wallace, though that may be due to Scott being intimidated by men with so much hair. He's preached patience and has been less sarcastic ("Jump" Eddy). He's given extra days off and almost smiled one day. It was a shame they lost that Lakers game since they played really good defense and worked hard. They had loads of open shots and just missed. Their defense had been more in spurts before Sunday, so I think that may be coming. I still see the team responding to Skiles, which is the test for any coach. And he can't be a college coach since he knows how to run an offense.

Please explain Scott Skiles' thinking. Viktor Khrayapa was playing so well and now hardly sees the floor. P.J. Brown sits on the bench against the taller Rockets and we were out-rebounded badly. Thabo never guarded McGrady. Skiles is supposed to be a "genius," but I'm not seeing it so far this year. --Roger, Ventura, Calif.

And away we go. As Skiles told me as I wondered what the fuss was, "it's only 10 games." He's got too many forwards and they don't play as many positions as you'd like. I don't see Deng, Nocioni or Kyryapa playing shooting guard in a big lineup across the board with Sefolosha. I believe Duhon will start to disappear from the rotation as the new players get more comfortable. P.J. probably could help at times, but there are only so many effective minutes for him at his age. I think Skiles will get there and it's only empty media feature stories and over-exuberant TV announcers who call coaches geniuses. At least we can stop that for now.

What would you think about the Bulls trying to swing a trade for Pau Gasol? I know he's hurt right now, but he'd be a perfect fit when healthy. I think they're a scoring big man away from being a great team. With the Grizzles situation right now the Bulls could possibly pry him loose. --Tyson, West Unity, Ohio

The Memphis situation is interesting, though I don't see them dealing their best player, especially now that they're trying to put together a young core. The sale plan seems to be blowing up with prospective owners Brian Davis and Christian Laettner seeming not to have financing. It's clear owner Michael Heisley doesn't want the team and Jerry West and Mike Fratello are on the way out. You'd love to have a guy who can score inside like Gasol, and he'd benefit playing next to Ben Wallace. But the Grizzlies are small and it's not like the Bulls have a big man to give them. Sorry, no deal.

Seeing that Bulls need to re-sign Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni and don't believe they can win the finals without a true low-post scorer, I propose this trade: Swap the two Bens and our No. 1 pick for Charlotte's Emeka Okafor. He is tearing up the league. If we are able to get him for both Bens and the pick, not only do we solidify our rotation for years to come but also get salary cap space to sign whomever we want. Our lineup will be Kirk Hinrich and Deng in the backcourt and Nocioni, Okafor, and P.J. Brown/Tyrus Thomas in the front court. We will be unstoppable. --Asad Khan, Burr Ridge, Ill.

Maybe a little stoppable. I'm not sure Michael Jordan, new Charlotte basketball guy, wants any part of the Bulls biggest problem for his best young player. I wasn't sure about Okafor after missing most of last season with injuries that didn't require surgery. But he's come on very strong, especially on defense and he is not one of the most athletic players. Also, I don't see Deng guarding twos since he hasn't done the best job this season guarding threes. But we in the trade business have to persevere and I feel your need to explore.

Does it seem like the Bulls did better in the underdog role they had the past two seasons? Ben Gordon is killing the team on both sides of the floor right now. He can't get anything going. Time to dangle him and the first round pick yet? I'm in panic mode, is Paxson? --Jeff Walter, Tempe, Ariz.

That shouldn't be an issue, but who knows what to point to these days. After Miami, they did get a little full of themselves, but they aren't now. No, they don't need more draft picks. My guess is Paxson isn't happy, though I haven't talked to him of late. I'm also glad his office is on only the second floor.

It's early, but it seems as if some of John Paxson's magic has left. At this point, one could question the signing of Ben Wallace and the drafting of Tyrus Thomas, who looks light years from being an NBA player. But don't you feel the biggest mistake was trading J.R. Smith? It would be a lot easier to trade a scorer like Gordon if we had someone else who could shoot. --Rich, Reeds Spring, Mo.

I've been defending the move given all their guards and Skiles' defensive demands. I don't think the kid would have gotten on the court, though after Tuesday I'm not saying much.

