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Bulls land a big summer punch with Pau
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jul 18
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Phil Jackson knows greatness. He’s seen it in Pau Gasol, who helped Jackson’s Lakers win two NBA titles. And when Gasol’s career is finished, presumably after this run with the Bulls, Jackson believes there’ll be a place for Gasol among the immortals of the game.
“He will be a Hall of Fame entry after his career,” Jackson wrote me in an email this week. “There are no players to compare him to… Pau is a multi-talented seven-foot player. He has been able to play as a center and a forward in his career. He has posted as a big man and faced the basket from 20 feet with poise and purpose. He has led the fast break and he can run the lanes. He is a pass first player (who) will hit the open man. Pau immediately brought an offensive mobility to the Lakers. People bypass the fact that we went to three Finals in a row. When Pau came to our team, we went on a winning run from February to the Finals. He has great hands and is mobile. He understood our offensive direction after two weeks.”
I sought out Jackson, who coached Gasol for almost four seasons when the Lakers’ trade for Gasol from Memphis changed the balance of power in the NBA. It was the last great run for the Lakers, who were 50-27 in the playoffs with those two titles and Kobe Bryant and Gasol combining as perhaps the game’s best one/two combination.
The Bulls Friday conducted a pair of press conferences to announce the signings of Gasol and European star Nikola Mirotic, the latter a first round draft pick from 2011. Mirotic pursued a buyout from his team in Spain to join the Bulls, but given his lack of NBA experience he will probably be more a developmental player this season.
The big coup for the Bulls was the acquisition of Gasol, who was courted by the defending champion Spurs and talented Thunder. The Lakers offered Gasol 50 percent more money to stay in Los Angeles and Jackson made a run at his former center/forward, whom many regarded in that era as the game’s best big man. But the Knicks were limited by a small contract exception offer. The Bulls were able to offer Gasol a contract above the mid-level exception estimated at about $22 million for three years while Mirotic’s deal is said to be for about $17 million for three years.
And while Gasol said he believed he could not make a mistake as all the possibilities were attractive, he said the Bulls situation appeared the best to him given the combination of supportive and talented players, a winning franchise history and an excellent chance to win a title immediately.
“Money wasn’t the priority here,” said Gasol at his press conference which was separate from Mirotic’s. “I turned down bigger offers; I prioritized being on a championship caliber team. Having been in position where I can hopefully push that team over the top with my game as well. I felt here I will have that opportunity and now it’s just about getting to work. I think we have all the pieces, all the elements to get there. It’s not an easy thing to do, great competition, very tough teams. We have to worry about ourselves and be the best we can be. With that we can make it happen. It’s a process and we’ll see if we can do it.
“Their big interest in having me on the team, being a part of the team, what I can bring to the table,” Gasol said about talking with Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Mike Dunleavy before deciding on the Bulls. “Also their humility, how humble they were and they are. I think that’s really important to be able to not have big egos. That makes things a lot easier. Their passion and hunger as well; they are hungry to win and that’s something I wanted to come into, being part of a hungry team, a team ready to do whatever it takes, They are ready. That’s what I perceived and I believe they are.”
Gasol also singled out managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf for several contacts. Representatives with Gasol said another key factor for Gasol was the Bulls owner reaching out, which was something that didn’t occur with some of the other teams. Gasol gestured a thanks to Reinsdorf during his comments to reporters in the United Center.
“San Antonio was another great option; it would have been a pretty good fit as well,” said Gasol. “Now I’m here; that’s what I want to focus on and what I’ll look forward to, not coulda, shoulda possibilities. This is the option and team I wanted to be a part of. There were great scenarios, but I felt this was the best over the rest for me. If I didn’t believe we didn’t have that (championship) potential, I would not have come here. I strongly believe this team has that potential and capability to get there.”
This is, essentially, the conclusion of what appears to be a very good comeback free agent summer for the Bulls, who were deeply involved in courting the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who, as expected, resigned with New York. Also, rumors persist the Cleveland Cavaliers could be trading for Kevin Love, another supposed Bulls target. If the Cavaliers with the return of LeBron James are able to do so, they would unquestionably be the favorites for the NBA title. But the Bulls with the Gasol acquisition will remain in serious conversation.
Gasol’s signing is a major addition, especially given how aggressively even top contenders like San Antonio and Oklahoma City coveted Gasol as well as former teammate, Kobe Bryant and Jackson. Gasol now joins arguably the best front line in the NBA with Defensive Player of the Year Noah and Sixth Man runnerup Taj Gibson. Though Mirotic, a sharp shooting power forward, could get some fill in minutes, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who attended the media conferences with general manager Gar Forman, indicated he’d primarily stay with a three-player front court rotation.
