Court Changes: Gasol Heads to Chi-Town

Will Pau Gasol be just enough to make the Bulls contenders?
by July 15, 2014

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million contract with the Chicago Bulls.

Pau Gasol made this decision because: he needed a fresh start in a different conference.

The time in Gasol’s career when he was the key piece the Lakers needed to get them over the hump and into the NBA Finals seems like a distant memory. At one point, Los Angeles adored the crafty Spaniard for his willingness to play Robin behind Kobe while remaining vital to the team’s triangle offense and defensive solidarity. He was their champion.

That period has been long gone.

Ever since the Dallas Mavericks dismantled and embarrassed the entire Lakers franchise by walloping them in the final game of a four-game sweep in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, Gasol has dealt with a substantial amount of criticism and blame.

Whether or not this reproach is justified, the 7-footer found himself stuck in a place he couldn’t escape. When society plasters a distinct negative image on a professional athlete (LeBron James—the choke artist…remember that?), changing that perception is close to impossible. Gasol had no choice but to get away from the mess he’s been in the middle of the past few seasons and start anew with a more solidified foundation.

The Chicago Bulls offer Gasol almost everything the Lakers once did but no longer can. In a new city with a roster ready to compete, the Bulls have a coach, system and identity in place for Gasol to settle into. He joins his new team as a low-maintenance professional on and off the court, ready to buy into what his coach and team need him to do. (Meanwhile, his former team still hasn’t even hired a coach.)

A chance to start over is sometimes the perfect medicine for an NBA player sick of dealing with his own struggles and the disarrays of his franchise. Gasol seemed to have lost the passion he once had for basketball toward the end of his tenure in California. He has the chance to recapture this fervor as he can now call the wide-open East and championship-aspiring Bulls his new home.

This is good for the Bulls because: Gasol embodies what Tom Thibodeau expects from his players.

The former Coach of the Year is a no-nonsense, hard-nosed head coach who demands complete effort from every single one of his players, no matter his salary. He continues to be one of the main reasons Chicago has won almost two-thirds of its games (205-107) since he took the reins in 2010.

Some coaches adjust to the players their front office provides, but Thibodeau makes the players adapt to his approach for the betterment of the team. It will always about the betterment of the team for Thibs. Even without their star point guard the past two seasons, the Bulls have a head coach who has scoffed at the idea of tanking and established a “next man up” winning attitude that bolsters the Spurs’ argument, “systems beat stars.”

After playing for the star-studded Lakers followed by the mediocre-muddled Lakers, the older Gasol brother travels to Illinois as the type of player his coach wishes would come around more often. Other sought-after free agents might have better complimented the current roster, but very few players in the League would be more willing to sacrifice the spotlight and attention than Gasol. He’s been there, done that…and it never fit. The new team-first culture he’s joining will almost certainly be a better match.

This is bad for the Bulls because: it could be 2010 all over again.

Before James, Wade and Bosh became a super team down in South Beach, a common belief revolved around one or two of these players heading to the Windy City and teaming up with an on-the-rise, both literally and figuratively, Derrick Rose. With Rose and Joakim Noah being filled with potential, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich providing veteran stability and Chicago representing a city of champions, it seemed likely at least one of these scorers would choose Chi-Town.

Well, we all know what happened. Thanks to that strikeout, the Bulls ended up settling on Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer. At the time, though, it was in no way considered “settling” to sign Boozer, who was coming off a successful season in which he averaged 19.5 ppg and 11.2 rpg on 56.2 percent shooting for a playoff team.

But Boozer has been an utter disappointment from the start, never looking like a piece Thibodeau can use in his intricate puzzle. The Bulls play a team defense, five guys on a string, and Boozer rarely has connected. His statistics may look good in retrospect but many of those were empty numbers that failed to impact games or seasons in any legitimate way. It got to the point where Thibs couldn’t trust Boozer when the game was on the line and sat him down the stretch.

Before this offseason even began, journalists and bloggers alike started dreaming up and putting into words the idea Carmelo Anthony on the Bulls. And with Melo’s vocal desire to sign with a team where he could win, it seemed like a match made in heaven to finally give Rose the fellow creator and scorer he’s craved since leaving the University of Memphis. It made so much basketball sense.

Melo decided to give Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher a shot in rebuilding the Knicks into a spitting image of something Gasol used to be a part of. So, the Bulls yet again were spurned and forced to turn their attention to a big man. Unlike before, the newest power forward has more versatile skills on his tool belt and a better understanding of the game as a whole. And he also doesn’t come in on a potentially bloated contract that the front office will try to rid of. (If not traded before Wednesday, Boozer will inevitably be amnestied at that point.)

