CHICAGO — A most fascinating and complex experiment is beginning to unfold, and the beauty of it is that the participants are intelligent and mature enough to understand it.
Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are established greats in this game. They hold each other in the highest esteem and are great team guys. It would be hard to find two more respectable, upstanding, thoughtful men in all of basketball.
Each is hellbent not to sell himself short this season. For soulful, personal reasons, they were kind enough to share—and with the reality check of looming free agency—each is determined to have a big year.
The only viable way for them to achieve all they intend this season with the Chicago Bulls is together.
The 7'0" Gasol and 6'11" Noah as twin towers in today's minimized NBA?
"I'm excited," Noah told Bleacher Report. "I think it can work. Last year I wasn't healthy. I feel a lot better this year. We have a new philosophy, new coach and all I worked on this summer was just getting back to moving the way I'm capable of moving. I think I'm capable. We're capable of playing together.
"Just because Golden State won the championship playing small ball doesn't mean that's the only way you can win. Pau Gasol has won championships before with a center."
Noah sees himself and Gasol as a far better fit than Gasol and the more immobile Andrew Bynum—or even Gasol and Dwight Howard, the awkward pairing that failed for the Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash Lakers so spectacularly that Gasol's Hall of Fame career veered momentarily off track.
Despite how tough a time Gasol had with Howard, Gasol points more to the rigidity of Mike D'Antoni's guard-centric system as the problem.
"Most of the season, we were playing in a system that wasn't designed for any interior player," Gasol said.
That only adds to the pressure on rookie NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has been tight-lipped about how committed he is to pairing the 2013-14 first-team All-NBA center (Noah) and the 2014-15 Eastern Conference All-Star starting center (Gasol). Desirable power forward options exist in a healthier Taj Gibson and more acclimated Nikola Mirotic.
Plus, this is a league that worships at the D'Antoni speed-ball shrine even more now than when the Lakers were trying it. And Hoiberg succeeded at Iowa State in large part because of his offense's pacing and spacing.
Yet if the Bulls are to break through this season, Hoiberg had better be open-minded about maximizing two of basketball's best big men.
"We can complement each other well," Gasol said. "It depends on how we are used and how the system is designed and what our coach wants and envisions.
"Jo is a player who doesn't need the ball too much in his hands. He does all the little things. He's a great defensive player. Because I'm more traditional and because of my experience, I do like the bigger lineup."
Noah can guard the perimeter, jumping pick-and-rolls and covering power forwards the way he did well when paired with the slower Carlos Boozer. In addition to pointing toward brother Marc and Zach Randolph's effective partnership in Memphis, Gasol still clings to memories of the Lakers coming to life late in 2012-13, when the offense ran through him and he had Howard feasting on easy high-low baskets.
It is as common a conundrum on any basketball team as the decision to pass or shoot to have two guys vying for the same position. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way for Gasol and Noah, who offer an old-school challenge to Hoiberg at a time when he's modernizing the Bulls offense from the Tom Thibodeau era.
Both Noah and Gasol see the Bulls' frontcourt depth as a great strength and noted Gibson and Mirotic have much to offer. Everyone, though, is also aware that most opposing teams these days are happy to trot out some 6'7" wide receiver to play power forward—if not center.
Noah and Gasol just want Hoiberg to give them a real chance together.
Part of it is that Noah is sure he's going to have a killer season with a recharged knee and a new no-distractions focus on basketball. And Gasol is absolutely steadfast that he is never again going to take a back seat as he did around D'Antoni and Howard.
There's no stopping them individually in their own minds.
"I'm a completely different player than I was last year because of my approach and where I am in my life," Noah said.
He hit the big 3-0 in February and got introspective about "understanding what stresses me out, what bothers me, what makes me happy." Meanwhile, he had the cutting-edge sports-science academy P3 overhaul his body over the summer.
Noah has taken to going to bed early. "Very underrated," he calls it with a laugh. When he rises bright-eyed in the morning, it is daily yoga that greets him.
"Just trying to channel all my energy into basketball right now. I owe that to my teammates," Noah said. "It's definitely part of growing up.
"When you play in the NBA at this level, there are a lot of distractions. Not all of them are bad; you just have access to a lot. Some of the things might be important to you. I want to make this everything right now and worry about all the other stuff later."
In the Bulls' first training camp sessions, Noah has been as robust and productive as ever. Despite his resume, he speaks of using training camp for "proving myself." Already, Hoiberg said he notices the "swagger" only Noah can give this team.
He is going to be that demon again this season, make no mistake—and it's well-timed with his contract up at season's end.
Noah's hope, though, is that his resurgence doesn't just tip the scales back, pushing Gasol down. Noah's weak left knee was one reason Gasol, known as "The Renaissance Man" for his worldly sophistication, enjoyed a renaissance 2014-15 season.
The roll continued with Gasol's domination of the EuroBasket tournament last month; he carried Spain to the title. The ongoing success has crystallized the notion in Gasol's mind that he will never allow any coach or scheme or roster makeup to marginalize him again.
"If I continue to be at this level of concentration and aggressiveness and decisiveness," he said, "I won't care too much who I play with or what we do on the floor."
Yes, Gasol will indulge some pick-and-pop alignments and can be entertained lofting a corner three here and there. But if Hoiberg's offense pushes Gasol away from the paint and post?
"I will find that room. And I will make that room," Gasol said. "That's my mindset now."
It is a byproduct of his deep regret over the D'Antoni debacle.
"I did try to buy more into what he was selling and he was preaching," Gasol said. "I gave it a shot and I kind of followed the directions.
"Now? I listen more to the Kobe approach, where he says, 'Forget about everything and just play.' Not screw the system, but just do it. Don't let the system disrupt your game. Don't let the situation disrupt your game—and change you into a different player."
Gasol, 35, scoffed at the idea that he could coast and save his body for a playoff run, saying: "I enjoy playing the game, but I enjoy playing the game well—and being one of the best."
He can become a free agent at season's end, and he's unquestionably undervalued at the current $7.8 million that would be his player-option salary next season. Like Noah, Gasol has his next career move to arrange. Asked how much longer he will play, Gasol mused, "Three years?"
Before they face their futures, though, let's flash back to 2014 free agency, when Noah was in Los Angeles, sitting in with the Bulls' staff to pitch this proud champion whom Noah so admires for his smarts, positivity and competitiveness.
Noah hoped Gasol would take less money to play with him.
Gasol heard the plea and answered it.
They deserve the chance now to make their magic together.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.