Pau Gasol Makes Chicago Bulls Legitimate 2014-15 Title Contenders

Jim CavanContributor IJuly 16, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol, of Spain, walks down the court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, March 6, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls didn’t quite get the player they wanted. In the end, the pull of money and Madison Square Garden was too strong for Carmelo Anthony to resist.

Getting one they needed, though, easily makes them instant contenders in the East.

On Tuesday, the Bulls officially came to an agreement with veteran power forward Pau Gasol on a three-year, $22 million contract, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

To clear out the requisite cap space, the Bulls amnestied Carlos Boozer, essentially erasing the longtime forward’s forthcoming $16 million payday from the team’s salary cap, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 21:  Joakim Noah #13 and Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls talk during the game against the Denver Nuggets on November 21, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Bart Young/Getty Images

Now, with a core featuring Gasol, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls are well positioned to regain their status as an Eastern Conference elite—even with LeBron James’ landscape-quaking decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So long as a few things break in their favor, that is.

The first and most immediate concern is, of course, the health of Rose, who continues to recover from his second knee injury in as many years. All told, Rose has missed the better part of two full seasons, during which the Bulls relied almost exclusively on their top-tier defense to keep them in the conference conversation.

Chicago has remained mostly mum on Rose’s specific timetable. But that didn’t stop McDermott from offering some recent rave reviews. From Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago:

He looked great. You can tell he’s trying to get into better shape, but he looked real healthy to me. He was doing stuff he normally does, so that was great to see. He finds people so fast. He makes those quick decisions when he gets around the basket, so it’s great to have a guy like that.

Last we checked, McDermott wasn’t moonlighting as an orthopedic surgeon. Still, the optimism seems genuine enough. And the fact that Rose’s injury was a torn meniscus, rather than something more structural, should make Bulls fans feel safe in guarded optimism.

Between a healthy Rose, Gasol and Noah, the Bulls boast one of the most versatile and formidable trios in the league—a practically perfect pairing of incendiary scoring and two-way versatility.

It’s the other two positions that could prove the real pickle.

Apr 14, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during the second half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Butler belongs in the equation—that much is clear. Whether his fate is at the 2 or 3, though, remains an open question, a fact that becomes evident with one look at his positional splits, per

If McDermott is indeed ready for prime time, Tom Thibodeau’s decision is simple: start Butler at the 2 and Dougie McBuckets at the 3, with Mike Dunleavy coming off the bench.

As expected, Mirotic is the big X-factor here; if proven as good as advertised, the 6’10” Montenegrin will doubtless warrant serious minutes. Just not as a starter, with playing him at the 3 being neither feasible nor in keeping with Thibodeau’s defense-first orientation.

Chicago’s skipper will most certainly tinker and tweak before a reliable rotational scheme emerges. But, as Sam underscores in a different dispatch, having guys like Taj Gibson, Dunleavy, D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich call-up ready ought to be seen as a boon, rather than a burden:

Exactly how Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau distributes the minutes, most notably the big-man and wing rotations, is still a question and an alternate style of play to Rose being relied upon to create out of high pick-and-roll scenarios will be key — Noah must still be allowed to create for others, but pick-and-pop options featuring the aforementioned outside threats should also be a staple of the offense — but as the old adage goes, that’s a good problem to have. For the first time since the 10-deep “Bench Mob” days, the Bulls’ depth is truly a strength and in the wake of the narrative of the Spurs’ team-first aesthetic defeating the Heat’s more individual-based game, there’s a reason for optimism in Chicago.

For those who think putting these Bulls in the contention conversation might be jumping the gun, consider Chicago’s starting five during the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals: Rose, Noah, Boozer, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans.

To be sure, losing Deng deprived Thibodeau of not just one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, but also a player who could be counted on to create his own shot in a crunch—if not with overwhelming efficiency.

McDermott’s NBA-ready three-point prowess is bound to benefit the Bulls. It’s on the other end of the floor that the Creighton product’s skills stand to drive Thibodeau mad.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  Doug McDermott #3 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Denver Nuggets at the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 13, 2014 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Whatever the humps and hiccups Chicago must weather, the impact of Gasol’s signing promises to be as positive as it is immediate. Gasol isn’t just an upgrade over Boozer; upgrades are for laptops and cellphone plans. This was an all-out coup, the kind of talent injection that pays dividends well beyond the box score.

That’s not to suggest Boozer was somehow a negative in the latter respect; far from it. But when you sign a guy with two rings to his credit—the only two rings in this Bulls’ locker room, it should be noted—the dividends are immediate and infectious.

DENVER, CO - March 7: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during a game against the Denver Nuggets on March 7, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Bart Young/Getty Images

What Chicago’s lacked over the past two years isn’t merely scoring, although Rose serves that up in spades. It’s playmaking. Point guards make plays, and for all of his bucket-getting exploits, Rose remains that first and foremost.

Beyond him, through, the Bulls simply haven’t had a playmaker of Gasol’s caliber—someone capable of both bullying his way to two or a trip to the line and finding guys on cuts and in corners. And while he’s no Dwight Howard on defense, Gasol’s ability to protect the rim is worlds beyond Boozer’s. He’s a team defender in the truest sense of the term.

As with any team fresh off of an influx of talent, the Bulls face quite the learning curve. Good thing they now have one of basketball’s foremost prodigies to help set it.