How Pau Gasol's Passing Will Help the Chicago Bulls

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How Pau Gasol's Passing Will Help the Chicago Bulls
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

The return of Derrick Rose and the acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott will undoubtedly help the Chicago Bulls improve one of the worst offenses in the league last year.

It wasn't that head coach Tom Thibodeau struggled as a play designer; there was simply no offensive talent, an insurmountable obstacle for any coach. This season, Rose's return is the obvious headliner. As a former MVP whose ability to penetrate is largely unparalleled, Rose's impact will be felt immediately.

But Gasol will be nearly as valuable in Chicago's offense. His passing in particular will give Chicago two (along with Joakim Noah) of the best ball-distributing bigs in the league, a secondary type of facilitation that will keep opposing defenses on their heels.

The shift towards four perimeter players surrounding one pick-setting big is a schematic adjustment sweeping through nearly every NBA offense. The subsequent floor spacing makes it easier for point guards to penetrate and kick, stretching defenses to all corners of the floor.

Thibodeau has continually resisted this style in favor of two-big lineups, preferring to win the physical battle on defense and the glass. The replacement of Gasol for Carlos Boozer does little to dissuade him from continuing to play with size, and Gasol's ability to play both ends of the floor with versatility improve the Bulls dramatically.

In previous seasons, the trio of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Boozer ate up the majority of the frontcourt minutes. But any two-player selection naturally sacrificed one end of the floor, with Gibson's offensive game limited and Boozer's defensive acumen average at best. Thibodeau was always making a conscious choice to hurt some facet of his team.

With Gasol, there is no sacrifice: He plays offense and defense. Noah can use his superior quickness to handle stretch 4s and more perimeter-oriented bigs, while Gasol can park himself down low to protect the rim. And even in situations when favorable cross-matching is impossible, Gasol is adept at minimizing risk against quicker players by backing off and using his length to contest shots. Much like the Noah-Gibson duos last season, Noah-Gasol pairings will make it difficult for opposing offenses to score. 

Offensively, Gasol brings everything Boozer does: a solid mid-range catch-and-shoot game, an adept post game with multiple moves using both hands and a face-up game featuring running hooks and up-and-unders. 

But Gasol, unlike Boozer, is an elite passer at both the high and low post. Much of Chicago's offense last year was funneled through their bigs due to the dearth of talent at guard, but the return of Rose should change that.

Pick-and-roll will be heavily featured, and defenses won't let Rose beat them. They'll likely force the ball out of his hands, which means Gasol and Noah will be relied upon as key decision-makers near the free-throw line area. 

In short, plays like these—here we have Noah hitting Luol Deng in the corner for a three-pointer—will be quite frequent:

Gasol is similarly clever with the ball in his hands under pressure, able to take a dribble to suck in the defense before kicking it out to a shooter. More often, however, he'll keep the ball moving by quickly swinging it to an open man who has been left open by a help rotation. 

Gasol's presence will ease the pressure on Noah to be the lone playmaker among Chicago's bigs. If one pick-and-roll fails, they'll have the other big ready to jump in to set a second. The best offenses thrive in this side-to-side action, able to strike with secondary threats while a defense is on the move. 

There's one other aspect of Gasol's game that will expand upon his arrival in Chicago: his big-to-big passing skills. Though it was suppressed in Mike D'Antoni's system last season in Los Angeles, Gasol's ability to operate and pass within tight spaces provides a major advantage for a Chicago team that will not be able spread it out and fire bombs from deep. 

As with most two-big offenses, Gasol and Noah will function on a string to maintain spacing: As Noah rotates from block to elbow to free-throw line, Gasol shifts sides making the opposite movements. On a pick-and-roll, the pick-setter dives to the rim and the other big lifts to the elbow. This is known as a "roll-replace" technique. 

Here's an example with Boozer and Noah doing it in Chicago after a dribble handoff with Mike Dunleavy and Noah:

After the handoff, Noah dives straight down the lane while Boozer lifts up from the baseline. Dunleavy hits Boozer—the release valve in case the passing lane to the roller, Noah, is covered— due to the immediate ball pressure.

Boozer takes an open mid-range shot here, which is a good look for him. But Noah is a monster finisher in the restricted area, and actually has nice positioning here for a well-placed lob pass. But Boozer misses him because he has a tough time making this pass—both due to his shorter stature and general court-vision skills.

Now let's take a look at the same play in LA, this time with Gasol popping and Dwight Howard staying low. As Gasol receives the ball, he throws an immediate touch pass/lob to Howard, who lays it in. There's only a momentary window for this play to develop perfectly, and Gasol finds it and executes wonderfully. 

Sacrificing good shots for great shots isn't the norm in today's NBA, but Gasol is one of the few players in the league who willingly passes up his own opportunities for even better shots for teammates. Noah is another one.

It's not often that you find two bigs with such unselfish tendencies on the same team, and it's even less often that you find a team whose offense can be facilitated by interior passing.

This will make the Bulls even more dangerous, and leave defenses completely unable to key on Rose. If defenses do force him to give it up, he'll either be finding spot-up shooters or bigs who can make the right play as well. 

Too many bigs in today's NBA are incapable of doing anything with the ball above 15 feet: Since they're unable to shoot, they simply hold the ball and wait for a ball-handler to come get it. But court vision isn't a trait restricted to guards. Noah's passing has always been a nice bonus for Chicago, but Gasol's will be the crucial piece to unleash the full potential of the Chicago's offense. 

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