Among 7-footers, Pau Gasol was one of the best offensive players in the NBA last season. He was steady, he was dependable and he was the perfect crutch for a team that routinely milked possessions for all their worth. Gasol was really, truly great on offense. A pleasure to watch too, if I might add. (Offensively speaking, of course.)
This year -- although the actual results aren't much different than the previous two or three under Tom Thibodeau -- the Bulls are playing with a heightened sense of awareness in terms of tempo, as evidenced by the team's pace of play sitting just outside the top ten, per NBA.com. Or in other words, they're not using the shot clock against themselves anymore.
The emphasis on the shot clock is by far the most notable change from this season to last. Because otherwise, it's pretty much the same old Bulls: Derrick Rose is hurt, Joakim Noah can't score and Kirk Hinrich just played 34 minutes in a game in November (a game he was outstanding in, to be fair).
Playing quicker isn't a subtle change, though. It causes ripple effects, and none more glaring than Pau Gasol's role in the offense. Across the board, Gasol's numbers are down. Part of that is because he's playing about five fewer minutes a night, which is probably a good thing in the long run. However, Gasol is as self-aware an athlete that exists today in professional sports, and he's clearly taken notice of his limited involvement on offense this season.
Per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"To me right now, there is not much balance to getting the ball inside and what we do outside," Gasol said after Friday night's 106-94 loss to the Warriors. "I think that's something we can improve on."
"When they go small, they have an advantage on the other end because they spread the floor. But then you have to punish them on offense, make them pay for going small," Gasol said. "That's what we didn't do. That's the balance between our outside and inside game. You have to play to the strength of your players. If you don't do that, you're not being very smart."
"I'd like to see more action in the paint myself and get better rhythm shots from outside," Gasol said. "But we're all trying to figure things out.
Now, that's some pretty interesting stuff right there. When Gasol speaks, he says things as eloquently as he does purposefully. And more specifically, the man has a point in regards to the line where he suggests the Bulls needed to punish the Warriors for playing small. The absolute sure-fire thing to NOT do when playing the Warriors is go small to match their smallness.
That Warriors game actually exemplifies the height of the Bulls' frontcourt dilemma: Gasol's just too damn slow to play fast, and Joakim Noah's just too damn brutal on offense to actually justify playing him over Gasol. Now, I realize that's a super linear view of a really complex issue, but that's basically what's going on at the heart of it. You can play fast with Noah, but you can't with Gasol, and each comes with their own distinct set of flaws.
But sticking to Gasol in particular, he's the one vocalizing his displeasure. And to be clear, I actually do agree with him in that the way to punish a small team is by being good at being big. He's not wrong there. But having said that, Gasol hasn't been good at being big this season, and that's where I take issue with his claim.
Point blank: Gasol's not rebounding well this season, but especially on the offensive glass. The team's offensive rebounding percentage goes down when Gasol's in the game, which wouldn't happen if he was an actual factor or threat at extending possessions. Per NBAwowy, the Bulls corral just 9.3 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions with Gasol in the game. By comparison, the Bulls obtain 12.3 offensive rebounds per 100 when Joakim Noah's in the game. And just by using raw stats, Noah's grabbed seven more offensive rebounds this season than Gasol despite playing 125 fewer minutes.
So, my suggestion to Pau is a simple one: if he wants the ball more, then go get it. Go make a difference. Go keep plays alive. Owning the Warriors on the glass was the way to beat them, not force feed the post. Plus, Gasol's in the 41st percentile in points per possession on post touches, per NBA.com. Meaning, he's producing at a below average rate when stacked up against the rest of the league on post play types. And that's before digging deeper and learning that Gasol, on average, holds the ball for 1.62 seconds per touch, which is a lot of time for someone who's not getting the job done.
On a broader scale, Gasol's mere presence on the floor is hurting more than helping. But I think it's more pertinent to focus on his offense rather than his defense seeing as it would defy logic to suggest Pau can improve at defense.
Honestly, I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I love me a good drop step or sky hook. I'm not an anti-back-to-the-basket guy. I really wouldn't mind seeing Gasol get a few extra clear-out touches when the match-up calls for it. And I don't have a problem with him speaking his mind, his reputation -- I generally don't hold it against athletes for having an opinion on the way, strategically, they're being used -- hasn't proceeded him here in Chicago. But what Pau seemingly fails to realize is that he can control his touches if he himself creates more of them.