“It will sort itself out once we get to camp,” said Thibodeau. “We’ll get a look at the different combinations preseason. Then get set on a rotation and go from there. There’s always injuries as you go along, but I expect Nikola to be a lot better at the end of the season than at the beginning as I do with all young players. What I do like about him is he can shoot. The shooting is something we wanted to address; we added shooting and getting Derrick (Rose) back is a huge piece. How it all fits together we won’t know until we get out there. Getting Derrick back, adding a couple of good young players, the addition of Pau, Nikola, that’s important. You have to have depth. We had it my first two years here; we didn’t have it the last two. Hopefully we’ll regain it.
“I’ve spoken with all three,” Thibodeau said when asked who would start as Thibodeau said he has no plans to play three big men together. “They’re all going to have significant roles; how it plays out we’ll figure it out. We won’t know that until they are on the floor and how they work together and what is best for our team. I want to see how it works together, what’s best for our second unit, what gives us our best chance, how are we going to finish, how are we going to start, how do all the minutes work out? But they are all good problems to have.”
The Bulls are expected to officially announce the signing of Kirk Hinrich early next week as Thibodeau said Hinrich “basically saved us the last two seasons” with Rose out. The Bulls still are in the market for a backup point guard among free agents and remain in the trade market for a shooting guard or minimum salary veteran free agent. But the bulk of the roster essentially is set for next season.
“We’re pleased with how everything (in free agency) turned out,” said Thibodeau. “We love our team and we’re going to take our best shot with the guys we do have. I always think we have a good chance at everybody because we have a great situation here. That’s the way I look at it. I love the guys we do have. My first two years we were very deep, but when Derrick went down that was a big hit for us. It’s how you grow throughout the season; we’ll take our shot at the end.”
Thibodeau, by the way, is in the process of moving downtown as the Bulls next month prepare to open the new training facility across from the United Center. So it seems Thibodeau is locking in for the long haul as well.
And why not as the Bulls appear to have pieced together a long term contending team assuming, of course, Rose remains healthy. All appearances now are that he is, which Thibodeau confirmed. Thibodeau added Rose’s appearance trying out for USA Basketball and the World Cup basketball tournament in Spain in September is a positive. Workouts, with Thibodeau an assistant, begin July 28 in Las Vegas and Rose is expected to make the team.
“Great,” Thibodeau said about how Rose looks. “He went through summer league practices and is progressing well. I think the USA thing will be terrific for him. When you go back to his MVP year, he played with team USA that summer. I thought that prepared him very well for the season. So we’re expecting that to be the same this year; he has not played in a long time. So it’s a good opportunity to get that out of the way. It’s a different role for him with this (USA) team because you are going to have 12 great players. So he won’t have the burden to play a lot of minutes and have to score a lot of points. He can just fit in and run the team; the way he ran the team in 2010 was a big part, I thought, of why they won. That’s all he has to do because there are so many different players who can score there; just fit in. I think it will be great for him.
“There’s rust he has to shake off,” Thibodeau acknowledged. “He looked good in summer league practices. He’s put a lot of work in, spent a lot of time shooting. I’m expecting him to play well and then the ultimate decision will be made by Mr. (Jerry) Colangelo and hopefully he sees it that way.”
So that’s likely in late August after games in Las Vegas, Chicago and New York City.
For now it was the start of the Bulls careers of 23-year-old Mirotic from Montenegro and 34-year-old Gasol from Spain.
Mirotic will wear No. 44 and Gasol No. 16.
Mirotic’s English is a bit shaky now coming to the United States for the first time from playing recently in Spain. He had a translator for many of his answers as he understands better than speaks for now. He failed in several hours at the United Center and later throwing out first pitches at the White Six game with Gasol of being able to wipe the smile off his face. Mirotic was a picture of almost unrestrained joy and enthusiasm as he reaches his NBA dream.
“I just want to say my English not so good, but I try to answer (in) English,” Mirotic said in starting out.
With the translator, he said: “(I am) pleased to have that opportunity. Since I have been drafted in 2011, I have watched many games of the Chicago Bulls. I’ve always dreamt of the moment of being here and playing with them. And now that I am here I will work as hard as possible to get the most victories next season. I like to play three-point line; something special like to run the court; so how coach wants to use me I will adapt. I know to improve, especially my physical. I know I can do it. It was a difficult decision to make. Especially because I was leaving Madrid. For everything (that) happened. We did not win the titles and everyone was expecting in Madrid I would stay one more year because the final four of Euroleague is being held in Madrid (next year). I had a contract, but I felt the right moment was this year. I thought I would have the chance to improve more as a basketball player here and I was sure I could adapt to the Chicago Bulls game on the first year. It played a key role the Chicago Bulls had so much interest in me and showed so much interest and they tried so hard to get me. I value all that and made the decision to come early.”
