By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – After all the smiles, jokes of adapting to Chicago winters and talk of overcoming a language barrier had passed, one of Friday’s more revealing moments at the press conference to introduce new Bulls Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic came from Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, away from the camera’s glare.
“Nineteen and 18,” Thibodeau said, the numbers forever branded in his mind.
That was Gasol’s stat line in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between his Lakers and Thibodeau’s Celtics – 19 points, 18 rebounds. It was a decisive game won not just in the paint by Los Angeles, but in the brutal five or so feet around the rim, with Gasol in the middle of it all as Thibodeau, then an assistant, could do nothing but watch from the Boston bench.
It’s a game that won’t fade from memory.
“I prefer not to refer back to it,” Thibodeau said.
The Gasol sitting at the dais on the third floor of the United Center on Friday isn’t the same guy who was arguably a top-three big man in the world four years ago. Now 34, Gasol has been hampered by various injuries the past two seasons, including vertigo and knee problems, and has missed 55 games in that span. He’s declined defensively, his mobility not what it once was, and he’s probably best served playing around 28-30 minutes a game.
So there are some questions regarding him signing a three-year, $22-million deal, but after missing out on Carmelo Anthony, the Bulls knew Gasol was the man they wanted. As many rue that Anthony was the perfect fit for Chicago, they lose sight that in a different way, Gasol also brings to the table what the Bulls were missing.
With Gasol, throwing the ball on the block should be a more efficient endgame for the Bulls. Carlos Boozer most recently held that low-post responsibility, but only once in his four seasons was he above league average on shooting percentage inside eight feet, per NBA.com, and he was too often a black hole or robot upon receiving entry passes. He had a penchant for facing up and then getting tunnel vision, locked in on the basket.
To be fair, Gasol (55.4) shot a similar percentage to Boozer (53.6) from inside eight feet last year, but he brings a wider array of post moves and is a deft passer. What doesn’t deteriorate, even in his career’s twilight, is Gasol’s footwork and high IQ.
“He’s a quick decision-maker,” Thibodeau said.
As a modern-day, mobile center, Joakim Noah’s best offensive assets are his vision for passing, his dives to the hole and penchant to crash the glass, the latter of which he was handcuffed on last season in playing out of the high post so often. Gasol’s game complements all that, and any combination of him, Noah and power forward Taj Gibson could play together, Thibodeau said (though he ruled out all three at the same time, out of offensive shooting concerns).
It’s Gasol’s ability down low that could take some of the burden off point guard Derrick Rose as he returns from a right medial meniscus tear that he suffered in November 2012. That’s important too, because the Bulls would be wise to not put the same strain on Rose as they did in 2010-’11, when they marched to a 62-win season and Rose won an MVP in an offensive system heavily reliant on the pick-and-roll and his ability to slash.
And it’s Gasol’s ability to play out of the high post and in the pick-and-roll that really gets Thibodeau going, for Rose still needs a partner up there.
Gasol can be a 7-foot facilitator, a luxury these Bulls have never had.
“He’s excellent in the pick-and-roll,” Thibodeau said. “He’ll read how the defense is playing the pick-and-roll. He knows the areas to go to, and he has the ability to make great decisions from there – shot, high-low, a quick swing. And he does it instinctively. And then he’s also very effective in the elbow area. So I think there’s a lot of different ways we can use him.”
Interestingly, the addition of Gasol could represent a fork in the road that is Thibodeau’s coaching identity. Since he arrived in Chicago in 2010, Thibodeau’s teams have been known for their defensive prowess and too often their offensive ineptitude, but with the front office executing on the plan to add shooting and offensive versatility this offseason, the pendulum has swung.
Thibodeau will have telling decisions to make this season. Tenacious defender Gibson or the more offensively gifted Gasol in crunch time? Will stalwart Mike Dunleavy or rookie sharpshooter Doug McDermott get the lion’s share of minutes at small forward? How much leash is given to Mirotic, a stretch four who can make up for the team’s lack of shooting at two-guard but who figures to have a steep learning curve defensively?
And, in a question no one coud’ve thought possible in recent years, this needs to be asked: How offensively creative can the sharp-but-defensive-minded Thibodeau be to keep everyone happy? Rose, Gasol and McDermott are used to the offense running through them, Jimmy Butler will be in a contract year and Noah and Gibson have become accustomed to having the ball in their hands.
“The challenge is how quickly we can get on the same page,” Thibodeau said.
As the cynical fan can rightly look at Gasol as a consolation prize, the Bulls believe him to be a final piece of the puzzle to championship contention. In an ironic twist, Gasol turned down more lucrative offers to come to Chicago – which was the same pitch the Bulls unsuccessfully sold Anthony on, albeit with much bigger stakes.
“Money wasn’t the priority here,” said Gasol, a two-time champion who’s the only Bulls player to have played in the NBA Finals.
“I prioritized being on a championship-caliber team and being in a position where … I can push that team over the top with my game … I strongly believe this team has the potential and capability to get there.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.