The Bulls inability to win close games on the road convinces me that the Bulls are nowhere near being a championship-caliber team. When will John Paxson show some common sense and make a move for a big-time go-to scorer like Paul Pierce? Defense is critical to winning a championship, but you have to put the ball in the hole, especially in the fourth quarter. --Tony M., Vista, Calif.

I'm not quite there yet given the state of the East and the fact the Bulls' schedule is the worst in November and February. If they can't defend, they don't have the team they think they do. A lot is going to rest on Ben Wallace for a while and we'll see what he can do.

We've all watched the Bulls struggle through the so-called circus trip every year since the end of the glory years, digging themselves into a hole that it takes until spring to get out of. Has there ever been any discussion of rescheduling the circus in order to give the Bulls a little help in getting off to a stronger start? Couldn't the UC host the circus at pretty much any time of year? --Joe Hoyle, Evanston, Ill.

This is one of my pet peeves (I've also got a cat) and I'm sure Skiles is with me on that. Most Eastern teams have these long road trips because they also host events in their buildings. It's a copout to say they can't win in the West on the road. If that's so, stop talking about being a contending team. I never heard any complaints about this trip from the Bulls in the '80s and '90s. You've got to play the games and everyone plays 41 on the road. The Bulls have two of the softest months of anyone in the league coming up. That's the tradeoff. It's also why they've recovered. Let's see if they can do it again. Good teams win on the road. Bad teams complain and make excuses. I'm also biting the head off a turkey this week for my Thanksgiving dinner. Let's get tough!

Who would've guessed that height would turn out to be important in basketball? --JT, Chicago

This is sarcasm, right? I like it; it was my major in college. Perhaps this has to do with the Bulls having the smallest front court since the old Milwaukee Hawks. Yes, teams have gone right at Ben Wallace, apparently not realizing he is a four-time Defensive Player of the year. I believe the Bulls should petition the league to allow Ben to stand on his plaques. Ben doesn't have the hops--I love scout talk--he once did, and Nocioni isn't blocking many shots. Look, if the Bulls could have gotten a big guy they would have. Nazr Mohammed? Joel Przybilla? They went after the player they thought was the best defender, and even though Wallace hasn't been what he once was, I believe it will work itself out. Hey, no one predicted a championship quite yet.

The NBA is rigged. I am convinced. Not only because I am a fan of the Bulls, but because I have very good evidence based on the calls of the refs. I'm furious the referees always favor the team with the star player. Vin, Chicago

Yo, Vinny, is that supposed to be funny? Ha, ha funny? Actually, this is a problem for the NBA. I was at a conference of NBA referees in September when this was brought up. The guy who raised it, by the way, got two technicals and was ejected. No, seriously. Some of the veteran refs pointed out it's the stars who have the ball all the time, are taking the most shots, making most of the plays. So perhaps it looks like they get away with too much. But some of the refs do seem to make exception for the stars, which the NBA howled about when Michael Jordan was with the Bulls. I don't think it's a mandate from the league, but it's human nature for refs to feel big brother David Stern is watching. In the great cry over an increase in technical fouls for excessive behavior, I have noted some of the star players having a longer rope. And when Kirk Hinrich was watching his alma mater Kansas on TV the other night in his room and complained about a call, he was assessed a technical foul to be applied the next time he shows up at a game.

I think you're being a bit personal. While I know that you have a job to do, for the last two years all you seem to do is visualize different trade options for Ben Gordon. Isn't it obvious that Pax isn't listening? Plus how come you never suggest trading Kirk? And I love Kirk, but. you're too one sided every time there's a problem with the Bulls. The only name comes to your mind is Ben Gordon's. --Dennis Gilliam, Atlanta

It's never personal with me. I want everyone traded. Not really. Actually, I admire Gordon and in some ways think more of him than Hinrich. I think Ben has the potential to be a big-time player with his amazing scoring bursts. You don't see anyone lobbying for Hinrich to take last shots. He's good, hard working, solid, a good defender, a nice all around talent. Gordon's already won a major NBA award, Sixth Man, and could have won Rookie of the Year. He's a player who has value as well. It perhaps is unfair, but we expect more from Gordon for what he has shown us. I don't know that we expect much more from Hinrich, though he is valuable and I believe also will improve. But as the point guard, he's harder to replace. And in the deals I've talked about with Gordon it's always for a scorer. Shooting guards are generally easier to come by than point guards, though the Bulls haven't found one since Jordan.

