How Chicago Bulls' Signing Pau Gasol Shapes Rest of 2014 Offseason

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How Chicago Bulls' Signing Pau Gasol Shapes Rest of 2014 Offseason
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls have signed Pau Gasol, the consolation prize of their 2013-14 offseason. Now all that’s left to do is figure out how to finish constructing the rest of the team.

After trade talks for a sign-and-trade with the Los Angeles Lakers broke down, Gasol tweeted the news, announcing he was a Chicago Bull:

Per Adrian Wojnarowski, the deal was “in the range” of starting at $6.5 million:

 

The Benefit of Pau Gasol

The Bulls will have to officially amnesty Carlos Boozer to sign Gasol. I will pause now in my writing to give you a moment to weep tears of joy.

(Long pause).

Did that feel good? Some, though, may not have wept as thoroughly as they should have, feeling that Gasol is just another "Boozer signing," meaning that it's too reminiscent of 2010, when the Bulls inked Boozer as their consolation prize. But it’s not even comparable.

Gasol is a much better player than Boozer on both sides of the ball. First, look at their Synergy numbers on offense:

MySynergySports.com

And now here they are compared on defense (bear in mind lower is better here):

MySynergySports

In all there are nine categories, five on offense and four on defense, which make up at least 10 percent of their plays on each side of the ball. Gasol is significantly better in seven, slightly better in one, and Boozer is better in one, defending the spot up.

And that one area is the most dependent on team defense. Boozer played on an elite defense, and the Lakers defense was essentially a hot mess all year, finishing 29th in points per game and 28th in defensive rating.

The area where there is the greatest difference on both sides of the court is the pick-and-roll. The next biggest difference, again on both ends, is in posting up. Those are the two most important areas for the power forward.

Without question, Gasol is a demonstrably significant upgrade over Boozer, and he counts as less than half the cost against the cap. He is not another Boozer. 

The other thing, and perhaps the hidden beauty to the Bulls' thinking here, is the pairing of Joakim Noah with Gasol in the paint. Among forward/centers last season, the two were first and third, respectively, in assists per game. That’s quite a passing tandem to have up front.

In Gasol and Noah, considering both sides of the ball, leadership and basketball IQ, the Bulls have arguably the most complete tandem at the position in the NBA (though the Los Angeles Clippers with Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan would argue they have the best). When you factor in Taj Gibson coming off the bench, that’s quite a trio.

Gibson was expected to step in as the starter, but similar to last year he should still play starter minutes, though it remains to be seen how this all works out, especially with the addition of Nikola Mirotic as well (more on that below). And the best part is they cost just $27 million.

 

What the Bulls Still Need

So, what else do the Bulls need to do? Here’s their current roster and cap situation. 

Current Bulls Roster and Salaries
Player 2014/2015
Derrick Rose $18,862,876
Joakim Noah $12,700,000
Taj Gibson $8,000,000
Pau Gasol $6,500,000
Mike Dunleavy $3,326,235
Jimmy Butler $2,008,748
Doug McDermott $1,898,300
Anthony Randolph $1,825,359
Tony Snell $1,472,400
Incomplete Roster Charge (x2) $1,014,672
Cameron Bairstow $507,336
Richard Hamilton * $333,336
Total $58,449,260
Cap $63,065,000
Space $4,615,740

ShamSports.com

You may notice the omission of Greg Smith, but per Marc Spears of Yahoo, he will be traded to the Dallas Mavericks:

So essentially, this means that the Bulls will have three or four more additions to their roster. Two of the players will divide that $4,615,740, both receiving at least the minimum, $507,336. More than likely, Mirotic will take the bulk of that.

Mirotic is the European sensation the Bulls drafted in 2011 and have been waiting for. He is a true stretch 4 who hit .461 from deep last season for Real Madrid. That should make the Bulls even deeper in the paint.

Some would even say, too deep, arguing that the biggest need is at the wings, and ask why they would be spending all their free-agency cash on power forwards?

