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Signing Pau Gasol Was a Mistake

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The Bulls All-Star is one in name only and the Bulls would have been better if they'd not signed him.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Pau Gasol was selected as an All Star starter by the fans. This is, honestly, a joke. Pau Gasol is the Bulls' fourth best big man. Yes, fourth best. Behind Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and even rookie Nikola Mirotic. The idea that Gasol was somehow one of the best big men in the entire Eastern Conference is ridiculous. At first glance, it's easy to see why Pau has received this recognition. Pau is averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, nearly 3 assists, and over 2 blocks in his roughly 35 minutes per game. Those certainly seem like All Star numbers. However, it's pretty likely that no one is putting up emptier stats than Pau Gasol is this season.

Offensively, the Bulls routinely force-feed Gasol isolations on the block, allowing him to post-up while everyone else mostly stands around watching him, not cutting, not moving, nothing, just watching. Pau goes to work down low and if he has a mismatch, he scores with relative ease. Put someone with some defensive skill in the post on Pau, though, and he is almost entirely neutralized. This has happened over and over this season. It happened recently against the Heat in Miami, as Gasol (along with Taj Gibson) was dominated inside by Hassan Whiteside, scoring just 13 points on 16 shots. In the Bulls' last game against the Cavs, with the defensively stout Timofey Mozgov as his primary matchup, Gasol went 4 of 14 from the field and scored just 11 points. In the Bulls' last game against the Washington Wizards' beastly frontcourt Gasol went 4 of 11 from the field and scored just 13 points in 33 minutes. Simply put, too often, Gasol's offense, the place where he actually provides some value, disappears when confronted with a tough matchup. Sure, put Pau on the floor with a depleted Bucks front line and he might drop 46, but against legitimate post defense, Pau does not shine the way a 7 footer with his size and skill should. He gets bullied.

Defensively, Gasol is an absolute trainwreck. Despite his heavy rebound totals, Gasol almost never boxes out anyone. His rebounding totals are primarily the result of his being around the rim for the vast majority of the game and catching whatever misses come off in his immediate vicinity. Pau's gaudy block totals result similarly. Gasol hardly ever leaves the immediate basket area to get out help contain penetration or to properly help rotate. Instead, Gasol hovers near the basket and, due to his height and reach, blocks a few shots here and there at the basket. Sure, there is some value in blocking those shots, but mostly Gasol hurts the defense in the same ways that Carlos Boozer once did (poor rotations, slow feet), without the value that Boozer provided in boxing people out and / or securing defensive rebounds.

The Bulls are still stingy at forcing tough shots, as they rank 3rd in the NBA at opponent effective field goal percentage and they still play defense without fouling. Almost all of their defensive drop off can be traced to the fact that they have fallen to 20th in opponent offensive rebounding rate; in other words, they aren't boxing out on the defensive glass. The rest can be traced to the Bulls being the second worst team in the league at forcing turnovers, falling from their previously middling ranks in that category. I suspect much of this is related to Derrick playing more (he hardly ever gets steals), Joakim not being as frenetic as usual (his steal rate is down from 1.9% last year to 1.2%), and again, Pau replacing Boozer (Carlos had a 1.3% steal rate last year compared to just .5% for Pau).There's also the issue of communication on defense. Say what you will about Boozer's defense, and it was often very bad, but you always heard him out there. When was the last time you heard Pau call out anything defensively? That stuff matters, and I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the incumbent Bulls have cited a lack of communication as a primary reason for their defensive struggles. All of this is to say that a good percentage of the Bulls' drop off defensively this season can be placed on Pau's shoulders.

Looking at ESPN's Real Plus-Minus tells a similar story. Pau is rated worse than Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson and he outpaces Joakim Noah only slightly (Pau is +1.04 to Noah's +.69 per 100 possessions), but Noah has been significantly limited by his health all year. The Noah we've seen the last few games as he seems to return to health is a significantly better player than Pau.