Living in New York, I once bemoaned the Jamal Crawford trade to the dreaded Nix. Now it is official: Ben Gordon is a short version of Jamal Crawford. Both are good guys and streak shooters capable of taking over a game. Except Crawford can actually dribble, rebound and assist. Then there's captain Kirk. Is there a single opposing point guard that Kirk can get by? Can he get by a power forward or center? This guy is cannot penetrate and dish. Can you build a team completely on tough-guy character over athleticism and skills? Is captain Kirk just a slower, less gifted version of Luke Ridnour? --Doug MacKenzie, New York

Wow, you are angry. But having grown up in Brooklyn, I understand New York rage. It's not that people are jerks there, but they have no idea the rest of the U.S. lives in a civilized country where it doesn't take two hours to get to work when it's 10 miles away, that you can cross the light when it turns green instead of waiting for people five deep ahead of you to go and the lines, the lines, the lines, and you're thinking of strawberries and everything is just spinning around and the honking and blinking and the garbage in the streets because there are no alleys and WILL EVERYONE JUST SHUT UP A MINUTE!? I know Jamal Crawford, and he is no Ben Gordon. Just head to head, not that it means anything, after every game between the teams all the New York writers are mooning over Gordon and wondering why he's not with the Knicks. As for Hinrich, Luke Rudnour, c'mon. The Olympic team saw that quickly and sent Luke home and kept Kirk. He's more athletic than you think, Maybe no Chris Paul, but pretty darned good.

Kirk Hinrich hasn't shown me much. He dribbles way too much and doesn't make important free throws. As far as I am concerned, this guy doesn't perform under pressure. --Charlie Armstrong, Kalamazoo, Mich.

OK, people are mad at Skiles and Hinrich and Ben and Luol and Ben. Things don't look as good when the ball doesn't go in. I say give them another 10 games.

I'm sick of hearing that the Bulls just need time and they'll be OK. Is time going to fix the fact that the Bulls' only go-to scorer is an erratic 6-foot guard who relies on jump shots? How about the fact that through eight games, their so-called strength, their defense, has been nothing short of awful? The Bulls record isn't the alarming aspect, it's the fact that they've been badly blown out in half of their games. They have shown no heart and resiliency, two staples of the past two Bulls teams. I think the Bulls badly overestimated Ben Wallace's impact on the Bulls. They are very much the same up-and-down team that looks great in spurts and awful in others as they were last year. I would be surprised if the Bulls get anything higher then a sixth seed and a first-round exit once again. --Dan Brecher, Scarsdale, N.Y.

That's not an unfair assessment of these first few weeks. I do think the other players will start to fit better. I do wonder about Wallace. I think we all overrated him because of an undeserved Defensive Player of the Year award last season. I'm proud to say I didn't have him in my top five and is another example of media voting that relies on statistics instead of effect. Yes, the Pistons won 64 games, so it is understandable. But Ben was in decline and seems to be continuing. I think he is bogged down in the Bulls system, which is more complex than anything he had to deal with in Detroit. But I don't see the bounce he once had or the enthusiasm. I hope he didn't pocket his final contract and decide to relax.

Is Luol Deng a legitimate candidate to play shooting guard? What strengths or weaknesses does he have that would make that possible for impossible? --Jim Hecimovich, Oxford, England

I don't think so. The Bulls thought about it some, but the backcourt is crowded and Luol hasn't defended as well this season. The Bulls say he's the most responsible for the penetration off the perimeter and wouldn't give him extra defensive responsibility. He also has been unable to improve his shooting range and actually has been asked to get away from the three-point line.

During the Bulls-Rockets game on TNT, Doug Collins said that Juwan Howard is a victim of his $100 million dollar contract. Where do I sign up for this kind of victimization? --Rev. F., Coopersville, Mich.

I know what Doug meant, but I will send you an application. Yes, it's another reason why people may love the game but aren't always in love with the guys. Howard got that huge deal but wasn't the offensive superstar usually associated with that kind of contract so he got booed in Washington. He also began to lose perspective and feel self important. I remember being blown off by him several times in that era when trying to talk with him, this after he couldn't have been nicer and humbler coming into the NBA. I remember a story in his rookie year when a snow storm stranded team employees and he was helping them get out of the parking lot. He eventually got moved around the NBA, filling roles and regaining his perspective on life and has been one of the better people in recent years. Just never the player people wanted him to be for the money. It's why I always tell people to judge talent by what they see, not what they are paid.

