This is the first of a two-part series analyzing the Bulls’ free-agent signings this summer. The first installment is on former Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers forward/center Pau Gasol.
The “2014 Plan” didn’t exactly go as planned.
After striking out on Carmelo Anthony, the Chicago Bulls had to settle for Spanish big man Pau Gasol as a consolation prize. Gasol is nothing to sneeze at, especially at a rate of just three years and $22 million, but he’s still not that second star the Bulls front office has been searching for. Nonetheless, the 34-year old will be inserted into a Bulls starting lineup in desperate need of some offense. Gasol might be able to provide a major boost even with his age and expected decline of athleticism.
This is why Gasol has made almost $157 million in his career. Gasol is maestro in the post, as he’s comfortable finishing over his left or right shoulder with tremendous touch around the rim. Gasol doesn’t bully players in the post, but he’s crafty and uses his length to utilize an array of advanced post moves. Gasol is also deadly when facing up in the post with his high-arcing release.
Gasol had a down year on post-ups last season, shooting just 42.2 percent, but he still ranked 95th in the league on points per player from the post. Given post-ups accounted for 38.6 percent of his offense, ranking 95th in the league is not too shabby. Especially when considering the fast-paced system of Mike D’Antoni, as only the Sixers had more possessions per game than the Lakers. The Bulls ranked 28th in the league in pace, so Gasol should have much more time to operate in the post next season.
Gasol is also among the best passers from the post in the league. Gasol has averaged at least 3.3 assists per game for six consecutive seasons, with many of those dimes coming from the post. He routinely hits players from the post with interior passes or kicks it out to the perimeter to set up shooters. Having Noah and Gasol down low may be the best passing frontcourt in the league since Chris Webber, Brad Miller, and Vlade Divac in the early 2000s. Coach Tom Thibodeau would be wise to watch some game film of Rick Adelman-coached teams, who excelled at putting his big men in advantageous passing positions, including Kevin Love, who averaged 4.4 assists per game last season.
The Bulls could use some help down low, as they ranked last in the league in points per play from the post, shooting an abysmal 39.3 percent as a team last season.
The green in that shot chart is exactly where the Bulls need to place Gasol on the court next season. Gasol is dangerous in triple-threat positions, where he can drive, dish, or take the jumper. The threat of Gasol’s jumpshot opens up the lane for him to drive or pass it out to a teammate. Noah often struggled last season when defenders sagged off him, leaving little room for him to drive or utilize his tremendous passing abilities.
Gasol could operate out of the high post or elbows while Noah is manned in the paint. This would give Gasol the opportunity to shoot where he’s effective and have an outstanding offensive rebounder positioned in the paint if he misses. Melo would’ve given the Bulls offensive versatility that they haven’t seen in years, but the prospects of a Gasol-Noah pairing has to get Thibs excited.
This might be the most underrated aspect of Gasol’s game. Gasol is among the best pick-and-roll players in the league with his ability to finish in the paint and fade out for jumpers. Gasol ranked 35th in the league scoring 1.11 points per play as the pick-and-roll man at a 57.7 percent clip. Gasol may be old and slow-footed, but he’s still a legit seven-footer who weighs in at 250 pounds.
The potential of a Derrick Rose-Gasol pick-and-roll combo could be deadly. Rose isn’t known for his playmaking abilities, but he’s more than capable of setting up Gasol for easy baskets out of the pick-and-roll. Gasol is a master of the pick-and-pop, as he uses his frame to screen the defender, freeing himself up for an easy J. The Bulls also ranked dead last in the league in points per play from the pick-and-roll man, so Gasol’s presence can flip the script.
If there is a weakness in Gasol’s game, it’s his defense. At the age of 34, Gasol just doesn’t have the mobility to be an above-average defender. He instead relies on his length and smarts to get by defensively.
Gasol was surprisingly good at defense last season, ranking 47th in the league in points per play defensively. He was especially effective defending isolations and pick-and-rolls, where he ranked fifth and eighth in the league in points per play allowed. Gasol is a smart player who knows his limitations. He’s not going to shut down Dwight Howard anytime soon, but he could hold his own against most NBA big men. Gasol also benefited from playing predominately center last season, where he doesn’t have to move as much or face the plethora of elite power forwards in the league today.
Some other metrics weren’t as generous to Gasol, as he allowed a sky-high 23.8 opponent’s PER at power forward and 19.4 at center last season according to 82games.com. Gasol played 60 percent of his minutes at center according to 82games.com, or 83 percent according to basketball-reference.com, meaning he will likely have to adjust to being an everyday power forward next season. Noah’s elite help defense should minimize the damage, though Gasol will likely be slightly below-average at the defensive end. Considering he’s replacing Carlos Boozer, that’s a major step up defensively for the Bulls.
I should also mention Gasol’s ridiculous 12.3 rebounds per 40 minutes this season, which was a career best. His defensive-rebound rate of 25.9 was oddly enough tied with Boozer for 17th in the league. The Bulls don’t need any more rebounders, but making a strength even stronger is never a bad thing.
The intangibles of Gasol shouldn’t go unnoticed. There are few more high character guys in the league than Gasol. He’s always been known as a media darling and positive locker room presence. His reputation as a one of the good guys in the league can’t be overstated. The fact that he took an annual pay cut to pay for the Bulls in the first place is also a major plus.
Gasol also brings championship experience to a team lacking in that department. Gasol made three straight NBA Finals with the Lakers from 2007-10, helping LA win two of those trips. The Bulls youth couldn’t be more apparent then during their first-round exit against the Wizards last season.
There also may not be a better role model in the league for Nikola Mirotic, who the Bulls signed to a three year, $17 million deal on Sunday, than Gasol. Mirotic and Gasol both thrived in Spain at young ages, even if they hail from rival clubs in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Gasol can teach Mirotic how to play in the post, sharpen his jump shot, and perhaps most importantly, adjust to living in America. Transitioning from playing overseas to the NBA can be difficult, but Gasol will help Mirotic stay afloat.
Gasol isn’t going to immediately make the Bulls title contenders, but they didn’t break the bank for him, either. Expect Gasol’s statistics to take a hit given the Bulls slower pace, but his impact should be felt quickly. The thought of Gasol playing with Noah in the frontcourt with a healthy Rose at point guard has to put a smile on the face of Bulls fans. But if Gasol isn’t healthy and struggles to adjust to playing for a new team for the first time since 2008, things could get ugly. Given his professionalism and remarkable consistency throughout his career, Gasol could end up being a bargain for the Bulls. There are much worse Plan B’s than this.
Keep an eye out for the second part of this series, where I take a look at how the aforementioned Mirotic will fit with the Bulls next season.