Noah's RPM numbers are also hurt by the fact that he's been forced out of his normal role to accommodate Pau. Noah is a center, who does best near the basket on offense, grabbing rebounds and avoiding mid-range like the plague. Pau's post-up propensity forces Noah more and more into midrange and away from the glass. Typically, in years past, Noah could take centers off the dribble when he did get the ball near the elbow or along the baseline-midrange area. Owing to his rehabilitating knee and the fact that Pau draws the center matchup when they are the floor, leaving Noah with the quicker, more agile power forwards of the league, Noah can't take anyone off the dribble and is forced into tougher situations. It's just not good for Joakim.

Much of this could be mitigated if Thibodeau would use Gasol as a scorer off the bench, allowing him to dominate the weaker big men of the league on the block (which is where he shines anyway) and start Taj, or better yet, Mirotic. The young Montenegrin has been absolutely buried at the altar of Gasol, despite being easily the Bulls' best fit offensively in the starting lineup alongside Noah and Rose. He opens things up so much for the Bulls' drivers and he racks up steals at more than triple the rate of Pau, helping to mitigate some of the Bulls' defensive issues. It's no surprise that he rates out (by Real +/-) as the Bulls' very best big man so far this season. Unfortunately, he's been getting the typical Thibodeau rookie treatment, since the Bulls other big men have gotten mostly healthy. Among 2-man Bulls combinations that have played at least 100 minutes together, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah all have Nikola as their best partner by Net Rating. Mirotic is Rose's second best partner, behind Aaron Brooks. You'll note that those are the Bulls starting players, minus Gasol.

All of this is to say Nikola is a perfect fit alongside the rest of the starting unit. He should be playing with those guys. But Thibodeau won't put him in there, both because he doesn't like to trust rookies, but also because Pau is the type to whine in the media about his minutes and role. See, for example, his public expression that he wanted to close games prior to the season even starting.

Pau Gasol hasn't solved any issues for the Bulls and he has created new ones. The defense has cratered, relatively speaking, largely due to his presence on the floor for 35 minutes a night. The offense is better, but that is only partly related to Pau's presence, as Derrick Rose being back helps, even with his inefficient scoring, and Jimmy Butler played the first part of this season like a rough facsimile of James Harden on offense. There's also the counterfactual of how good the Bulls offense could be if Nikola Mirotic were spacing the floor instead of Pau clogging things up with mediocrely efficient postups.

The most frustrating thing about all of this is how utterly predictable it has all been. To wit, when it was rumored that the Bulls were close to signing Pau, I tweeted the following:

When the Bulls' signing Pau became official, I tweeted:

I love Pau's game, but I don't really see how he should be a top priority. Pau is best right around the basket. Same as Taj, and really same as Joakim...

Congrats on nabbing Pau, Bulls FO. You're only about 7 years too late. Pierce for $5.5 million & Vince for $4 million a season would have been nice fits for basically exactly what Bulls need. So of course got Pau.

Shortly after the signing, I wrote a piece for Nylon Calculus explaining why Pau didn't really fix the Bulls' offensive problems and why I thought spending so much money on him could prove problematic (while also trying to strike an optimistic tone). Namely, the Bulls didn't have enough dribble drivers and Pau didn't fix that at all. If anything, Pau clogs up the space needed to create effective driving lanes. If my tweet above wasn't indication enough, I thought the Bulls should have given Pau's money to Paul Pierce or Vince Carter. Pierce would have given more versatility / ability to swing between SF and PF, but either would have been better, to me, than paying a clearly deteriorating Pau until he is 37.

Then, after watching the pre-season:

Pau promptly went out in the first game of the season and dropped 21 points and 11 boards on the Knicks, but it was still a performance that had enough red flags that he was putting up empty numbers that I wrote a piece worrying about him for BBALLBREAKDOWN. All of the issues I'm discussing now were fretted over way back then in late October.

None of this is to pat myself on the back for being so prescient. If anything, it's the opposite. It's to point out how obvious these things should have been to a front office intent on trying to build a championship caliber team. Pau Gasol is and was fool's gold and a paper tiger of an All-Star. The sooner the Bulls and Thibodeau figure that out and ride with Taj and Mirotic, the better. If the Bulls had signed wing help and given their incumbent big men and Niko minutes, I believe they would be significantly better off right now and better positioned to win deep into the postseason.

(Writing this made me sad, because I do, genuinely, love Pau the person. He's just doing significant harm to my favorite basketball team is all.)