How come Bonzi Wells and Steve Novak see very little time, even if in the games when the Rockets are down? --Selwyn, Ningbo, China

I think we're going to see more of Steve Novak now that Kirk Snyder is out. Novak has become something of the backup quarterback favorite in Houston with his great shooting ability. But he's not a good defender and coach Jeff Van Gundy values that the most. He won't play much, but more than he has. I think they are a little afraid of the incendiary Wells after he left most of training camp and what will happen to the good start combining him with the erratic Rafer Alston.

Um, your article has a serious flaw. You missed arguably the best all-time center in Hakeem Olajuwon. You've lost any credibility by not mentioning the Dream, who one-ups every other center because he was dominant on offense and defense. Shaq was only an offensive force, he's defense leaves much to be desired. --SI, Washington D.C.

I've gotten a number of emails like this and understand. Hakeem Olajuwon was a great center in the '80s and '90s and a certain Hall-of-Famer. But because of his great athletic ability I didn't consider him among the great dominant physical centers in history from Mikan to Wilt, Kareem and Shaq. I know Russell wasn't big, but played more pure post whereas Hakeem was dream shaking his was along that baseline. Likewise, I didn't include Tim Duncan because he's been more a face-up forward while playing center. That story about the great big men leading up to Yao was a chance to talk about Yao, not a definitive look at every center. People will make arguments for Ewing and Robinson. I considered Hakeem, but don't look at him among the pivot men of another era.

I just read your latest mailbag where you agreed with a reader to trade Ben Gordon for Raja Bell. Are you kidding me? Who would do the scoring for the Bulls? At least Ben can drop 30 every now and then; Raja is a 12-point scorer at best. How many more defensive guys do we need? I do not want to become the Cleveland Cavs of the mid-late '90s. --David G., Vegas

Yeah, may have gotten a little carried away with that one, though I figured you'd have to get more from the Suns. It's just the idea of getting a bigger guard in, which Sefolosha can work into if he improves his shooting. But there was Hinrich again having to guard Kobe and getting into foul trouble quickly, instead of having someone take down Kobe.

Hi Sam! Good to see you back on the "trade block"! Isn't it time already for Paxson and Skiles to understand that the thing that wins games is the final score? And that you, actually, need a scorer to help with that? Let's face it, we need to get a proven scorer like Jermaine O´Neal, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, etc. Pax should stop overestimating potential and defense. So far, we haven't seen any of that. I'd say, send Andres Nocioni, Chris Duhon, P.J. Brown and Malik Allen to Minnesota, Indiana or the Suns and see what you can get in return. --Nicolás Neira, Mar del Plata, Argentina

Well, it isn't that easy, though you can be sure the Bulls are considering every option. They talked last season about players like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, but when was the last time you saw one of those guys dealt? It doesn't happen often, even when it seems teams should do it to rebuild. The Celtics aren't positioned for a title, the Sonics aren't, the Pacers aren't. But teams are loath to deal off its one star. Because then they'd say they'd end up like the Bulls with no scorers and potential. So the Bulls did what they could. You wouldn't say Curry, Chandler or Crawford would be that player, and Jay Williams didn't get a chance to be. The Pistons did it in similar fashion, though people underestimated the pickup of Rasheed Wallace, who could be that scorer. He just declined most times. Plus, until the Bulls have a better record and better season, the value of their players won't remain that high.

If I am not mistaken, Matt Harpring was a free agent this past summer. Why didn't the Bulls look to sign him? He is a veteren guard who is an above average defender and shooter, and seems like a Scott Skiles type of player--hard working, team player. etc. --Argie Gringorakos, Toronto

The Bulls almost signed him a few years back when they settled for Donyell Marshall. Jerry Krause hesitated on the deal. But it appeared Harpring was breaking down physically and, frankly, the Bulls are deep at small forward with Deng and Nocioni. Their need was size, rebounding and shooting, and Harpring was none of that.