Bulls by the Horns writer Trenton Jocz has an insightful answer to that question:  

Also, it makes sense on a game theory level. One of the most rudimentary strategies, regardless of whether it’s a game, a business, or in the case of the NBA, both, is if all of your competitors are doing one thing, there’s likely market inefficiencies to be exploited in doing the opposite. That, not sabermetrics, was the core idea behind Moneyball, and smart people in the NBA like Mark Cuban, who has overseen a retool of the Mavs around sub-star contracts in the $7-10 million range in lieu of a full-blown rebuild, are trying to capitalize in the same way.

In other words, as he explains, right now small ball is all the rage. So you have people going out and dropping ridiculous sums of money on players who can facilitate that style. But because of that, traditional big men are getting brushed aside. That’s how you get a guy of Gasol’s caliber for $6.5 million while Avery Bradley is going for $8 million.

What wing was available for $6.5 million who was going to put the Bulls over the top? Vince Carter? Paul Pierce?

You’re already going to have a hard enough time trying to “out-wing” LeBron James to a championship. The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t do it with Kevin Durant. The Indiana Pacers couldn’t do it with Paul George. So, the Bulls are certainly not going to do it with $6.5 million.

They’re just not going to copycat their way to a championship. Their best chance is to innovate their way to one. It’s better to be the next team everyone else is copying.

The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t the Miami Heat, but they have the similar strengths and weaknesses. They have great players at the perimeter and are weak in the interior.

The Bulls can’t beat the Cavs playing small ball, but they can beat them by making them pay for playing small ball. And that appears to be the strategy. Pound them inside. Then when they pack the paint, hit them with shooters. And when they come out to the paint, have Derrick Rose shred them with drives. And if they trap Rose, feed the bigs inside.

The reason other teams struggle beating small ball with an inside-out game is the inside game isn’t there. With the Bulls bigs, it is. And with the passing and ball movement that’s available to them, they can be awfully creative, although now that’s the challenge that Tom Thibodeau faces.

And the smartest part of this strategy is that with bigs like Noah and Gibson, who can defend the perimeter exceptionally well, Chicago can play big while defending small ball equally well.

Another thing to bear in mind is that Gasol is not all the Bulls have done this offseason.

They’ve added Doug McDermott, the Naismith College Player of the Year. Mirotic is a knockdown three-point shooter. Rose is returning from injury, and the last year he was healthy, the Bulls were the fifth-most efficient offense in the league. People forget just how good he can be.

And potentially, they could be getting more help from a surprise source if the first game of Tony Snell’s summer league was any indication. He scored 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting and 5-of-7 from three-point range.

And he was scoring with an array of moves too, burying threes, hitting driving tear drop shots, crossing people over, nailing tomahawk jams, stopping and popping and Dirk Nowitzki-step backs. Of course, it’s only one summer league game, but Snell has clearly been practicing.

Do the Bulls get the improvement in lump sum the way they would have with Carmelo Anthony? Perhaps not, but they can get it incrementally. They get a little bit from each player. The San Antonio Spurs proved last year that can be enough to win championships.

The Bulls have added a ton of help already. You can argue that now their four best scorers are (or will be) Rose, Gasol, McDermott and Mirotic, and none of those were on last year’s roster except for Rose for 10 games. Gibson might not be a great second option, but if he’s your fifth-best option, you’re feeling pretty good.

After using the biannual exception on Kirk Hinrich, they need one more player who can create off the bounce. Jordan Crawford, Bo McCalebb or both (I discuss them in more detail here) would fit nicely.

The point is, the answer to all the team's problems isn’t going to be found in one all-inclusive player. There is only one guy who does that, and he plays for Cleveland. But it can be found in various roles filled by different players, and that appears to be the course the front office has charted.

Their offseason isn’t going to be a success or failure based on the best player the Bulls acquire but on whether they’ve assembled the best possible team. The answer to that question may not be fully known until the season is well underway. But for now, there appears to be a method to their madness.

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