But just like four years ago, Rose still does not have a teammate he can simply give the ball to and watch go to work. If that’s not bad enough, the two teammates that have come closest to replicating Rose’s playmaking abilities (Nate Robinson and DJ Augustin) both only lasted one season and are no longer with the team.

Gasol will provide desperately needed offense for a team that scored 69 points in their final playoff game…but not to the extent Melo would have. Along with a healthy star point guard and the quick development of Dougie McBuckets, everyone in the Bulls organization must hope for anything but a repeat of 2010.

This is good for the Bulls’ interior passing because: it now might be the best in the League.

Prior to this signing, the Bulls already have been showing their opponents how difficult it is to guard a big man who has the ability to see the floor. Noah handling the ball at the elbow while Augustin worked off ball might have been the only reason the Bulls’ offense actually existed.

The addition of Gasol to the Chicago frontline will force opposing defenses to sweat much more than before. Last season, in terms of assists per game for power forwards and centers, Noah ranked first (5.4) and Gasol ranked sixth (3.4), directly behind brother Marc Gasol (3.6). These are some of the best passing big men the NBA has to offer, and now they will get the chance to pass to one another.

As Rose works his way back into Thibs’ system and attempts to regain his MVP-form, working with Noah and/or Gasol at all times should aid the ball handler and playmaker in getting the ball moving earlier and avoiding so many stagnant possessions.

This will be challenging for Tom Thibodeau because: he has to adjust his coaching approach.

Thibodeau does deserve to be considered as one of the League’s most analytical, thoughtful and hardworking coaches, but he does come with his faults. The former Salem State Viking has a tendency to run his players into the ground over the course of a season.

To put it in perspective, former Bulls small forward Luol Deng averaged 38.7 mpg during his three-and-a-half seasons with Thibs. He averaged less than 10 minutes of rest…for four straight seasons. Current shooting guard Jimmy Butler played the entirety of an overtime loss (53 minutes) to the Wizards in this year’s Playoffs, despite only shooting 2-9 from the field. Noah, who averaged 35.3 mpg during the regular season, looked worn down toward the end of Chicago’s first-round exit and even admitted he was playing through a knee injury.

Gasol missed 22 games last season and 33 the year before due to an assortment of injuries. Rather than one or two lingering injuries, the 34-year-old has been beaten up literally from head (concussion) to toe (plantar fasciitis). NBA big men who start struggling with injuries in their mid-30s typically don’t suddenly discover a new sense of durability—especially when playing for a coach like Thibodeau.

With Noah’s wear and tear along with Gasol’s age, it would be an injury waiting to happen if Thibodeau continues taxing his players in such a relentless manner. Gibson is coming off his best season in which he was a serious contender for Sixth Man of the Year. The Bulls’ 2011 first-round pick Nikola Mirotic is finally traveling to America and joining the Bulls this season. Thibodeau has other viable options in the frontcourt, which could allow both Noah and Gasol to get more rest throughout the course of an 82-game season—as long as Thibodeau modifies his coaching habits.

This will have a moderate impact on the Bulls because: the East’s elite teams don’t need much to suddenly become contenders.

Since Miami has come back down to Earth, there is a new slot open in the NBA Finals. While the East has recently had plenty of openings in the bottom half of the Playoffs, it has had few teams with legitimate chances of getting past the Heat, a squad that made four straight Finals appearances.

That’s all changed. LeBron has decided to join a Cavs team that isn’t ready to compete for a Championship right away—no matter the Vegas odds. Logic says a team with a coach who has never coached in America and a nucleus centered around players in their early 20s will require time to develop. If LeBron, Wade and Bosh needed two seasons to figure out how to mesh and complement one another, Blatt and his Cavs will go through some growing pains.

Now is the time for the East’s top teams to make their push before LeBron and Kyrie (and possibly Love) become an overwhelming one-two(-three) punch. Often times, an NBA team’s championship window closes much faster than it opens. Currently, the East’s window into the NBA Finals is wide open.

Bringing in Gasol isn’t the type of radical signing that will change the landscape of the Bulls’ offense or defense. Best-case scenario? The Spaniard seamlessly fits into what has already been established. Well, and Rose stays healthy.

Maybe that’s enough for them to get over the hump and maybe it’s not. For now, they can enjoy the feeling of looking out their own championship window and dreaming of what could be.

Previously in 2013-14 offseason:
Court Changes: Return of the King
Court Changes: Tyson Returns to Big D