Quipped Thibodeau: “I’ve gone through this once before in Houston with Yao (Ming). Yao seemed to understand when it was praise and he had a hard time when it was criticism.
Thibodeau with quips. It was a happy time around the Bulls.
“I think Nikola is ready for this,” Thibodeau added. “I think he’ll be a good fit for our team. We’re going to start the process of getting him up to speed right away and we’ll see where we’ll go when we get to training camp. There are a lot of successful international players in our league. I don’t think it will be hard transition for him. There will be things he will have to get used to; it’s a new culture. The NBA is different. But he’s been preparing for this for three years now. At each level you are challenged differently, and he’s responded well at every level. So we expect this not to be any different.
“We love the characteristics he has, his intelligence, his drive,” said Thibodeau. “Each year he’s played he’s improved significantly. Coming to the NBA is a big adjustment, learning the league, our system, our players. But he is a guy who has played professional basketball for a long time and achieved at a high level. There’ll be a learning curve, but we are excited to have him. I do think it will open up the floor for us. His ability to stretch the floor. Most teams now have a power forward with that skill set and I think it’s important to have that.”
The big addition, though, is the seven-foot Gasol with career averages of 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds with four All-Star appearances. He’s something of a basketball Renaissance man having left a pre-med program in college to enter the NBA draft. His mother was a physician and his father a nurse administrator. Even upon coming to Chicago, he already was setting up opera tickets as it remains one of his passions. He even spoke during his press conference about contacting local hospitals to be involved as he’s previously even sat in on operations when he was in Los Angeles.
Gasol likely will start at power forward and then rotate to center to play with Taj Gibson and then a mix and match as the games go on. Gasol is a rare athlete for a seven footer with a good shooting touch and clever game. So he’s occasionally been condemned in NBA vernacular as “soft,” which Jackson disputes.
“One of the misnomers in the NBA is the ‘soft’ label,” Jackson wrote me in his email. “Pau is not a muscle man and he is tall. So the leverage in the post by shorter, heavier, big men can move him off the block. But he is very resilient and his athleticism is remarkable.”
And Gasol has a history of playing big in big games.
In helping turn around the Lakers 2007-08 season, Gasol had 36 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in the opening playoff game. He had 17 points and 13 rebounds in the semifinals clincher. He had 19 rebounds when the Lakers closed out the Spurs to advance to the 2008 Finals. His last second putback saved the first round series in 2010 against the Thunder. In Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, he had 19 points and 18 rebounds for the championship. And now Gasol says he chose the Bulls as his best chance to return to those Finals.
Gasol on joining the Bulls: “It was a difficult decision to go through. I think I made the right one. I’m excited to be here and be a part of this great organization. We have great things to look forward to. Can’t wait to start working. Should be a lot of fun. I’m excited and looking forward to it.”
Gasol on being courted by the Bulls: “Joakim came to L.A. for the meeting with me. His contribution was important; talked to Derrick as well on the phone. I wanted to talk to him because he is a big part of this team. I wanted to see how he felt, not just physically but having me on board. That was also very positive and very encouraging for me. Mike Dunleavy also reached out and several people from the organization, including the owner. It made me feel very confident about coming here, so Jerry, thank you.”
Gasol on fitting in: “I think we have a really deep front line. Those two guys are talented players and I think I fit well with them because I feel I bring a different profile. But I’m also ready to compete with them in practice and complement them, make each other better, and help the team win.”
Gasol on why the Bulls: “I had to come to a point where I understood no decision was going to be a bad decision for me; they were all great. That’s what made it difficult. It was a gut feeling. I felt Chicago was gong to be the best fit for me and a great challenge and I look forward to it. It wasn’t part of my decision, but I grew up watching the Bulls and I always said my idol was MJ growing up. I had posters in my room. My decision was more rational, cerebral and more gut, but also it’s an honor to be part of the organization. The team took some hits the last couple of years with injuries, but stuck together, never gave up and had great runs, always competed. (You) have to respect the character and value the players and I love to be a part of it.”
Gasol on medicine: “I do have a big interest in medicine. I will make sure (to be in) contact with hospitals here to see which I can work with and collaborate and help out. That’s one of my biggest passions. I don’t think I will be able to go into medicine and get my degree and be a doctor, but I will always work with hospitals and with patients and families because that can make a huge difference and is extremely rewarding for me. Assistant trainer? I don’t think that will happen.”
Pau on Chicago: “My wardrobe will have to change. I’ll look forward to where I can get the biggest coats.
I never played in the Eastern Conference. I look forward to the experience.”