The Chicago Bulls have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt, and they're starting to figure out just how uncomfortable that embarrassment can be.
The Bulls didn't need to add four-time All-Star Pau Gasol to the fold this offseason. They already had a productive, cohesive frontcourt combo in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, plus intriguing stretch 4 Nikola Mirotic set to make his NBA debut.
Similarly, Gasol had other options to call his basketball home outside the Windy City. He was said to be on the radar of the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. A door was also opened for Gasol to return to the Los Angeles Lakers on an eight-figure salary, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.
That said, something brought the two sides together. Gasol told reporters he had "prioritized being on a championship-caliber team." Bulls general manager Gar Forman lauded the fact that Gasol has "been a championship-caliber player."
Both parties sought one another for the same reason, but that won't make the transition a smooth one. Not with Noah, Gibson and Gasol all deserving of starting and closing minutes that only two can fill.
In a full embrace of his diplomatic duties, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has been attacking this issue at every opportunity.
Thibodeau has maintained that the key is each player's willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the team. As he explained, this is a fluid situation that will impact every player involved:
There will be times when Pau may sit, Taj may sit, Jo may sit, they have to put the team first. When they’re in there, do everything they can to help the team win, and when they're not in there cheer your teammates on, know what’s going on in the game, be a great teammate. And we’ve always had great spirit here, and I think it goes back to the leadership of our main core guys that have been around.
For the core that is so well-versed in Thibodeau's way, this is nothing out of the ordinary.
"Sitting wouldn't be hard at all because we're all trying to win a championship," Gibson said, per Johnson. "Things are going to happen and we just have to follow what the coach says. I'm cool with that. However the game is going or if Thibs feels he sees someone playing better than me, that's fine."
For a franchise that has survived (essentially) two lost seasons for its face, Derrick Rose, by relying largely on effort and chemistry, Gibson's team-first attitude hardly comes as a surprise.
Gasol may well be chasing the same goal as Gibson, but the 34-year-old has a different take when it comes to sacrificing critical playing time. Unlike Gibson, Gasol has been the guy for an NBA team before, so falling from that role to that of a crunch-time spectator might be more than he can handle.
"I like to be on the floor when the game is on the line," Gasol told reporters after a recent practice. "That's what I've been getting paid for my entire career."
If that comment sounds even vaguely familiar, it should. Gasol raised similar concerns during the 2012-13 season when the Lakers found it was easier to move him to the bench than try to fit both him and Dwight Howard into former coach Mike D'Antoni's perimeter-oriented offense.
While some players see starting as nothing more than a status, closing a contest is different. With the clock ticking down and a limited number of possessions available, teams need to maximize the value of each trip. That leads most coaches to deploy their five best players down the stretch, though there is some wiggle room open for offensive and defensive substitutions.
A lot of late-game roster decisions wind up being based on matchups, but some players are talented enough to stay on the floor regardless of the situation. Gasol seems to think he is one of those players and recently explained that it's never a good thing to be taken off the floor in the final minutes.
"That’s not a good sign when you’re put in that position because the coach doesn’t rely on you to deliver in those minutes," Gasol said. "So, basically, he doesn’t trust you. He trusts someone else to do the job. So it’s not a good sign for you."
Truth be told, this isn't a matter of trust or bad omens. Rather, potentially pulling Gasol late in games may have far more to do with the level of talent that now surrounds him.
With Gibson and Noah, the Bulls have as good an interior defensive tandem as any team in the league. With those two on the floor, Chicago surrendered just 97.2 points per 100 possessions last season. Each player has the size and physicality to bang underneath and the quickness and athleticism to defend away from the basket, so the Bulls don't have to form their defensive plan based around an opposing offense.
Few teams have such a luxury, and Chicago would be wise to exploit it. If the Bulls need to nurse a narrow lead through crunch time, a Gibson-Noah frontcourt could be the best way to protect it.
Thibodeau has wisely left the door open when it comes to his closing five. But as ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell wrote, the smart money rests on Thibodeau eventually passing over Gasol in favor of two far superior defenders:
It would come as a big surprise if Noah and Gibson weren't on the floor together when the game mattered most. Thibodeau has repeatedly praised Gibson as being arguably the Bulls' best fourth-quarter player. Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. That leaves Gasol as the odd man out on most nights.
There may be a situation here or there when the Bulls need more offense and Thibodeau decides to leave Gasol in longer down the stretch. But more often than not, Thibodeau is going to go with the guys he trusts most. As history has shown, he'll almost always lean toward a more defensive-minded lineup late.
The defensive gap between Gibson and Noah and Gasol is staggering.
Of the 75 players who faced at least five shots at the rim per game last season, both Gibson and Noah finished among the 15 stingiest in terms of field-goal percentage allowed (44.9, eighth, and 47.2, 14th, respectively), per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. Gasol tied for 65th by allowing a 54.8 percent conversion rate.
Gasol's inability to protect the basket is particularly concerning given the way Father Time has curtailed his effectiveness in other defensive areas. He was never the fleetest of foot and has lost a lot of lateral quickness he couldn't afford to give up.
In other words, Gasol won't do a lot other than guard the rim—and even that has been an issue.
While some may think Gasol's offensive skill set might justify his defensive deficiencies, this team may not need as much scoring help as it would seem.
Between Rose's return, the development of the incumbents and the offseason arrivals of Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks, the Bulls should pack a mighty offensive punch. Gasol can add something to that attack, but his talents aren't exactly a seamless fit alongside Noah's.
Gasol has lost some of his low-post power, and his real estate under the rim could be crowded given Noah's lack of a mid-range shot. Both are great at finding off-ball cutters, but even that gift could be hard to unleash with limited spacing.
Gibson, on the other hand, can play well off anyone. He doesn't need touches to be effective, whether he's finishing lobs above the rim or doing damage on the offensive glass.
With Rose back to dominating the ball and Noah having proved himself as a creator, the Bulls could have a hard time getting Gasol's best without limiting their other players. Given the sacrifices they would already be making at the opposite end, they might run short on reasons to give Gasol heavy minutes down the stretch.
He can still play a valuable role as an offensive safety valve or a second-team focal point throughout the game, but the Bulls could get a greater two-way impact from Gibson at closing time.
If Gasol sees that as a demotion or an overall loss, that's really unfortunate. If it's the best option for the Bulls, it should be the best option for him.
And if decides to buy in, this is an incredibly good "problem" to have. With three solid options—four if Mirotic is ready—to fill two spots, the Bulls should have ready, rested players for any situation.
But Gasol has to realize what he should have noticed when he signed on the dotted line: These Bulls might really enjoy having him around, but they were championship contenders before he put pen to paper.
It's his responsibility to find his place within the franchise. The Bulls will not and should not alter their winning formula just for him.