At least from the perspective of the Chicago Bulls, the 2014 FIBA World Cup hasn't exactly been a preseason victory lap for a team many expect to compete for the Eastern Conference title. Derrick Rose once used this tournament as a launching pad for a historically young and thoroughly improbable MVP season back in 2010, but his performance in Spain this time around has been anything but reassuring.
Rose has struggled through the United States' first six games, failing to find a rhythm offensively while shooting just 21.6 percent from the field. Rose has, of course, only played 10 games over the last two seasons due to knee injuries, rendering the tournament as a trail run for the regular season more than a showcase of impending domination.
It is September, and so it would be very silly to get too concerned about Rose just yet. Even if this is a sign that he may not hit the ground running at the start of the season for the Bulls, there's nothing wrong with idea of him using the first few months to get back his feel for the game and his comfort with the ball in his hands. Sometimes, these things take time.
For as plainly as Rose has bumbled through the World Cup, the 2014-15 Bulls' other big addition this offseason is arguably the tournament's MVP thus far. Pau Gasol has been the focal point for Spain, the most impressive team in the field to this point, and he's done enough to make the idea of de-emphasizing Rose's role offensively start to sound like a promising one.
Rose has always carried too big of a burden offensively in Chicago since Ben Gordon bolted for Detroit and left the Bulls without another true shot creator on the roster. Whether Rose has been paired in the backcourt with Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, Richard Hamilton or Jimmy Butler, it's often left him as the only player on the team who can take his man off the dribble and initiate the offense with penetration. The good news this year is that the Bulls seemingly have enough talent around Rose to make offense the job of a committee rather than a one-man show.
Spain has been thrilling to watch so far, and they could give Tom Thibodeau some ideas for how he wants to run his Bulls. Spain is undefeated and is winning by an average of 27 points per game with a free-flowing offense often initiated out of the high post by its star big men Pau and Marc Gasol. When Spain really gets it going, the offense almost looks like a more aesthetic version of what the Spurs do, this time with more alley-oops and the type of signature flair that only Ricky Rubio can add.
Make no mistake, Pau has been excellent. While Rose has 27 points total, Pau is averaging 20.5 every time he steps on the court. He's shooting nearly 70 percent on two-pointers and is even displaying a better shooting touch from the outside than we've seen recently by knocking down a few three-pointers. Spain's win over Senegal on Saturday showed a lot of what Pau has been able to do this tournament and the new dimension he's set to bring to the Bulls.
Spain's offense works in part because Pau and Marc are two of the best passing big men in the world. Joakim Noah is of course in that class picture, too. Watch the way Spain's offense runs through its big men and it's impossible not to think about the damage the Bulls could do playing the same way.
It's killing two birds with one stone, really, de-emphasizing Rose's role a bit and playing to the strengths of your roster. Thibodeau talked about getting the Bulls to play more like San Antonio before the start of last season, and a flowing, motion-based offense where the ball never sticks in one player's hands too long now seems easier to pull off than ever. Gasol and Noah are terrific passers and the shooting the Bulls added in Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic should provide the spacing that sort of system needs to flourish.
This isn't to say that Rose is being cut out -- far from it. He can be devastating as a cutter from the wing or the baseline and he's sure to still get plenty of opportunities in transition and at the end of the shot clock. What's comforting, though, is that the Bulls offense can still be pretty good without Rose pounding the ball into the court for seven seconds at a time, struggling to find an open space. The cogs are in place to make this Bulls offense something of a self-sustained machine.
Gasol's passing is nothing new to those who have monitored what has really been one of the best careers for a big man over the last 20 years. If there's pause with Pau, it comes from the fact that he just turned 34 years old and has battled injuries the last two seasons. That's why another big takeaway from the World Cup has been his mobility. He's looking really fluid, athletically.
Pau scored numerous times against Senegal by winning races down the floor. Big men this old aren't supposed to be able to run like this.
Rubio deserves some credit too, as it's unquestionable that everyone on Spain's experienced roster is comfortable with their role. Rubio's creativity, ability to see the floor and push the pace has been huge for Gasol. This alley-oop slam against Senegal is one of the best highlights of the tournament.
It's true: Pau has been great offensively in the World Cup, but you can't talk about his performance for Spain without also mentioning his defense. Pau's defense has been objectively poor, particularly when he's put in pick-and-roll situations. You can bet any smart team is going to attack him whenever he's on the floor for the Bulls.
If he can't stop Senegal from doing this ...
Or this ....
It might be tough to have him on the floor against certain opponents. I've been telling people privately I think Spain is probably going to beat the U.S. for the gold medal in the World Cup, but after watching Pau closely I can't imagine a worse matchup for him than Kenneth Faried. Faried's energy, explosion and unrelenting approach on the glass will be hell for Pau to deal with, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Spain turn quickly to Serge Ibaka in that situation. Fortunately for the Bulls, Faried is in the Western Conference and opposing power forwards Pau will see in the East aren't nearly athletic.
For the record: Pau isn't Carlos Boozer. He's much taller and longer, and that 7'5 wingspan is going to pay off even if his feet get caught in quicksand. Pau is averaging 2.2 blocks per game, and he was a solid shot blocker for the Lakers the last two seasons, too. He'll make an impact there, but we should know going into this season that his defense will ultimately be a net negative.
This is where you have to point out that defense has never really been the Bulls' problem. The Bulls need offense, and Pau has been terrific offensively. He might not finish games for the Bulls next season (that's still a job for Taj), but his presence should mean Chicago is playing with some bigger leads.
Do yourself a favor: stop worrying about Rose and start watching Spain instead. It's great basketball, and Chicago's newest free agent addition is a major reason why.