Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Pau Gasol with Chicago Bulls

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Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Pau Gasol with Chicago Bulls
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In terms of his quality as a human being, there's not much breadth of opinion on new Chicago Bulls big man Pau Gasol.

Anyone who's ever heard or read anything about the Spaniard loves him. And if you've come into actual contact with him, you're probably ready to name your first-, second- and third-born sons Pau. The guy has aspirations to be a doctor and somehow emerged from seven emotionally abusive years alongside Kobe Bryant with his head held high and sanity intact.

Not to mention gratitude, per a blog post from the man himself:

I am thankful that I was able to play with one of the greatest NBA players, Kobe Bryant, alongside many other great teammates, and for one of the greatest coaches, Phil Jackson and his coaching staff. I‘m also grateful to have played for one of the best owners in all of sports: the Buss family. However, I realize that the Lakers are in a rebuilding process. I have no doubt the Lakers will be a top contender in the future. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ timetable does not align with mine. I wish the Lakers and its fans nothing but the best going forward.

Any lingering doubts about Gasol's unassailable goodness as a person should disappear upon learning that even a guy as perpetually intense as Tom Thibodeau cracked his stone-faced facade at the mere mention of his new frontcourt weapon:

In contrast to the consensus surrounding Gasol's personal merits, there's a much larger spectrum of opinion on the topic of how he'll fit in with the Bulls. That discord gets an added boost because of the high stakes the Bulls are facing this season.

With Derrick Rose coming back, a deeper bench than they've had in years and an Eastern Conference begging to be taken over, the Bulls are in a position to do some big things. Playing this offseason correctly could mean the difference between battling it out for the fifth seed or putting a stranglehold on the conference.

At first glance, you'd think Gasol would only help the latter possibility come to fruition. He's a two-time champ who enjoyed a bounce-back season last year. Plus, he gives a Bulls team lacking offense one of the best passing big men of all time.

Then again, what if he doesn't fit into Thibs' exacting defensive system? What if he can't coexist with Joakim Noah? What if age and injury catch up to the 34-year-old?

Gasol the man brings nothing but good things to Chicago. Gasol the player, though, comes toting a pair of polar-opposite possibilities.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In an ideal world, Gasol immediately supercharges the Bulls offense with his passing, mid-range shooting and post-up acumen.

As a distributor, we know Gasol is flat-out elite. He sees the floor like a guard and clearly delights in the occasional chances he gets to imitate one.

Among big men, only Noah and Kevin Love assisted on a higher percentage of their teammates' field goals last season than Gasol, who was credited as the helper on 18.4 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers' buckets when he was on the floor, per NBA.com.

Even if it's a bit unfair to make one-to-one comparisons between Gasol and the guy he's replacing in the soon-to-be-amnestied Carlos Boozer, any best-case scenario must consider the individual upgrade Pau provides.

As you can see from the 2013-14 data laid out below, Gasol is simply more efficient, more productive and an unarguably better offensive player than Boozer:

Pau Gasol vs. Carlos Boozer in 2013-14
PPG APG FG% TS%
Gasol 17.4 3.4 .480 .522
Boozer 13.7 1.6 .456 .489

NBA.com

Optimistically, Gasol will team with Noah in some stretches to get the rock absolutely hopping around the floor on offense. In others, he'll pair perfectly as a singular elbow-facilitator while Taj Gibson bullies opponents on the baseline and block.

Either way, the ball-handling burden on Rose should ease substantially with Gasol in the fold. Plus, Chicago's cramped spacing should improve, and its shooters should get more open looks than they know what to do with.

Remember, the Bulls have never been so perfectly equipped to take advantage of their perimeter-scoring potential:

If Gasol plays his best, and all the looming issues of fit and fitness disappear, the Bulls could get back to the two-way dominance they enjoyed in 2011-12, when they paired their No. 1 defensive rating with the NBA's fifth-best scoring attack.

Put in the simplest terms, a team that ranks in the top five on both ends has a championship profile.

That's what Gasol could give these Bulls.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Not everyone's sold on Gasol helping the Bulls maximize their potential, including ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle, whose analytics-based approach deems Gasol a merely marginal improvement over Boozer (subscription required):

Boozer was below replacement level last season, but given similar minutes to Gasol, a presumed bounce-back season and his age, his rough projection is 3.2 WARP. So Chicago's chief free-agent acquisition of the summer will be around a two-win upgrade. But even that's not the problem. Had Chicago just kept Boozer on the books, their baseline projection, which I now have in the range of 53 to 55 wins, would not have been significantly altered.

There's other information out there that points to a similar conclusion. For example, Gasol limited opponents to 54.6 percent shooting at the rim. Boozer, defensively invisible as he is, was only slightly worse, holding opponents to 55.3 percent shooting at close range.

You could make the argument that Gasol's glaring lack of defensive support left him frequently hung out to dry in Los Angeles, while Boozer had loads of help and a sound system to work with. Even with some contextualizing, those numbers don't look great for Gasol or the Bulls.

Chicago is built on defense, and anyone who can't hack on that end won't see minutes down the stretch. Just ask Boozer.

Health is also an issue for Gasol, who missed 22 games last year and 33 the year before. He dealt with everything from concussions to plantar fasciitis during that two-season span, meaning he's literally been beaten up from head to toe.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

At 34, players don't usually see sudden spikes in durability—especially if they're about to sign on with Thibodeau and his taxing system.

It's fair to wonder whether Gasol can play alongside Noah in space, and it's easy to say he won't be able to perform up to Chicago's demanding defensive standards. But the real issue, the one that should frighten the Bulls most, has to do with the possibility that Gasol simply won't hold up physically.

And, if he can't be a major contributor because of his health, Gasol will leave the Bulls thinner up front than they'd expected. What's worse, Chicago will have used up that final precious bullet it had been saving forever—Boozer's amnesty—for a guy who can't stay on the floor to make it count.

And as we've harped on already, now is the time for the Bulls to make a push. The East is theirs if they want it. Getting nothing from Gasol might not seem like a big deal with the likes of Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic in line to contribute.

But every little bit helps, and Chicago could have utilized its cash and roster spot on an abler body than Gasol. If this doesn't work out, the greatest cost to the Bulls might be one of opportunity.

 

Viva Chicago!

Bart Young/Getty Images

Count me among the Gasol believers.

Maybe my optimism exists with some bias. Gasol is easy to root for, but it's not crazy to objectively expect this whole thing to work out for the best.

Really, all Gasol has to do is outplay Boozer, move the ball and position himself intelligently on defense for the Bulls to get a good return on their investment. Those are low bars, and assuming reasonable health, Gasol shouldn't have a problem clearing them.

Maybe the numbers say Gasol isn't a world-altering piece, but what he brings to the Bulls goes beyond stats. He's a total pro, an unselfish player and a guy with a track record of making his teammates better.

Could this all still go bad? Sure.

But it seems more likely Gasol will give the Bulls what they need.

More than that, he'll give them what they desperately want: a shot to reclaim their position among the East's elite.

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